Writer, director and illustrator Scott Christian Sava on Netflix’s “Animal Crackers,” his family and what it means to be Assyrian
July 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji
CHICAGO — When Scott Christian Sava was studying illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in the late 1980s, computer animation barely existed. He had gone to school to become a painter “like my uncles before me,” his wildest dreams entailing working as an illustrator for Marvel’s Spider-Man comics (spoiler alert – that dream came true). It’s only understandable, then, that the prospect of creating an animated children’s movie to premiere on a streaming service didn’t seem realistic.
On July 24, however, the Assyrian-Sicilian writer, director and illustrator witnessed his original animated film, “Animal Crackers,” premiere on Netflix.
Sava is a Yonkers native born to an Assyrian mother and Sicilian father. His work might be recognizable to many; he’s exercised his talents behind the scenes on a number of classics from “Casper the Friendly Ghost” to “Star Trek.”
These landmark moments in his career, however, were born of humble beginnings.
As a university student, Sava snagged an internship at SEGA that led to his work in video game design at Atari. Eventually, Sava found himself working on “Star Trek.”
“That was a huge milestone, getting to paint the covers of ‘Star Trek’,” he said.
His teenage dream of working on Spider-Man comics wasn’t out the window; after about 17 years of pitching his work at comic conventions, he finally heard a “yes.” He attributes the slow but steady success to his newfound skill in animation and CGI, styles also new to many creative companies at the time.
“Rather than fitting in, I stood out so much that they had that they had to hire me.” Sava said.
Sava worked roles for various companies as what he describes as a “cog in the machine” of their creative processes. It was after his work on Spider-Man, however, that “Animal Crackers” found its way into existence.
“The boys were maybe six or seven [years old],” Sava said, recalling a day spent in their backyard at his family’s Tennessee home, around the time when he had started writing comic books for his twin sons. “We were eating animal crackers and I said, ‘Hey, what if, when you eat a lion cookie you turn into a lion, and, you know, you eat a giraffe cookie and you turn into a giraffe?’ The boys loved it,” Sava said.
Over the next few years, he toyed with the story premise, eventually transforming it into a children’s book before one of his friends suggested he turn it into a screenplay. Despite having no prior experience writing screenplays, Sava took on the venture.
“It changed my life, just going ‘What the heck? Why not?” he said. “So I do that, and fast forward a couple years after that, and I meet with Harvey Weinstein, who says he wants to turn it into a movie.”
While that venture didn’t work out, Sava said the experience encouraged him to independently pursue turning his story into a movie. Like many creatives, Sava faced challenges of securing funding for his project — that is, until he found a sponsor.
“There are, like, 12 people between me and the finances. It was like, I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy,” he said. “We went from food stamps and our house in foreclosure to 10 million dollars in our bank account. And, suddenly, we’re making a movie.”
Soon, cast members began latching onto the project.
“The one person I wanted was Ian McKellen,” Sava said. “He was, you know, the guy in my head when I was writing Horatio P. Huntington,” an antagonist in the story. “After a few weeks, we got the word back that he said yes. And we were just like, ‘Oh my God, that’s insane.”
Actors Sylvester Stallone, Danny DeVito, Raven-Symoné and Patrick Warburton also signed on.
“We had to go back to our investor to go ask for more money to cover all of this,” Sava said, “and the investor said, ‘Sure, no problem.’” With the addition of star talent, Sava estimates the movie’s budget increased to $13 million.
All that remained was finding voices to play the lead characters, Owen and Zoe.
John Krasinski, an actor apparently unfamiliar to Sava at the time (“This was in 2014. I’d never seen “The Office!”), agreed to play Owen and brought on a voice to play Zoe: his wife, Emily Blunt.
The movie, which Sava co-directed with animator and film director Tony Bancroft, tells the story of a family who must work to protect their circus with the help of magical animal crackers. Amid the action, a few characters are faced with the tough decisions to choose between their passions and other obstacles.
Sava’s intrigue with the theme of staying true to oneself — and one’s passion — didn’t appear out of the blue. He comments on his own experience pursuing the arts and the trope of parents nudging their children into other careers.
“My cousins….pursued real careers,” Sava said. “I didn’t. I can see both sides…it’s a very, very rational thing” for parents to encourage their kids to pursue a career that allows them to provide for themselves and their families.
“But what kind of life is it where you’re living a lie?” he said. “Where…you have talents that you’re not pursuing?”
He said of his view of the Assyrian community, “it’s amazing to see what kind of talent we have out there. I think a lot of traditional Assyrians would be surprised at…how much talent is in our blood.”
He went on to detail the “thirteen or fourteen” books he’s already written about dinosaurs, robots, pirates and magic carpets, even hinting at a mystical Assyrian-themed story he said he’d like to expand upon in the future.
“I like writing for kids. I like magical stuff. I like stuff that, you know, is funny…and just light hearted,” Sava said. “There’s enough reality here; I just want to get away from that. That’s what I’d like to do more of.”