Hollywood may be uncomfortable with faith-based content, but it certainly approves of the kind of cabbage Nawrocki and Vischer’s Big Idea Productions has cultivated. After selling more than 50 million DVDs and videos, the Franklin-based company is about to release its first major-studio film, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, which opens Friday nationwide. Their ride on the mainstream hasn’t always been smooth: in 2006, the company made headlines when NBC tried to edit the more explicit religious references from its Saturday-morning VeggieTales airings. The move brought the network a humbling come-to-Jesus meeting with church groups and bloggers—and a demonstration of Big Idea’s clout with conservative audiences.
Nawrocki, the voice of Larry the Cucumber as well as Pirates’ director, lives in Franklin with his wife and two kids. He spoke with the Scene’s Jim Ridley about the process of directing animated features, trying to satisfy the VeggieTales faithful while taking a less obvious approach to religious storytelling, and the acting challenge of playing a proto-pickle.
Scene: So how do you get into the motivation of a cucumber?
Mike Nawrocki: (laughs) After 14 years as a cucumber, it’s just sort of a natural extension of my own personality. Back when we created VeggieTales, Phil Vischer and I, he was sort of Bob the Tomato in personality—a lot of Bob came out of him, and a lot of Larry came out of me. Having done it for so long, it’s just sort of second nature to me.
Scene: This is a stupid question, but what does the director of an animated feature do?
Nawrocki: Basically, the director is the guardian of the story from script phase. Working with the art director, we’ll sit down and talk about, OK, what is this world going to look like, kind of casting a vision for the overall look of the film. Before we ever start animating, it’s all storyboarded: we create a comic-book version of the film in still frames, and then those are all edited together. In doing that, you’re choosing all your camera angles, all your composition—kind of the artistic and story flow of the entire film.
Scene: How has the entertainment landscape changed for Christian entertainment in the past 15 years? And would you say you helped change it? It certainly seems to have more power. In your tussle with NBC, the network eventually backed off, didn’t it?
Nawrocki: They did. There is much less editing going on now in the VeggieTales series that show up on NBC. I prefer to call it worldview—worldview as related to storytelling. With VeggieTales, we tell stories with a biblical worldview, and basically that worldview assumes there’s a God who made us and who loves us. And I think there’s a much bigger acceptance of that culturally now than there was 15 years ago. You look at The Passion of the Christ, Chronicles of Narnia—those are the big theatricals that opened things up. But for VeggieTales, I hope you can say we’ve been part of changing that landscape—that if you tell stories well with that assumption, you’re going to find an audience of people who want stories with that worldview.
Scene: The Pirates movie is much less explicit religiously than your videos or Jonah. Do you think your core audience will think you’re watering it down?
Nawrocki: I don’t think so. Our hope is to become better storytellers, and part of the art of storytelling is being able to capture truth within a story that people can recognize; you don’t necessarily have to be explicit in your teaching—it can come across stronger if it’s encapsulated in a story itself. We’ve actually been previewing the film for a lot of Christian organizations over the last three or four months, and we’ve gotten a really great reaction: they say, we see what you guys are doing here, we love your storytelling and the way you’re doing it. I know there will be people that say we want you to be more explicit about it. But with the movie, we hope to open up a conversation between parents and kids they can take home and apply more explicitly.
Scene: Will Big Idea stay in Middle Tennessee?
Nawrocki: I certainly hope so. What we saw happening with gospel music from the ’70s up until now and how that industry has grown—my hope is that that will also happen with faith-based filmmaking as well, that people who have those values and those beliefs can transfer those into the stories they tell, and there’ll be a growing industry for that here.
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