VS. Do you think when Johnny Depp is home in France with his kids they sit around and watch VeggieTales videos? It’s possible. He may even like the videos more than the rest of his family.
Johnny Depp vs. Bob the Tomato
January 31, 2008 by Scott W. Smith
But the real question is in a swashbuckling ultimate fight could Depp’s pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies take on Bob the Tomato of the recent release The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie?
That could remain one of life’s great mysteries –like could Rocky Graziano beat Ali? Or how did Marilyn Monroe really die?
Where better to find out how Bob the Tomato would fare against Jack Sparrow than to ask Phil Vischer, the creator of the animated VeggieTales and voice of Bob the Tomato? “Bob’s lack of hands certainly doesn’t help much in hand-to-hand combat situations, but I believe Bob could outwit Jack and confuse him using only his wit superior intellect,” said Vischer.
Vischer was raised in Muscatine, Iowa. Known as the former button capital of America. It’s the town that Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi, “I remember Muscatine —still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them.”
That quote alone should make you take stock of your perceptions of fly-over country in general and Iowa specifically. I’m serious when I say I hope to encourage writers and filmmakers outside of L.A. and I thought it would be good to talk to Vischer about his work and to plug his new film in theaters.
If you are not familiar with VeggieTales it’s important to know that Vischer lead a team that created the most successful direct-to-video series in history. More than 50 million units have been sold since 1993. In its prime Vischer turned down a $20 million offer for the animated vegetable franchise.
Vischer has had an amazing career since launching what would become Big Idea Productions at age 22. He’s been an actor, writer, composer and/or producer on more than 30 VeggieTales videos including the 2002 feature released nationally Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
Jonah’s box-office numbers surprised some in a Hollywood because it was a faith-based kids film. Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote in his book Purple Cow, “As I write this…the number-two movie in America is a low-budget animated movie in which talking vegetables act out Bible stories.” (In Godin lingo Bob the Tomato is a good example of a purple cow, i.e. something different that gets people’s attention.)
Unfortunately, the film didn’t do well enough to offset some problems that would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the company. You can read Vischer’s account in his book, Me, Myself, & Bob – A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables.
(Does anyone else think Vischer looks a little like Steven Jobs’ younger brother?)
Remember that not all your screenwriting has to be for the big screen. There are many avenues for your writing. Vischer started small and just got bigger and bigger and was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming the next Walt Disney.
But like a scene out of a VH1 Behind the Scene special, (cue the music) “Then one day….”And just like that his dream was gone.
In his book he lists as the #5 thing he learned from that experience, “Bigger is no longer better.” Didn’t Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire say the same thing in his mission statement? Vischer had a painful front row seat to watch his dream fade away and the company eventually changed hands.
But when dreams die (as they are prone to do), new ones spring up from the ashes.
Vischer still lives in the Chicago area and continues to work on VeggieTales productions as well as having a multiple-vegetable personality doing the voices of several characters. He’s also started a new company Jellyfish and keeps a blog at PhilVischer.com.
I’ve had the privilege to talk with Phil at gatherings in Denver and Chicago and have even had the opportunity to work on a couple small projects for him. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for Screenwriting from Iowa.
Q. There used to be a Heinz ketchup factory in Muscatine, Iowa while you where growing up. Is there any connection there between that fact and your creating Bob the Tomato?
Vischer: “No, I don’t think so. I actually came up with Larry the Cucumber first, then was looking for a complimentary shape for a sidekick. Tomatoes and cucumbers seemed to go together like Laurel and Hardy.”
Q. Have you gone online to Rotten Tomatoes and seen how the film has done on the tomatometer?
Vischer: “But of course!”
Q. One tomatometer critic wrote: “I have to admit that this animated VeggieTales endeavor is far more entertaining and artistically competent than anything offered in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”
Vischer: “Yeah, that quote kind of surprised me. Overall, the reviews are pretty mixed, which is certainly more than you can say for the Alvin & the Chipmunks. Of course, most filmmakers would give up good reviews for $200 million at the box office!”
Q. Screenwriter/novelist Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition) lives in Muscatine, Iowa. What’s in the water there that would inspire Bob the Tomato’s creator and foster another writer known for pulp fiction and crime noir?
Vischer: “Um… I think it’s the tomato residue from the Heinz plant. Or perhaps the corn residue from the Kent Feed plant.”
Q. Any advice or encouragement for screenwriters living outside L.A.?
Vischer: “Screenwriting is a beautiful thing, in that you can live anywhere, and work on a project anywhere. And living in a non-Hollywood locale gives you the benefit of being able to write stories outside the Hollywood norm. The Coen brothers channeling their Minnesota childhoods into their film Fargo is a great example. It’s very hard to imagine a Los Angeleno writing that film with anywhere near the authenticity. Interesting stories come from interesting places!”
In the coming years you’ll hear a lot from Vischer. Support a fellow writer and take your little band of pirates to see The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. And don’t forget to catch one of those Mississippi River sunsets in Muscatine.
© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith