In the age of the omnipresent CG animated film and vapid big budget spectacle, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a stop-motion animated movie like ParaNorman come along. Created by Laika, the Portland-based animation studio responsible for the sublime film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, ParaNorman is a lovingly handcrafted horror comedy in the vein of popular 1980s Amblin adventures like E.T. and The Goonies.
I had a chance to visit the ParaNorman set outside of Portland earlier this year and spoke with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell at a press roundtable. In part two of our discussion (read part one here), we talked about the talented young cast of the film, the directors’ own experiences with bullying, ParaNorman‘s relationship to the horror genre, the importance of zombies, and much more.
Why did you cast Kodi Smit-McPhee?
CB: Because he’s great! [laughs]
SF: Yeah, The Road had just come out and he was working on Let Me In, wasn’t he?
CB: Yeah. It was really great working with him at that point because we just got him in time. By the last records his voice had already changed.
SF: But Norman’s an incredibly sophisticated character. He’s kind of put upon and bullied, but we didn’t want him to be this Six Sense, traumatized kid.
CB: No, we never wanted him to be Haley Joel Osment. [laughs] He’s okay with who he is, he just decides not to share it.
SF: But he had to have a little bit of a spark to him and a bit of an edge, but not be an asshole.
CB: He’s a smart character though, and some of the dialogue that he gets – in the wrong hands or rather wrong mouth – might come across a little too knowing or smart ass, and I think Cody manages it. He is just a really, really great actor, and he was able to do that and still maintain some innocence.
So that part of it is still traditionally recorded? The actors record their parts independently and not together?
SF: We did manage to get some together. It’s difficult with their schedules, but we definitely tried. It’s a little easier with the younger actors because they’re less busy. We made sure to get the chap Tucker Albrizzi, who plays Neil, and Cody together.
CB: And that was part of our effort in terms of the dialogue recording for it to have a naturalism. For example, there was a scene when we did get Cody and Tucker together, we had them read together, they messed it up and tried to improvise, but there was a really nice dynamic there. We kept a lot of that and gave it to the animator for this one scene, and it turned into a really beautiful, well observed, well acted scene. And that’s something quite unusual in stop frame animation, because it’s not very broad, theatrical acting, it’s very small and nuanced. That was a real challenge, but it’s something that we can achieve now with the rapid prototyping and with how fantastic these puppets are. So it was a really great thing to aspire to.
As much as possible we tried to get the actors together so we could get some of that rapid fire stuff. That was a big part of the movies that we were talking about, the old Amblin movies – The Goonies and all that – people talking over each other and feeling like you’re in there. We definitely wanted that.
Given that the film has some pretty substantial existential themes going, why play it out in a world that so closely resembles our own?
CB: I think that is why…
SF: Yeah, I think it was baked into the script. There was always a feeling in the script that you could have done it as a live-action effects movie… maybe.
CB: That was definitely a comment early on – this reads like a live-action script – and that was a compliment to me because I really wanted the kids’ voices to feel real. Also, it’s partly a story about bullying, so it’s very rooted in the real world. It’s very rooted in a kid going to school and having a miserable time because of the kids around him, which is always relevant. And I think for that to work and for you to buy that this kid has this supernatural side to him that’s so different, you have to make the real seem real. Because when you do get to those fantastic bits, they really do sing, there’s a real contrast. I think it’s the best way to suggest the contrast in Norman’s life, between his everyday mundane life and these fantastic, supernatural elements that surround him.
Were either of you bullied as kids?
CB: Yeah, briefly… [laughs] Ooh, I was going to say her name. One of the background puppets ended up looking just like her, so she’s got a role. [laughs] Not on purpose, it just happened! But I ended up becoming friends with her so it was fine.
What’s the film’s relationship to the horror genre?
CB: Obviously I loved horror when I was a kid, but part of it was something that relates to Coraline as well. I think there’s something thrilling to kids about monsters and scares, but as long as you’re saying that there’s a monster and it can be beaten. I think that’s important. It’s not really a parody, it’s not really a pastiche, it has horror elements in it, but they’re part of a much bigger story about these kids. It’s nice to reference those things for fun though.
SF: When I came early on we looked at Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, some early Sam Raimi, the classics. We didn’t want to spoof the horror movie, but we both like them.
CB: We did have a bit of fun in one sequence. The opening scene of the movie is like our version of a really bad zombie movie, including terrible cutting and bad acting – which is very hard to animate!
SF: Yeah it is! It took us a little to get the crew used to the idea of doing things badly. They were like “What?” Yeah, it’s not continuity cut – he just hops from there to there – it doesn’t work, please do it.
CB: Everyone is getting annoyed with you because you’re not following continuity… That’s the point!
Why were zombies important to the story as opposed to something like ghosts?
CB: Well, there’s both ghosts and zombies, and the relationship between the two is actually part of the story. But I think for me zombies were intriguing, and for Norman they’re intriguing. Obviously I didn’t realize it when I was a kid, but you can use the zombie movie genre to make all kinds of points. You can use it to set the parameters of so many different kinds of stories, and I think those are the successful zombie movies…
SF: When they’re talking about something else, yeah. There’s a social satire in there that you get in a lot of zombie movies.
And are you satirizing something that zombie movies normally do?
CB: Not as such. We’re basically using traditional zombie movies to say “This is what you think zombies are,” and then we do something different with them.
Going back to the beginning, why did each of you think, “I’ve got to do this”?
SF: My first instinct was “I just think this would be super cool.” I’ve got a boy and I knew he’d be hitting the exact right age to watch this film. I thought that whatever happened it would be a very cool film, and I could tell from Coraline that this was a studio that would be brave and take a chance. I knew that it would be different from anything else.
CB: Well… because I wrote it… [laughs] I guess I just always wanted to tell this story. It pretty much stayed the same for a long time and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do it. It just felt like a great story and cool stuff.
How different is the story now from when you began writing it so long ago?
CB: I mean, obviously things changed. I have to say that the main character wasn’t called Norman for a long time, until I thought of “ParaNorman” and then it was like “Hey!” It was so many different names before, but none of them seemed to fit. So I’m glad I thought of the title or else he would have had a crap name.
A lot of stuff is, remarkably, the same though. When we first got together and took the script and started to visualize it, I think that was a really good and functional part of the process. We’d known from day one what the story was and where we were headed. Quite often with the animated stuff that I’ve worked on, you start into production and don’t really know what the ending is. You often start work on a movie where you’re still thinking up the third act, and that’s normal unfortunately, but it’s not preferable. I think it was great that we could both be really solid about the story we were telling.
SF: If you don’t know it you get cornered, and you end up trying to bodge something together. But with this, every aspect – from camera right down to the final little button – has been designed to fit the story, which I think is the greatest thing about it. It’s an incredibly coherent movie.
ParaNorman is in theatres this Friday, August 17.