It’s somewhat fitting that director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian seem to function as a bit of an odd couple as they find themselves tucked away in a giant medieval looking dining room at famed Casa Loma in Toronto while doing a press tour for their work together on Pixar’s latest animated effort, Brave.
Andrews (who Pixar fans can also catch somewhat prominently in the special features on the John Carter Blu-ray, as well) is a bit of a foul-mouthed live wire, full of energy and not afraid to express an opinion in a decidedly animated fashion as he leans back with his curly black hair pulled back into a ponytail as the room remarks upon his cheeky, black “Got Haggis?” T-shirt. Sarafian is equally jokey and self-effacing, but decidedly more eloquent and busness-like. Whenever Andrews begins to get a bit ahead of himself, Sarafian is often there to bring him back on track.
Together they have crafted the latest epic from the company, a Scottish folktale about a young girl named Merida who wishes to change her fate from being a betrothed princess like her mother wants to becoming a warrior like the father she looks up to. More of a mother-daughter tale than any previous film in the Pixar canon (or the Disney canon, for that matter), Brave aims to break new thematic ground for the studio while packaged in a typically appealing fashion.
Dork Shelf talked to Andrews and Sarafian about their extensive research in Scotland, the nature of their strong willed heroine, and why story and character appeal are always the hardest things to get right in an animated film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in bringing this story to the screen?
Mark Andrews: (laughs) Katherine was one of my biggest challenges…
Katherine Sarafian: (laughs) Yeah, we’re both pretty hard to work with. Actually, really for any actor, director, producer, screenwriter, animator that you ask, they’ll all tell you that in the end the hardest part that it all comes down to is story. It’s the hardest thing to do and it takes a long time and you can never get it right even when you think you get it right. Even when the movie’s about to be released you keep thinking that you always want to make it better. And these aren’t easy films to make since on average it takes four to six years to make each one. For the entire time right up until the day the film’s released we’re always trying to make the story the best it can possibly be.
MA: No matter how much time you think you have it always turns out to be no time at all because you spend so much time in the development phase, playing around with how many different permeations of this idea you can have and what the right one is. Should we do this? Should we do that? Then you get to the point where you haven’t committed to anything yet and you have that first reel and you have all the storyboards and you look at it all and you go “Oh shit! We haven’t even got an outline!” then you have to come at it a different way the second time and then the third time and so on and so on, and then all of a sudden you get a release date and then the pressure is really on. We have a motto at work that story is hell and that it’s the 666th layer of the abyss BECAUSE it’s hard; because you can do anything when you’re working off a blank page, it’s not like we’re adapting something, you know? We’re building it fresh and from the ground up and there’s just so many ways that you can go down.
Where did the idea to set a story in Scotland come from and what was it like being there?
MA: You know, my co-director, Brenda Chapman and I, both have Scottish ancestry, and I’m a huge history buff and legends and myths buff, as well as all this other areas of history, Greek and Norse, and just everything, you know? I’m just into all that stuff, and this land is just so rich in history and the myths that surround it. They had this oral tradition that just came up through Europe and through all those islands that held all of their stories, their lessons, their laws, their beliefs, and how you we’re going to be when you grew up. You were going to be this warrior, but here was this story of this guy who screwed up so you’re not going to do that. It’s what we do still today, but just with books and movies, so why not place that story in there and see if we can’t cull anything out of those myths to help us build this story. It was just a natural setting for us to put this teen angst film within, this parent/child dynamic in this world of very heavy tradition and just shake it out. We’re making a cocktail and constantly tasting it and adding more to it. That’s why. It’s write about what you know, and that’s what we know. We’re drawn to it. My only other thing is that I might have put it in space. (laughs)
KS: There wasn’t a day that went by that you didn’t consider setting everything in space. (laughs) I think that once we finally settled on Scotland and we knew what it was going to be like this kind of tall tale and we sort of had the script in place, that was when we went on the research trip. If we had gotten to Scotland and we had seen that this wasn’t conducive to storytelling as we thought, we probably would have changed it, but fortuitously it was the right location that all the kinds of dramatic changes of landscape, the sharpness, the dark forests and treacherous cliffs and all of these sort of magical and mythical places that we wanted to tell the story, but had we been wrong, we would have just moved the story.
MA: But if we were smart we would have just shot it in Italy where we would have gotten some great and fantastic trips there! Or the islands! Or the Caribbean! We could have gone someplace warm! (laughs) Scotland’s NOT warm.
KS: Well, if we were fiscally responsible we would have set it all in Emeryville (California, home of the Pixar offices) and we never would have had to leave the state!
We took two trips for research, the first was in late August 2006, with twelve artists in twelve days. The second was in October 2007, which was seven artists in seven days Really, the first trip was storyboard artists, myself and Mark and Brenda the directors. We weren’t sure where to go, but Mark had this really great story about having his honeymoon in Scotland, and only having four days in Edinburgh knowing that he could have stayed there for months, so he asked a cab driver for suggestions on where to go and we went to all of those places with sketchbooks, paints, pastels, and cameras.
MA: We went skinny dipping in lochs, laid down in the heather.
