Interview: Filmmaker Tim Hill on the Subtext in The War with Grandpa, Reuniting Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, and the Next Spongebob Movie

You may not have your eyes trained on filmmaker Tim Hill’s newest release, The War with Grandpa (based on the very popular 1984 kids book by Robert Kimmel Smith, and being released theatrically this Friday), but odds are you may be more familiar with his work than you realize. As a director, he’s helmed a handful of immensely popular family films, including Muppets from Space, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Hop. It’s entirely possible that his most famous movie was the made-for-television Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. But Hill’s most lasting stamp on popular culture is as one of the developers, along with the character’s late creator Stephen Hillenburg, of SpongeBob Squarepants. In fact, one of the first films to get delayed by the pandemic is Hill’s other current directing effort (now pushed back to a 2021 release), The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.

The War With Grandpa Image courtesy of 101 Studios

The War with Grandpa centers on Peter (Oakes Fegley), who is thrilled that his Grandpa Ed (Robert De Niro) is coming to live with his family—which also includes mom (Uma Thurman), dad (Rob Riggle), and little sister. But when Peter finds out grandpa is going to be taking over his room and forcing him upstairs into the creepy attic, Peter sees that he has no choice but to declare war. With the help of his friends, Peter devises outrageous plans to make Grandpa surrender the room. But Grandpa and his friends (including ones played by Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin, and Jane Seymour) plan to get even. As much of a prank-filled romp as the film is (with the highlight being a young vs. old dodgeball game set on trampolines), the film also contains messages ranging from obvious ones about cherishing your elders to a fairly serious, not so veiled antiwar message.

I had the chance to chat with Hill about both of his recently finished works, as well as talk about how the film came together, getting De Niro interested in being a part of it, and what's going on with that new SpongeBob movie. Please enjoy…

I mentioned to someone that I was interviewing you for this movie, and she said she remembered the book and that the lead kid in it was kind of an asshole.

It’s true. In the book, you definitely don’t like what he’s doing. He’s spoiled and truculent, but you take these things and say, “There’s a real thing here that could work if we took away the problem of disliking your main character.” It was read widely in schools, and it does come around to have a lesson about war.

And I want to touch on that in a second, but I want to go back a bit. This is an older book—from the mid-1980s—and this was not a screenplay that you wrote. Why this story now? What do you remember responding to initially?

I think what happened was I got a script, the first script that the producers had commissioned some writers to do, and I didn’t really love that script, but I liked the idea. So I picked up the book, read it, and got all the other things I needed—like the emotional track and the themes, which were all in the book. And they had made it kind of wacky and scatological, and I came in and said “This is what I would do with it.” So when I got my paws on it and made it mine, then I started to really like it. And I got attached to the movie, and it was a Bob Weinstein distribution, but the producers were independent. So they had resources for us like casting, physical production, and other things, and that’s why it took a while to come out. It got kind of buried when that company imploded, but it wasn’t Harvey or Bob’s movie; they were just going to distribute through Dimension, I think.

You mentioned you liked the story. What was it you responded to about it?

First of all, it’s a love story. These people don’t really know each other that well. Grandpa comes over for Thanksgiving every year, but that’s about it. What I liked was that it said something to me about the relationship between a kid and his grandfather that I hadn’t really seen before, and that means you have to deal with whatever grandpa has got going on—he crashes his car, he’s a hoarder, he can’t remember what meds to take, whatever—and we had to get him into the house. And through that very gesture, it ripples to Peter having to give up his room and move into the attic, where he clunks his head and there are spiders. He’s losing part of his identity, but during the course of the movie, he’s getting a new identity because of the conflict. He learns a more mature attitude toward conflict, and I like all of that. It could have been too sentimental or too on the nose, but if you treat it as a subtext, playing behind the comedy, it could work. That’s the way my mind approached it: what else is here?

In some of your other films, you’re working you mostly younger actors or voice actors. The opportunity to cast some of these wonderful older actors had to be exciting and intriguing. Was De Niro the first one to sign on and everyone else fell into place?

Yeah, movies happen that way, especially independent movies. They need a cast element to get financing and foreign distribution. It’s a weird math table they do: “What’s this guy worth overseas?” And they put a number on it and start calculating how they make their money back. If they want to do it right, they have to start with some big names, and that’s the formula. Without a star, it would be a tough to make, unless you’re a Disney or someone with a brand name that you can put almost any kid movie out. But if you’re an indie person, you need that marquee value, so Bob was the first. We met, and he felt the same way I did, and I had to convince him over a series of phone calls and meetings and restructuring the story and pitching him and getting his take. He read the book, liked the book, and we went back to the book and started anew with the script.

