‘Trolls World Tour’s Walt Dohrn Talks Learning Curve As Lead Director Of “Non-Traditional Musical” & Its Stellar Reception Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

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Matt Grobar
·12 min read
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After co-directing 2016’s Trolls—the critically acclaimed box office smash from DreamWorks AnimationWalt Dohrn made the leap to lead director with the equally catchy sequel, Trolls World Tour.

While Dohrn had honed his craft in animation for over 20 years, spending much of that time at DreamWorks, he says his ascent to lead director “absolutely” came with a learning curve.

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Distributed by Universal Pictures, World Tour picks up with trolls Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake), as they learn that their world is divided into six troll tribes, each representing a specific musical genre. Upon learning of a plot by the Queen of the Hard Rock Trolls to take over all of the kingdoms—thereby, eliminating all other kinds of music from the world—the fuzzy friends set off on a quest to stop her, for the good of all.

Featuring cover songs, originals and medleys, the jukebox musical was conceived as an enjoyable piece of entertainment that would expand the Trolls universe and mature its central characters, while speaking to important social issues, including the importance of tolerance and inclusivity.

“I think it was an incredibly ambitious movie, which I think is surprising because it’s so playful,” Dohrn tells Deadline. “The themes are big, but the movie is so much fun, and so, at times, silly that you don’t realize the scope of the undertaking of the thing.”

Upon its release in April, Trolls World Tour proved newsworthy for multiple reasons. Amidst theater shutdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the film still managed to be a massive success. Generating over $200 million in rentals, it made more money within the context of this new normal, in just three weeks, than the original film had made in theaters, over the course of five months.

While this achievement was extraordinary, it also was disruptive. As the first studio feature to bypass the theatrical window, the Trolls sequel sparked a brief clash over theatrical windows, between Universal and AMC.

Certainly, though, Dohrn has taken the controversy in stride. Below, he reflects on the experiences that prepared him to direct Trolls World Tour, the challenge of faithfully representing its musical worlds, witnessing the sequel’s success, and the kinds of films he wants to make, going forward.

DEADLINE: When did you begin to take part in conversations about a Trolls sequel? And what inspired its story?

WALT DORHN: The conversation started pretty early on. We never know if we’re going to make another movie, but probably a year out from the release of Trolls, Mike [Mitchell] and I and [producer] Gina [Shay], as well as our writers started talking about, “Well, if we get to make another movie, if people like this, what would we do?”

So, we started just pitching ideas back and forth. What would we like to see? What ideas didn’t we get to do for the first one? Then, once we find something we like, we started pitching it to the studio, and getting their temperature on what ideas they liked.

But really, what came first, what really excited us was, I remember in the studio of the choreographer on Trolls, there’s all these mirrors, but painted on the wall was this phrase, “Harmony in diversity.” I [thought], “That is just the greatest thing for our film,” and we really liked the music aspect of the movie, so we wanted that to be integral to the narrative of the next movie. Like, “Let’s make the music part of the plot.” I think that was the big, initial idea.

DEADLINE: How did you arrive at looks for all of the new kingdoms introduced?

DORHN: That was a really fun part of the process, working with the art team. With the first film, we found this amazing fiber art look that was this visual signature, with the fuzz and the fur, and the scrapbooking. So we said, “Okay, let’s take that a step further,” and it was a fun opportunity with these different genres. We wanted each troll to be different; we wanted their worlds to be different. But it needed a cohesion. So, the cohesiveness was this idea of this fiber art look, these textiles and textures and things. But we said, “What would be authentic to [each] genre, as far as the textures and the materials?” To get to hard rock, it’s something like denim and leather and studs. So, it was really fun going through that process and finding the materials that matched the genre.

DEADLINE: Reportedly, you also consulted with musicians like George Clinton, and sociologists like UCLA professor Darnell Hunt, to make sure that you would be faithfully representing each genre.

DORHN: It was really important to have a level of authenticity to the look of each genre, as well as to the music itself. That’s why we brought in [people like] George Clinton, who was amazing, not only do to the voice, and to help us with the music in the Funk world, but also as a visual consultant. We were so inspired by his Parliament albums of the ’70s, just the look and feel of them, and we wanted to do our own thing, but inspired by them.

When he came in, we did some records with him, but we also took him through the studio and showed him the artwork, and what we were thinking of [in terms of] character design. And he just so happened to be wearing this giant, glittered, gold cape—the same kind we were drawing for his character. [Laughs] So, using George Clinton and other musicians I think allowed us to have the authenticity that we [were after].

It was a hard thing to do, to go, “Okay, we’re going to represent rock, or represent funk. But how do we do it in a respectful way?” We’re not stereotyping it. It [should] still [be] funny, and belong in the Trolls world, but have that layer of authenticity.

That’s why we used Darnell Hunt. He really helped make sure that we were being respectful of the cultures and not doing [stereotypical] things. I think there’s a danger in doing that, when you have 80 minutes to tell this story, and you have all these different genres. So, we really got into the details of it and did lots of consulting. We also had a musicologist come in and talk about the different genres, and how they work internationally, and what should the six main genres be, and is that okay? And we ended up expanding beyond those six main genres, which we liked because all over the world, there’s so many kinds of subgenres off of those genres.

