“So the meeting broke up and I’m sitting there drawing, trying to pretend like I wasn’t eavesdropping. Francis puts his hand on my shoulder and goes, ‘I wanted you to be able to see what these meetings are like and hang out.’ And then he goes, ‘As a young director, you’ve got to know how things work with the studio.’ I swear to God, I think a tear probably came out, because I was like, Oh my God, he takes me seriously.”
“From my working experiences with Peter, it was clear back then he was a great talent and very collaborative,” Coppola said. “His trailblazer status comes as no surprise to me, and I’m thrilled he’s found success as a director.”
What Ramsey didn’t expect was that his big breakthrough would also be a major setback.
Chapter 3 — THE RISE (AND FALL) OF THE GUARDIANS
Ramsey’s storyboarding career was going strong, and life was good. He’d gotten married and was raising three children. He became the go-to guy for blockbusters and awards contenders alike, storyboarding Independence Day and Godzilla with Roland Emmerich, Fight Club and Panic Room with David Fincher, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich with Spike Jonze, and Cast Away with Robert Zemeckis. The guy who walked out of E.T. with new appreciation for filmmaking worked alongside Spielberg on both A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.
What he discovered was that the biggest hits didn’t always change his life. Sometimes it was the little movies, like 1995’s Tank Girl. Aron Warner, an executive producer on the film, went on to run a Silicon Valley–based computer animation company named Pacific Data Images.
PDI was eventually acquired by DreamWorks—and Warner wanted Ramsey to help develop their movies. “He said, ‘I’m working on this thing called Shrek and it’s kind of crazy,’” Ramsey said. “At the time, I’m pretty sure I was working on Fight Club. I was like, ‘Eh, animation shmanimation, I’m doing real movies! So thanks, but no thanks.’” After Shrek won the first best-animated-picture Oscar, and Shrek 2 established DreamWorks as a behemoth, Warner reached out again. This time, as in Coppola’s famous film, it came with an offer he actually couldn’t refuse.
“Aron was like, ‘Look, I’d really love for you to come out. I think your combination of skills would be great to have. And I think DreamWorks would be a great place for you to get a shot to direct,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey soon became the company’s head of story, then directed a TV special based on the 2009 feature Monsters vs. Aliens. That led to 2012’s Rise of the Guardians, which turned childhood myths into an Avengers–like team of action heroes. The central figure was not Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, but Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who provides kids with snow days but isn’t someone children necessarily believe in. He barely believes in himself.
Ramsey felt just like him. “Quite literally,” the director said. “I remember Francis saying once, ‘Every movie I’ve ever worked on, I realized that the story of my life was becoming the story of the movie.’ I know I thought about that with Guardians. It’s the story of this kid who’s aspiring, but feels like he doesn’t deserve to be in the company of these hallowed figures.”
Even now, when people tell him how much they love the movie, he winces—thinking only of the compromises, the things he wishes he could fix, the creative battles he lost, the extra time or money he wishes he’d had.
Guardians hit theaters in November 2012 on a wave of immense hype. Today, it’s a holiday cult classic, but its initial box office did not live up to DreamWorks’ expectations. “It was a shock,” Ramsey said. “We’d been working on it feverishly for three years, and the studio thought they had Frozen on their hands before Frozen. They thought it was going to make a billion dollars.”
Instead it earned about $306 million globally. Given its $145 million budget and the large portion of revenue that theater owners collect, Guardians was regarded as a financial disappointment. Ramsey took it especially hard, not just because it was his directing debut, but because of his status as the first Black director of a major animated film.
“I had newspaper articles describing me as ‘the Obama of animation,’” he said. “I remember the weekend after the opening, and we were in these incredibly gloomy phone calls. I said, ‘Well, I guess instead of the Obama of animation, I’m now the Herman Cain of animation.”