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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

November 30, 2007

Since being conceived in 1958 by actor/songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. as a high-pitched chorus in the platinum-selling song "Witch Doctor" and subsequently being personified in the follow-up hit "The Chipmunk Song," Alvin and the Chipmunks have become a mainstay of pop culture, entertaining fans of all generations. What started as a novelty recording eventually became a full-time family business carried on by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and his wife Janice Karman, who have brought the characters of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to life in TV shows, animated features, and an expansive library of songs.

Now, nearly 50 years after their creation, the Chipmunks enjoy yet another incarnation in the 2007 feature film Alvin and the Chipmunks, which blends live action with CG animation. This time around, Bagdasarian and Karman, who have traditionally provided the voices of the Chipmunks in projects like the now-classic '80s Saturday morning cartoon and the hand-drawn animated movie The Chipmunk Adventure, have handed over the roles of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney, respectively. The new movie stars Jason Lee as the Chipmunks' manager and adoptive father David Seville, with supporting performances from comedian David Cross and actress Cameron Richardson.

Being a kid of the '80s who enjoyed Alvin and the Chipmunks on NBC Saturday mornings, I was naturally wary of more childhood memories being exploited for modern movie material. But with the involvement of Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman, this latest big screen adventure for the chipmunk trio successfully modernizes its characters, yet still retains the spirit of the old cartoons. Old-time fans will find more than enough moments of delightful nostalgia mixed in with a heartwarming, family-friendly story and updated versions of some of the Chipmunks' classic tunes, as well as a few interesting cover songs.

In this interview, Jason Lee, star of NBC's hit comedy My Name Is Earl, talks about being a part of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The Interview

MEDIA: With movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Underdog, and The Incredibles, you've put together quite a string of family-friendly films...

JASON: Yeah, that's what they say. It's just a coincidence. I mean, it's not "for my son," but it's a bonus that I have a son that's very excited about movies like this, and he's quoting the Chipmunks just from the preview that we've seen a couple times. We went and saw Bee Movie and Fred Claus and all these movies that he wanted to see, and we keep seeing the preview, and now he's quoting the Chipmunks. You know, in The Incredibles, he knows it's my voice, and Underdog. But seeing me on the screen with the Chipmunks...I think he thinks dad's pretty cool.

How old is he?

4 years old.

Speaking of coincidences, what do you think of "The Chipmunk Song" being featured in your 2000 movie Almost Famous?

I think it's great. It just goes to show how kind of iconic and a part of all of our lives it is, you know? It's so great that the opening title sequence of Almost Famous [has] the song in it. I mean, everybody knows it.

Was there any extra pressure in playing David Seville, given that Ross Bagdasarian, Jr, who voiced him in the '80s cartoon series, was so involved in the project?

No, no pressure. I mean, he had me say "Alvin" a certain way, you know? But no, I was just approaching it the way I would any other character--you know, where is Dave starting and where does he get to, and how does it all work out in the middle? They're chipmunks, yes, but he treats them like kids. And I just sort of approached it like that--tried to keep him likeable. And the payoff, great, at the end, when he finally comes around and saves the boys.

So how many times did you have to scream "Alvin" in the rehearsals?

Not too many. I mean, not as much as people would think. And again, I had Ross Jr. there coaching me on it. "No, no, you need to draw it out! Make it louder and more intense! And do that one shorter!" And he directed me. He'd pop in. And that's really the only time he'd ever say anything. [laughs] Because he wanted the yell to be authentic.

Going into this, how familiar were you with all the Chipmunks cartoons and albums?

I caught the the '80s [cartoon]. And then Chipmunk Punk, which was fantastic. "My Sharona," right? And then they did a Blondie song. [refers to the Bagdasarian estate, where this interview is occurring] And I guess they're doing pretty well. "Oh, we'll just have the press junket at our mansion in Santa Barbara overlooking the ocean. Not a problem."

They have quite the collection of Chipmunks memorabilia...

Yeah. I live in a small house in Silver Lake. I'm as kind of non-fancy as it gets. This is pretty overwhelming. I don't know how they keep all the furniture clean. Jeez.

Were you surprised that this is what Chipmunk money buys you?

Oh, man. I guess they've sold like 45 million records. I mean, that's like Beatles territory, isn't it?

Given the success of My Name Is Earl, why the small house in Silver Lake?

Well, I occupy myself, I'm very busy doing things, and that's just sort of not ever been much of an interest. I like to do other things with my time and money than buy fancy things and spend too much money on real estate...When I'm not acting, I'm photographing and traveling. So I buy film and cameras.

[refers to a nearby dog that resembles Underdog] Look, it's Underdog...

Yeah, that's my dog Lester.