DEADLINE: How did all of the sequel’s original songs, covers and medleys come together?

DORHN: It’s like this complex machine. It’s really organic, and each song and moment dictated how it would work. But in general, even though it’s a non-traditional musical, it still works and functions as the engine of a musical, so the narrative is still driving our song choices. You know, it’s like, “Okay what song goes here?” Then, we play around with trying to have a balance of originals, or some more familiar music, or covers we were going to do, and we would try different things.

We put the movie up many, many times in a very rough way. We put songs up and we’d change them out, and we would consult Justin [Timberlake] about it. We’d say, “Here’s what we’re thinking here,” and he might have ideas, and we’d change it out based on his ideas—or working really closely with [executive music producer] Ludwig [Göransson]. Because first, it would be, “We have an idea.” If it was a cover song, we’d put it in there and he would work a really rough demo with his team, and we’d do scratch vocals and try that. Then, we’d go back and it would just slowly grow.

Justin was very integral to the process, too. He helped in picking where originals could go, as well as some covers, and he’d be there with the actors, working on the vocal part of it, too. So, it was a huge joy. I said, “From now on, I won’t be involved in a movie unless music is a main part of telling the story,” because it’s such a joyful part of the process. It’s such a great way to tell stories, and to tap into this raw emotion of the audience.

DEADLINE: What went into choreographing the musical numbers?

DORHN: Again, it was pretty complex. It would start with our story artists, who would very roughly block in, “Oh, this is how it may work, if it was a music sequence.” Then, we’d go to the art department, who would lay out bigger ideas—and then based on that, we would go to the choreographers, who would choreograph the dance moves. And it’s not like they were green-screened, or put in the motion capture suits, or anything. We’d just film that, get inspired by it. With my cinematographer, our head of layout, we’d go in and create these rough, choreographed sequences, how it’s going to work just with rough blocking.

Then, it would get even more complex when we go to our animators, who would take all those pieces and really work out the dance moves, which is so particular to the trolls’ sense of gravity and stylization.

DEADLINE: Prior to shepherding your first animated feature, you’d worked in the medium for decades. Is there still a learning curve, though, when you’re suddenly in charge of an entire production?

DORHN: There is. It’s almost like you have a training ground. That’s not really said, here at DreamWorks, but there is this kind of progression. Starting in story, I think, is the core thing. A lot of directors here have started in the story department, because when you’re directing a movie, it doesn’t matter, I’ve learned over the years, which department you’re working with. It all comes back to the point of the story you’re trying to make. Whether it’s VFX department or lighting, you’re still coming down to those core story issues.

So, I think that’s really how I learned, was just by starting in the story department—even back in TV, on SpongeBob—knowing those key story elements that you need. Then, it was really nice for me, as I started coming up in the ranks from story to head of story. I started just attending other meetings, and watching how it works in all the different departments, just kind of gathering these pieces. Then finally, on this last movie, I was able to take all those years of hanging out and working with all those artists, and push it further.

I worked with a director on this one, Dave Smith. We went to CalArts together, and got to make this thing together, and we just kept thinking, “This could be our last movie, so let’s do everything we want to do, just in case we don’t get to do it again.” So, there was a lot of love and passion, and paying homage to [our influences] growing up. Being able to take all those elements and put them in this modern spin, I think, was a real joy.

DEADLINE: What was it like for you to see the film perform so well amidst the pandemic?

DORHN: That was a big surprise to everyone at the end, how the movie got seen, and it was so early on in quarantine, during the pandemic, that we felt really grateful and honored. You know, I have kids at home, too, and I think this movie came at the right time, and really just made people feel good. I think when we are all kind of struggling there, it is a movie that’s scientifically designed to make you feel good, and it really worked. I got lots of people messaging me saying their families were laughing and dancing in their living rooms during the movie, so I think that was one of those big rewards. You know, you make these things so you can connect with people, and I think it connected in a bigger way than even had it come out on a regular weekend. I think it became this kind of experience for everybody, which we were very proud to be a part of.

DEADLINE: It must have been surprising, at the same time, to see this big-hearted animated feature become such a hot-button topic, given the nature of its release.

DORHN: I was just pleased that everyone’s hard work got seen, and I think the fact that it was a part of the conversation about streaming, and how do we watch movies in the pandemic, what I liked was that it just allowed people to have an awareness of the movie.

DEADLINE: I know you signed an overall deal with DreamWorks in July of last year. But what’s next for you?

DORHN: Well, I don’t know just yet. It’s that beginning stage, where I’m just developing ideas, finding the characters, finding the themes and the plot, and trying to find a crew—and doing it all in our current way of working, which is all at home still. [I’m planning on] just telling more stories along the lines of Trolls World Tour because that’s my natural mode. That’s my tone. Like, if I could make anything, I would make that film. Even though it was this big franchise movie, the themes and the comedy and the quirkiness of it still felt very personal to me, and to Dave, my co-director—like a movie we would make back in art school.

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