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‘Henry & Me’ Director on Yankee Cameos, Cutting Alex Rodriguez

Among the 20 animated films that have qualified to be considered for an Academy Award nomination is the little film “Henry & Me.” It’s a heartwarming story about a young Yankee fan battling a serious illness with the help of a magical friend and it’s hoping to make it to the big leagues against some pretty heavy hitters.

The film has scored a voice acting Annie Award nomination for Cyndi Lauper, who has a small, but key role as a nurse. The animated pic boasts a treasure trove of Yankees legends, bringing back to life such greats as Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, as well as living legends like Yogi Berra (still malapropping strong at 89) and Reggie Jackson, along with current members of the team. And the cast included such stars as Richard Gere, Cyndi Lauper, Chaz Palminteri, Luis Guzman, Lucie Arnaz and Paul Simon.

Director Barrett Esposito talked with Variety about the making of the film, the more than 30 charities that are benefiting from it and its production challenges, including having to deal with changing a key sequence after it was decided to cut Alex Rodriguez from the film following his suspension from the game for steroid use.

Congratulations on making the Oscar qualifying list.

We’re excited to get on that list. This film was a long time in the making. It was nice to get it out there, nice to have audiences start to see what it is that we wanted them to see after all these years. We’re excited about the Annie nomination too.

For Cyndi Lauper’s voice work in the film.

Yes, for Cyndi. It’s one of those things, you know, when you’re a small independent film and you don’t have a lot of money to advertise to let people know what you’ve done, for any committee to just look at the work and see something in it that they were inspired by or thought deserved a shout out, it’s great to hear. Cyndi is wonderful in the film and she’s such a great person, so it’s nice that (the Annie nomination) came to pass.

How long did it take you to make “Henry & Me” and how did you get involved?

It was about four years to completion. I was friends with the owner of Reveal Animation Studios, who brought me on. Richard Gere was the first actor who committed to the production and that’s when he brought me on. We had to get into a voice booth quite quickly for Richard because he had an opening in his schedule. And that’s how it began. I loved working with him. He was unbelievable. He brought to this film everything he would bring to any movie.

The character to me was in line with him. It had the dignified grace, it had the charisma, it had the quiet confidence and the subtlety. And he was able to do his thing to it. It was a joy working with him. He inspired so much of the animation. Working with the actors was great. Because we do the soundtrack first, they all inspired the artists working on the storyboards and the animators. It was a great experience working with the ballplayers and working with the actors. The Yankees were basically cameos for the film. It’s the actors that really drive the emotion of the story.

I wanted the whole film to be very heartfelt. I thought that with other films that are out there, I feel that what makes “Henry & Me” a little bit different, it’s not as large in scope as some of these other big films that are qualified as well. It’s a smaller story. It’s got a lot of heart. … So that’s where we went with the actors and that’s where we went with the animators. We just wanted to create something that would touch people and move people. And I’m hoping that we did that.

It’s a tender little story. It’s a story of hope. A lot of the proceeds are going to charity, so it’s doing a lot of good. The subject matter is fairly heavy, and we understand that, but once it begins, it takes that hopeful turn early on. And we stay in the land of belief and self belief and inspiration, and that’s where we wanted to go. That’s what we wanted audiences to grab from this.

You mentioned the charitable aspect. How did that come about?

That was always part of the project. Basically, the actors came on in a most-favored-nation deal where they would donate their salaries to the charities of their choice. Then we created this big charity pool. The athletes and the actors. Right off the bat, the donation of their salaries went to that. Then the animation studio decided that they would give $2 of every DVD or initial download to the pool of charities. It’s a wide array: St. Jude’s, American Cancer Society, Max Cure, Noah’s Light, the True Colors Fund, to name a few, there’s a bunch of them.

The whole impact of that was so that we could give something back and shed the spotlight on pediatric cancer. The movie is really about dealing with adversity. Pediatric cancer is the cause we’re highlighting, but the film is really about dealing with any kind of adversity. We wanted to make sure we were spreading the wealth with that as much as we could. And to raise awareness for a lot of these charities.

Your background is in live-action films. What was different about directing an animated film?

It was a very steep and fast learning curve, which was great. My background is live-action for sure. It was challenging, but I love animated films. I always have. I started devouring some animated films that I felt a special connection to and also movies that potentially could inspire what we were doing. I kept going back to “The Iron Giant” a lot. And I kept going back to “Up” a lot. And “The Princess and the Frog” as well. But one thing I did was take my live-action sensibility and used that in making this film. I had a big hand in all the storyboarding. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but I also knew it was very important for me to align myself with people who have a tremendous amount of experience within this industry. And we have some heavyweights.

Our character designer was Bill Schwab (“Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Tangled”), who is a real standout in the animation world. And our animation supervisor overseas was Tony Tulipano (“Monstories,” “Space Jam,” “Osmosis Jones”), who I had a tremendous relationship with. We bonded over the filmmaking process. Just working these things through from rough animation on. We wanted to create a realism to it. Part of the reason we went with hand-drawn was that there were so many iconic ballplayers in the movie and we wanted people to see these ballplayers’ likenesses and make the instant connection. We wanted it to feel nostalgic. We wanted t to feel organic and natural. And to me I think nothing does that better than hand-drawn. I had this great line producer, Gary McCarver, who was kind of my right-hand man going through all this, as well as my editor Joe Castellano, and we went through the process hand-in-hand. … There’s something about hand-drawn animation that’s just so magical. It’s so nostalgic and there are so many great people doing it. It’s a beautiful form of animation that I hope never dies.

