‘Lost Ollie’ Director Peter Ramsey on Reuniting With William Joyce and His New Supernatural Detective Movie

·10 min read

“Lost Ollie” has been found – and he’s on Netflix right now.

The four-episode series, loosely based on a William Joyce book (“Ollie’s Odyssey”), had been in development for more than a decade. What began as a project from Joyce’s own production entity was eventually rescued by Netflix and 21 Laps, one of the production companies behind “Stranger Things.” That’s when Shannon Tindle, an insanely talented designer and animator who had created Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” pitched his version of the story, which follows a lost toy (voiced by Jonathan Groff), who teams up with a pair of mismatched toys (played by Tim Blake Nelson and Mary J. Blige) and heads out in search of his owner, set deep in the American South.

And to chart Ollie’s odyssey, Tindle found the perfect partners – chiefly director Peter Ramsey, who is one of the most influential storyboard artists in modern cinema and the filmmaker behind DreamWorks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians” (another Joyce adaptation) and co-director on Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and the groundbreaking visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, who were responsible for bringing Ollie and his pals to life.

“Lost Ollie” looks – and more importantly feels – unlike anything aimed at a younger audience. Yes, there are talking toys, which might bring to mind Pixar’s “Toy Story” films. But there’s just as much Terrence Malick as there is “Toy Story” in “Lost Ollie.” In the way the live-action/animated series is photographed, oscillating between naturalism and poeticism, and in the truthfulness of its emotional range, there is nothing else like it. (It also encompasses heavier themes like the racial divide of the south and the shortcomings of the American health care system. You know, kids’ stuff!) It’s unbelievably powerful stuff.

TheWrap spoke with Ramsey about what it was like bringing “Lost Ollie” home, the working relationship with ILM and landing those big reveals. Ramsey also talks about what will hopefully be his next project – a high-concept, 1950s-set supernatural detective movie from Paramount.

Can you talk about working with William Joyce? You’ve worked with him before. I read the synopsis of the book “Lost Ollie” is based on and it was very, very different.

Yes, it’s very different. This go round it, it’s funny. Both times I’ve worked on Bill’s stories … There’s been a reason that we couldn’t work directly together and it was on “Rise of the Guardians.” He had a tragedy with his family, the death of his daughter forced him to withdraw from the project for a while, but we talked and had a lot of great creative conversations and he’s a wonderful guy, obviously super talented as far as illustration, his imagination, just this crazy prolific storyteller. Here on “Lost Ollie,” by the time I was associated with the project, Shannon had already pitched his take on the book that had diverged from what the original story was, but Netflix really loved it and when I started reading what Shannon was doing, I loved it too.

Basically, he had been inspired by Bill’s original story, but brought a lot of himself to it. He set it in his hometown. I think the idea of a young kid with, basically an imaginary friend, kind of a spirit animal, a spirit friend, really spoke to him. And there were a lot of things in that story of loss and searching that connected with him and you could read it and as soon as I started reading the pages, it was clear, Shannon just has this talent that I really love so I was in from the moment he started showing me stuff.

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Did you immediately know how you were going to shoot and stage this story?

Right off the bat as we were talking about the project, from very early on, before I even had any idea I was going to be drafted to do any of it, we talked about tone. Because Shannon and I, over the course of our friendship, we share each other’s writing with each other. He reads my stuff, I read his and I’ve always been a big fan of his, and so the tone of what he wanted to do was apparent really early on and we just started talking about inspiration for the look and feel of it and the idea that this was a fantasy that took place in a place where fantasies don’t usually get to happen.

That was something I could really relate to growing up in South Central, wasn’t the most conducive place to flights of fancy happening in front of your eyes, and Shannon felt the same way about his hometown. But the thought that we want to capture both of those things, we want to capture something that has the texture and feel of a real place and a real ordinary place and just opposing that with these little people in a huge world on an adventure to find something that they’ve lost. It’s the same story running in parallel.

These episodes grapple with some pretty heavy issues, too. Was that always part of the plan?

