DC League of Super-Pets: Interview with Director Jared Stern

DC League of Super-Pets
DC League of Super-Pets. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

DC League of Super-Pets is an animated film featuring fan-favorite DC heroes and pets with superpowers. Dwayne Johnson voices Krypto, Superman’s pet Labrador Retriever, and Kevin Hart as Ace, a Boxer that later receives super strength and invulnerability. The film has plenty of Easter eggs for DC fans, and it’s an adorable film for DC and pet lovers. (You can check out our review here.)

The film will be out in theaters this week, and we had the chance to chat with director Jared Stern. He is no stranger to working with popular DC characters, especially as a screenwriter for The Lego Batman Movie. The director talks about the idea for the film and his ideal voice casting for the characters that became reality.

Nerd Reactor: With DC League of Super-Pets, it’s the Justice League movie but without the Justice League… and with the pets. What were the origin, the concept, and the idea for the film?

Jared Stern: Absolutely. It’s the Just Us League. It’s not them, it’s just us. [laughs] I volunteered at a pet shelter. I only went for one day; my wife goes all the time. I had to help out one day, and I saw these adorable little kittens in the front room. And I was like, “They’re going to get adopted probably pretty quick, which is always a miracle and wonderful.” But then there was this back room, and there were some older pets back there, disabled pets. And I felt like they’re probably not as likely to get adopted, sadly. It felt like they lived at the shelter, which was great since the shelter was taking care of them. But I felt sad that they’d never have a home beyond the shelter.

And I don’t know why, probably because I’m reading many comic books and watching too many superhero movies, but I thought, “What if these guys got superpowers, and they could get out of here?” So that was kind of my first thought. And then at the time, I was working on The LEGO Batman Movie, so I was already at Warner Brothers and working with DC. And I knew about the Super-Pets, and I thought maybe there’s some way for me to combine these two things. And so that’s the origin story of what ends up being the origin story of the DC League of Super-Pets.

DC League of Super-Pets

That meant you then had to pitch this idea.

So I had that notion and I wrote it up a rough pitch and brought it to Warner Brothers. And they liked it, luckily. But that was like 10 years ago. They’re like, “This is a great idea for a movie that we will make in 10 years.” [laughs] No, they loved it, but there were a few other ones ahead of me in the order, and so I had to wait and read the script, and seek some stuff that was working, some that weren’t, and keep rewriting it. And then eventually got the official greenlight about four years ago. So we spent four years really making the movie. It was like going to college, and we just graduated.

That’s a long time to help you prepare for this while you’re working on other projects. Four years ago, going back to it, were you like, “I’m ready for this”?

It’s a really good question. I remember when I worked at Disney. When I was first starting, I worked at Disney Feature Animation. I was about 25 years old, and I got hired as a writer. And I would see the people that were making stuff. And pretty quickly, I was like, “I could do this. I think I could be a director for one of these movies,” because I was really young and stupid. If you cut forward a bunch of years to the time you were just talking about four years ago when I was just starting this, I was smart enough to be scared and to not go, “Oh, I got this.” I mean, I felt lucky that over all the years before I got to that point, I learned from some really amazing people. I worked at Disney for five years with the people who made Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Big Hero 6, and Moana. And then I worked on The Lego movies with Laura Miller and Chris McKay, and all these amazing people for years.

So I definitely had good teachers to steal from. But I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know that much and to be scared. And I went into it appropriately frightened. But it got better as I went and learned a ton and luckily work with really amazing people, both the talent and famous people that you know are the voices and the hundreds of people who made the movie. I think in the end, hopefully, they made me look okay.

With these type of movies, audiences and fans love the connection with the DC characters and the worlds. You’ve worked on The Lego Batman Movie. Were there any challenges with the DC stuff?

