Is it really the final farewell for Shrek? We put the question to the Dreamworks director

I’m with Mike Mitchell in Lucques Restaurant on Melrose Avenue in LA, and the drink is flowing. Perhaps that’s why Mitchell is being so frank about the hard task on his hands with Shrek Forever After, the fourth – and, according to DreamWorks Animation, the final – outing for the jolly green ogre.

“There’s always a challenge when it comes to sequels,” says Mitchell, who previously directed the likes of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) and Surviving Christmas (2004) before moving into animation as a producer and story artist on last year’s Monsters vs Aliens and the last, Shrek outing in 2007. “And that’s added to here because Shrek The Third left the franchise a little battered and bruised.”

To say the least. It may have scored at the box-office (taking in $798,958,162 worldwide), but Shrek The Third is still considered by most to be the weakest of the franchise. Which may explain why it’s taken DreamWorks Animation three years to go near their little cash cow once again.

The promise of this being the final outing for Shrek – who actually debuted in a 1990 picture book by creator William Steig – is probably more marketing ploy though than any true belief that the unlikely fairytale prince has no stories left to tell. Nonetheless, Mitchell is determined to have the foul-tempered swamp monster go out with a bang. And some affection.

PAUL BYRNE: It’s a tall order, of course – people may feel they’ve had their fill of Shrek, especially given how they were burnt with his last outing…

MIKE MITCHELL: As a filmmaker, you’ve got to look at what people love about your subject, and what it is that makes him special, and go after that. Forget about what might have gone before, or how people might feel about him now. Go find the Shrek that created such a spark in people. And to do that, we’ve got to let Shrek himself go back and discover what that was.

Ah, yes. With a plot that owes more than a little to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, our boy gets his wish to turn back the clock and become a carefree, crowd-scaring grumpy ogre once again, marrying Princess Fiona and having all those screaming little tykes suddenly wiped from his history…

I’m sure Capra would love seeing his story retold once again, even if his leading man is now a big green ogre [laughs]. There are comparisons to be made with ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, sure, but there’s a lot more going on besides. Humour, for a start. A lot of the comedy with Shrek comes out of his being a softy at heart but a rampaging, angry monster on the outside. That’s what people love about him, and that’s what we wanted to get back to.

Were you tempted in your take on Shrek to work in some rampaging, angry monster contemporaries. It would have been easy to throw in a few nods to Harvey Weinstein, the rampaging founder of Miramax, the film studio?

I think you can always find someone that’s a bit of a Shrek out there – he’s not that rare a breed really, especially in Hollywood. And, of course, we’ve all got a bit of a Shrek in us too. He’s like a walking hangover, and most of us, of a certain age, have all been there. A few under that certain age have been there too…

So, you’ve found a new target market?

No, no [laughs] – they’re all just research. Our audience is everyone else. That’s the great thing about the success of that first Shrek movie – it just reached everyone. You had little kids loving this guy, and you had teens, fortysomethings, grans, everyone, relating to him. And loving him.

This is beginning to sound like a commercial. Was it difficult getting the main cast back – Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas…?

No, they were as keen as we were to go out with a bang. Antonio’s actually here tonight, somewhere, probably being mobbed. And I was with Eddie earlier today, recording some more stuff for Donkey.

I think these guys have way too much fun voicing these characters to not want to come back. But the important thing here was to come back with a story, with a script, that we all loved. One that we felt would do justice to the name, and having Shrek go out on a high.

I’m finding it difficult to believe that, should this movie deliver another huge chunk of change, DreamWorks wouldn’t roll the dice again…

That’s something I couldn’t really answer, but I know we made this film with the overriding sense that this was his last hurrah. I would imagine there’s a great business sense about leaving something like this when people might actually want more. Shrek is someone that could be around 50 years from now, and beyond. You see him there as part of city floats – he’s an iconic figure, and for that to remain, you don’t want to drag his good name through the dirt.

Which, of course, Shrek would probably love – both the dirt, and being unpopular.

Ah, there’s the rub. But he learns in this latest outing that there’s a better option out there, and it involves love, basically. That’s the message that this movie will be carrying…

I feel a singsong coming on. Given that you’re the new kid on the Shrek block, do you find it easy telling the likes of Eddie, Mike and Cameron how to deliver their lines? They would have more a claim to know what their characters would and wouldn’t say – and how they’d say it…

Yeah, but they’re also very keen to have someone driving the film, someone who’s got an idea of how the scene is going to play up on screen. How it’s going to fit into the rest of the story. These guys are fantastic to work with because, as you say, they know these characters inside and out. Do you know how great that is for a director? You can suggest a turn this way or that, and they know exactly what’s needed. They don’t have to ponder what their character might do; they just know.

Mike Myers has said that the entire series has been about one line from the first movie, “But you are beautiful to me”. Same for you?

I would think so. Mike would know where this character’s heart lies more than any of us, and I think that simple line is something that resonates with all of us. We’ve all felt ugly, we’ve all fallen victim to letting beauty blind us, and to have this kind of message – that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – in a movie that’s aimed primarily at kids, at teenagers, that’s wonderful.

Then again, they may just walk out of the multiplex with a new nickname for any fat people they know…

There is always that [laughs], but the hope is some of the wisdom we’re slipping in here might burn through any such cruelty. When you can get that mix where people are, first and foremost, entertained, but then you also move them, well, that’s such a great feeling. To think you’ve made someone feel better about the world – their world – as they walk out the door is something every filmmaker aims for. Even when you’re dealing with a mud-loving, club-wielding maniac.

Words – Paul Byrne

SHREK FOREVER AFTER is now showing in Irish cinemas