Several weeks ago we had the pleasure of visiting the stunning creative spaces of Pixar in San Francisco, for a sneak peak at the innovative studio’s upcoming princess adventure, Brave (stay tuned for more on our visit in weeks to come).
While there, we had the opportunity to view the first thirty minutes of the film, spend some time with the artists who helped to craft the stunning visual landscape, and talk with producer Katherine Sarafian about the process of developing a story at Pixar. In addition to our tour, we were able to sit down for an one-on-one chat with co-director Mark Andrews to talk about taking over from the film’s original director, Brenda Chapman* and what he wanted to bring to this epic Scottish fairytale.
(*Chapman, a Pixar veteran, was inspired by her relationship with her daughter and love of Scotland to pitch the story of Brave to the studio. She worked on the film for several years, at which point she and Pixar parted ways and Andrews stepped in to complete the film.)
Take a look at a new clip from Brave (courtesy of Yahoo), then read our interview with Andrews:
Screen Rant: I know you had certain mandates when you came on board to the project in terms of tightening the story, but one of the things I thought was interesting was this idea that you wanted to create something that is decidedly not a Princess story, despite having a Princess as the central character.
Mark Andrews: “Yes.”
SR: So if it’s not a Princess story, how would you define a classic Princess tale?
MA: “Are you asking because you feel like you need to define the genre?”
SR: “No. We don’t have to put it in those terms. Nobody’s putting baby in a corner. But I do feel like Pixar often takes a common idea or trope or world and adds an interesting twist that brings the story to life. And so I feel like with this particular film there is going to be some measure of looking for the twist because she’s a Princess.”
MA: “Oh sure. But we’re going to get out of it really quickly because it’s not the deciding factor of who she is, you know?”
MA: “Or part of her dilemma. It’s an aspect of the story. It’s like her being a woman is an aspect of the story that we can utilize to help tell a stronger story. I mean, it’s a coming of age story. Could we have done this with a boy and made him a Prince? Absolutely. Would it have been as compelling? Possibly. Right. But at the end of the day, after you come out of the film, you’re going to be taken on this adventure and you’re going to care for this character, you know? And you will have seen something that you may think you have seen before or think you understand at the beginning, and it will have gone a different way. And find more of that heart by the end of it. I think that’s what all Pixar movies endeavor to do. I mean, Andrew (Stanton) did a great job taking a sci-fi movie and turning it on its head (with ‘Wall-E’). Brad (Bird) did great taking the superheroes, mindless superheroes, and turning it on its head (with ‘The Incredibles’).
SR: Absolutely, and many people have emulated his (Bird’s) take since then.
MA: “Yes, and everybody copies it. So hopefully, now we can take fairytales and turn them on their heads.”
SR: Exactly. It feels like that’s what Pixar has done so well.
MA: “Right. So you go okay, yes it has elements of the familiar but that was just the starting place. As as soon as I take a bite, there is a totally different flavor and taste involved that I didn’t expect.’ And that’s what we’re doing with Pixar films.”
SR: This is a story in which there is a young girl who is rebelling against the expectations her mother has of her, which feels familiar and is relatable for most people. But in just the thirty minutes that I saw, and I don’t know where it’s going, obviously, but what I noticed was that I had a lot of sympathy for the mom. I really didn’t look at her as a nefarious kind of character.
SR: So I wonder if that’s going to be developed so that whatever Merida is seeking freedom from, that there’s a reason she shouldn’t be rebelling quite so hard, a reason that her duties are what they are.
MA: “Right. Absolutely. We’re leading it that way. As a child – and my children don’t understand because they haven’t gone through the process, they haven’t had the experience – so Merida is making judgment calls, not trusting her mother or listening to her mother. But then Mom, conversely, is not listening to her daughter. What Merida’s really saying is, ‘I understand that these things have to happen. Can they happen in my time? So I can digest them?’ So there’s that back and forth there that’s really appealing to the story, because the answer is so close, and that creates that great tension between them because we all see it.”
SR: Were there any specific elements that you altered or changed in terms of the visual aesthetic when you took over?
