Interview | The Directors of ‘Sausage Party’ On Their Most Disgusting Joke
Sausage Party was a gamble that nobody wanted to take. An expensive, R-rated CG-animated comedy about food products, orgies and atheism was never going to be an easy sell in western markets, in which animated movies are typically made for kids, but filmmakers Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan made it anyway. It just wasn’t easy, even with a cast that featured big name stars like Seth Rogen (who also produced and co-wrote), Kristen Wiig, Salma Hayek, Jonah Hill, Edward Norton, Bill Hader, Bill Hader and Danny McBride.
I spoke on the phone with Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan over the film’s opening weekend to learn more about how they made such an inappropriate movie in today’s marketplace. I also learned more about the internal logic of Sausage Party, the trickiest part about anthropomorphizing a taco shell, and which scene – amongst many disgusting scenes – was the one that went so far they had to cut it out of the movie.
Sausage Party is now playing at a theater near you. (Some SPOILERS lie ahead.)
Crave: Was the hardest thing to get made an R-rated CG-animated comedy, or an R-rated CG-animated comedy about atheism?
Conrad Vernon: I think it was just “R-rated CG-animated comedy.” I mean, just that sentence alone without “atheism” threw people off.
Greg Tiernan: Actually Conrad, it was CG, R-rated anything really.
Conrad Vernon: Yeah, we were kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place with it. All the live-action companies were saying “We don’t know anything about animation, we’re not sure we want to get into it, especially for something as risky as R-rated animation,” and all the animation companies were saying, “Don’t tarnish our sparkling brand name with your R-rated filth.” So we were kind of stuck between this place and it was someone like Megan Ellison and Annapurna that weren’t in either camp, and so she was the one who came in and rescued us from between the rocks.
Did that surprise you? Or did you know immediately it was going to be an uphill battle to get Sausage Party made?
Conrad Vernon: Well, we didn’t know it would be this much of an uphill battle. As Seth [Rogen] tells it, and it’s true, we had Seth and Evan [Goldberg] writing it with two of their really good friends, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir. We had Jonah [Hill] and Seth promising to be in it. You had Greg and I directing it, a studio producing it for a price, and with all this as a package – and artwork to boot – we thought, “Oh, these people are going to be eating us up! It won’t be long before we find someone.” And it was just like, “Wow, we haven’t found anyone. It’s been two-and-a-half years.” [Laughs.] So it was like a little surprising. It came completely out of the blue when we met with Megan.
In all of that time had the project changed dramatically? Did you make alterations to make it less toxic, for example?
Greg Tiernan: No, not at that stage. I mean, it was always the basic premise of the movie, from day one, has never changed. During production itself of course the script evolves and things get taken out and more stuff put in, but it was basically the same thing. And the same basic pitch, same basic premise for the movie was pitched during those two-and-a-half years or so.
Conrad Vernon: Yeah, we certainly didn’t change anything “because” we weren’t selling it. It was like, this is the movie we want to make, this is the story we want to tell, so you know, when we find someone to get on board with that we’ll be good.
Greg Tiernan: We did actually have, Conrad if you’ll remember, and we won’t pull any names out on this one, but we did have a deal on the table at one stage but it wasn’t something that either Seth and Evan, Conrad and myself and my studio in Vancouver were comfortable with. So it was a testament to the faith that Seth and Evan in particular had in this idea, from day one, and that everybody involved with it, that they were right alongside us, and it was like, “No, we’re going to have to look for something better than that.”
What sort of compromises were on the table at that point? What made you uncomfortable?
Conrad Vernon: I don’t know because I don’t remember this deal at all…
Greg Tiernan: You don’t remember that one?
Conrad Vernon: [Laughs.] No, I don’t! That’s how quickly I’ve forgotten.
