Gru & Crew, take two: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio revisit ex-villain in 'Despicable Me 2'

“We literally only write to make each other laugh,” Cinco Paul declares sincerely about his writing partner, Ken Daurio, and there’s not the slightest hint of dirt-kicking modesty about it—but a helluva lot of people have gotten in on their act.

Their last collaboration racked up a worldwide gross of $540 million, becoming the 10th highest-grossing animated movie in U.S. history. That would be 2010’s Despicable Me—and a clarion‘s call for Despicable Me 2, which Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will dutifully deliver to the clamoring masses on July 3.

The first film was a clash of super-villains vying for Heist of the Century—Vector, who hijacks the Egyptian pyramid, versus Gru, who swipes the moon. Gru wins—but opts at the end to retire from crime, transformed into an improbable family man by three darling young orphan girls (Margo, Edith and Agnes) who amble into the line of fire selling cookies. At first, he tries them out as accomplices, but after a rollicking day at an amusement park, decides home and hearth is the way to go with them.

Enter Despecable Me 2. “It was intimidating, of course, because the first movie was so successful and such a complete surprise,” confesses Paul. “It was a brand-new company. No one had ever heard of Illumination—they hadn’t put anything out—and this was an original idea, not based on a preexisting property. Plus, another Toy Story was coming out that year so we thought, ‘Is anybody going to care about our movie?’ We really had no idea if it had an audience. Its success was really a surprise.

“In some ways, as writers, we felt like, ‘Well, we’ve told that story.’ But now Gru has changed because of the girls, and we thought there are a lot of challenges ahead for him as he moves forward into fatherhood. What’s his life like as a changed man?”

Neither Paul, 49, nor Daurio, 41, had far to go for that answer. They both are fathers. “The more we started to think about it,” says Daurio, “the more we thought there’s so much there to play with. Now that Gru is giving up his lifestyle, what is his next step going to be? How is he going to be a cad? And how is he going to make a living and deal with kids going to school—and their boys? There’s just so much there.

“We each have three kids, so we know what it’s like to sit through the kids’ movies that are just made for kids—and we did not want to do that. I remember kids’ movies when I was a kid that didn’t talk down to the little kids, and that’s what we want to do. We want to make movies that a kid would enjoy and that a parent sitting there would enjoy and maybe say to another parent, ‘Hey, that was actually a really good movie.’ That was always our goal. It’s not just to entertain the little kids. It’s to entertain ourselves as parents—what would we like? What would we want to see?”

Of course, there is a private little kick built into writing a character like Gru, Paul points out. “You start off with ‘Well, here’s this super-villain’s point of view, but, ultimately, part of the fun of Gru is that he’s our way of expressing our own feelings and frustrations as parents and dealing with people. Gru gets to do and say the things that we aren’t allowed to do and say. As Gru dives into fatherhood, he deals with a lot of the issues that Ken and I have dealt with as dads. The oldest daughter, Margo, gets interested in boys, which is a nightmare for Gru. No dad likes to hear that, so how does a super-villain handle that boy? He has weaponry and things that we as dads would love to use but just can’t, so it’s fun to see Gru take out the boy.”

Loving father was hardly the way Gru started out on the drawing board. “The core idea for the first film,” recalls Daurio, “was ‘Let’s tell a story from a villain’s point of view. Let’s see what his life is like—what his challenges and frustrations are.’ That’s where it really began, but it is a collaborative process because you have the artists working on the character designs, and then you have Steve Carell come in with an amazing voice like that. It all sort of works together, and all the contributions inform each other. Once we heard Steve’s voice, that affected the dialogue that we write.”

Carell has characterized his Gru voice as “a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi,” and it will be heard again in the sequel—possibly in softer form of crankiness, given the character’s newfound paternity. And the voice of Kristen Wiig will be back, too, somewhat altered to play a different character than she did before.

“Her first role was Miss Hattie, who ran the orphanage, and now that the girls have been adopted by Gru, we didn’t need that character anymore,” explains Paul, “but we loved Kristen so much we found her a role in this one—Lucy Wilde, an agent from The Anti-Villain League, whom Gru is partnered with to stop super-villains. And she was wild—wild and uninhibited and kooky—and that’s Kristen Wiig.”

