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Nordling Interviews BRAVE's Director Mark Andrews!

Nordling here.

It's rare that Houston gets any star power, but last night Disney brought a little Hollywood (by way of Emeryville) to our city by having a screening of BRAVE with the director, Mark Andrews, in attendance.  With Scottish dancers and bagpipe fanfare, no less.  The crowd ate it up, and the response to Pixar's BRAVE was uniformly positive.  Hopefully Disney will bring more filmmakers and talent to Houston in the future, but for now this afforded me the opportunity to sit down with Mark Andrews and talk about BRAVE, his career at Pixar, and how the story blossomed from idea to reality.

Thanks to Mark Andrews, Jessica Martinez, and the good people at Disney Studios, Pixar, and Moroch for setting this up.  Also, there is some spoiler talk involved in the interview, so if you're sensitive to that sort of thing you may want to wait until you've seen the movie.  BRAVE opens today in theaters everywhere.

Also, any "killing babies" talk is strictly metaphorical...

Nordling: Well, congratulations on your movie.

Mark Andrews: Thank you very much

Nordling: It got a really great reception last night. I have one question for you first, because I…

Mark Andrews: Just one? This is going to be short.

Nordling: I have a lot of them, but last year actually I was at Pixar for CARS 2 and I noticed you all had a cereal bar. What’s your favorite cereal combination there at the bar?

Mark Andrews: I don’t eat at the cereal bar. I’m probably the only guy at Pixar who doesn’t eat at the cereal bar. So yeah, no cereal for men, but if there was one it would be Raisin Bran.

Nordling: I remember the new building that they had, they had this beautiful green picture very similar to the poster actually and it was just really evocative at the time. One of the aspects I wanted to ask about was how stories… because story is prime at Pixar, and I wanted to kind of walk through the process from the kernel of the idea to people talking about it and saying “Hey, let’s do this” and then how it works.

Mark Andrews: Right. So Brenda Chapman had the original idea based off of her experiences with her daughter at the time, this very precocious fiery independent six year old talking back already at six. So she kind of projected ahead and said, “Oh my God, what is she going to be like when she is in those formative years as a teenager? This is going to be scary.” She also has an affinity for Scotland. She loves Scotland and the stories and the myths and the legends that come out of that and loves that time period, this Middle Ages time period. So she kind of took that idea and shoved it in that time period and pitched it to John Lasseter.

John is always looking for three things out of any story. He is looking for a great character, so you have this teenager that’s going to go on this journey to repair damage she does to their relationship with the mother… You have this story, which at its heart is that parent child relationship, which is universally relatable all over the place, so that’s going to be strong and have a lot of heart which he is focused on, and then a great setting and a medieval Scotland was just fascinating. So it had all three requirements and John said, “Yeah go ahead and develop it.” Then you go in a development phase, which is you have a blank page, which is the hardest thing for any creative person. I mean I had done JOHN CARTER, co-wrote and co-directed with Andrew Stanton, right? And that was an adaptation and that was still a big pain in the ass. We had this great source material, but to get it to work as a movie and to throw out the stuff of him putting berry juice and all of these things that don’t work in the story was difficult already starting with something, and this was starting on a blank page.

Nordling: And then there are aspects you get married to and you have to get rid of them.

Mark Andrews: Oh yeah, you’re going to have to kill your babies, so you go into this development phase where the story has any potentiality. “What is the story actually about? Is it about this girl’s journey? Is it about this competition between parents and who is she going to be more like at the end of the day? Is it about getting her to be balanced, so that there’s aspects of both parents?” There’s many different ways… “Is there a bad guy even? Is there a Prince Charming?” “No, we don’t a Prince Charming at all.” So you go through all of these possibilities until you get to your first pass, which is the whole movie up on reels, first pass top to bottom and you present it.

Then you show it to all of Pixar and that is basically standing naked in front of your peers. It’s saying, “I’ve just worked out. What do you guys think?” That’s actually great, because we are our harshest critics and we see right through every cliché, things that don’t work, superficiality… we are not moved if we are not moved, and all of that feedback comes back to the director. You have to be made of really stiff stuff to take that and use it, because everybody at Pixar wants the best for the story. There’s not egos involved. John and Andrew and Pete are not trying to make it “their” film. Brad Bird is not trying to make it “his” film. It’s in the director’s hands to make it their film, so you do this process over and over and over again. So they were doing that.

