Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers movie.
From the very first line of Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers—a voice-over narration featuring Andy Samberg musing that, surely, cartoon chipmunks are the third-most likely thing associated with the words “Chip and Dale,” after an 18th-century furniture maker and the male strippers—you just know this a Lonely Island movie.
Only, it’s technically not a Lonely Island movie in that it wasn’t written by the comedy trio, nor was it produced by their company (which has produced, in recent years, Palm Springs, I Think You Should Leave, Pen15, and more). And yet, this meta, live-action Chip ‘n Dale reboot—which began streaming on Disney+ today—so clearly has the boys’ stamp of weird, goofy humor. That’s thanks, no doubt, to Samberg’s voice performance as the goofy-but-lovable Dale, and, perhaps even more so, to director Akiva Schaffer.
When speaking to Decider over Zoom, Schaffer is careful to give ample credit to writers Dan Gregor and Doug Maud (whose credits both include How I Met Your Mother and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Gregor and Maud had long envisioned a Roger Rabit-esque meta-take on Chip ‘n Dale, which would find the animated chipmunks as washed-up actors in the real world, reliving the glory days of their beloved ’80s TV series. The project languished for a few years, but, eventually, Schaffer came on board in 2019. The script got an update, including some improvised contributions from Schaffer. You’ll see a lot of crossovers in this live-action/animation hybrid world where cartoons live among humans, but not this is not some cash-grab aimed at showing off how many properties Disney owns. You’ll see cameos from Ugly Sonic (Paramount), Cats 2019 (Universal), My Little Pony (Hasbro), and so much more.
For Schaffer—who got his start by directing and editing goofy videos of Samberg and Jorma Taccone fake-rapping when they were just teenagers—it was a legal headache that was worth it. “If it’s going to be a celebration of animation, it needs to be a wide net of animation, not just Disney animation,” he said. “It was not easy and I keep giving big shout-outs to the lawyers.” Schaffer spoke to Decider about how he landed those impossible crossovers, his contributions to the script, and what’s next for The Lonely Island.
Decider: On paper, this movie seems very different from your past projects. Tell me how did the Chip ‘n Dale live-action movie come to you and what made you sign on?
Akiva Schaffer: I got sent the script through the normal ways, through agents, in late 2018. I was a fan of the old show. I grew up watching Disney afternoon, and I have two younger siblings so it was on for many years in my house. I was also flattered that any piece of IP was getting sent to me because it’s not every day that happens. But then I had what a lot of the public might have when they hear there’s a movie like this which is—I love Alvin and the Chipmunks, but those movies are aimed very young. They don’t have a lot for adults in them, necessarily. I don’t want to bash them, they nail what they’re going for, but it’s not what I would want to spend my time on. But the cover page [of the script] said, “The Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers Reboot That Nobody Asked For,” and that got my attention. As I started reading and learned what the whole thing was, I got excited about it. I thought it was super funny and clever, and then I was also excited about learning modern filmmaking which is the live-action hybrid stuff.
Were you at all involved in working on the script, polishing it up at all? Some of those jokes feel very Lonely Island-esque to me— the whale rap, for instance.
The whale rap is definitely me and Andy. Dan Gregor and Doug Mand wrote it so I want to be careful about not taking any ownership away from them having written it, because their script was so good and that is what attracted me to it. The script I read was from 2016, so it had been left on the shelf for two years. The producers dug it out because they always loved it and were like, “This has gotta go somewhere.” When they brought it to me, I definitely had a lot of things I wanted to do with it, and I was lucky that Dan and Doug agreed to come back on. They had some time away from it, so they had new energy for it, as well. We worked together on the script and then, once you get into animatics and storyboards, it was the pandemic, so I was doing it from my house. There’s a version of this movie that’s all storyboards, and I recorded every line into my iPhone—literally, every voice in the movie is my voice. I’m not the best voiceover artist and I had to play every character because there was no one else around. When you’re doing that, you’re basically improv-ing—it’s basically like being on set. You see the scene come together in the edit, then you realize it’s broken, and have to fix things. There ended up being a lot of me in the movie, not my voice, but my point of view, like you’re saying.
I think you should release the voiceover director’s cut on the DVD or something.
I totally agree. People need to hear it. It’s a real showcase for everything I can do.
How does one direct a hybrid animation/live-action film? What did that process look like on this movie?
There’s a lot of it that I think is almost exactly the same as directing a fully animated movie—or not dissimilar from doing any modern superhero-style movie, where you have CG environments and characters that aren’t really there. Every Marvel movie is a live-action hybrid at this point. It’s animation and it uses all the same techniques that we’re using. That’s part of what I was so excited to learn—getting to work with storyboard artists, creating animatics, and just do what you think of as classic animation the exact same way you would if you were making a Pixar movie. Then going to pre-vis where, hopefully, you know where you’re going to be shooting already so they’ve done the right measurements so your pre-vis can pretty accurately represent what it will be like on set. Some of it is just a guess, but the same way you’ve seen all those pre-vis sequences of Avengers fighting and stuff? We have the same sort of things—like Chip and Dale driving a car. What are the angles? Where do we need it to go? There was a version of the movie you could watch, before we went and filmed a single frame, that we had put together. Once again, it was with 90 percent, my voice but you could watch a 90-minute version of the movie.