Did you have Lester before you made Underdog?

No, after.

So will you be getting some chipmunks next?

Yeah, exactly. And I'll train them to talk.

If stray rodents were hanging around outside your house, would you be merciful and take them in?

Oh, seeing this house? If they could sing and dance, I'd take them in and start recording records immediately. [laughs]

Did you find it difficult to act opposite computer-generated characters?

Yeah. At first, it was really tedious and frustrating because I didn't have anything to work with. I had stuffed animals if the Chipmunks were off-camera, or tape marks. It all depended on the camera angle, really. But literally, most of the time, I had nothing, and I'd have to place my eyeline always in three different places, always above where they would be standing or sitting. It was kind of tough. But no complaints. I mean, I had a great time.

What was the hardest scene with the Chipmunks?

Oh, like in the kitchen, going through the cupboards...Any of the following or moving stuff was the hardest. But of course, if they were just standing there, that was easy.

What about the scene where the Chipmunks drop a jar on your head? Do they drop a stunt jar on you, or is it all added in with digital effects?

No, they really drop a sugar glass. I love it. I always tell [series creator] Greg Garcia on My Name Is Earl, "As much physical stuff as you can give me, always write it in." I love getting hit by cars and falling. I love it. It's just another side of comedy, you know? And of course, the greats were Sellers and Chevy Chase, and I think that's a great part of comedy. Peter Sellers is one of my favorites.

What were the "stuffies" we've heard about?

The stuffies were the stuffed animals. We'd always do a "stuffy pass" so that Rhythm and Hues, the effects company, saw kind of the overall action of the scene so that they'd get an idea.

What did you think when you first saw the final product come together?

It looked totally real! I was absolutely blown away. I was a little bit surprised, and just very pleased. I mean, it really looked like they were there.

You also spend a lot of time acting opposite David Cross. What was your impression of him?

He's great. He's sharp. He's really sharp--professional, sharp, funny. You know, a good old-fashioned smart ass.

Does a movie like this require a lot of reshoots, or do they work the CG effects around whatever you do?

Luckily, it was smooth. We did do some reshooting for the end of the movie to make it a little bit more of what it is now, but it was pretty smooth. I mean, these days, it's just kind of second nature how well these guys can read a scene and know where the Chipmunks are going to be. They'll tell you right away, [snaps fingers] "That's not going to work, maybe try this angle." So it was like a team constantly dissecting every scene for them, just as the actors might dissect a scene for performance. So it was really the director being with the actors, and then having to go to the effects guys and kind of bouncing back and forth between the two worlds, and then dealing with the cinematographer right in the middle. And [director] Tim Hill...Very low-key guy. In between takes he'd be playing his guitar. You know, he was a really mellow dude, and he handled it really well. Because if I were directing something like that...I don't think I would in the first place.

You've had some experiencing directing, yes?

Yeah, I did a couple music videos, and I directed a short film last year with Giovanni Ribisi. And it's a 30-minute short that we shot on 35. It's beautiful. My photography website that I've been working on for about three months...It's finally going to be up in a few weeks or so, and my film is going to be on the website. It's called The White Door. I was going to do the whole DVD thing and try to distribute it independently. But you know what? Why not just have it on my website streaming fullscreen? With the way things are going with websites these days, I think everything's going to be on everybody's computer pretty soon, right?

Have you thought about compiling your photography into a book?

Yeah, I've got many plans of that. There's always different things that I'm working on at any given time. In my off-time, weekends, days that I don't work...A few series that I'm working on simultaneously. So it keeps me occupied. It's my passion.

What types of pictures do you focus on?

Portraits, people. I shoot for Anthem Magazine pretty well exclusively. Actors, artists, musicians. It's not really commercial stuff. It's more sort of the magazine gives me free reign to take a band that I really like and photograph them and do a piece on them, which is really cool. So it's that kind of relationship. And then I work on a lot of personal stuff. But it's the one thing that I do when I'm not acting.

Any immediate plans to work with Kevin Smith again? Maybe him doing a cameo on My Name Is Earl or you being in one of his movies?

Yeah, we've talked about him directing an episode and coming on and doing a role, and he's always into it, but it's just never really happened. And now I guess he's in Philly making that movie about the couple that make a porn movie?

Zack and Miri Make a Porno, with Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks...

Yeah. I don't talk to Kevin as much as I should. [jokes] And the bastard hardly calls me, so we'll see. I haven't heard anything about me being in this movie at all--a cameo, nothing. The guy hasn't e-mailed me!

Thanks for your time.

Thanks, guys.

Related Material

Exclusive Interview with producers Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman
Movie Coverage: Alvin and the Chipmunks


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