I think a lot of filmmakers would have just let this be the kid’s story, and it really is their story, about how they find each other in the middle.

That’s really what changed in the script, that part of it became more prominent.

I won’t lie, it freaked me out a little to see De Niro and Walken together again. The last time , they didn’t do so well. And I could have watched a whole movie about those two characters.

Oh, me too. Once we started, I realized immediately we needed more scenes with these guys, they’re so funny. And they had a ball, they’re old friends and they enjoyed working and messing around, having fun.

I’m guessing the sequence that most people are going to talk about is the dodgeball scene. It’s epic, and even just watching it, I wondered how you were able to shoot in that environment. You have kids, you have older people, you have trampolines; I assume they were on wires at some points. Even editing it to make sure the bouncing is synched up. Talk about the complexity of that sequence.

It was conceived as the epic battle between kids and adults, and we were searching around wondering what we do, what would it be? We ended up with dodgeball at a Sky Zone. I think one of our producers had a son that was really into it, maybe he was in a dodgeball league or something, and we started researching it online. But you’re right, the kids were great. We had tramp teachers come in and show them flips and how to throw the ball when you’re at the peak of your jump, so it was fine for them, and they could be on that thing all day. But when you get the older people out there, first of all, they’re hard to walk on if you haven’t walked on them before. There was some wire work, but not a ton. And everyone stepped up, and they were having fun throwing the balls at each other. And not only that, but getting the camera out in the middle of contraption was tough. We would put down platforms built for the trampolines, and we divided the room in half, shooting one way and then the other way, so the camera could be level. And we had SteadiCams at the same time, so we could have a lot of movement in the scene. It was tough to get the camera down on the deck if you wanted someone to fall toward the lens. In the end, it was a lot of design and prep, and it was quite the ordeal and exhausting, but it was a labor of love.

You mentioned before that antiwar message, which I wasn’t expecting. Were you careful about how that was included here and not letting it get too heavy-handed?

Yeah, it’s a fine line. I’m not a big agenda movie maker, but it was there in the material, so I wanted to make it work. I think Bob was really into that; he really liked being able to be the person to impart that to Peter. It could have been really overdone, but what I wanted to do is tease it in the beginning, and work that from the comedy side, and then have everything go too far and blow up, and then have the reconciliation based on the understanding of what happens when you approach a conflict with no sense of compromise or “I’m going to get you and you’re going to get me,” and that’s how these things start, which is relatable for kids and has a broader message for society. So yes, I wanted to do it but I didn’t want to hit people over the head with it.

I want to ask you about your Peter, Oakes Fegley. He’s had quite a career up to this point; he was terrific in Pete’s Dragon. What did he bring to Peter? Why was he the actor you landed on?

He’s intelligent beyond his years, and he’s very sensitive and thoughtful actor. He’s good at reacting, and if you tell him not to hold back and just go, he has no problem. He’s very skilled and natural that way. And he really felt like a kid to me; he wasn’t a stage-mothered robot like some of them are. He was very open and related well to all the other actors. He’s very special in that way.

You have another movie that was supposed to come out a while ago. I know it got delayed one and has since been pushed into next year. Other than it’s a road movie and Keanu Reeves is in it, I don’t know that much about it. What can we expect from the new SpongeBob movie that’s different, that’s familiar?

Yeah, it’s another road movie. It’s basically about SpongeBob losing his pet Gary the Snail, whom he loves, and Gary gets kidnapped, and he has to go on a road trip to the lost city of Atlantic City where King Poseidon lives, and it turns out that Gary is essential for the king’s skin-care regimen . Keanu plays a kind of wandering sage that is a spirit guide, and he’s inside a tumbleweed, so it’s really silly, but it’s also got a lot of emotion to it. People come together to rescue him, so the whole gang comes to rescue SpongeBob and Patrick, and they give testimonial speeches in front of the king, which is also an homage to creator Stephen Hillenburg, who died and with whom I started the TV show, I helped him develop the show. That’s why I really wanted to make that movie.

I don’t know exactly when it’s coming out; I’ve kind of lost track. I think it’s going PVOD; I don’t know why. On CBS All Access, which they’re relaunching with Paramount next year.

Oh right, they’re calling it something different , I think.

I think they’re using the movie as part of their launch pad for that. I’d prefer it in theaters, but okay. But it is done, I promise you that.

Tim, thanks for talking.

It was really nice talking to you. Thank you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.