Then you go on set and everybody can see it, so you’re not just spending all your time explaining what the shot is. Every day, we would have iPads on set and I would be able to have the crew gather around and be like, “Here’s what we’re filming today.” They could see a rudimentary version of it and we could go, “Okay, let’s do shot 1.” I’m trying to think of the fastest way to tell it all, but on set it was the fun of having dolls of Chip and Dale—you have eye line things that are like LED lights on little sticks so people know where to look. You have strips of LED lights if they’re walking, and you set how fast they’re walking so the camera people know how fast to move the camera. You have all these fun tools that they have on set to know where to film. And then you edit together all those plates, they put post-vis back into the plates, and then they animate.
Wow. It sounds like you’re ready to direct a Marvel movie now.
Yeah, I’ve done the training camp. This was all just a Marvel play, the whole thing.
I love that this movie pokes fun at so many different properties—and it’s not just Disney properties. It doesn’t feel like a Disney IP commercial. Sonic, for example, is a Paramount character. But how does that work, rights-wise?
First let me say that you saying it doesn’t feel like a cash-grab—or however you said it, a commercial for the IP—is music to my ears. That was my fear the whole time. I really worked hard to include third-party stuff, because if it’s going to be a love letter to animation, a celebration of animation, it needs to be a wide net of animation, not just Disney animation. Roger Rabbit did that, and it was always so special to see those things. It was not easy and I keep giving big shout-outs to the lawyers—I always keep making a special point of that. I don’t think that happens on a lot of movies, but on this movie, those lawyers really had their hands full. They had a lot of work to do and they really got behind it and were excited about the idea of it. Well, I’m sure at some points they were cursing the idea of it. If I gave out, “Hey, I want My Little Pony!” they have to go track down those rights, find the people, convince those lawyers, and maybe get me on a Zoom where I do a presentation. It was a big deal to make it happen. So kudos to them for doing it.
Specifically, on the Ugly Sonic joke front, since he’s a fairly important character in the movie—did you speak to [Sonic the Hedgehog director] Jeff Fowler about that idea?
I have two kids who are 9 and 11, I’ve seen that Sonic movie 20 times, and I love it. And I tell Ben Schwartz about it—I text him pictures that I’m watching it, like, every other time. I love the Sonic movie and I’m very excited to see the second one. I didn’t get to because I was finishing this but I do. Most of the things we were “making fun of,” I actually love. In terms of answering your actual question, I’m gonna leave that to the lawyers, it’s all very complicated. But just know that even the things that seem like we’re making fun of them… I’m hoping the people take it as a fun SNL, with love, thing.
There’s a mid-credits scene in this movie featuring—spoiler alert—Darkwing Duck. So is there talk of Chip ‘n Dale meta-verse sequel? Or are we going to get a Darkwing movie next?
There is no talk as of today. I think we’re going to wait and see how people enjoy this film, but I think you can put in your request straight to Bob Chapek. Just write him an email. Hit him up right on the Disney-dot-com. I’m sure there’s a comment section somewhere where you can just—a contact us link or something. Or just go into your local Disney store and tell whoever’s behind the counter at the Disney Store at the mall. I think that’s how it works.
This is a streaming movie on Disney Plus. The Lonely Island has done several streaming things recently, and I know in the past, some of your theatrical movies —that I love and have been critically acclaimed—but-
They didn’t do as well at the box office as we hoped. Are streaming platforms where you guys are feeling most comfortable right now?
It certainly makes me more comfortable. I certainly don’t miss the pit in my stomach, worrying about it. Even when Popstar was coming out, we knew. We could feel it wasn’t reaching… we knew there were a lot of people out there who would really enjoy it, and they weren’t being reached. We could tell, even before it came out. And that’s heartbreaking when it happens. So I do not miss that feeling at all. The one thing I will say though—the only shame of it is—[cinematographer] Larry Fong filmed this movie, who shoots like Batman vs. Superman and stuff. I color-corrected on a big screen, just the way you would for a theatrical movie. Skywalker Sound did the sound, just like you would a theatrical movie. I’ve gotten to see it in theaters at a test screening with audiences amongst people who are delighting at all the Easter eggs, noticing the details, and being surprised by cameos. I really had a lovely time. Obviously, I’m having a very different experience, but I think there is fun in that communal experience with a movie like this—if I knew everyone was going to see it. There’s not a lot of fun when it’s an empty theater. I think I’ll celebrate the Disney+ release, but I do wish, if I knew it was going to be a crowded theater, that people could have that experience.
My last question for you, because I’m such a fan—can we look forward to any more traditional Lonely Island musical parodies, or projects you have coming up?
I wish we had something on the hard drive just waiting. We don’t, and that’s mostly because of the pandemic. Jorm was stuck in New York and Andy was stuck doing his thing, and I was doing this movie. I just turned this in maybe two weeks ago, the final version! We’ve been talking, though. We’re excited to try to figure out what that means in 2022, since it’s been a little while.