In the years between its conception and its release, an animated feature can go through countless iterations. Disney’s Moana is no exception. Screen Rant sat down with producer Osnat Shurer at Moana’s press day to talk about how aspects of the film’s plot and characters evolved over the five years of its production, as well as working with Lin-Manuel Miranda before, during, and after the success of Hamilton.
(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity)
Moana was a very strong female empowerment character, that didn’t have a love interest, which I found kind of refreshing. I know we saw that in Frozen a little bit, but can you speak on why that was?
Osnat Shurer: We wanted her to be—she’s the hero of her own story, right? She has to go save the world. She’s all of sixteen, so there’s that. And honestly when you’re saving the world, who’s got time for Prince Charming? We also wanted her to be athletic and strong, and able to fight her own battles; nobody has to come in for her, she does what she need to do. And it was important for us, too, that she be a character that that’s her focus. It’s not despite being a girl, it’s a human being who has to follow her inner voice, to go out untrained across the great ocean and across all the barriers that her people haven’t crossed in many, many years and do what was needed to save her people. And as that, she developed as a character who has this really lovely balance between her compassion and her empathy on the one hand, and her courage and her determination and her badassness, if you will.
Maui’s tattoos played a significant role in his character. Were any of those taken directly from Dwayne’s tattoos, cause he has that pretty giant tribal tattoo. Or, with the tattoos that were on Maui, what are some of the stories that we didn’t get explained that were on him?
Osnat Shurer: Well, the Maui character was fully designed before Dwayne came on. And the tattoos—we worked with a master tattoo artist from Samoa. Beautiful, beautiful master tattoo artist. And we would check with him on the tattoos just to make sure that we were doing this right. Because tattoos in the Pacific Islands are earned. They’re not a decoration, they’re something you earn.
Maui’s stories—the big legends of Maui cover his body: how he slowed down the sun to give longer days; he raised the sky so we could walk upright; he gave us wind; all the characters that he had fought are all on his body. So we were in the process of designing all these tattoos on him when we started thinking really hard about the idea of a living Maui, a little Maui, of like a conscience. He’s like Jiminy Cricket. How funny would it be if he has to interact with this, if his conscience is outside him as an animated tattoo? Which of course then gave us also the opportunity to combine traditional animation with computer animation, so we were especially happy.
That was brilliant. I loved that. Were there any scenes that were maybe discussed about seeing the island consumed by darkness while Moana was on her journey past the reef?
Osnat Shurer: Oh yeah, we did so many versions of this movie, and there was a version in which we cut back to the island. There was also an earlier version where the stakes were even higher. What we sought to do—you know we change the story, we draw storyboards, we put it up on the screen, us and our fellow directors and John Lasseter. We all sit and look at it and give each other notes, and then rethink it and do it again every few months for the first three years, before we do any production.
At one point, we realized that in our story we really want to be through the point of view of our protagonist. So we don’t want to cut away, cut back to something else happening somewhere else. We also don’t want to raise the stakes such that the act of leaving the island—we take away the choice from her. She needed to choose. It’s a more interesting character, even for the song earlier on, you know, it’s a more interesting character if, “I love my people, I love my island, but there’s this call in me and now I realize what it is and what needs to be done,” than if you’re like, “Well I don’t like home, I’m going.” We realized that, but we went through all that; we tried her in different ways.
Something that was amazing, and that was so catchy I was humming it as I was driving home was the music. Lin-Manuel Miranda, was that a decision that you wanted to bring him in before Hamilton or after Hamilton?
Osnat Shurer: Before Hamilton. We started with Mark Mancina, because we know Mark and he’s done incredible work for Disney before. But he also has this great love of world music, and on Lion King he did that, he sort of helped to bring these different influences together, he loves all these different instruments. So he’s came on early. And then we listened to a lot of music from the Pacific, and Opetaia [Foa’i] and his band Te Vaka just stood out above the rest. And we talked to him, he came over, he became family.
