Capone talks striking fear in the hearts of children and then arming them, with BRAVE director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
There are few things I enjoy more in the world than interviews folks that work at Pixar. It's not just because they're always so friendly and easy to talk to, but they tend to have the best stories when it comes to the evolving nature of their stories, character designs and technological advancements. I love finding out what aspects of each new film they worked on the hardest and are especially proud of. For example, in this interview, the discussion of getting water just right fascinates me.
But with Pixar's latest work BRAVE, there is a lot about the look and plot of the film to be proud of, and I got to spend some time talking to director Mark Andrews, a one-time storyboard artist on such projects as IRON GIANT and Sam Raimi's first SPIDER-MAN. Andrews was also the director of the great Pixar short ONE MAN BAND, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2006, and was a co-screenwriter on JOHN CARTER.
For our interview, Andrews was joined by BRAVE producer Katherine Sarafian, who has worked in some sort of managerial capacity on films like THE INCREDIBLES, MONSTERS INC., TOY STORY 1 & 2, A BUG'S LIFE and the 2006 short LIFTED. We had a lot of ground to cover, so let's get to it. Please enjoy my talk with Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian, who talked about everything from Pixar's first female lead to the admirable task of putting weapons in the hands of children.
I'll admit, when I saw Nordling's interview with Andrews last night, I was concerned that we'd be doubling up on the same questions and answer, but after reading it, I'm happy to report there's almost no crossover in terms of insight into the film and the creative process. So please enjoy, and beware of some spoilers toward the end of the conversation.
Capone: With this movie, it would appear that you basically just took the nation of Scotland, tipped it over, and let all of the actors fall out to be in your cast. Is that about right?
Katherine Sarafian: Well, Julie Walters is not Scottish, and Emma Thompson actually was raised in Scotland and her mother is Scottish, so she counts herself as Scottish. But would you believe we actually were pretty picky? There are a lot more Scottish actors than are in this movie. People go, “You’ve got all the great Scotts, why don’t you have Gerard Butler?” “Why don’t you have Alan Cumming?” We have a lot of other Scotts in this movie.
Capone: They all live in America now.
KS: [laughs] We actually listened to a lot of voices as we were casting the characters and really went for the ones that had the soul and spirit of the family members.
Mark Andrews: Being from Scotland wasn’t a necessity; that you can do a Scottish accent because we're setting it in Scotland, people were going to be “Do a Scottish accent.” Then it turns out at the end of the day when we cast, 70 percent of our actors are Scottish.
Capone: Well they probably do the best Scottish accents.
MA: They probably do.
KS: Uncanny! You wouldn’t believe what they can come up with. And they also added extra dialogue when they had ad libs. We would say, “What’s a more Scottish way of saying this?” and they would come up with things like “numpty” or “hurdies” or “jiggery-pokery.”
Capone: Then Kevin McKidd plays the one character we can’t even understand?
MA: Yes, that’s the "dork" accent from his region where he grew up in. So we go, “You’re two characters now, dude. You’re going to be MacGuffin and Lord MacGuffin.”
Capone: He’s really funny in it.
MA: Oh yeah, he’s great.
Capone: I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be funny or heard him be funny.
KS: He had fun in the role.
Capone: Pixar over the years has gotten a tiny bit of grief for not having a female lead, I realize it’s partly just because many of the films that have come out have been in the Pixar creative wheelhouse for many, many years. So we are getting to the point where we're seeing film with more recent origins. What was the germ of BRAVE, and did it have anything to do with the fact that somebody put their foot down and said “Okay, we have to do it.”
MA: Nobody put their foot down.
KS: What’s funny is that I’m hearing “Pixar was getting grief,” and it’s goes to show how heads down we work--I never even knew that it was an issue. As a woman working at Pixar, I worked on all of these movies and I’m not going to say that I didn’t noticed that there wasn’t a female lead in one of our films, but I certainly didn’t know there was any grief for it; it was just more of an observation. But the films take a long time to make, so it’s actually been seven years since this pitch and it’s a creatively run studio where the filmmakers drive the stories. They're all developed in house.
So at the time, seven years ago, Brenda Chapman, one of the development artists, pitched this idea that was based on her own relationship with her own daughter--feisty and charismatic and spirited--nd they were butting heads, and Brenda thought “What will she be like as a teenager?” and “I think there’s a story there.” And so out of that seed of an idea came the pitch, but again seven years ago from that initial idea, and it was a case of the filmmaker and the idea and the time. That’s what got us there. Otherwise, it’d be “We don't have a fish movie; let's make a fish movie. We don't have a girl movie…”
MA: “We haven’t done a black panther movie!” “Check it off the list: black panthers.”
KS: It was quite organic in the story process, and now seven years later as it comes out, we’ve got people saying “What took so long?” I’m like “Why does it ever take so long?”
