Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

War With Grandpa Director Tim Hill Talks De Niro, SpongeBob, More - Exclusive Interview

Director Tim Hill brings to the new family comedy The War with Grandpa an impressive film and television pedigree, from being one of the late Stephen Hillenburg's chief creative partners on SpongeBob SquarePants on TV and the SpongeBob movies, to helming such film hits as Muppets from Space, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop.

On top of that, Hill comes from an impressive film lineage, considering his uncle, Oscar-winning director George Roy Hill, helmed such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot, and The World According to Garp.

Based on Robert Kimmel Smith's bestselling book of the same name, The War with Grandpa stars Robert De Niro as Ed, a man suffering from the recent loss of his wife. To keep the widower from being lonely, Ed's daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) asks her dad to move in with her family. Everybody is thrilled with the exception of Ed's grandson, Peter (Oakes Fegley), because Ed moves into the boy's bedroom while he is forced to live in the home's attic, which is filled with critters. Unhappy with the new arrangement, Peter draws up a document for his grandpa declaring "war," leading to battle of pranks between the two.

Also starring Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour, Cheech Marin, Laura Marano and Rob Riggle, The War with Grandpa is now playing in theaters nationwide. Director Tim Hill talked about the film and more in an exclusive interview with Looper.

Tim Hill utilized De Niro's range for the role

Congratulations on The War with Grandpa. I'd like to start by asking you about your uncle, George Roy Hill. Is it a blessing — or a curse because it makes it harder to succeed in the business — when you have this Oscar-winning director for an uncle who directed folks like Robert Redford and Paul Newman?

Actually, it's neither a blessing nor a curse. I never really leveraged or really mentioned it to people. I think that would be harder if I went around saying, "Hey, I'm the nephew of George Roy Hill." I've never really talked about it too much. But he did help me out when I was living in New York. I was a PA [production assistant] on a couple of his movies. He was great. So it's been a blessing having him as an uncle. I don't think it really did much. I don't think I got helped or hurt.

Of course, he worked with Redford and Newman, and now you get the opportunity to work with another icon with Robert De Niro in The War with Grandpa.

That's right. Yeah.

Obviously, we know him for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part II, all intense, dramatic roles. But I think you've discovered — we've all discovered — this guy is a gifted comedian, isn't he?

Very, yeah. Well, he's really smart and he's got good timing. He's done it all. So he's not going to be challenged, really, here [with The War with Grandpa]. He can go anywhere you ask him to. He's just really versatile. So, yes, comedy. I mean, he was pretty funny in those Meet The Parents movies.

He's done a little bit before, but this one, he got to play a guy forced to move in with the family. He has this conflict with a little kid. Then he becomes a kid and is drawn down to the kid's level in the fight that they have, which transforms him in some way. Because he's a dreary, unhappy guy at the beginning of the movie, and the last scene he's skipping out the door on a date with Jane Seymour. He has moved over time. It's really cause and effect here. It's what happens when you go through a thing like a fight, and he learned, subconsciously, that he became young again.

Tim Hill says De Niro goes extra mile for the role

I think what I really appreciate about the film, getting older, I'm not a grandpa myself, but I certainly recognize the traits in a grandfather. In somebody else's hands, a director could have made this just a one-joke movie about the clueless grandpa getting his butt kicked everywhere. But instead, what you've done is create a full character who is suffering from a loss, who has the comfort of his friends. He really cares and loves his grandchildren, even though he's having a war with one of them. He feels like an actual grandfather. I'm so glad that you captured all of those qualities about him on the big screen.

Thank you. Yeah. He played it really well. [De Niro] did a lot of his own, I wouldn't say stunts, but up to the point where you would need a stunt man, he never shied away. He trusted us. He's actually hanging from a pipe in that scene where his pants fall down in front of Rob Riggle. And he did a pull-up at the end of the shot just to show us he's strong. The guy is fit. He works out a lot. He played a little older than he actually is, especially in spirit, I think what he, like you mentioned, he was kind of addled and unfocused and suffering from loss in the beginning. So he's not much fun, and he's kind of down, and he doesn't want to see anybody and all that stuff. And he did, he evolved the character through the movie.

