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Posted at 12:49 AM ET, 03/12/2011

The Comic Riffs Interview: ‘MARS NEEDS MOMS’ author Berkeley Breathed buckles in for Hollywood voyage

The home fires were burning a little hot. The 4-year-old boy had a stubborn gullet, his mother was plenty steamed, and the broccoli stalk between them -- their dinnertime wedge issue -- was the furthest thing from an extended olive branch.

"On an August night five years ago, my flesh-and-bones son Milo, 4, pushed away a plate of broccoli and declared he'd eat it when California balanced its budget," recounts the husband in this domestic scenario, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist and author BERKELEY BREATHED. "My wife returned fire and dropped his PlayStation into the compost bucket. Before I could foam him with flame retardant, out he came with: 'I wish I'd never had a mother!' "

Milo had pulled out the emotional napalm. Mom collapsed into tears. And Breathed -- well, he did what dads and artists often do best: He retreated to hide in his office, used the heat of the moment to find a spark of inspiration -- and eventually had the basis for a children's book and a big-budget animated movie ("a ray of light born amidst the darkness," he recalls). Berkeley Breathed with his beloved Opus.

That slice of real life plays out in the opening moments of "Mars Needs Moms," Disney's 3D / IMAX / "performance-capture" / cutting-every-technological-edge animated feature film (opening today) based on Breathed's book -- and delivered to the screen by producer Robert "Polar Express" Zemeckis, Simon (great-grandson of writer H.G.) Wells and wife Wendy Wells. And even in pixelated digital-paint form, through the filter of time and chunky 3-D glasses, that scene still delivers a sting.

So what does young master Milo think today, five years hence, with his cut-Mom-to-the-quick utterance now immortalized on film?

"He now believes that his reward for saying an obscenely offensive thing to his mother is being made a character in even more big Disney movies," says Breathed, who first gained national fame three decades ago by drawing Opus the penguin and the rest of his colorful cast in the superstar comic strip "Bloom County." "If you think I'm worried about this, you would be correct. I am also worried I'll be contacted by Child Protective Services about my parenting decisions."

Comic Riffs caught up with Breathed to talk the illustrated page, the modern animator's soundstage -- and how next time he sells a "book baby" to Hollywood, he'll have more control:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Can you recount how this "book-baby" was born? Milo's stunning utterance, your wife's reaction -- and your inspired retreat to your workstation?

BERKELEY BREATHED: Milo [said to his mother]: "I wish I'd never had a mother!" For minutes, the evil residue of that foul sentence lingered in the air like Darth Vader flatulence. I feared it might drop the dog. With my wife collapsed in tears and Milo calling forth a plague of locusts, ... Shortly after, I gave birth to "Mars Needs Moms." ... My illustrated newborn's cry was simple in theme: "There'll be one woman in your life that will unhesitatingly die for you. Love her. And it's not your %$#@ girlfriend."

MC: So you disappeared to the drafting board, and in the film the father is conveniently away. Why so: Better for the narrative?

BB: Oh, heck, dads usually get in the way and make a mess of things, so it was easier to keep him clear of the story. This wasn't "Mars Needs a Nuclear Family."

MC: You've seen numerous of your other book-babies disappear down Hollywood's rabbit hole. At what point did you become convinced that this project would actually find its way to the big screen: The second Bob Zemeckis strode onto the scene? The second you spotted your first Nissan Quest / "Moms" tie-in ad?

BB: "Red Ranger Came Calling" (1995) has been in development in two studios for all these years. Opus was plucked naked for five years at Miramax and they still couldn't find the bird they wanted to cook. And cook they would have.

I knew "Mars Needs Moms!" would be a movie seconds after the title came to mind. Similarly, I also knew that my daughter would be calling me a dork as a default term of endearment eventually. There are certain instincts one learns to trust.

MC: So did you see the '60s film "Mars Needs Women" as a wee lad, consciously tucking it away as a potential source of inspiration one day -- or was the reference a bolt-out-of-the-blue?

BB: The latter. Like all of America, I never saw the film... but I loved the cheekiness of the title -- one of the great terrible classics. Indeed, I stored it with other cultural flotsam back deep in my cerebellum, knowing it would come in handy one day... but not having the foggiest notion how. Let me snub the conventional wisdom in Hollywood of never voicing criticism and admit that the movie's producers made a big mistake when they took the exclamation mark off my title "Mars Needs Moms!" Everything... Everything you need to know about the story is in the exclamation mark. Ah, well.

MC: You say you may see a comical fraction of the back end from the "net movie profits" . Having seen the finished product, what hopes, expectations or wild dreams do you have for the film commercially, if not critically?

BB: Yes, technically, I have a piece of the "movie's net profits". As I've said, wrap your tongue around that last phrase like you would the word "leprechaun."

Commercial expectations? "Nobody Knows Anything" is a true and wise axiom in this business and people who publicly forget this are destined to be labeled Stupid... or worse, Toxic. Here's what I know: the book was built backward from a story beat that I, as an author and especially a parent, found a devastating emotional moment. The filmmakers could have lost sight of this as easily and effortlessly as my son loses any money that I place in his pocket. They did not. These effective emotional beats are rare in either picture books or family movies.

I can boldly if a bit churlishly declare that movie-choosing families will not detect such a thing in "Battle L.A." this weekend. Hollywood is war. Ya gotta pick a side.

MC: Were you ever consulted at any point about the look of the characters, even if only initially -- or notsomuch?

BB: "Author's Creative Control". File this under "movie net profits" and "leprechaun." The producers of "Mars Needs Moms" had their own unique ideas for the film's creative direction and explored them wholly unfettered from my own.

MC: Joan Cusack ("Toy Story 3") is such a great voice here -- must she now be in EVERY cutting-edge animated film?

BB: If it were up to me, she'd be that as well as legally part of my family. Her voice and performances are always spectacularly unique. A lovely actress and woman.

MC: Dan Fogler's digitally painted performance is eerily lifelike -- perhaps the most "blurred line" performance I've yet seen. What's your insider's take on the current stage of performance-capture/digital animation?

BB: It's proving to be a hugely powerful tool in the animator's bag of tricks. I suspect that its uses will evolve as filmmakers resist its Sirens' call of hyper-realism. [Steven] Spielberg's "Tin Tin" is coming out in summer... and will be one of the last big tests maybe.

MC: So what do you say to your longtime "Opus," "Bloom County" and "Outland" fans to encourage them to get out and enjoy "Mars"? And what future projects are on your warp-speed horizon?

BB: Hmm. Taking the long view of what might make all my disparate creative output over the years somehow connected ... I can say that even in the midst of my most cynical comic stripping: Opus shone through with a bit of heart, anchoring the ugly proceedings with a comforting pull of emotion. That's why he existed in "Bloom County." And that's why any of my picture books exist: They all seem to be built backwards from a simple, emotionally optimistic story beat. I'm not interested in any story -- or cartoon strip -- without this. I hope the former cartoon fans might detect that old familiar impulse, if nothing else, in the movie's basic narrative.

They would have also found that in my novel, "Flawed Dogs" ... now being developed as an animated feature at DreamWorks. I'll be an executive producer and involved with all aspects of the production on this one. Maybe leprechauns do exist.


By  |  12:49 AM ET, 03/12/2011

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