‘Despicable Me 4’ Director on Mega-Minions, GentleMinions and Cameos 5

Despicable Me 4 introduces a new bundle of joy to the popular animated franchise, along with some long-planned Minions shenanigans that have finally come to fruition.

The fourth installment in Universal‘s movie series that hails from Illumination Entertainment opened in theaters Wednesday ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. Will Ferrell, Sofía Vergara, Joey King, Stephen Colbert and Chloe Fineman join the voice cast alongside returnees Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Miranda Cosgrove.

Despicable Me 4 centers on Gru (Carell) and his family — including newest addition, Gru Jr. — going on the lam after a threat from the villainous Maxime Le Mal (Ferrell). Also adding to the action are the Mega-Minions, a quartet of the rascally sidekicks who are imbued with superpowers of questionable value, which is a concept first conceived years ago for Despicable Me 2, but the idea was not used.

Director Chris Renaud, who helmed the original 2010 movie and its 2013 sequel, tells The Hollywood Reporter about working with in-demand screenwriter Mike White (creator of The White Lotus), the challenge of spoofing superheroes, what the GentleMinions social media trend says about the fandom and whether an MCU-style expansion might indeed be in store for the series.

Maxime (Will Ferrell) and Gru (Steve Carell) in Despicable Me 4.

Illumination & Universal Pictures

Where do you start when you’re creating a sequel in this franchise?

This one started really with the family problem, which was about leaving their beloved home behind and going to a witness relocation program, essentially. Originally, the villain was just a big threatening, dangerous presence and more nondescript than where we landed with Maxime Le Mal.

Mike White is credited for his work on the screenplay. What made him the right fit to join this universe, and how much of his script is in the film?

When we evolved the villain into a high school rival, that was something we had come back to Mike with, actually. So he took that and started working on how those elements would be balanced. Mike did several drafts, and that becomes the foundation of the movie, with the villain and the family dynamic. Ken Daurio, one of the original writers of the first three Despicable Me films, came on and helped us on the second part of the process. The Mega-Minion thing was something that came up later as we were trying to figure out what to do with the Minions, and then we really developed the idea with storyboarding and animation.

Will Ferrell, Chris Renaud, Kristen Wiig, Chris Meledandri and Steve Carell attend the Despicable Me 4 premiere.

Christina DeOrtentiis/Everett Collection

The movie has fun exploring some superhero tropes. How did you approach that, and was there concern about alienating fans of superhero projects?

We’ve actually had conversations about giving the Minions superpowers since Despicable Me 2. We even pulled out some old sketches because, in that movie, they became the purple evil Minions. Obviously, not only is there a lot of superhero material out there, but there’s a lot of comedic superhero material that’s been done in both live-action and in animation. Their incompetence and their Minion-esque qualities is how we could make them feel like a fresh interpretation of superheroes.

Seemingly in keeping with this bit, there was a satirical promo for the film where Steve Carell lays out an endless list of upcoming movies in the franchise, similar to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe announces projects. Were you involved in creating that?

That’s the wonderful marketing team that supports our movies, and they’ve done a terrific job on this one. I actually have gotten questions about that one. I think people think it’s real and that we’re actually planning that. (Laughs.)

How did you land on Will Ferrell to voice the villain?

For me, personally, I’ve always wanted to work with him. I am a huge fan of his work and his character work. It’s not a mistake that we look at Saturday Night Live people all the time — Chloe Fineman has a part in the film — because they’re wonderful character creators, and they’re able to create a character with very little time. Who’s better at that than Will? He came in with that great French accent.

Despicable Me 4

Illumination & Universal Pictures

Seeing the Minions wearing suits in the new film reminded me of the GentleMinions social media trend from a few years ago among younger fans of the franchise. What was your reaction to that trend?

The suits on the Minions were probably more of a nod to Men in Black than thinking of GentleMinions specifically. But that trend was really gratifying to see, and for the young people that were doing it, it’s something that they feel ownership of because it came out when they were kids. What’s interesting with Despicable Me over these last 15 years is, the kids that saw the first one when they were 5 to 10 years old — which is that really impressionable age when you go to the movies — they carry it with them as something that’s theirs. Beyond the power of social media to create movements, I think that’s partly what you’re seeing. I’ve had a couple of nice experiences where I’m speaking to a class, and young high school kids will come up to me and say how much the movies mean to them. It’s very gratifying.

I know there might not actually be an MCU-style plan in place, but have you thoughts about other film ideas or possible spinoffs?

There are always conversations like that, and what we can do and where we can go with the characters. Nothing specific at the moment, particularly since I just finished this one, but there are always those conversations on, where else can they go and what changes can we make? How can we keep it exciting and fresh? We’ll see what happens.

The familiar franchise faces that pop up in the new film got big cheers when the movie screened at the Annecy Animation Festival. Did you have fun deciding who would show up again?

Absolutely. I think I was able to really get everybody in there that I wanted. Just a fun experience to think about all the characters that have come in and out of this universe over the last 15 years. [Audiences should] keep an eye out for characters that have been in the movies across the years.

Animation seems to being having a real moment, notably with the massive success of Inside Out 2. How do you feel about the state of the industry, and do you feel pressure ahead of your opening weekend?

That kind of box office success is only good news for all of us, in that it will hopefully lift all boats. I don’t think it’s one at the expense of another, to be honest. There will be pressure in the sense that we will inevitably be compared to other people out there, just because that’s what people do. But I don’t think it’s a worthwhile comparison because they’re two different things. The success of not just Inside Out 2, but Kung Fu Panda 4, [The] Garfield [Movie] and Migration, which is an original film — they’re all drawing people to the theater, and that’s a victory. Now it’s just on us to make something that’s worth coming to.

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