Greg Tiernan: The main thing wasn’t a content issue, it was mainly a budget issue, because right from the get-go Seth and Evan had always pitched this and have done ever since on talk shows – on Fallon and Kimmel, all of that, those type of shows – they pitched it as an R-rated adult Pixar-type movie. So as soon as you use those words, “Pixar-type movie,” well, you’d better be damned sure that you can actually deliver an animated movie of that quality. And for that you need a certain budget. Even with this movie being a fraction of the budget of most big Hollywood animated features, the first deal that was on the table were perfectly okay with the content but weren’t okay… “we,” actually, said there’s no way we can make it for the amount of money. We [needed] to push further. So there’s a little bit of a to and a fro like that. But the main thing overall, through all of those negotiations, was the content and nobody wanted to budge on that, and we’re both delighted to say that nobody did budge on it and Megan, bless her, came up and actually stood up to the plate and said that she would back it.
Were you aware over the course of the production that there was a similar, and not particularly good film out there called Foodfight? Was that in any way a concern of yours?
Greg Tiernan: Oh God…
Conrad Vernon: Yeah, we know this. Yes, for better or worse people have been saying that this is “the good version of Foodfight.” But yeah, we saw the trailer for it, and it was… I have to say it was quite entertaining in the badness of it all. It was like, Seth was watching it going, “Wow, that’s unbelievable.” I watched it a few times. It was pretty unbelievable. So yeah, it hasn’t been a lot. It hasn’t been a lot of people saying, comparing us to Foodfight or getting it mixed up or anything like that, thank God. But yeah, we are aware of it.
Mostly when I think about Foodfight, I think about the idea that you’re dealing a situation and an environment in which everyone is intimately aware of certain brands. Were there any serious talks about marketing tie-ins? Sausage Party teaming up with certain boozes, for example?
Conrad Vernon: I mean, we’re kind of hooked up with Pabst, but that was after the fact. We kind of talked about this at the beginning and said, “Do we want brand names?” and we threw a few back and forth. I think Courvoisier was one at one point, and we were saying “Do we want Trojan condoms in here? What do we want?” and we finally just said no, let’s not limit ourselves and have to wheel and deal with a company on what they’re going to let us do with their product. You know, up at Nitrogen, our art department were brilliant at coming up with our very own, really, really funny labels and names for products, and right now people are watching the movie going, “Oh, I never noticed that in the back, the name of the tequila is really funny,” or the name of this, which is hilarious. So I think we made the right decision not to try and brand everything.
The concept of this world is that the various foods in the grocery store are all alive, but not everything in the grocery store is alive. What were your rules? Were they just alive if it’s funny and they’re not if it’s not?
Greg Tiernan: No. There was a lot… we had that discussion ourselves many times throughout the movie, where the parameters of the logic lie and where we can cross over. We sort of felt, well you know what, we made up the rules so we can break them any time we want. But it was more a case of what would be perceptible to the audience and what would start to just get weird and sort of distracting. For example if you had a jar of pickles [and] the jar itself has a face and a mouth on it, and inside that jar of pickles you can see all the other characters inside there, it becomes really busy. For clarity’s sake we decided that we would just make sure that if a character had to have a certain or position in the movie that needs to be ultra clear for the story, then we had to make sure we didn’t muddy the water too much by trying to make sure every last bit of logic was completely, completely covered. I mean when you think about it, as long as you can buy into the fact that it’s a supermarket full of talking hot dogs, the logic gets a little bit elastic anyway.
Conrad Vernon: Yeah, we tried to look at all the characters as their own kind of species, so to speak. So it’s like even though they can all walk and talk and have hands and feet and everything like that, sometimes we just said, well look, this particular jar or bag of chips or whatever, it functions like this, and this particular product functions like this. It’s kind of like saying, it’s the difference between a dog and a cat, you know? They have different things, they have different ways that they function, even though they don’t look alike. And so we just kind of played around with it generally, but only in detail. The big rules we tried to stick to as much as possible.
What was the hardest food to anthropomorphize?
Conrad Vernon: Hmm…
Greg Tiernan: Probably… from a character a perspective none of them were that difficult.
Conrad Vernon: Taco?
Greg Tiernan: Yeah, from a character perspective, to anthropomorphize them wasn’t that difficult for any of them to be honest with you. But yeah, Taco, Teresa Del Taco, because she’s played by the supremely talented and beautiful Salma Hayek, and this taco is built like a linebacker. She’s just this big envelope shape. And so that was quite a challenge for our animators to get used to being able to make her walk around and still stay in the sexy, feminine-looking character. Because she did have, some of our early tests that we did with her, she a little looked like a gorilla walking around.
