Interviews Movies

Spies in Disguise Take Flight – An Interview with Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno

Super spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) and scientist Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) are complete opposites. Lance is smooth, suave and debonair. Walter is…not. But the both share a passion for being the best at their job but when events take an unexpected turn, this unlikely duo is forced to team up for the ultimate mission that will require an almost impossible disguise – transforming Lance into the brave, fierce, majestic…pigeon.

Through a hilarious set of sequences, Walter and Lance suddenly have to work as a team, or the whole world is in peril. Spies in Disguise, is an animated spy comedy adventure set in the slick, high-octane, globe-trotting world of international espionage.

Directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno from a screenplay by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor and a screen story by Cindy Davis inspired by the animated short film Pigeon Impossible by Lucas Martell.

Brimming with confidence and swagger, Lance is the world’s greatest spy—the best of the best of international espionage agents, his motto “I fly solo,” lets you know it. Lance is all sharp angles, tall, elegant and exuding coolness. Everyone knows his name, and he is often greeted by his fans with applause and a few fainting spells. He’s also used to being armed with the most state-of-the-art,  spy gadgetry, including his cutting-edge two-seater sports vehicle, the Audi RSQ e-tron.

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In this way, Lance and all the other agents are dependent on the technical wizards behind-the-scenes who design these gadgets for The Agency.

One of these tekkies is awkward yet lovable Walter Beckett. Walter is the opposite of Lance: short and appealingly geeky, dressed more for comfort and practicality than style; a genius, not an athlete. Where most of these gadgets designed by The Agency are intentionally destructive and deadly, Walter, who graduated MIT at age 15, has a different point of view, and designs gadgets that are completely effective, but cause no harm; such as glitter bombs and cat visuals.

While Lance believes in fight fire with fire, Walter believes that type of thinking just gets everyone burned. If Walter could save the world with a hug, he would. Friendless save for his faithful pet pigeon Lovey, Walter’s co-workers at The Agency refer to him as a weirdo, but he was raised by his late police officer mother to believe in himself and his unconventional ideas.

The soon learn to work together in order to stop Robohand from turning the Assassin on mankind, Lance slowly begins to open himself up to a whole new, “weird” approach to saving the world.

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Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno were excited at the prospect of making what they believed could be a kid’s first introduction to spy movies. Therefore, it was important to them that Spies in Disguise had all the familiar elements of the genre: exotic international locales, dazzling cinematography, big action set pieces, futuristic gadgetry and a great score with a memorable theme. So they revisited some of the most successful examples of the genre, to immerse themselves in the cool, stylized look and feel of them.

They then imagined what would happen if they were to replace the heroes of those movies with a pigeon, and what they discovered was that the more grounded and cool the trappings were, the funnier it was with a pigeon in the center of it all. Says Bruno, “We didn’t want to make this a spoof. We wanted to make this a legitimate spy movie that just happens to be animated.” Adds Quane, “We both embraced the crazy idea – a man turns into a pigeon, which is insane.”

What was genius about the concept of the script, and therefore, made Walter’s idea so delectable, is that pigeons are actually amazing creatures, and they are the perfect disguise. Bruno explains, “They’re in every city around the world. No one pays attention to them. Nobody even knows they’re there. So they’re hiding in plain sight. Because they have eyes on the side of their head, they can see in 360 degrees, which means that at any given moment, they can see your face and their butt . And you can’t sneak up on them.”

“Because they will just fly away,” concurs Quane. “They’re one of the fastest birds in the world. But because they’re so fast, they see at a faster rate of speed than we do, so everything to them feels slow motion. We would always refer to that as Pigeon Bullet Time. They see UV light, bands of light that we can’t see with the human eye.” Quane continues, “On the surface, it seems like a joke, but really this is the best cover for a spy. No one knows you’re there. You’ve got all these built-in gadgets. It’s actually genius, as are all of Walter’s other gadgets.”

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In addition to being a spy movie, Spies in Disguise is a buddy comedy that derives much of its humor from the differences between its two main characters. Lance and Walter are a classic odd couple. It was easy for the filmmakers to envision their action hero, Lance Sterling. Recalls Bruno, “We said, we’ve got to make the coolest action hero. Who is ours? It’s Will Smith.” Bruno continues, “It was a dream come true when he came on board to the project. As an actor, he really cares about stories and storytelling and making the movie as best as it can. He was a collaborator the whole way through and really helped to shape Lance’s character.”

Quane says, “Lance is a pretty straight-forward character. He’s self-confident, he likes being in the spotlight, he likes being the hero, and he likes the accolades. But he’s pretty full of himself, so there’s definitely a balance to be struck there.” He continues, “It’s a special kind of charisma that can carry that off , and you look up charisma in the dictionary, and it”s Will Smith.”

Walter was more challenging because they didn’t want him to be the stereotypical computer scientist nerd or the butt of the joke. Bruno explains, “We all have an idea of what that cool action hero/spy is, but Walter’s a hard character to discover because we really wanted to make sure the character was sincere. So it was really important to us that he be affirmational, so kids will go to see the film initially wanting to be like a Lance Sterling, but realizing that the hero is really inside them, like Walter Becker.”

Quane explains, “We wanted the audience to laugh at the things he did or the situations he found himself in, but Walter’s a really smart dude so you never want him to feel goofy. But he is defi nitely out of his element in being out in the real world. He’s an academic, but he’s also very committed to those ideas and forceful but not aggressive the way Lance is. Trying to find that balance was really tough, but once we met with Tom Holland, we knew we had found our Walter. Tom has a charm and an earnestness about him that brought Walter to life.”

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The Koalition spoke to Quane and Bruno about tackling a spy movie, what they learned from researching pigeons, creating a mysterious villain and more.

Spies in Disguise releases in theaters on December 25th.

Check out the interview below.

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