MA: “Post-apocalyptic, rock-and-roll musical? Check.”
KS: Not that we aren’t proud to bring the first Pixar heroine to the screen, but it wasn't "on the list.
MA: That’s not why we choose to do things.
Capone: And Disney has this great princess tradition and a template I guess, and you’ve sort of taken that template and completely flipped it around and turned her into this rebel and someone who is at odds with her parents and tradition. Was that part of Merida's origin?
KS: I think we grew up on the classic fairy tales and classic princesses, and we all appreciated them, but we never wanted to make it a Disney princess. We wanted to make a Pixar hero. What would a Pixar hero does, regardless of gender? What would a Pixar hero do after making a mistake like this as a teenager?
MA: We couldn’t make this movie about a scullery maid or some common sheep herder making a decision to go against her family; it wouldn’t have the gravitas. She had to be a royal, right? As soon as we started to cast her in that role, then we go, “Okay, now we are going across heavily treaded ground. What kind of princess is she?” Then we started making the anti-princess, which is why we have the whole scene at the beginning “A princess is this, a princess is this…,” and Merida is none of that. She's resisting all of it and she’s not happy with any of it.
She doesn’t want to wear the pretty princess dress. She wants to go out and get dirt. I think that’s more real to a character, and it’s really a comment on what society tells us we must be if we are born into whatever, and that’s not what we are supposed to do as human beings. We're supposed to find our bliss. We're supposed to figure out who we are and be brave enough to be that person,. But we have to fit in the world, as well. So to be able to reconcile that difference is what it’s all about.
KS: I remember one day in production when Mark was storyboarding and doing proof of production on a scene where Merida is talking to her horse and mom is talking to Fergus, you know that parallel conversation? But Merida is mucking at her horse’s stall, and I remember challenging Mark on it, “At the end of the day, yeah she's different, but she's still is royal. There’s a staff, they are going to muck up that stall. This doesn’t add up. No one is going to buy this,” and Mark was just like, “She absolutely has to muck up the royal stall.”
MA: Because of that reason.
KS: And then she actually doesn’t mind doing it. She doesn’t see it as a chore.
MA: She is taking care of her freaking horse. “I don’t want them stepping in shit and crap.”
KS: Every one of those decisions was deliberate. It was no accident that she mucks out her own stall.
MA: I’ve got to mark down how many times I curse.
Capone: Is there a swear jar?
Capone: We don’t have a lot of little kids reading our site, I don't think.
MA: Still, that’s okay. You don’t have to quote me word for word.
Capone: Oh no, it’s pretty much a straight Q&A with us.
Capone: By basing a lot of your story in this Scottish folklore, especially the more magical elements, a lot of that folklore is based in nature. But when you’re dealing with nature, you're dealing with elements that are very hard to animate.
KS: Yeah, organics.
Capone: Yet that’s pretty much all this is, fur, leaves, grass and water.
KS: Everything that could have been difficult, we put in. [Laughs]
Capone: Did that drive people crazy?
KS: Not crazy for us, the artists. We knew what we were getting into, and bless our technical guys who have to actually wrangle the computer. They didn’t bat and eye. They didn’t say, “Forget it. Absolutely not! We can’t get it done!” If they had said that, we’d go “Well then we can’t do this movie. Let’s do something else,” because a big part of it, setting it in that ancient Scotland, is you have to have that feel. That will make everything that much more poignant and real and believable and authentic. So they just went “Okay” and dove into it.
They were actually really attracted to that challenge. They'd say, “This is why we want to work here. We're going to tell this story, because there’s easier stories to tell that have less dynamic characters who don’t have that hair or simpler backdrops." The artists of Pixar like to me that sort of challenge.
Capone: With each new animated film I see, I always think “Okay, you can’t make water look any more real than I’ve seen now,” but the water in this movie, and there’s a lot of it, it’s spectacular.
MA: We have the best water in animated film history and we have the most scenes with water and the most interaction with water.
KS: What I appreciate about our water… this was very, very difficult and took a year to make the water right, but it was based on… It wasn’t like “We need water.” It was like, we were in Scotland and the rivers of salmon are important, and we were in Dog Falls, and we were researching and videoing and sketching, and the way it moves and the color of it, the peat color, which gives it like a tea color, all of that was really important to the story. And you’ve got that scene actually in the water is about change and movement, and you’ve got a lot of layers of things happening emotionally. So that water had to fit into the landscape and also fit the moment, and it was very carefully created to Royalist Scottish water ways, which move in a certain way.
MA: Yeah, there’s nothing in this film that was created just because it’s cool or difficult. Everything in the film was an element that had to be in the story, because it’s a essential to that story telling. It may seem like, “That’s a cool shot, what they did with the camera,” but it’s essential to that moment of the storytelling why we did that, or the lighting or the water or the effects or the mist hanging in the trees or her design as a character with that big mop of curly hair.
