Henry Selick dreams up the stuff of nightmares. The visionary stop-motion animation director is behind such classic films as The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline (which earned him a nomination for Best Animated Feature Film), movies that have frightened generations of kiddies into falling in love with horror. That said, the inspiration behind Selick’s newest stop-motion-animated movie — his first in 13 years — might come as a surprise.
“Key & Peele is one of the main reasons I got back into doing another project,” he tells A.frame of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele‘s sketch-comedy show, which aired from 2012 to 2015. “I was so inspired by what they did. I wanted to get some of that flavor in my work. And I happened to have this whole story about these two demons that I’d never gone out with.”
Selick initially conceived of the idea for Wendell & Wild decades ago, basing the titular duo on his own sons. (“Because they were acting like demons.”) The movie’s Wendell (voiced by Key) and Wild (voiced by Peele) are demon brothers who escape the Underworld by tricking a teenage Hell Maiden, Kat, into summoning them to the Land of the Living, where they can raise Hell. Literally. When Peele was approached to be part of the project, he didn’t just want to voice a character, but asked to be involved in the creative process.
“What I wasn’t expecting is that Jordan turned out to be a super fan and expert of stop-motion animation,” Selick says. Peele became a producer and co-creator on the film, and one of his first contributions was convincing Selick to make the protagonist, Kat, a character of color. “He loved animation, but he never saw anybody like himself on-screen [growing up]. I was totally down with that right away.” For his part, Selick persuaded Peele to not only lend his voice but also their likenesses to the demons. “He thought, ‘Oh no! Big-headed caricatures!’ I had to convince him.”
Equally unexpected was the trajectory of Peele’s career in the years following Key and Peele. When Selick first met with the comedian in 2015, Peele was closing out the Key & Peele chapter of his life and envisioning what would come next. “He let me read his script for Get Out,” Selick says. “I thought it was really great, really interesting, really layered. And then, Jordan said, ‘I got a green light on the movie.'”
“He went off and made his film. He shot it very quick. And then, it was about to come out, and he was really worried. He says, ‘What if the movie’s a bomb? We better go ahead and set up Wendell & Wild. We got a week to do it,'” recounts Selick. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I hadn’t seen it, but I thought it was going to be well-received. Turns out, it was incredibly well-received! Because it’s an incredible movie.”
Get Out became the highest-grossing original debut ever, and earned four Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, with Peele becoming the first Black filmmaker to be nominated for producing, writing and directing in the same year. He won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
“We wanted it to be PG-13 to have that playroom so we didn’t have to stick to kiddy stuff,” says Selick. “Honestly, his success with that film allowed us to not only set it up at the right place but under the right circumstances.”
Then, they had to go and actually make the movie, a process that’s already complicated enough in stop-motion but was further complicated by the pandemic. “We couldn’t keep going because we need a real stage with real people there,” the filmmaker explains. “We can’t keep working from home.”
In the past few years, Peele has helmed his second film, 2019’s Us, and his third, Nope, which was released earlier this year. “It’s sad to say he made three feature films in the time I did one,” Selick says with a good-natured laugh. “But after a lot of travails, it’s wonderful being on the other side.”