Exclusive interview: Director Matt Stawski talks ‘Blue’s Big City Adventure,’ channeling nostalgia, and those ‘No Way Home’ comparisons
Nostalgia can be a powerful tool, with Paramount Plus feature Blue’s Big City Adventure leaning into that fact by uniting all three Blue’s Clues hosts in the same story for what’s already been widely dubbed as Spider-Man: No Way Home for nostalgic millennials.
Director Matt Stawksi makes his feature-length directorial debut on the all-ages adventure, and he’s been leaning into his background as the mastermind behind a wide range of music videos hailing from an eclectic number of artists, which includes CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You”, Fifth Harmony’s “I’m in Love with a Monster”, Ne-Yo’s “Friend Like Me”, and Owl City and Aloe Blacc’s “Verge” to name but a small few.
Blue’s Big City Adventure is streaming on Paramount Plus as of today, and prior to the film’s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Stawski about the project. During our deep dive chat, we cover the wide range of musical numbers, leaning into the nostalgia multiple generations have for Blue’s Clues, Steve returning to break the internet in half last year, the filmmaker’s influences and inspirations, the status of his in-development Universal musical Monster Mash, and of course – those No Way Home comparisons.
Could you have ever imagined in a million years you’d go from directing a music video for a song called “Fuck You” to directing a Blue’s Clues movie?
No, I would never have imagined that! And I mean, that’s the simple answer. The extended answer is, I kind of… I am obsessed with musicals, and it was a really cool opportunity to represent the brand of Blue’s. You know, they built such a world.
And I’ve always been a big fan of like The Muppet Movie, and properties that have had a good time making a kid’s property for adults and for the family, and getting like cool adult cameos in there, too.
So, Nickelodeon gave me a lot of freedom to go with the musical, and then and really bring in my own flavor for all that. So the fact that it gave me that creative freedom, that’s what really enticed me toward the project for sure.
Presumably, the feature-length itch is one you’ve been wanting to scratch for a long time. So, how did Blue’s Big City Adventure end up coming your way?
Yeah, I established a pretty good relationship with Brian Robbins, who, he was over at Awesomeness TV, we did a couple of musical projects together, and a couple of commercials. And then obviously, he went to Nick and then went to Paramount. And he’s been bringing me different projects throughout the years.
And this is one where Brian and Ramsey Ann Naito, is head of animation at Paramount Plus and Nickelodeon. They presented the script to me, and I just kind of looked at it from a different angle. And I was like, “Yo, can I can I bring in some classic MGM musical, colorful, Singing in the Rain-type stuff? Can we lean into Broadway? Can we put in some, some jokes that are obviously not obscene, but a little bit more for the adults, and bring in some cool musicians and cameos?”.
And they were all for it. So I have to thank Brian Robbins, because he’s been a good friend of mine, and supporter of mine since about 2013. So yeah, that’s that’s how I sort of fell into the Nickelodeon world.
Your background in music videos lends itself well to Blue’s Big City Adventure, but it’s not exactly what you’d call a straightforward or obvious progression. Was it that freedom and chance to tackle the musical elements drew you to the project initially?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think any director, when you read a script, you sort of come in to your own when you start reading scripts, and picturing it pretty clearly how you would do it. And I think if you read a script… I mean, obviously, it’s fun to read something, just for the story itself, and to enjoy it.
But when something comes across your desk, and you can really see like, “Oh, my gosh, I would do this in this very specific way that I think no one else would do, I’m going to pitch this to the studio”, that’s when I feel like you find a little magic. When you can find an angle, or you can find a take on something that is true to the kind of movie you want to create. So I just kind of went all out with this. Because originally, it was maybe even going to be a green screen movie.
And I was like, “We gotta go to New York and get on the ground out there, and deal with all the insanity”. And just get a really good crew, that has that experience, so a lot of our crew comes from the music video and commercial world, as well as the feature world, it’s like this big combination of people that work in all the different sides of film. And that’s kind of how we’re able to pull it off.
The property itself is more than a quarter of a century old, so how do you approach something so well-known that’s so deeply embedded in pop culture from a fresh angle to put your own unique style, spin, and flourishes on it, while making sure it’s still in line with what everyone’s come to expect?
Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of rules for sure. Like the world of Blue’s Clues has a lot of specific rules that I had to learn. And you don’t break those rules because this is also an educational property, and little kids look up to Josh, Joe and Steve. And so there’s little things like whenever you set up a camera, you can’t be looking down or looking up at the kids – you have to be eye level with them.
Because it’s like a subconscious psychological… like being even with the kids, talking on their level, is really important. The way you present the clues, the color schemes… There’s so many Easter Eggs in the movie, that call back to Blue’s Clues. Even the set design, our production designer spent a lot of time making sure a lot of the backgrounds and the billboards and the wall treatments in New York City, even when they’re walking down the street, they were customizing things to look like the New York advertisements, and they would put the little Blue’s Clues spirals in there and add some of the characters.