Getting back to his comedy, I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. De Niro for this film as well. I said to him, "I thought if there was a turning point in your career, as far as knowing you could do comedy, and realizing just how fun it is to do, I thought it would have been with Midnight Run in 1988." Do you recall seeing him in that film, and maybe being giddy over the fact, along with the rest of us, like, "God, we haven't seen a side like this of Robert De Niro before!"

Yeah. That was surprising, actually. Yeah. Midnight Run, that was quite a change for him. I don't know if that is the first comic role he did. Is that what you're saying?

It was the first big impression where it was out-and-out comedy all the way through it. I felt it was a huge thing for him.

Yeah, yeah. I would agree. It probably did open up his career, too.

Oh, yeah. Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Meet The Parents films. Now, Robert did mention that, after all these years, they're still trying to possibly pull together a sequel to Midnight Run. I think this is a good time to jump in on that possibility, Tim.

Oh my God. Yes. I'd heard that, actually. While we were shooting, he told me about that. He was meeting on it. You know, things take a while to get going. That's funny you should mention that. I'd forgotten. He had mentioned that. Yeah. I'll call him up and say, "Hey, let me direct it!"

Getting The Deer Hunter duo back together

The cool part about The War with Grandpa was, for me and for people that know and love The Deer Hunter — and I'm sure that you are cognizant of the fact, too — that getting Christopher Walken for the film, that you were inadvertently staging a reunion of Walken and De Niro [42 years later with The War with Grandpa]. Did you think about that?

I did, yeah. I couldn't believe it when we had them both on the set. I was just pinching myself. I wished we'd had more material. It's just great when they're together. They're laughing and they're messing around. Then when it's time to work, they work... I loved doing those scenes with them. I wish I'd written a little more so I could have directed them more.

I think you can take comfort in the fact, Tim, that — and I mentioned to this to Robert — there was that scene where it was him and Cheech and Chris. It almost feels like Nicky had lived, and he and Michael got back together and grew old and are strolling down the street together. In a way, it's weird. Maybe it's just my brain, but I think that will make fans of The Deer Hunter feel good seeing those two together.

Yeah. I think movie fans will really like it, aficionados and people who grew up in that era, that movie, and it being so amazing. I hadn't really thought about that, like here they are later, but I think that's a pretty cool idea.

Tapping into the talents of the film's ensemble cast

Obviously, you have Mr. De Niro; and I talked with Rob Riggle, hilarious guy, great guy; and the opportunity to work with a couple more icons in Cheech Marin and Jane Seymour. What a wonderful pair of actors they are. Like De Niro and Walken, what they do on the big screen, it just seems so effortless, so easy.

It just comes with their experience and being comfortable in their own skin. They're not trying to impress or overthink a part. They were all [that way] and Riggle is just funny. There's no way around that. Cheech is really funny. He's really ironic. But they all found their niche and their characters. During rehearsal and talking and saying, "Well, why don't we try this?" I really admire that guy. So yeah. They're not pushing, which is key. They're not pushing too hard as actors.

War with Grandpa isn't Tim Hill's only movie in theaters this year

You're in a strange position now of having a movie in theaters with The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, but in Canada, not in the U.S.


Strange times we live in. It must be weird knowing people are seeing it, but not having folks in the U.S. experience it directly.

Yeah. It's terrible. I was hoping for a big fanfare, and a great premiere, and seeing all the people I worked with, and doing a cast and crew screening, being able to at least thank people, which never happened. It was just what we're doing now, like, "Bye. Movie's over." It didn't feel natural, for sure. Oddly, one of my first movies [Max Keeble's Big Move] came out around 9/11. I kind of went through the same thing because theaters were closed. We couldn't have a premiere. I don't know if you remember, but people were afraid to go into theaters.

Oh, sure.