Conrad Vernon: Yeah…
Greg Tiernan: That was a little bit of a challenge.
Conrad Vernon: That’s true, we had her arms hanging out of the bottom of the taco shell and her knuckles would drag on the ground, so we put them in the side of the shell, which makes her look a little more feminine. But then, I think Seth asked the question, “So when she turns sideways what do we see, down the middle of the shell?” And we were like, “Well, there’s nothing there.” But her eyeballs did stick back there so we had to erase those in every shot. We just tried to shoot her in the right way. But you know, I remember on a couple of the movies I directed at Dreamworks, the proportions of a character were always something that were so fraught over, and I always remember hearing notes saying “Well, if his arms aren’t long enough, he can’t touch the top of his head.” And I’m like, I just found with Teresa Del Taco, it doesn’t matter: you just don’t have her touch the top of her head! You know what I mean? I think she was the toughest design-wise, and toughest model-wise to kind of figure out, but I think some of the things that we fretted over, you know… it’s good we fretted over them but they didn’t really come back to bite us in the ass that much.
I have to ask you about your orgy.
Conrad Vernon: Sure.
Here’s this army of talented and experienced animators who’ve made all sorts of films, many of them for children, and I imagine you had to spend months animating a bunch of food fucking each other. That must have been a weird experience. That was your day job for a while.
Conrad Vernon: [Laughs.]
Greg Tiernan: That was a liberating experience for everybody. Yeah, everybody, just like you said, they’re used to animating children’s movies. We all are. But at one stage one of our storyboard artists stood up in the middle of a meeting, that’s when they were pitching to Conrad and I, and they just said, “I just want everybody to stop for a second and just remember this moment, because it’s certainly never happened before in our careers and it might never happen again. So enjoy it while we can.” We had a lot of our crew laughing about it over a beer, and saying “I can’t believe we’re actually getting paid and not an HR infraction for what we’re doing right now.” So they loved it.
Is it possible to go too far in a scene like that? Was there anything that had to get cut because it was too profane?
Conrad Vernon: Oh yeah. And you know what’s so funny is there was some stuff in the orgy we cut, but I think the most profane thing wasn’t even in the orgy, that we had to cut. It was a scene between the douche and a rat. And a lot of this stuff that we cut is going to be, I believe, on the DVD, and so we’re going to put a lot of that stuff on but the orgy was how long, Greg? Like eight minutes at one point?
Greg Tiernan: It was eight minutes at one stage, yeah.
Conrad Vernon: Yeah, it had chocolate sauce and pickle relish and ranch dressing and all sorts of… and then the MPAA immediately just went, “Okay first off, no fluids. Take the fluids out of the orgy.” So there was that we had to cut, but it wasn’t a huge amount of going back and forth and cutting and chopping and gritting our teeth going, “No, not that!” I think we just edited it down because we needed, personally, to make it a certain length so that it didn’t get old. We definitely didn’t want it to get old.
I need you to back up and tell me what the douche did to the rat.
Greg Tiernan: [Laughs.]
Conrad Vernon: Okay, real quick. Real quick, the douche used to meet a group of rats in the back, and he had a favorite rat, and at one point in the story he traps Teresa, Lavash, Sammy and Brenda and he wants them to tell him where Frank is, the sausage. And they won’t tell so he takes Lavash out and tortures him by fingering the rat’s butthole and going over to Lavash and grabbing his face and fingering his mouth right afterwards. And everyone in the theater just went slack-jawed. You could hear a pin drop in that theater on the aisle carpet, that’s how quiet it was. And afterwards I think we all walked out of the theater and we howled laughing and said, “We need to cut that scene immediately out of the film!” But it was a pretty funny experience.
The movie ends on a very unusual cliffhanger. Is that only a joke or do you have ideas for where this could go in a sequel?
Conrad Vernon: We’re looking for a sequel.
Greg Tiernan: Absolutely. We left that open that it could in any direction, and for sure, I mean I think everybody involved in the movie would love to take these characters further and do it again.
Top Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.