MA: “Zero. Steve Purcell and Danielle Fineberg, my DP and my production designer, kind of were working on that, establishing that with Brenda (Chapman). When I came on the film, I said ‘guys, I don’t want to change any of this. This is beautiful. It’s such a strong theatrical sense of the place that you guys captured and I don’t need to do anything. One thing that I want to infuse that I don’t see is atmosphere. I want to smell that air, I want it thick in the castle, I want clouds and mist and all this other stuff.’ And Danielle and Steve were all for adding that. For Danielle, for lighting, I wanted more blacks. I don’t want the usual Pixar pastel palettes where we can see everything clearly. I want stuff to fall off and go totally dark, and she was all up for that. Because that just, again, pushes the bounds of what we’ve done [even] more, in new ways here in the medium.”
SR: How about in terms of story? What were some of the things you added or took away?
MA: “Well Mordu the Bear. He was around, but it was just a matter of pumping him up and making him more of a centerpiece. The will-o’-the-wisps (or “foolish fire,”a ghostly light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes) were always there, but I worked at defining what the wisps actually do (it resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached), how that is integral to the story. So there are a lot of these great ideas that were around that just weren’t fitting together.
So one of the things I came on to do was identifying things and saying, “Hey, these are all great ideas, there’s nothing wrong with these ideas. But they need to fit together, how do I fit them together?” And that’s a lot of trial and tribulation of trying to get these square/round holes to go together and to make it seem like they’re flawless. Make it seem like it was all one thought throughout the whole thing. So that was pretty much what I was doing.
There were other characters, there were more crowds, you know, there were gags that we invented when we came on. More exploration of the castle, I wanted to see more of the castle. I brought more animals into it. There were ideas about back stories that we weren’t seeing that I wanted to see or at least get hints of, so that was new sets that had to be built, you know, to fully realize these things. So there were a bunch of things that I brought to it, but I had a really strong foundation, so I didn’t have to start totally from scratch and do it. There were really strong ideas that were already created in the time that Brenda was on it and that her and her story team had developed.”
SR: Did the tone shift at all?
MA: “There was some tonal shift. I think there were many tones in previous incarnations all happening at once, and I think it was just coming in and going – boom – one tone, you know? And still keeping that dark tone was very important to me because I know that’s something Brenda was really invested in, that this has to be real and it has to be scary and you know, there’s drama and weight to the stakes that can only be seen if we go scary. So the questions became, how scary and when? How long are we in the scary and things like that. But that was something I wanted to keep. It’s not an overly super-funny, riotous laughing Pixar film like some of them are. But Brad didn’t do that on ‘Incredibles,’ right? ‘Up’ isn’t totally hilarious. So it gave us some license. It still has humor in it, and when it’s funny, it’s funny. And when it’s not, it’s not. We can go in and out of those things just seamlessly.”
SR: Breaking the tropes of the Princess story did seem like something that was important to her (Brenda Chapman), though.
MA: “Yup, yup. And we kept that. I mean that’s one thing. But I mean how do you do that, how do you define that, and which direction do they go? Making her still appealing without being this naggy person. We hate teenagers, we all hate teenagers, right?”
SR: I hate them so much.
MA: “So how do we fall in love with this teenager, right? Who’s complaining, you know. So that was a hard thing that was never fully solved. It would be solved but then Mom would be a pain in the ass. So then how do you get those both married together, so you like them both and understand them but not dislike them ever.”
SR: Do you look to any sort of archetypes for that? I feel like Emma Stone in Easy A was a teenager you could really like.
MA: “Sure. I know the animators over their time on the movie would look over movies that had the characteristics of these things, but that’s a slippery slope, because you’re not doing that character in particular because every movie is kind of a custom snowflake job.”
MA: “But it gives you ideas, hopefully, that shake things up. Like everybody asks me, “Who’s the queen? Is she like Queen Elizabeth?” And I’m like, “No, it’s not that kind of monarchy,” right? We would hate her if she was Queen Elizabeth and devoid of emotion. This is a bawdy queen, but not “hey, hey, hey!” So there’s a real, defining sense of who these characters were that they were still exploring when I came on. Which I think was part of the issues that got stuck is that by 18 months to go, a lot of those things had to be more focused.”
SR: Right. So do you feel you can just get lost in the idea?
MA: “Absolutely, absolutely. That’s one of the dangers. It’s easy to get lost in the idea.”
Brave opens in theaters on June 22.
Follow me on twitter @JRothC