And then we wanted, as a third to our little team, to have somebody who comes more from the storytelling side of songwriting. We went to New York and met with a number of songwriters, Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] and I, and Lin-Manuel was one of the people we met with. We were sitting there and he was telling us that he is doing this hip-hop musical with the Founding Fathers. [laughs] And my response was, “great, two months and I’ve got him back full time. This ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Cut to, eleven Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Genius award, cover of GQ, cover of Time, you name it. But through all of this, Lin has been an incredible collaborator. We were meeting him in the dressing room—he was in the dressing room of Hamilton and we’re Skyping, and our demos are being done by Pippa [Phillipa] Soo, who plays his wife in Hamilton, and Chris Jackson who plays George Washington. So our demos sound amazing, the cast of Hamilton kind of became an extended family.
When are those gonna get released?
Osnat Shurer: I know, right? Those demos. I mean, there are some deleted songs on the extended soundtrack, songs that we wrote tha were gorgeous songs, but the story changed. But yeah, [Lin] really gave himself to it in a really incredible way, and you wouldn’t know that he’s got a little thing called Hamilton going on eight shows a week.
I loved the character Heihei, and also Pua the pig. Heihei reminds me a lot of Kevin from Up. What was the inspiration to bring that character in? Who sat down and said, “we want this chicken in here,”?
Osnat Shurer: We went to the Islands, we did a lot, a lot of research. You’ve probably heard about our research, but we really spent a lot of time doing research. We spent time in the Islands, we developed our Oceanic Story Trust of various experts from the Islands. One of the things we noticed when we first came to the Islands is that everywhere you go there are roosters and there are pigs. Everywhere. And the roosters are crowing all the time, days and night. And what we learned from the scholars is that when they would settle a new island, they would bring pigs and roosters, and specific plants that you can survive on, and coconut and taro.
And so roosters are a big part of it, so we knew we wanted a rooster and a pig in it. We also learned that sometimes pigs were pets, which is great. And the kunekune type of pig, which is from New Zealand—they’re tiny and they’re so cute, so that we knew, Pua the puppy basically. Heihei for a long time was a smart but cantankerous rooster. The joke used to be that Pua was more Ron Clements and Heihei was more John Musker. They said it, I didn’t. And at some point we were looking at the movie, cause we do all these screenings and we keep changing things, we’re looking at the movie and we thought, “you know, Heihei feels familiar.” It didn’t feel fresh. And so we told our story artists that there’s a good chance Heihei’s going. They went on a save the chicken mission for two days, then came back with a pitch. They put up on a screen to me and the directors, and our heads of story were all there, and there was Heihei the way he was with a thermometer with, like, “Intelligent”. And then there was Heihei with his eyes going all over the place, thermometer had dropped to zero, and they started showing us some of the jokes, some of what would happen with a stupid chicken. We were laughing so hard we were crying. So he earned his way back into the movie. Because if you think about it, you’re going out onto the ocean by yourself, “oh great, I have somebody with me—oh no, it’s a stupid chicken that makes things even harder.” So, we loved—you know, complications are good in storytelling.
It was hard for me to contain my laughter when I saw Heihei, I loved it. So Pixar’s known for putting Easter eggs in a lot of their films. Are there any that you can talk about that are here in Moana.
Osnat Shurer: There are Easter eggs, but I want people to find them!
So, I’ve heard so far Flounder.
Osnat Shurer: He’s there.
Baymax is somewhere, hidden.
Osnat Shurer: Mmhmm.
Oh, and the snowman from Frozen.
Osnat Shurer: Mmhmm. Okay, I’ll give you one more to look for. The reindeer from Frozen. And there are others. But I want people to find them it’s more fun.
Moana’s grandmother had a tattoo, a totem I guess it would really be. What would be your totem?
Osnat Shurer: Wow, that’s a tough one actually, because it’s not a very attractive tattoo. I’m trying to decide between—this’ll probably tell you more about me than probably I want to—but between a dog and a lion. And it kinda depends on my mood.
Which is funny, because when I talked to Ron and John they both said, separately, a dog and a lion.
Osnat Shurer: What? Really?
I believe so, yeah. So that’s pretty crazy.
Osnat Shurer: This is freaky.