Capone: Aside from water, are there any technical achievements that you’re really proud up in BRAVE?
MA: I think everything from her hair and the hair on the animals, right?
Capone: Yeah, the matted bear fur in the water looked great.
MA: We’ve got wet hair and dry hair and blown hair and matted hair and stuck hair. Also the rigging in the characters is new stuff that we got for this. So we are able to do more with our characters. The interaction between them and their clothes, that talking back and forth between the departments, automated stuff that you just run it through and stand back and see what you get is just getting more and more refined. So there’s a lot of under-the-hood stuff.
KS: Yeah, we developed something called “Wonder Moss,” because it’s not enough to have a ScottiSh landscape, you’ve got to populate it with mosses and grass. And then when Mark moves the camera, it can’t just be, “Well we didn’t set dress that area,” so we developed Wonder Moss. If Mark moves the camera, we can populate the whole set with moss, so that Mark can feel free to move the camera where he needs it.
MA: I didn’t art direct the backgrounds at all. That’s just random forest that popped up and they textured with everything, and I just got in there with a camera and said, “This is my shot, and we're going to go over here and do this. Can I move that log or add a log? Boop, a log.” “How about that rock? Pop, a rock.” “Okay, now I’m done, let’s go.” B 90 percent of it I took as is.
KS: Right, because we developed Wonder Moss to do that.
MA: That was our catch-all phrase for the foliage, the trees, the moss, rocks all over everything.
KS: We come up with our labels. Like with THE INCREDIBLES, we came up with "Uni-Human," where one man can be stretched and pulled and made to look like he’s a bunch of different people.
MA: Which we got even better at on this film with our crowds. We had a cast of thousands where not any one is the same. They're all different. They're all individuals made out of mixing and matching in so many various ways that we could have thousands of permutations and variations, so that you’d never see the same person twice.
Capone: The other thing that people always say about Pixar is that you're so good about casting the exact right voice, whether they're big-name actors or not, which no one else still to this day seems to quite grasp. What was the road that lead to Kelly Macdonald in this part?
KS: Kelly obviously has appeal and abundance, right? And she’s able to get to the teenage-ness of the character and she's able to be feisty and spirited and also very emotional. She'll pull at your heartstrings. She has all of those qualities and that lovely Scottich lilt. She didn’t always have the role, as you may be aware. In early production meetings, Reese Witherspoon had the role.
Capone: If I knew that, I'd completely forgotten.
KS: Yeah, we wanted to cast someone with that teenage feistiness, and Reese had that abundance and then..
MA: And the comedy chops. She was just perfect.
KS: But when she had to exit due to scheduling issues, despite having mastered a Scottish accent, good for her. She reluctantly had to leave due to scheduling issues, and we were like “Okay.” By then, we had become a lot more aware of Kelly Macdonald, because she was working on "Boardwalk Empire."
MA: And we looked at Kate Mara because she was nailing the Scottish accent in STONE OF DESTINY , and then Kelly came up, and we were all, “Let’s talk to Kelly,” because she had this quirky appeal. And because all of her stuff was not this big flamboyant big teenager, it was this very internal thing. But if she could do that, in the story, I know Merida is going to get to that point. She's going to be vulnerable and small and weak and super heartfelt and emotional, and Kelly you just fall in love with that about her, and we said, “Can she do this comedy? Can she be this big?”
KS: So we met with her.
MA: Sure enough, she could and so we got her onboard and thank goodness we did, because time was running out. She’s great. She brought a lot to the role, and everybody fell in love with her. There’s a lot of Kelly in Merida.
Capone: Who was tasked with taking those trips to Scotland to do all of that research?
KS: We did. We sent Mark and I, a team story artists, Brenda Chapman. We went in 2006, 12 of us, and then in 2007, I took another team with the production designer and his art team. We would start with the storyboard artist and just a little bit of art, and then we really would start to focus on art and design in the second trip. So it was a two-phase process.
Capone: Did anything kind of changed in your thinking of how the film would look after that initial trip.
MA: We had ideas. They were broad ideas of what Scotland looked like, but once you go there and you're actually in the environments and seeing how fast the light can change and how fast the weather can change, how varied that terrain is within just a sweep of the eyes across the land, you really start picking up those details. So when we came back, we just had more information and knowledge is power. We understood Scotland in such a different way that we could then get even more specific with these things. I remember when I went to France for RATATOUILLE with Brad [Bird, director], and we had a little four-day trip out there, because we hadn’t gone. They had done three freaking research trips to France, and we had zero.
