Leo Directors Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim talk new Netflix film, working with Adam Sandler, musical numbers, and creating films for families.
In Leo, a jaded 74-year-old lizard (Adam Sandler) has been stuck in the same Florida classroom for decades with his terrarium-mate turtle (Bill Burr). When he learns he only has one year left to live, he plans to escape to experience life on the outside but instead gets caught up in the problems of his anxious students — including an impossibly mean substitute teacher. It ends up being the strangest but most rewarding bucket list ever…
We caught up with Directors Robert Marianetti & David Wachtenheim to discuss the new animated Netflix film. They reveal what it was like working with Adam Sandler, and how many of his lines were improv. They also talk musical numbers and creating movies that both parents and kids can enjoy.
Directors Robert Marianetti & David Wachtenheim Talk Leo
Mama’s Geeky: Adam Sandler is so funny! I imagine half the things that come out of Leo’s mouth are improv. Is that the case?
David Wachtenheim: A lot of it was scripted. Robert Smigel, who co-directed with us, co-wrote the script with Adam. He’s worked with Adam for many years. He started on SNL as a writer, so he knows Adam’s voice. He definitely wrote the first draft with Adam in mind, and then Adam was in there, adding jokes and punching up jokes and changing it. So it wasn’t Adam stepping into something. It was very organic and written about and for Adam with his voice in mind. And he was very involved in the entire process. Every aspect of it.
Mama’s Geeky: I love the musical numbers. Were there any songs that didn’t make the cut?
Robert Marianetti: That’s great that you enjoyed the music, that was a conscious thing from the very beginning. How we were going to approach music. We didn’t want to have Leo as a rapping lizard or playing electric guitar and taking the stage. A couple of things were trimmed. But the songs that you hear are pretty close to the ones that Robert Smigel, our co-director, wrote from the very beginning. A cool little side story is that he gave David and I demo tapes, and it was him at night singing, trying not to wake up his family, under the covers, or in the bathroom or in a closet. At first we didn’t quite hear it, but once we started we did a table read and there were a few musicians there. And once we started hearing it fleshed out, I was like, Oh, they all make sense. They’re great.
David Wachtenheim: There was one song that got cut. When the parents are told that the teacher is going to be on leave of absence for being pregnant, the parents all sing a song about substitute teachers and being pregnant. And it was a little bit too parents centric. It was good for the parents and for the adults, but we just felt that we wanted to get to the kids story a little bit quicker. So that that was one casualty.
Mama’s Geeky: There is a lot in Leo for the adults too. Can you talk about the importance of making a movie the whole family can enjoy together?
David Wachtenheim: That was very intentional from the beginning. We did not want parents to be bored or feel like they don’t want to see it. If they’re going to take their kids to the see this movie, or sit down with their kids, we wanted them to enjoy it as well. It was very intentional to have the parents there and have jokes that only parents will relate to in the parent teacher conference. It was very important from the beginning that the parents are representative, as well as the kids. So there’s visual jokes for the kids and just silly jokes. And then there’s more jokes that the only parents will understand. And not that they’re risque necessarily, but just that they can relate to.
Robert Marianetti: Plus the story itself. You know, it’s about children’s issues, like from the small ones, your friends won’t talk to you anymore to the bigger ones, divorced parents. And then the big issue is mortality. It’s about a 74 and a half year old lizard who he sees his expiration date. And I think, as adults, especially when you get towards our age, you start realizing yeah, like I can see that expiration date. You start thinking about what your purpose has been and where you are in life.
Mama’s Geeky: Last question, if you took a class pet home, would you be be able to take care of it?
Robert Marianetti: Hopefully we’d be able to take care of it. I’ve never had a class pet. I have pets. I have dogs and cats and fish and we did have a lizard that died. So maybe a lizard wouldn’t be a great idea. But it wasn’t a class pet.
David Wachtenheim: My wife is a schoolteacher and when she was teaching middle school for winter break, she would have little hamsters. It survived. I want to say it survived but when it got out and we have two cats in our house, that could have been an animated film in and of itself. But it survived, undamaged.
Actor and comedian Adam Sandler (Hotel Transylvania, The Wedding Singer) delivers signature laughs in this coming-of-age animated musical comedy about the last year of elementary school – as seen through the eyes of a class pet. Jaded 74-year-old lizard Leo (Sandler) has been stuck in the same Florida classroom for decades with his terrarium-mate turtle (Bill Burr).
When he learns he only has one year left to live, he plans to escape to experience life on the outside but instead gets caught up in the problems of his anxious students — including an impossibly mean substitute teacher. It ends up being the strangest but most rewarding bucket list ever…
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Tessa Smith is a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved Film and TV Critic. She is also a Freelance Writer. Tessa has been in the Entertainment writing business for almost ten years and is a member of several Critics Associations including the Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, and the Greater Western New York Film Critics Association.