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Stop-Motion Director Henry Selick Highlights His Work With Jordan Peele On Wendell & Wild - Exclusive Interview

Nearly 30 years after the release of the landmark stop-motion animated film "The Nightmare Before Christmas," director Henry Selick is directing another stop-motion wonder that's destined to become a classic with "Wendell & Wild." Selick, who collaborated with producer and "Nightmare" poem author Tim Burton on the film, is a name synonymous with stop-motion animation. After "Nightmare," Selick directed the classic stop-motion and live-action hybrid "James and the Giant Peach" in 1996, as well as the best animated film Oscar nominee "Coraline" in 2009. 

For "Wendell & Wild," Selick is collaborating with Oscar-winning "Get Out" filmmaker Jordan Peele, who in 2012 created the hit Comedy Central sketch series "Key and Peele" with Keegan-Michael Key. Luckily for Selick, he pitched Peele the idea for "Wendell & Wild" around the time of the series and got the actor-filmmaker aboard the project before "Get Out" launched his career into the stratosphere. Originally, the director was hoping to get Key and Peele to voice Wendell and Wild, but since Peele wanted to be more creatively involved in the film, he also signed on as a co-writer and producer.

New on Netflix, "Wendell & Wild" follows the antics of Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), a pair of demon brothers imprisoned in a hell-like underworld who are looking to make an escape. They find their ticket to the Land of the Living with Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), an orphaned, guilt-ridden 13-year-old who is still reeling after the tragic loss of her mom and dad years earlier. The trade-off is huge if Kat can summon Wendell and Wild to the Land of the Living, where she resides in a Catholic boarding school headed by Father Bests (James Hong). Not only will it give the young teen a chance to find peace with herself over the loss of her parents, but Wendell and Wild will also be free to pursue their dreams. The problem is, the demon brothers tend to create mischief wherever they go, and the Land of the Living provides them the opportunity to make more.

In an exclusive interview, Selick recalled for Looper his work with Peele on "Wendell & Wild," the interesting creative decisions behind the look of the characters in the film, and the big question of what kind of holiday movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas" really is.

Maintaining the the timeless quality of stop-motion

I've long considered "The Nightmare Before Christmas" the definitive stop-motion feature film, because nearly 30 years after its release, it feels as fresh as it did in 1993. A lot of that comes down to the timeless quality of stop-motion, so I'm wondering if there was any tried-and-true technique that you used in "Nightmare" that you used today for "Wendell & Wild."

Something that goes to the heart of established animation is the direct connection between the animator and the puppet that has to be reposed up to 24 times a second to produce finished footage. That's something we've never given up on, that direct connection. While there's certain technologies that have helped us — we don't shoot on film anymore and don't have to worry all night if the lab's going to screw up the footage — it still comes down to our super-talented animators and a well-made puppet, and hopefully a good story to tell. That hasn't changed, and that's what should never change about stop-motion.

You've mentioned how Jordan Peele is a huge fan of stop-motion, and the disembodied hand in his production company logo is actually produced with the technique. During your meetings to discuss "Wendell & Wild," did Jordan point to any of your specific stop-motion work and say, "I was inspired by that"?

When we first met, he wanted to meet because it turned out he wanted to do more than just a voice, and I'm so happy he did. He basically let me know what a fan he was of my work and stop-motion. He realized I was the actual director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" for producer Tim Burton. I can't recall specific scenes [he liked], but just that he thought that the films I had directed were really good ...

He talked about why he loves stop-motion as well, that handmade quality, and also what kind of films he wished he could have seen — animated films — when he was a kid, which certainly informed what we ended up doing with "Wendell & Wild."

Selick wanted Wendell and Wild to look familiar

I love how Wendell and Wild in both demon and Land of the Living forms resemble Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and how Father Bests looks like James Hong. To put personal characteristics into the designs of characters like that, does that help you as a director connect with the material a little bit more or help the actors better connect with their roles? These characters, whether they're demons or not, resemble the actors, which is remarkable.

Initially, I always imagined that — at least starting with the demons — I wanted them to resemble the voice actors, Key and Peele. They were pretty resistant because a caricature can go sideways. It could be corny, kind of bad, but I felt strongly that a lot of the magic of Key and Peele, in their show, is their ability to transform themselves into all sorts of different characters, genders, ages. I wanted this to feel like another transformation, but they were very resistant. They thought it could be stupid, but I had a secret weapon. I didn't have him yet, but I knew of Pablo Lobato, who does gorgeous artistic caricatures.

I told Keegan-Michael and Jordan, "No, no, it's going to be great. Wait and I'll show you." Then I connected with Pablo Lobato. He did his first designs and caricatures of them, and they were happy [and] said, "Oh, yeah, this could be okay. Maybe my neck's a little too long!" [Keegan-Michael] said to me. There were a few fussy moments, and Jordan had to remind Keegan-Michael, "Well, we are demons. I think we can go with this."

This is Halloween ... or Christmas?

I've talked with several people connected to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" over the years, and there's a question that nobody seems to be able to definitively answer: Is it a Halloween film, or is it a Christmas film? Did you and Tim Burton discuss this either during production or some other time over the years?

At the very beginning, when Tim first came up with this at Disney and it was intended to be a half-hour holiday special, the brilliance of his idea was that it was a mashup between the two. It [was] certainly inspired by "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and the original poem and so forth.

But the answer is it's both. It's two of the most colorful, fun holidays and a collision between those two. It's not really [one or the other]. I've picked one over the other at various times, but the answer has to be both.

Also starring the voices of Angela Bassett, Sam Zelaya, and Ving Rhames, "Wendell & Wild" is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview was edited for clarity.