It’s interesting. Anytime you’re using IP characters, it’s a delicate thing. Because people love those characters. You’re not just making them up out from scratch. So you want to honor the thing that they love. We all have our own characters that we love, and whoever it is, you want to make sure you’re treating it with respect. We were lucky. We work hand in hand with DC. So no one knows their stuff better than them. They made sure that we were being respectful and honestly, there were so few moments where if something bumped, it was actually the opposite. I would bring them a few things and they go, “Oh, but have you thought about this? And what if you put this in? What if you went here?” And I was like “I can do that?” And they’re like, “Yeah, you can.” We ended up actually using way more than I thought we were going to at first because I was probably being a little bit too respectful. So it ended up being a wonderful partnership. I think we were always respectful of the sources but also tried to do our own thing. Because ultimately, you want to present something special and original to the world.

There’s definitely a balance between bringing your own thing and then trying to cater to fans using an established character that’s been out for decades, let’s say Superman and Batman. Even now with this relationship, especially with the pet version, what was that like?

Yeah, I think you nailed it exactly. What makes our movie different and special is that it’s about the pets. We tried to just lean into that. And it’s from their point of view, right? We’re just saying, “Who is Superman going to be, what is his character going to be like, what makes him unique for our world? It’s like, he’s got to be Superman. But we’ve never seen Superman, the pet owner, in quite the way that we see in this film. And the same way in figuring out our Batman, like, “Okay, this is a Batman who needs a dog.” And then right now you’re seeing sort of that classic Batman versus Superman relationship, but you’re seeing it in Ace versus Crypto. And it’s pretty fun. There are elements of each of them that feel like their owners. And that finds a way into the dog relationship, and both their moms are not named Martha. [laughs]

That would have been fun. Did you have voice actors in mind from the very start? Or did some of the voice actors say, “Hey, I want to do this. I want to be a part of it.”

When I first pitched the movie years ago, sometimes you’ll say, “Hey, here’s this character. Think so and so.” And you give the name of a big, famous actor that the studio will be excited about, because they’ll go, “Oh, there’s gonna be famous people in here. And we can sell this movie.” And so and so. When I pitched it, I said Superman’s dog… think Dwayne Johnson. And amazingly, he actually made my dream come true. I got the thing to happen that they said in the pitch. And of course, he’s not just the world’s biggest movie star, but he was perfect to play the part of Krypto because no one does cocky better. He’s this dog who could fly. None of the other dogs can. He’s got all these superpowers, but there’s this vulnerability underneath, and Dwayne just does that so well. So I had that in mind, and magically it came true.

We were just super lucky. Rather than think about the celebrity, we just think about the voice and the acting and what’s right with this design and in our universe. What’s good? Put the voice up against another voice. We had to make sure like, “Okay, John Krasinski and Dwayne’s voices… How do they sound together?” They’re great, and I know that John would be perfect as Superman. He sounds great as Superman. I’m looking at our Superman. That’s him. It sounds like him. But now what does it sound like talking to Dwayne, because they don’t sound too similar. You want them to separate and pop, so we really always tried to think of it not in terms of putting the best, biggest name in it, but who’s the best for our movie. And luckily, in this movie, it happened to be a lot of people that are super, super successful, famous people, but they’re there. They’re there for they’re really good.

Yeah. We’ve seen Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart together before. Was that intentional?

Yeah, it was definitely intentional. We knew those two guys would be great together, although you’ve never seen them together in animation, which is super fun. It’s just a different flavor to it. But that being said, we didn’t want to just do it to do it. We really felt Kevin was going to bring something special as Ace. And I think he did. He goes to a different place than you’ve seen him go to before. And it just works perfectly because Krypto and Ace butting heads is the heart of the film, right? Like Krypto has to save Superman, and the only way to do it is to team up with this other guy and they can’t stand each other. Those guys play that so well. And to know going in that I’ve already got that, that’s a relief because it’s hard enough to make a movie as it is.

With the movie having so many Easter eggs, are there other Easter eggs that you had in mind but you had to leave on the cutting room floor?

That’s a good question. Let me think for a second. Is there an Easter egg that we couldn’t get into the movie? I may have to come back to you.

There are so many great super pets, right? We only use so many, and we were limited because we knew we wanted them to be in a shelter. And we knew we wanted them to end up being with the Justice League. So that was sort of what forced us into the ones that we picked. But I know everyone has their favorites, and there are so many, so I would say that’s the thing.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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