So we sort of Blueified the city as much as we could with the money and time were given, and it was really fun to just set up the frame and see what’s in there. And be like, “Okay, we can paint this red and make it candy apple red, and give that some flavor, and add some flowers over there”. So it was a pretty big task. But yeah, we were trying to take as much as we could from the show, as many Easter Eggs, as many songs and characters, and just smash them into an hour and 10 minutes, just give you something that you’ve kind of gotta watch two or three times to really see all the little hidden details.
Tonally, everyone knows exactly who the intended target audiences is, but the best films of a similar type always have plenty to appeal to older audience as well. Was that a difficult tonal tightrope to walk, without ever finding yourself leaning too far in either direction, or perhaps winking too much at the parents who grew up with Blue’s Clues that will be watching it with their kids?
Yeah. I mean, my take was that the kids are gonna watch it because the animated characters are there. And it’s a really inspirational, fun film. And it doesn’t… it’s not like a two and a half hour Scorsese movie, it’s nice and condensed. And by the time you’re done with the scene, another musical number’s starting, so the kids are going to be singing and dancing. So I was really conscious of what what the brand was.
But at the same time, the only reason I wanted to do the film was to be able to make a family film; something that the adults would like, too. And it was like this once in a lifetime moment where you got your 3/4/5/6 year-old kids, and their parents literally grew up with Steve. So you got two generations that grew up with two different Blue’s Clues hosts. And that hasn’t happened in that many other shows or properties before, I don’t know if it’s ever really happened before.
I mean, you can say it’s happened when a lot of different reboots happen, but the time was perfect. And I just found it such a fun challenge to get in those jokes that would resonate with adults, and resonate with older people. And Angela [Santomero] and Tracy [Paige Johnson], who created the show, were game for it too. The first day we started filming, Josh was just walking around the city, we were doing a wide shot of him walking up to the nightclub with Ali Stroker, and he went off-script. He just started like saying “Hi!” to all these people. These New Yorkers are just looking at I’m like, “Who is this guy that’s all bright and sunny?”.
So we really played off that New York mentality contrasting Josh’s super bright, funny, colorful personality. And it was really funny. It had this Elf quality, like when Elf comes to New York City, and he’s from another land and doesn’t understand what New Yorkers are like. So we really leaned into that mentality.
There’s a number of musical interludes that all have different genres, styles, tones, something you’re accustomed to given the variety of artists you’ve worked with on the past, so it must have been exciting to get to bring so many aspects of your versatility to a single project?
Every musical number, we wanted to be a little bit different flavor. Like the first was just to sort of see all the rooms in the house and the characters in 3D for the first time and let Josh just introduce them as this character that can sing and dance, and cut in our dialogue in between. “On Our Way” is like our On the Town – see New York, see all these spectacular, iconic locations.
“That’s My Song” is the central point. You know, “That’s My Song” was inspired by Hair. That’s just like, one of my favorite funky, psychedelic musicals that took place in Central Park, too. So, Derek [McKane] the DP and I were referencing Hair so much creating that one. And then the end number, “Happiness is Magic” is just big, musical Broadway.
So we were referencing our Criterion Channel throughout the making of this film! I know it’s a kid’s movie, but we’re just film nerds. So we couldn’t help and, you know, reference Baz Luhrmann and all the old classic MGM films, too, we couldn’t get around doing that, because it was too colorful and opportunity to pass up.
How did those cameos and guest appearances end up coming together? You’ve got Tony winner Ali Stroker, Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo, BD Wong who was just in a billion-dollar movie, it’s Alex Winter’s first film credit since Bill & Ted Face the Music to name just a few, so it’s a fairly eclectic bunch.
I think when we approached the casting department to help us out with this, because obviously it was really last minute, so we had to get celebrities that were either in New York, or willing to travel out there. And we just, it was that Muppet Movie mentality, you know? The original Muppet Movie set the tone for a kid’s property with adults, adult cameos that people would see like hosting Saturday Night Live, or even on Sesame Street, a lot of these comedians and things that they got.
So we were like, “We just got to lean into the theater crowd”. And you that’s why we got Ali and and Phillipa Soo. And that’s huge that were able to get them. And then just get iconic musicians. We got Taboo [from Black Eyed Peas], Alex Winter plays such a huge role in this. Even Steven Pasquale had a little spot in the film, too. So it was super fun.
Putting together the list, obviously, because it was last minute, our list of cameos was excessive, and we just had to find the perfect people for the spot, and we were able to put that together. So yeah, there’s kind of something for everyone in the film. So it’s exciting that, that they were all able to be in the movie.
Steve broke the internet last year when he returned for the 25th anniversary video and reduced an entire generation to emotional rubble. Did that have any effect, influence or inspiration on the movie, because it highlighted the long-lasting impact Blue’s Clues had on people of a certain age, and evidently continues to have given the emotional devastation on a global scale.
When I saw all that happen, it was just fuel for the fire. Just realizing, “Oh my god, this guy was so important to so many different people”. And I talked to Steve beforehand, about his responsibility. He took it very seriously, because he was sort of a host to so many kids, and they let him into their houses. And he really interacted with them.