Brenda and her team were doing that over and over again. It comes up to a point we have a release date, all of these assets had been built, the animators are sitting there ready to go, animation has started on some scenes, but all of that kind of went on hold, because the story was not yet working. At eighteen months they ring the alarm bell because it’s not where it should be. We have a very limited time to animate it and get it done or to make new assets if we need to, to get it done, and unfortunately they had to make a director change, right? I think that’s where Pixar is bolder than any other studio. They will make those hard calls. It’s about making the movie work and it’s happened before. This is nothing new in Hollywood and it’s nothing new to Pixar.

The fact that Brenda was our first time female director shouldn’t matter at all, because she’s a storyteller first and foremost, as am I. So they had to do a director change, so they came to me and I had always kind of been an outside all things medieval and Scottish and Celtic consultant, so I was kind of a natural choice and I was a friend of Brenda. All of my books were their first research books were their first research books on medieval Scotland and the Celts. So they asked me. I had already been picked to be a director after INCREDIBLES. After INCREDIBLES was over they asked me if I wanted to direct. I said, “Yeah sure.”

So I had been in development since 2004 working on projects and I keep getting sidetracked, like RATATOUILLE, JOHN CARTER, and now BRAVE… So I said, “Absolutely” to help out and I wanted to do right by Brenda and I wanted to do right by the studio and make this great story that had a lot of potential just sing, you know? So I just built upon what they started and brought in that entertainment, the solidifying the character of who the story is about, simplify it. And we had already kind of gone through this process on RATATOUILLE, me and Brad Bird did. So I was just taking pages out of that book, the lessons that we learned on that and kind of doing the same thing. I think what the real difference was, was I come in with an objectivity, because it’s not mine.

Nordling: Right, right.

Mark Andrews: And I can kill all of the babies.

Nordling: Yeah, that’s extremely important.

Mark Andrews: And that’s basically what it was. And that’s something that I really learned as a director that I knew was an aspect of directing, but it never really hit me as hard as it did for BRAVE. I have to be able to put on that objectivity. I have to be able to believe in it and sell it at 300% and say, “This is absolutely the direction to go,” and then at the same time pull that hat off and stick on the objective hat that doesn’t give a crap and go, “Is this really the way to go? We should not be going this way. This is completely wrong. You are a fool. We need to go a different direction.” And then be able to turn to my crew and say, “Sorry, we’re going to go this way now. I swear to God this is the right way to go.” So as soon as they have that , it's like, “Okay, this guy knows what he is doing. He’s not going to lead us astray. We are making progress." Then I had the crew and we were off and running, but even in my term on the movie I made it four times, put it up on reels and tore it down, put it up on reels and tore it down until it stuck.

Nordling: Right. So many films at Pixar are inspired by family relations, like CARS is for John Lasseter’s road trip and FINDING NEMO… I don’t want to ask you about future projects, but what are you looking forward to telling now that BRAVE is finished?

Mark Andrews: Well, I mean there are a lot of concepts out there and themes that I would like to explore that are also personal, that you could just bring directly back to what my growth as a human being, that I’m even still exploring. It’s that whole idea of the human condition that I want to get into. That’s one thing that I really loved about BRAVE, the duality in the word. There’s the external bravery of standing up for yourself or taking on when you know you’re going to die against these overwhelming odds, but you’re going to stand up for the principle. Then there’s also an internal aspect of bravery of being able to own up to your mistakes or accepting who you are that is different than what you want to be and what the world wants you to be. There’s something in the middle where you go, “This is actually me and I’ve got to own up to that fact.” It’s a more subtle, but stronger sense of bravery and so that theme of duality I put all through the movie. There’s duality in every shot. There’s duality with every character, that principle, and that’s something that’s inside us, because we are still child and adult at the same time, you know? As people we are good and bad at the same time. We are selfish and selfless at the same time. It never goes away and it’s something that we have to struggle with the whole time and storytelling is just a great way to explore those aspects of it. So there are other things that I want to explore about sacrifice, you know, about your place in life about being underestimated. Those kind of big themes that are all stuff that I’ve gone through and I’m still kind of going through, those are the kind of movies that I want to do, you know?

Nordling: What was the moment in BRAVE that just made you want to pull your hair out? Where the animators are going “I can’t do this!”

