THE VILLAIN ISN'T THE ONLY THING THAT'S FRENCH! ‘DESPICABLE ME 4' DIRECTOR CHRIS RENAUD ON THE ANIMATED FRANCHISE'S ROOTS IN FRANCE

It's not just Maxime Le Mal, the "Despicable Me 4" villain with the broad accent, that has a distinctly French flavor.

In fact, Universal and Illumination's animated franchise boasts Gallic DNA throughout all of the hit movies. And even though Chris Renaud, the Oscar-nominated director of the latest "Despicable Me" and two of its predecessors, owes his French-sounding name to his Canadian origins, the helmer says "essentially everybody" working on the films is French. The only exceptions to this geographic over-representation are the writers (Mike White and Ken Daurio) and some of the storyboarder artists who are U.S.-based.

"Everything from what we call the layout, up through the animation, lighting and compositing - almost the entire team is French! The picture that you see is all compiled and created here in France," says Renaud, who moved to Paris in 2010 to work on the first "Despicable Me" production spearheaded by Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri. He has been living in the "City of Light" with his family ever since.

Even Pharrell Williams, who created the original song "Double Life" for "Despicable Me 4," now lives in France, Renaud notes. That's because Williams, who also wrote the anthem "Happy" for the second film in the series, is the artistic designer of French fashion giant, Louis Vuitton.

In addition to the French animation crew working from the Paris-based studio Illumination Mac Guff, the masterminds behind the popular franchise include Pierre Coffin. He co-created the endearing supervillain protagonist Gru with Renaud and also co-directed the first three "Despicable Me" movies. In addition to all that work, Coffin voices the demented gibberish spewed by the Minions, the bight yellow creatures who work alongside Gru.

Renaud, who co-helmed the fourth installment with Patrick Delage, says that the French influence was also there from the start. Long before Maxime Le Mal hit the scene, Gru himself almost had a French accent.

"One of our very early influences for the character of Gru was actually Peter Sellers as Inspector Cluzot, which, of course, is somebody doing a funny French accent, and that was a comedic character idea," says Renaud.

He says the team initially "had more of a generic villain in place, somebody big and strong and very intimidating as a way to get Gru and the family to leave their home," but they dropped what seemed "a little too scary," and ultimately came into the idea of "a high school rivalry."

"We thought through a few different versions of high school archetypes like the class clown, which would be a Joker-esque, or the high school athlete who could have been more physically intimidating. Then we just came in on Maxime La Mal," says Renaud.

When it comes to cooking up supervillains hellbent on world domination, Renaud says the temptation to go "the Marvel way" existed, but Illumination "quickly realized that we can't beat Marvel at being Marvel, and it's not what our world is about anyway."

Renaud says the pettiness of the rivalry between Gru and Maxime Le Mal is just human nature. "The source of dislike is a very small insult. I think that's a very ‘Despicable Me' idea where you have these grand villains, but they're caught up in the smallness of real life."

The director notes that the influences for Gru and Maxime Le Mal have been pulled from the works of Jacques Tati, the renowned French mime-turned-director who was a master of physical comedy, among others.

Renaud, who voiced Principal Übelschlecht in "Despicable Me 4," says he loves working with comedians who can create bigger-than-life characters. "A lot of the (humor) in ‘Despicable Me' radiates out of the performance that was created by Steve Carell" as Gru.

Similarly, Maxime Le Mal's peculiar French accent and crazed attitude stem from "SNL" alum Will Ferrell's imagination and performance. "When Will came in, we did try a couple of other things in case he would be like, ‘Oh, I'm not feeling the French thing, or let me come up with some other ideas.' But he came in and was right there. He was really prepared and had this great fun idea for the voice," says Renaud.

Ferrell also shaped Maxime Le Mal to be "a little bit manic." "When he's upset, he's like a little kid. Initially, he comes off as arrogant, but what I love is that you peel away those layers. You see that he's very vulnerable and childlike and wounded by his experience in dealing with Gru when they were kids," says Renaud.

Recent works featuring French antagonists such as "Emily in Paris" have been called out for French bashing, but Renaud says he's unafraid of getting blowback over Maxime Le Mal, who not only bedevils Gru, he also transforms into a cockroach.

"I don't think we're leaning into any stereotypes besides the French accent," says Renaud, adding that that "the team which is all French would have expressed themselves if something had upset them or bothered them…Of course, we would have seriously considered it and removed it given that it's made by French artisans."

While he admits he hasn't seen much of "Emily in Paris," he says the show is "actually leaning into the stereotype. Where we're not really doing that," he says.

Renaud says coming to France to make "Despicable Me" has allowed the production to tap into the vast talent pool, many of whom have graduated from the country's top animation schools such as les Gobelins; as well as deliver studio-level movies on competitive budgets. "Despicable Me 4," for instance, has a $100 million budget, about half of what many films by Disney and Pixar cost, and it's already grossed roughly $120 million over the five-day holiday.

Another reason for coming to France was the "acute competition for talent in the U.S." back in 2008. "It would have been difficult to create a studio," he says, adding that because they were in France and not in the U.S., "there was no preconceived idea of what a studio should be."

"We were able to create something new and a new way of thinking about it. You'll notice that a lot of other people have copied that in [places like] Vancouver and Montreal," he says.

At least one more sequel of "Despicable Me" could be in store, possibly bringing back Maxime Le Mal, teases Renaud. "If we come up with a good story and it feels like we can cover some fresh territory, then certainly it's possible."

"Despicable Me 4" opens in France on July 10.

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