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KATZENBERG, JEFFREY : Prince of Egypt

PRINCE OF TOONS
Jeffrey Katzenberg redefined the animation industry during his tenure at Disney. Now the K in SKG at DreamWorks studio, his latest project, Prince of Egypt, has a lot riding on; can he do it all again? He believes so, he tells PAUL FISCHER.

Jeffrey Katzenberg is the quintessential Hollywood player, and has been such for two decades. Now 48, the co-head of the fledgling, but increasingly powerful, DreamWorks studio, continues in his quest to take animation to new levels. Gone are the days of cuteness and light; Katzenberg wants to bring animated films to a broader, more adult audience. First came the witty, script-driven Antz, and now, his highly anticipated and much talked about retelling of the Old Testament's Book of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt.

"genuinely a dramatic story"

Antz presented an almost Marxist view of the world, a darker perspective than traditional animated films. "Antz," says Katzenberg, is more to do with sophistication, and when you get sophisticated, I think you get more tones. It's not necessarily that it's a dark movie, it's just that there are more hues, colours, shades and complexities in it, so with that, comes some aspects of it that are more darker."

With Prince of Egypt, that same level of darkness is very much an inherent part of the movie, because, as he puts it, the film "is genuinely a dramatic story, and it's been told with the courage to stay on the path that we chose for, as opposed to veering it off and getting into dancing teacups or singing animals. We've been uncompromising in that, including the way the movie's been marketed."

For his first conventional animated feature outside of Disney, Katzenberg chose to tell a Bible story. Not just any Bible story. He went deep into his own psyche and Jewish heritage to come up with the idea of retelling the Moses story, right out of the Old Testament.

This movie follows young Moses (voice of Val Kilmer) who is found in the River Nile by the Queen of Egypt (Helen Mirren), and is adopted by her and becomes the brother of the Pharaoh Seti's (Patrick Stewart) son, Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), who is destined to become Pharaoh after him. As they grow up, Moses and Rameses couldn't be more different, with Rameses driven by his destiny to lead a great nation, and Moses finding himself dreaming of something else. Upon attaining manhood, Moses soon discovers the truth about his heritage, and leads the struggle to free the people of Israel from slavery under the Egyptians. The nation of Egypt is besieged by a multitude of plagues and miracles, as Moses frees a people so that they may return home.

"being able to do something visually that would blow people away."

It seems, given Katzenberg's own Jewishness, that Prince of Egypt remains a very personal odyssey, but on that, he avoids being drawn. "It may have turned out to have some of that in it, but it certainly was not a factor in the making of it. When the idea for making the movie was suggested, my response to it was, singularly, what a great story it was. I did not, in my gut instinctive reaction to the idea, consider anything other than: That is an amazing story. With that in mind, we like to do things in animation that can't be done in live action. Immediately upon hearing the idea, I understood that this had all those opportunities: an incredible story, a human adventure, a human drama but with incredible, visual challenges in being able to do something visually that would blow people away."

That of course, was Katzenberg's initial priority. The process was one of discovery, he points out, but is quick not to refer to his own Jewish heritage. "I think there's a realisation that goes on, that was part and parcel of making the movie, of just how much this story means to so many people around the world. Early on, on that journey, we came to the decision to sort of impose upon ourselves a mandate to tell this story faithfully and accurately." Once that decision was made, recalls Katzenberg, "the next thing was to reach out to an incredible cross-section of knowledgable experts, in all of the various aspects of this story that would be important to us, whether it was an Egyptologist, an archaeologist, a Biblical scholar and theological experts representing both the Christian and Jewish communities - who could help us retain that level of accuracy."

Cecil B. DeMille managed to tell of Moses and his odyssey in a four-hour epic; Katzenberg has done it in about 90 minutes. There are some differences, the latter says. "Firstly, DeMille told all of Exodus; we only told half of it. He didn't use music, which is a fantastic shorthand tool and can compact sequences together. For instance, we were able to tell of Mideon in five minutes in a song, so I think that there are things that we were able to do, by using music dramatically, as opposed to inserting musical interludes. But telling 80 years in a man's life in 90 minutes is not an easy task, no matter what, and we have had to make many difficult choices along the way. It's hard to know what the right choices are. We have left out Moses being raised in the palace, which is a pretty incredible part of the story. I'd say if we had any challenge where there was compromises that had to be made, time was our only real enemy."

"to pursue my love of animation"

Prince of Egypt is the only animated film Katzenberg has been involved with on which he has been credited as executive producer, suggesting that in many ways, this is his most personal project to date. "I guess in starting DreamWorks this is what I wanted to do - come together with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, and try and build a studio for the 21st century, that would be involved in all aspects of the entertainment business. On a personal basis, the thing that interested me, was to pursue my love of animation, and to have the freedom and wherewithal to immerse myself not part time in the process of making these movies, which was the case in Disney. In DreamWorks, I wanted it to be most of what I did."

As the man who guided Disney into a new generation of successful animation, with such landmark classics as Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the sensationally successful The Lion King, one would imagine had always been secretly passionate about the cartoon world.

Not quite, he responds. "To be perfectly honest with you, I'd have to say no. I really had no real connection to it, no fascination with it, no real sense of it. I mean obviously, as a child I went to see these movies, but my strongest movie memories are along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur - those sorts of event movies." It would be several years after joining the film industry, that Katzenberg would even involve himself in what was considered, until 10 years ago, a dead industry.

Prior to Katzenberg's appointment as chair of Disney, he'd entered the film industry in 1975 as Paramount boss Barry Diller's assistant. He left a few years later as head of production, and went to Disney.

"It was really more an obligation than an opportunity,"

"When I first arrived at Disney, somebody pointed to a building and they said: thatís where they make animated movies, and now that's your problem. In other words, nobody looked at it and said that there's this wonderful thing that we do over there called animated movies; lucky you, you get to play there. It was really more an obligation than an opportunity," he recalls. "So I just did what I've always tended to do in my work life, which is, when someone gives me a job I go do it, the best that I know how, try and learn everything I can about it, then try and do it better than anybody else if I can. Through that process, I really came to love animation, more than anything else."

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Jeffrey Katzenberg, Executive Producer

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