Mark Andrews: Nobody ever said, “I can’t do this.” They would roll their eyes. (Laughs) They’d go “This is so hard,” but that’s one thing that I’m really proud of my crew for, that yeah it is hard and we can say that it’s hard. I mean there were times when I was working on it that the story wasn’t quite gelling yet or that I had a couple of scenes that are just like “I know I need them, but they are not working. Why aren’t they working? I’m totally lost. When is the answer going to come?”

And you get frustrated and you doubt, but you keep hammering at it, you know and a breakthrough will come and probably from an unlikely source or you say, “Screw it” and then as soon as you’re free, then you get these moments of clarity, you know? We are all trying to make it work and we are all kind of perfectionists ourselves. So there wasn’t any kind of one hair pulling out moment. I mean there’s a lot of big voices in the room and I’m a voice where I’m trying to speak with my executive producers, and some of those times were really frustrating, because they are also for all of their experience at their wit's end too of how to solve something, but then they go, “Well, you figure it out.”

Nordling: (Laughs) Right.

Mark Andrews: Or they have ideas that I try, but then ultimately don’t work and so you have to go back and say, “Look, it doesn’t work” and they go… You know, so I don’t think there was any one moment in time. We did have one scene, the witch’s scene, that was the first to go into production and be animated and the last one to actually be finished, because it never worked you know? But we had the assets and they were built, so you had to keep those. So those are things that are concrete that you can’t touch. I mean I may have cut that witch out altogether and put in a druid, something that’s much more Celtic, though there are witches in a lot of Scottish myths and legends.

I mean, there’s witches that caused the sea to go bad to drown sailors and all kinds of other stuff. I mean Macbeth, very famous Scottish… So “What kind of witch is this?” Because that’s heavily treaded ground. So “How do I make it work and make it entertaining?” It’s a pivotal scene, because it’s right in the middle of the movie and there’s three different ideas of exposition that have to come out of this scene that we need to know to spin on, but “How do I make that not boring?” That was the hair pulling moment if there was ever one.

Nordling: Yeah, that’s an interesting scene, because I actually really love that scene. She is totally not a cliché witch. She’s not a wicked witch. She’s actually fairly indifferent to the things that are going on. It’s like “Look, I’m just trying to make a buck, you know?”

Mark Andrews: As soon as we got on to this, she’s a wood carver starting her second career and she’s basically an eccentric hippie living in the woods. It’s like “Bingo!” I created the crow character to kind of be a little foil in there for her about get out that she is magic, these aspects that just kind of leak out and it is a fun sequence and her place in it when they come back to the cottage as well, and then the little button at the very end of the movie.

Nordling: I loved that. That was awesome.

Mark Andrews: And that’s one of the difficulties of creating story, is that you don’t want to ever have a story where there are these characters in there just to be in there. They have to have a purpose to the story or else you couldn’t tell the story and that was one of the biggest problems with the triplets and with the witch and with some of the other characters. They never really had a purpose except just to kind of be there, so we had to find that purpose and once we found the purpose, that they were integral to the telling of the story, then we knew we had something and it was right on the money.

Nordling: I wanted to ask you about how you came to work at Pixar. Was it a little bit like you getting the phone call from Willy Wonka with “Just come work at the chocolate factory?”

Mark Andrews: Yeah, I didn’t care. I take no stock in any… I’ve worked for many, many studios in my career after I got out of school and they are all the same to me, I just liked doing what I do, storyboarding. So I had a relationship with Brad Bird from IRON GIANT and…

Nordling: And I have to say, that’s one of my favorite films of all time. I love that film.

Mark Andrews: Thank you. So Brad Bird had called me when he got wooed by Pixar and agreed to be a director for them and in the first call that he made there were about twelve of us that he called to try to get to come up and work with him at Pixar. He calls us his “Dirty Dozen,” so we kind of came in as these kind of black sheep into this very pristine thing and “we are going to do it Brad’s way” and stuff like that, which is good for the studio to see a different way of making a movie, so it’s not just one way of making a movie. So that was way back in 2000, right after I got off SPIDER-MAN I rolled right into THE INCREDIBLES as Head of Story and I’ve been there ever since.

Nordling: Cool. Well I have to congratulate you on your movie. It was wonderful. My daughter and my wife have been asking for a mother-daughter film and it’s not just indicative of animated films, just films in general and they really dug it. They wanted me to tell you that they really appreciated your film.

Mark Andrews: Great! Fantastic.

Nordling: Thank you very much.

BRAVE is yet another terrific movie from Pixar, and deserving of your time.  Have a good weekend!

Nordling, out.  Follow me on Twitter!

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