Cable wasn't as expanded as it is now, and they really couldn't get any marketing on TV, because it was 24-hours [of coverage of the tragedy]. Not that anyone should care about my problems, considering what happened that day, but it's just strange that there was that event, and then there's COVID, and both effected my movies. So it wasn't the first time. I guess that's what I'm saying.

Remembering SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg

With SpongeBob, the great part about it is hopefully there will be more opportunities, with the franchise being over 20 years old. Going back to the beginning, how confident were you and Stephen Hillenburg, may he rest in peace, for the prospects of the show? Because it didn't seem to take long for people to realize is that we got something really unique here.

Well, Steve and I worked on Rocko's Modern Life, which was another Nickelodeon show. I was a story editor, and he was the director. I don't know. We just hit it off really well. He asked me, "Hey, will you look at some of my drawings for this show? I'm going to call it Sponge Boy." We lived near each other. He was only four or five blocks away. So we sat on my deck, and I went through it. He goes, "I'm going to run this show for [Rocko creator] Joe Murray. I'm going to run Rocko. As a kind of a consolation, they're going to give me a pilot deal." Like you get 25, 20 grand to come up with something. It was a common practice when they were trying to get the development material. That was how he got a little money. He had an idea, and he asked me to write up a pitch document and a bible, and we worked on 13 premises for episodes.

I don't think Steve ever thought "It has to be a hit" or anything. It was just something he really wanted to do. He'd been a marine biologist and a surfer. He loved and wanted to incorporate his view of the ocean into characters, and his love of that aquatic kind of world. So I think it was more just him trusting his own instincts. He wasn't aiming for an audience, I don't think. He wasn't, like I say, looking to be the most successful show ever, as far as I know, anyway. He just wanted to have fun making it. He wanted to have fun. That's what the first season really was. It's just pretty free for all artists and funny people.

If you do another SpongeBob movie or work on the TV series again, you have a good "in" with Robert De Niro now. What are the chances maybe you could get him to voice a character, maybe as SpongeBob's grandpa or something?

[Laughs] Possibly. People who do those things usually have a kid or a grandkid that's really into it. So it's fun for them to say, "Hey, I'm this character on this show that you love." That's always one way that you attract some of these actors, is they can tell their family they're on a cartoon or something.

Muppets from Space was Tim Hill's feature directorial debut

Well, I'm sure you got his number. Give him a buzz! One last question, Tim. Talking about Muppets from Space, it was a big accomplishment for you because it was your first feature film as a director, and it came after Jim Henson's death. Talk about pressure — you clearly thrive under pressure. There's nothing like getting into an iconic brand to prove your worth, is there? What a great accomplishment that was.

Thank you. Yeah, it was hard. I think the company was still reeling from loss of direction, just [from the standpoint of], "What do we do with this brand?" They'd had fights with Disney about selling the company to Disney. I don't know. So it was in a bit of turmoil as far as I could tell. Brian Henson, Jim's son, was leading the film part of their company.

I guess I really wish I'd met Jim. He seemed like such a cool guy. But Frank Oz was very good. He was sort of the conscience of the Muppet brand after Jim passed. He was really helpful to me, too. Brian was great, though. They were all really supportive. We had Kristine Belson, who now runs Sony Animation, and Stephanie Allain. [But Jim Henson], he was such a creative spirit.

What's nice with the Muppets is they have a great team. They had the Muppet Shop. They had the Creature Shop. They had all these props. Everyone was really great, and they all knew how to make the movie. You have to put the set up on four-foot risers, so they can put their arms in the air and be at the same height as the actors. All of that work, they'd done before. I came in right after the Elmo movie [The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland], actually. They had just finished shooting that in Wilmington, North Carolina. I came in on the heels of that. But that was really fun.

[But making Muppets from Space], you're right, it was tough because there were two scripts. They hadn't decided which one they wanted to do. One was Pigs in Space and the other was Muppets from Space. They were both funny. It was just they couldn't quite make up their mind. [They were asking], "Should we do the Gonzo story, or where do they come from? Or should we do a pure, space parody, goofy Pigs in Space movie?" What they went with, I think they made the right choice.