When they were kids at Kitchener, Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen were obsessed with movies. They were joined in their passion when they met as high school students at Grand River Collegiate Institute in 1998.
“We would take the bus to Toronto together to see the less mainstream movies that were not shown in Kitchener,” recalls 42-year-old Brunker. “Our friendship was built around the movies and we’ve been best friends ever since.”
Barlen’s house became the center of movie marathons since his father owned a LaserDisc player. The couple were not obsessed with any particular gender.
“We would watch all the Spielberg stuff and then we would watch all the Spike Lee movies,” explains Barlen, 41. “We were going through our own film education and seeing what we could achieve.”
Barlen and Brunker found all the excuses to make high school movies, shoot mysteries, sci-fi shorts, and prison break scenes. Using a simple camcorder, they played with special effects, such as split screen or having the same person appear twice in one shot.
“I remember Bob saving all the money from his part-time job to buy a box that would allow him to cut or dissolve on video,” says Brunker. “That’s kind of ridiculous, since we can do all of that on our phones.”
The duo took their devotion to college. Barlen earned a BFA in film and video from Ryerson, while Brunker studied animation at Sheridan College. In the early 2000s, while on a trip to Los Angeles, they toured Paramount Studios, where Bunker says, “We were talking all the time about how wonderful it would be to be able to make a movie for Paramount one day.”
As the filmmakers behind “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” they did just that. The first feature film based on the long-running children’s television series, it opens in theaters and debuts on Paramount + on August 20. But Barlen and Brunker didn’t initially set out to work on animated children’s movies.
After graduation, they began doing commercials that took advantage of Brunker’s animation skills. They would write scenes together, then Barlen would produce while Brunker directed. Barlen recalls one particularly memorable session: “We did a commercial for the Club House spices where the spice jars come to life.”
The partners got their big break in the movies in 2013 The animated hit “Escape from Planet Earth,” which featured the voices of Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jessica Alba. After Brunker was hired as a director, he brought in Barlen to help him with the script. “I remember going into that first test screening thinking, ‘If this doesn’t go well, we may never get another chance to write a movie,’” Brunker recalls. “In the first minute or two, the audience laughed. Although it is stressful, it is wonderful to see how the material connects with people. “
Barlen and Brunker co-wrote four more animated children’s films: “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” (which Brunker also directed), “Son of Bigfoot,” “Arctic Dogs” and “Monster Zone,” all while keeping Toronto as their home. base. In between, Barlen also worked as a writer and producer on “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” for a season. Then in early 2019, Spin Master called.
Brunker, a father of two young children, was familiar with the popular children’s television series “PAW Patrol,” from the Toronto-based entertainment company, which follows a boy named Ryder who leads missions with a team of rescue dogs. Spin Master had first approached Brunker as a writer and director, and Barlen was brought in as a co-writer and associate producer. They presented the film as a big screen event, not just a long television episode. “We wanted to focus on a character’s main story and go on an emotional journey with him,” Brunker explains. “It would be familiar to fans of the show, but also an elevated experience to go to the theater.” Kim Kardashian West, Jimmy Kimmel, and Randall Park were named key characters and gave the film some star power.
While Brunker was working on “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” his own two- and four-year-old son was the perfect audience. “I see what attracts them and what they are passionate about, what makes them look again,” he says. “I have a good indicator of what is too scary and what is just exciting, and how to walk that line.”
After making independent animated films that weren’t associated with big studios or brands, Barlen and Brunker say that working with Paramount and an established franchise was a welcome change. “It was a creative challenge for us to take a beloved children’s show and turn it into a movie, but we feel like we’ve been preparing for this our entire lives,” says Barlen. “Pressure aside, we are honored to have the opportunity to be entrusted with such a beloved brand.”
Despite the high stakes, Brunker and Barlen say partnering with Spin Master was easy. “We were constantly showing them things and they were just as excited as we were and they wanted us to continue,” says Brunker. “We were all totally on the same page. There was no creative friction at all. It was a very supportive experience. “
What’s next for the duo? Probably not just animated movies. “Animation helped us open doors for ourselves at the beginning, and that’s where we made a hole in ourselves,” says Brunker. “But we also love live action movies. At some point in our lives, we would love to do that too. “