Since this had such a big Yankee tie-in, do you think there will be other films about different sports teams?

As far as the Yankees go, I think this was it. I think the hope for Reveal Animation Studios is that they would be able to create more of these types of films that would address these kinds of life lesson issues with different teams. I think that’s something they’re exploring.

How did this become a Yankee project?

One of the producers, Ray Negron, who wrote the children’s book “Boy of Steel,” which “Henry & Me” is loosely based on, was the special assistant to (late Yankee owner) George Steinbrenner. George Steinbrenner was supposed to be in the movie, he was going to play himself, but unfortunately he fell ill and passed away. And then his son Hank stepped in to play his role. George was a big supporter of Ray and he was a big supporter of the movie, so he definitely encouraged Ray to get the team involved. It is a love letter to the Yankees, it truly is, but I think that what the genesis was for the original children’s book, and what I gravitated towards in making the film, are the kids in the hospital.

It’s a horrible disease, cancer, and the kids are as brave as you can imagine to fight through this, and their parents are unsung heroes. The lift these kids get when a ballplayer comes to visit them, it’s extraordinary in a way. And I think that was the whole spirit behind the book and the whole spirit behind the movie. I know we go back in time, it’s a time-travel piece, so he’s meeting Babe Ruth and he’s meeting Lefty Gomez and Thurman Munson, and it’s all this dream world and all these people who’ve passed. But if a child is a sports fan, whoever his heroes are, whether its Michael Jordan or a baseball or football player, if they come to see them, they get a lift. And when they get that lift, their hope rises. And when your hope is up, your joy of life is up. You just have a better chance to fight against anything that you’re fighting against. So that really was the genesis of this film, the lift these kids get from these athletes and the hope it brings them and helps them with their fight.

Can you talk about having to cut out Alex Rodriguez from this film?

We had actually finished the movie when that decision was made. It was a tough decision to make. That was a decision that was made by the studio. The A-Rod thing was unfortunate. We dealt with him on two different occasions on this film. He came into the voice-over booth twice. And he was very giving of his time, and was a super nice guy. We had a great time working with him. But I think whoever ended up deciding to cut him from the film it was because we just didn’t want the distraction. It’s a movie about empowering children, and I think it sends the wrong message.

A-Rod was replaced in the film by Hideki Matsui. It’s not as if that character is the hero of the film, but he’s certainly the hero of his sequence. And I don’t think that we wanted to put it out there into the world “here’s this film about hope, here’s this film about life affirmation,” and then have a person who’s actually had done some bad decision making. We just didn’t want to glorify him and send that message. I think that’s what was behind that decision.

The film was already finished. How did you deal with that?

The film was complete. The film was mixed. It was done. So we had to go back in and redo, I’m estimating here, about 2 1/2 minutes of animation. Our film is only 67 minutes long, so that’s not an insignificant amount. It’s not insignificant for any film. … It was some of the trickier scenes in the film to change. I believe it tacked on another five months to production. It’s tough, too, because emotionally your film is your baby and you’re shepherding it through all these peaks and valleys. Then you finally get to a point when you’re done and you have this emotional relief, and then to have to go back in and do a part of it all over, emotionally it’s a little challenging.

A lot of current Yankees took part in the film.

They did it because they wanted to do it, and as with the actors, they donated their salaries to charity of choice. We didn’t get everybody, but we got who we were able to get and they were great. They were really just cameos and they just had to be themselves. It was just about getting them in the booth and loosening them up. It was funny sometimes. Some needed a lot of prodding, some didn’t need any.

And Reggie Jackson is in it.

Reggie Jackson was great. And Reggie was funny. It’s funny how certain things work out. I grew up in New York City, and I was a huge Yankees fan. In the 70s, I was a massive Reggie Jackson fan. He really was my sports hero growing up. To get to work with him in that capacity was a full circle thing for me. It was really fun. Reggie is one of those guys, he is larger than life. He was as a player and he is now.

Why did you decide to have Paul Simon do the voice of Yankee catcher Thurman Munson?

People have this impression of Thurman Munson that he had this real husky voice, but he really had more of an upper register voice. Paul was perfect for it. All the actors, for the most part, that are in the movie are big Yankee fans, and I think that’s how they came to be involved in the movie. Richard Gere has been a lifelong Yankee fan. So has Chaz Palmenteri, who is really amazing as Babe. And Luis Guzman as Lefty Gomez is a Yankee fan. And Paul Simon is a lifelong one as well. That had a lot to do with why these actors came on board.

The actors were great across the board. There was a good amount of inventiveness. We had a script, obviously, but there was a sufficient amount of ad-libbing and improv — with Richard, with Cyndi. Cyndi Lauper’s role was very small on the page, but she does make her mark with an unforgettable character. And a lot of that was improv. When she sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when she’s wheeling (the boy) to the operating room, we knew we wanted something there to get us from point A to point B and we asked her to sing something. She’s the one who suggested that song. The script probably should of been locked, but it wasn’t completely locked, so we had room to grow and once the actors had fun and brought something to it, we said “Oh, wow! That’s great. We want to use that.”

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