Genndy Tartakovsky owes his in-laws a big debt of gratitude. The Russian-born, American-raised animator and director behind the hit feature cartoon Hotel Transylvania and its follow-up, had not initially planned to make a third in the series. Quite simply, it's tough to make good sequels. "The second one is hard enough," he sighs, "but the third one, you're really risking it."
In Hotel Transylvania, released in 2012, Drac (voiced by Adam Sandler) and his family run a hotel for vacationing monsters. While the 2015 sequel – this time co-scripted by Sandler – moved the franchise away from the hotel theme, Tartakovsky was short of ideas for a third movie. At least until his wife's parents surprised his family – he has three children, aged between 10 and 16 – with a cruise around the coast of Mexico.
The inspiration for the third instalment
“As I got on the ship,” he recalls, “I started to look at all these families, all the different dynamics, and then it started to hit me: what a perfect vehicle for our monster family.” After all, even hotel-running vampires need a holiday, right? Gifted the trip by his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), Drac becomes all of a flutter for the ship’s captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). “I’ve always wanted to do a Drac falls in love storyline,” says Tartakovsky, 48.
While other writers were also pitching ideas, refreshingly the studio went with Tartakovsky's concept. Despite directing the earlier instalments, Tartakovsky wasn't previously involved in scripting – a shock after his years creating animation shows such as Dexter's Laboratory for television channel Cartoon Network.
“I was very fortunate in my career, for the first 20 years, I wrote and directed everything that I did,” he says. “I had that control.”
Hollywood studio animations are a more committee-driven process, especially with an A-list comedy star like Adam Sandler involved. "Adam is a big star obviously, and he controls everything he does. So now all of a sudden, I don't have as much control. I didn't know how to function that way." By the second film, with Sandler and Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel co-writing, Tartakovsky "functioned more like a straight-for-hire director".
Stepping back on the reigns
Returning as both writer and director on Hotel Transylvania 3 was a liberating – and much-needed – experience. "It's the way I like to do it," says the director, who admits he's been "spoilt" by the creative freedoms he's enjoyed in television (he's also behind the shows Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, when he was hired by George Lucas to work on this animated spin-off from the epic sci-fi franchise).
Understandably, Sony – the studio behind the Hotel franchise – was looking to protect its valuable asset. Combined, the first two films made a healthy US$837 million (Dh3.07 billion). But the company "had faith in me", he says, "and the handcuffs were off". Coming from a drawing background means Tartakovsky sees sequences visually, compared with the sketch-comedy approach taken by Sandler and Smigel. "You'll see … it's an explosion of animation in this movie."
So how did Sandler take to stepping back and letting Tartakovsky and his co-writer Michael McCullers provide the humour? "I was a little nervous at first," Tartakovsky admits. "Is he going to like some of this stuff? Now I'm being judged as a writer!" But the collaboration went smoothly. "The thing about Adam, he truly is funny. He can pretty much take any line and deliver it in a way that's very funny. And so he just had to be himself, really."
'When I was a kid, I hated scary movies'
Aside from Sandler, Hotel Transylvania 3 features a glut of comedy legends in the voice cast, including returnees Kevin James, Andy Samberg, David Spade and the incomparable Mel Brooks, the writer-director behind Young Frankenstein. Given Hotel's monster theme, did they ever discuss Brooks' 1974 classic? Tartakovsky nods. "He would tell us about working with [the late] Gene Wilder, how nice it was. You could tell he was getting a little emotional about it."
Intriguingly, Tartakovsky was never really a horror fan growing up. "When I was a kid, I hated scary movies, so I never watched them." Introduced to the genre through double act Abbott and Costello, who "meet" Frankenstein and The Mummy in two of their hit movies, "my horror always came from comedy", he says. When it came to craft the Hotel series, he drew from different sources, including British guesthouse sitcom Fawlty Towers.
This time around, he took inspiration the National Lampoon's Vacation movies with Chevy Chase as the head of the all-American Griswold family. "The dad that wants the best … that fits really well with that we did," he says. Yet there's more to Tartakovsky's ambitions than family-friendly comedy. He cites an idea about a Second World War animation depicting the Nazis invading Russia.
“But nobody is going to want to make [that],” he laughs. Nevertheless, it’s a real monster of an idea.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is in UAE cinemas from today