“Yes, there was no other name that came to mind,” Daurio quickly adds. Which is something that can only happen in animated films, he concedes, “but you have to have someone who’s a chameleon like Kristen, who can become so many different characters that are totally unrecognizable. You would never think Miss Hattie and Lucy came from the same person. They’re so different. She can totally pull it off.”

The writers’ penchant for British comics is apparent in the casting. Russell Brand returns as Dr. Nefario, Gru’s evil assistant who’s not pleased with this U-turn into the straight-and-narrow. And they specifically tailored the role of Silas Ramsbottom, head of The Anti-Villain League, for Steve Coogan. “We always conceived that part to be British, so we wrote it absolutely with Steve in mind,” admits Paul. “He’s a very proper, very pompous Englishman who is so full of himself, which Steve does so well on the ‘Partridge’ shows. We just knew that he would be perfect for that.”

Daurio and Paul began their screenwriting career playing to pretty empty houses with 2001’s Bubble Boy, a Jake Gyllenhaal comedy, and followed that a year later with Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause 2. It was their 2008 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! that got them cemented in animation, and they never have left.

Have they developed a preference for working with animation actors over live ones? “If this were a live-action movie, the writers would not really be involved in working with the actors,” Paul notes. “In animation, we go into the booth and talk to them and read lines against them. We’re much more involved in that process. Animation is great for working with actors because you’re literally sitting there as they record. You can feed them a line. They can ad-lib. You can help them out. It’s a fun process.”

Compared to working on a conventional movie, animation work is slo-mo in the extreme. “It’s just such a different experience writing for animation,” says Daurio. “You’re working on these movies three to three-and-a-half years—basically, writing and rewriting and rewriting. You fine-tune every moment because you can—because it’s not like a regular movie where you go out and shoot for six weeks. We’re basically shooting an animated movie for three years. All of these animated movies take about that long.”

A sequel—any sequel—has it easier, he points out, “because we had all the characters designed and all the sets built. So much of it was already figured out. For the first film, we had to figure out who Gru was, who the girls were, what do they look like. In these animated movies, you literally have to make everything you see in the movie—every blade of grass, every tree. It’s not like going to a location to film.

“But we love writing in animation. It’s so freeing. It really is. You can do anything. We don’t have to stop for a minute and think, ‘How is that possible? Is there budget restraint?’ We can literally write anything—it’s nice to know it’s going to happen.”

Paul points out another not-so-small consideration: “Also, as a writer, you want to write for the broadest audience possible, and few movies have as broad an audiences as these CG-animated movies. Pixar opened the door so that people realized that these are entertaining for adults and teenagers, not just little kids.”

Toy Story and The Incredibles are Paul’s favorite Pixars. “Those movies are a big influence, and I would say for comedy I love the classics, and I always think about The Marx Brothers and Monty Python and Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder.”

How did the West Coast-based Paul and Daurio get along with the directors of the Despicable Me movies? By long distance, thank you very much: Pierre Coffin, a native Parisian, and Chris Renaud, a New Jersey native, both live in Paris.

“It’s a process where we’re writing here, and about three times a week we’re all together on a video conference, watching footage and looking at things together,” explains Daurio. “Video-conferencing doesn’t hold back the process at all. We have a real connection with these guys who are halfway around the world. The other great thing about the fact that they’re in Paris is that 24 hours a day the movie is being worked on. We send off our pages, and they’re working on it on the other side of the world. Then we wake up and see what they’ve done. It’s a circle. There’s a little window every morning where we overlap and can connect by video.

“It is amazing when you’re watching this movie that it feels like one piece, because you consider the artists are all over the world, the writers are on this side, the directors are over there—and the fact that every line of dialogue is recorded alone. There are never two actors in a room together. So when this whole thing is put together, it’s amazing that you are watching scenes that feel totally organic.”

“It’s a miracle!” seconds Paul.