It was really kind of a stealth thing and I have to say hats off to Netflix for allowing us the freedom in a lot of ways to tell the story that really we wanted to and adhere to the vision that Shannon had, which was, we don’t want to sand off all the rough edges. It’s not going to be a polemic. It’s not going to be pushing any particular issues directly, but we want this to feel like a real world and a real life.

And it was interesting even the way we ended up casting, we had to do a lot of the casting out of Vancouver where we were shooting and we had to juggle people’s schedules. And it all came together in this patchwork sort of way, but it ended up aligning once we had Gina [Rodriguez] and we had Kesler [Talbot], who’s our just fantastic young star actor, that pairing it actually echoed something Shannon had considered a long time ago when he was writing that Billy and his mom would be of different ethnic backgrounds and that issue in the south would come up.

It just came about in a sort of, I don’t know, weird kismet kind of way to say, “Hey it’s okay, go ahead. Talk about those things, get into those things” and it’s great because they’re all organic. They don’t feel forced into the story, I don’t think.

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Can you talk about working with ILM and what that process was like for you?

It was a dream, man. Not just because it was an ILM and they’re the best of the best, but the people there, we got to work with the ILM’s London team headed up by Hayden Jones, Stefan Drury and Christine Lemon. And we also worked with people out of the Vancouver office and it was just a love fest. Shannon and I both come out of animation and it’s a slightly different culture than live-action visual effects in that yes, you’re dealing with a vendor that’s supplying you with a service, but in animation it tends to be more of a collaborative thing. I think really early on, we tried to stress that culture and Hayden and the team, they loved it, they blossomed under that and it was a real artistic back and forth that we were able to have.

I think that’s why in large part, we got the quality of work that we did from them because for what we did these four episodes in the time that we had and the budget that we had, it’s kind of unheard of that we were able to hit the bar that we did. And ILM, I think they rose to the challenge and they just loved the material of the individual artists, everybody, there was so much love and goodwill coming from ILM for this that I think you can see it in the work and the care.

There are some pretty big reveals in the last couple of episodes. Can you talk about making sure those moments hit?

In crafting them, we had a good long time to… Well sort of a good long time. You get three years to do a feature basically, and we had close… We may have had a feature’s worth of animation. We had close to that and a year-and-a-half to get it done. But that said, you’re doing iterations. You’re thinking over these scenes, we shot all the live action stuff in Vancouver and that was kind of a breakneck pace as well. We just had to make sure that we had our kind of signpost moments, the things that we were driving toward, which were those reveals we had to land.

We couldn’t give away and I hope I’m not blowing it here in this interview, but there was a lot of groundwork to lay and be really careful about what we were hinting at or what we were revealing so that we didn’t steal from the power of that moment. But by the time we actually got to do them, it was like, you’re finally getting your dessert after a dinner of broccoli and cabbage soup or whatever. It was like, Oh my God. I think everybody felt that those moments were so powerful. We really wanted to nail that stuff.

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Can we talk about “Blood Count” for a minute? I think ‘1950s film noir with supernatural elements’ is my Winter Soldier activation phrase.

I’m in rewrites on the script. I’m really happy with where the script is now. I’ve been back and forth with Paramount a couple of times and doing the usual balancing act of addressing their notes while keeping it true to what I want to be and so far, so good. I’m turning over a new draft soon and hopefully they dig that, but so far, all systems are still go and I’m just hoping that they feel strongly enough about it, that we can just get moving.

It sounds like “Devil in a Blue Dress” with an actual devil.

I mean, in some ways you could say that and for me, the challenge is to surprise people and see how far it pushes beyond that. And in some ways it’s because it’s dealing with, I think the timeframe is probably is a few years later than “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but still the same real estate. God, if Denzel Washington was 20 whatever again, man, he’d be ideal for the lead, but we can’t have everything, and the fun of it is going to be, for me, is really digging into that period in as deep a way as I can because it’s a great time. There’s so much, it’s romantic, it’s enough today that it’s going to feel familiar, but it’s different enough that there’s just really cool, fun stuff. Lot of fun to be had with it.

“Lost Ollie” is now streaming on Netflix.

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