And it was the first show where he’s talking to the camera. And so when we were filming this movie, he had a lot of really good ideas about, like, “I’m going to talk to the camera and talk to them as if they were adults”. You know, “Josh is talking to the kids like I’m talking to the adults, because they grew up with me”. So that was a really cool dynamic, to see how he talks to the camera, to be a little bit different than how Josh talks to the camera.
And same with Donovan, who plays Joe, he’s talking towards the older kids and cracking some jokes. It it is a big responsibility that these these characters are portrayed in a certain way, because they mean so much to so many people. I mean, I didn’t necessarily grow up on Blue’s Clues, I was a little bit too old and I was in that void in between the different hosts, but I could sense the the sort of global love for this guy Steve. And rightfully so, he’s such an incredible guy, and he really cares about about the Blue’s Clues world, and obviously he directs as well on the show, so he’s always been a part of it, and it’s really important to him. And it was great for them to let me into their little world
It’s been called Spider-Man: No Way Home for nostalgic millennials, do you approve of and embrace that comparison?
Yeah, I’m all about it! I mean, obviously the movie is, story-wise, nothing like Spider-Man. But it is, that moment when in No Way Home when they all sort of land in the kitchen – the crowd I saw that movie with was throwing popcorn, and they’re screaming, it was a fun theater experience.
I think when when each host is introduced in this film, we made sure to like give them their big hero moments, and all of their introductions are very unique. And when they all actually get together in the film, it makes perfect sense. Like I mentioned before, they all have such unique personalities. So it was pretty surreal to see them all in the same room. I mean, even at the premiere a couple days ago, I was like “Whoa, that’s all three of them”. You know? So, so cool to have the franchise around for so long. That this is able to happen, it’s really exciting.
I uncovered several tweets on the subject, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions on them.
- “No Way Home walked so Blue’s Clues could run”
- “Spider-Man: No Way Home with all 3 Peter Parkers? Nah. Blue’s Clues with Steve, Josh, and Joe in a movie? Yes. Now gimme”
- “No Way Home: We are the most hyped reunion movie of all-time. Blue’s Clues: Hold my notebook.”
Oh that’s good! I didn’t see that one, “hold my notebook”. I love the fact that we’re the underdog. You know, people are comparing us to the Marvel universe. And obviously the films are nothing alike. But just to have… I mean, it’s all about the characters, and people love and fell in love with all the different Peter Parkers, and they fell in love with Steve, Joe, and Josh.
It’s similar in the sense that it’s one of those once in a lifetime things where you can throw all three of them in a room, and it’s pretty surprising to see. I’m so humbled and I love the humor. I like the ones where it’s like the Reservoir Dogs and it’s like, “Five tickets to Blue’s Clues please”. It’s just grown adults going to see it. You know, that’s always made me laugh.
There’s new fans, old fans, people that aren’t familiar, it’s got a wide-ranging appeal, which you’ll be hoping translates into finding as big an audience as possible.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. That’s, that’s super important. And I think it will. I think that the humor is there, the musical numbers are there, the songs are really good. And again, the, the iconic Easter Egg moments are there. So there’s more to find than just three clues watching this one.
Monster Mash has been in development, are you hoping that’s going to be your next feature, or are there other projects you’re cooking up that you can or can’t talk about in any great detail?
I’m hoping it is. But I mean, with Blue’s Clues, that happened so fast, you never know when someone will approach you with a script, and it’s right, and they have to shoot it quickly. So I’m definitely… at the end of this year, beginning of next year, I’m going to be totally open ears to trying to develop more musical-style stuff.
I’m also, I’m so interested in the fantasy space, interested in the horror space. So we’ll see, but we’re trying to get the script nice and tight next year for Monster Mash. So that would be, that’d be a wonder. I mean, my girlfriend and I, our whole house just looks like a haunted house, it’s like Halloween year round for us. I’m obsessed with Halloween. So being in that sort of Universal classic monster space is so exciting. So fingers crossed, that’s the next one. But you never know.
I mean, some things take longer. Some things happened really fast. So there might even be a music video in between there, too. Who knows? So we’ll see. It’s the end of the year, things really dial down, all the labels and studios kind of shut down. So come January, I’m sure there’s gonna be some opportunities
If you could make any project of your choosing without restrictions, what would it be and why?
It would be a Motown musical. I grew up in Detroit, I’m obsessed with Motown. I don’t know if it’d be a period piece or something contemporary, but I absolutely love Motown music. I love doo-wop. I love everything that came out of Detroit from Hitsville. So that’s something I’d really like to do at some point in my lifetime.
I’d like to shine the spotlight on Detroit as much as possible because historically, culturally, it is so important to me, and so many other people. It defined who I am, and the music is infectious. I mean, nothing beats Motown music. No Motown; no pop music, no R&B. There’s so many artists that are big today who would not exist because of Berry Gordy Jr. and all the artists that he lifted. So it’d be a Motown musical. That’s the one.
Blue’s Big City Adventure is now streaming on Paramount Plus, and will also be available to subscribers in the United Kingdom from December 5.