KS: When Brad took the reigns on the film…
MA: Yeah, when we took the reigns over on RATATOUILLE, we went there, and Brad is writing this one scene and I’m reading the scene and I’m all, “You know there’s that spot right by the river by that walking bridge right by Notre Dame?” He’s like, “Yeah yeah." "I was thinking about putting a scene here.” “Yeah, yeah!” And that gave him an idea of how to write that part and incorporate that location, and we did that. When we got back from the research trip [to Scotland], it was the same type of thing. mean it’s all of these… When we came up with the whole idea for Mordu, it’s making the ancient kingdom, that scene where they find. Places that we actually were, places that we can reference that you have a specific idea of what that is, and that just makes it a more specific feel to create a specific mood, which we wer able to do because we were actually there--that feeling that you cannot get flipping through pictures on the internet or even reading about. You have to go and experience that.
KS: So I would say a lot of our design decisions were directly inspired by the places we went in Scotland. We had ideas of what we would do, but then once we saw or touched or felt or smelled it, that fine-tuned everything.
MA: Yeah, either focused it or changed it.
Capone: In addition to what you were saying about what the film is about--parents and children and breaking with tradition and letting go--I think the film is also about putting weapons in the hands of children. Let's be honest here.
MA: Absolutely a must. You caught my subtle philosophy, did you?
KS: That was the goal. I was at the Disney store, and there were these two boys, and they were asking their moms, one had the foam mace and the other one had the plastic sword and there were like, “Who’s getting which one?” and the mom was like “I don’t know…” It was like, “There we go.”
MA: It’s essential. Weapons are essential.
Capone: Come Halloween, I see little girls everywhere with bow and arrows. But yeah, the Disney Store is like right over there [points out the hotel window with perfect view of Michigan Aveue].
KS: Yeah, I think they put us in this hotel for a reason. [Laughs]
Capone: The bear attacks are really terrifying, to the point where I’m kind of excited to hear kids scream their brains out.
KS: Well, aren’t you something?
Capone: You don’t really hold back there.
MA: We do hold back.
Capone: Do you?
MA: We hold back a lot. We were a lot more gruesome.
KS: It had to have real stakes, right? You’ve got to have real danger and real stakes, and we tried to balance it like in any Pixar movie with the other ingredients--humor and horror and all of the things that go into a Pixar movie. But if there wasn’t a real threat, a real danger to mom, to the kingdom, to Merida, then how invested are you going to be in this story? You’ve got to care about it, and we stand behind the intensity, because we feel the story required it.
MA: Well yeah, and if you sugarcoat it like we've been doing to these things for our children… I don’t want to terrify them, right? I want to scare them. I want them to realize that there are consequences to your actions. "When you grow up and become an adult, the world is not a nice place, and you have to have those tools to recognize these things.” So the lessons have to be memorable, and they're not going to be memorable if you just had a good time and it was just funny. They're going to be memorable if you were scared, because you're going to come out alright at the end.
They're going to survive, and I think that gives a child much more confidence to face the oncoming world and their role when they arrive there, you know? I mean you look at Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, even Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel, those have been watered down. Those are terrifying. Cinderella was beaten, that’s domestic abuse for crying out loud. But they stripped that out from the original story, and you just got to get “Oh, she just does a lot of chores.” That’s not bad enough. There has to be more of a threat there.
KS: The Grimm’s tales were a lot more scary.
MA: Yeah, they’re going to get cooked in a pot! Red Riding Hood? She gets eaten, because she's stupid! Ishe gets saved, but anyways I think it’s important. I think it’s really important, and you’re in good hands with Pixar. Trust us, we're not going to sit there and terrify the children, but they are going to come out learning a lesson. We were just up in Toronto, and these little girls were screaming and hiding near their mom, but they can’t go away. They were so compelled to watch beyond them being scared, because they were invested in these characters, and they want to see it through and that’s being brave.
Capone: And they were probably asking their parent’s for weapons, too.
Capone: That’s right. All right, thank you so much.
MA: Thank you.
KS: Thank you.
-- Steve Prokopy
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June 22, 2012, 3:16 p.m. CST
June 22, 2012, 3:28 p.m. CST
Had very pretty water. The story happened to be really great too.
June 22, 2012, 4:48 p.m. CST
June 22, 2012, 4:49 p.m. CST
June 22, 2012, 5:58 p.m. CST
They missed David Tennant.
June 22, 2012, 7:07 p.m. CST
June 22, 2012, 7:08 p.m. CST
June 22, 2012, 9:04 p.m. CST
I'm a creature of habit and have been coming here so long that I haven't really bothered checking out the other sites. I enjoy the talkbacks so I'm interested in other sites with a similar setup. Thanks. (sorry for the repost)
June 23, 2012, 3:49 p.m. CST
by Raptor Jesus
June 23, 2012, 3:50 p.m. CST
by Raptor Jesus
June 23, 2012, 3:50 p.m. CST
by Raptor Jesus
June 23, 2012, 3:51 p.m. CST
by Raptor Jesus
June 24, 2012, 1:58 p.m. CST
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