KS: It was about smelling everything, touching everything, and drawing. We also talked to a lot of people because we wanted to hear not just the accents, but their sense of storytelling. We went to a pub and played some music. We bought people beer and once you do that they’re very happy to open up and tell you stories. We looked at the faces and felt the weather. All of these things really played in directly to the final film.
MA: Yeah, you get all these assets by really going. Because we could easily look it up on the web and get pictures. There are plenty of books and articles that have been written. You can gather a lot of information that way, but that’s only here (points at head), that’s not here (points at heart). To get that, you have to go there. Once you get it there, then you can get it on the page or into a painting, or tell someone else about it because you’ll have details you wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s incredibly valuable.
KS: The scale of things makes a huge difference as well. Like the Calanais Stones. We saw them in a book and wanted to include them, but then when you get there they are just huge. There are things that you really have to see to experience. I always come back to those because you see the pictures and think, “oh very striking, very beautiful, we should put a story point there.” But then once we got there and actually see them, everyone went silent and sketched. It was such a meditative place, nobody decided not to speak, but it happened once we got there and had that feeling. That sort of experience changes how you think of it and that changes that story point and what you do with that setting in the movie. That became a big story point where she went to the witch’s cottage. So, those trips were incredibly important.
MA: We saw several castles, and woods, and different areas, but one thing was just really primal and strong was Dunnotar Castle on the East Coast because it’s just growing out of this mass of rock. You had to literally almost climb up to get to it and if I was part of an assaulting army, I would just say forget it. I would wait until they invented a cannon and then attack by boat. (laughs) Then we went to the castle at Lake Donan, which is on your way down towards Skye, and it’s the most photographed place in all of Scotland and we got to shoot a bit inside.
KS: Yeah, that was a really great and influential place that we had to get a special permit to shoot inside there. I mean, they had just done some restoration and had it done up to make it look like a later time period…
MA: Because it was blown to rat crap in the 12th century…
KS: It was redone for tourists, but it did give us a better idea of castle life and what it was like. Those two places were quite pivotal. Dunnotar in particular was a changing moment for us because we had went to Scotland thinking that a castle was more likely to be on a Loch. When we got there we changed it to be right there on the sea and have clans come in by boats. It changed the location of our capital which was more or less Dunnotar.
MA: And we had our trip to this spooky forest where there were all of these landmarks and stones. There were pictistones all over the place. I still don’t understand fully what they were there for. Some people said to study the stars and the moon. That was an interesting theory, but our guide had another interesting theory that they were directional waypoints because you could see them from far off. Really, anything in a circle there is sort of magical. And boys, whatever you do, if you see a circle in Scotland, don’t step in it. You’re taking your chances with the fates there. It’s such a unique area that’s so steeped in that sort of thing that we just gobble all that up and we can just throw it all onto the storyboards.
KS: And that even extends to the symbols themselves because it’s not enough to have a stone or a cross or anything like that. There are carvings there that you don’t know how old they are and you just have no idea what they are, but they’re a part of this culture that’s been lost somewhat. We put patterns on our own rocks and stones in the film, and you’ll see some of those patterns in the art book and probably on the DVD or Blu-ray special features. Sometimes you can’t see them because the camera moves by them so fast, but they’re there!
This is the first Pixar film to actually feature a female protagonist. What kind of message are you hoping this film will have for young girls and was it something that was a bit harder to sell on your end?
KS: I don’t think we really started out thinking about that at all. We now sort of find ourselves having to talk about that quite a bit because the best character possible for the story happened to be teenage and happened to be a girl. She happened to also be royal, but all of these happened to be secondary or tertiary plans. Now that we have it, I think I would love for people to embrace Merida as a character and see in her something aspirational, particularly the idea that you can be truthful and say what you want in life and carve out your own path. To be true to yourself and who you are, and even in ancient times there was a place for that, and if the world doesn’t quite see you the way that you want to be seen, you can bravely face up to that.
MA: Yeah, I think that’s the big issue. In this land and era of tradition where there’s all these preconceived notions of what a woman or anyone else needs to be, even boys. I’ve got a girl and three boys just like King Fergus has, but to see what my girl is going through feels different. I remember my cousin was the first girl back in the 70s to play on an all boys soccer team, and it was before anyone was doing that so it was some sort of huge scandal., We’ve come a long way since then, but it’s sad that we have to come back around and come back to this story that takes place in ancient times that can be inspiring no matter who you are, which is to be brave enough to be who you are and to never let anyone tell you who you are. But at the same time, you also have this place in the world now where you have to reconcile with this, and there’s going to be consequences for your actions and that’s the other thing we all have in common together. That’s what we want to get out.
It’s weird because it’s not like we have a big dry erase board with a list of all the Pixar movies like (assumes dramatic voice), first the girl picture then the giraffe picture, then something in Saudi Arabia, then talking squirrels. If we were focused on that aspect, a marketing aspect or what we haven’t done, then we’d be playing to that instead of focusing on the strengths of the character and the story and building it from the ground up. So it’s always the things that we are inspired by create the story. I don’t blame anyone as we’re releasing it for focusing on about it being the first female protagonist because that’s new. We’ve had strong female characters in our movies before, but more in a supporting role. It’s our first period piece as well. I think that while there are a lot of firsts here, it still is a regular Pixar film. You are going to get a unique take on something that you haven’t seen before. There have been talking animal pictures before, but Finding Nemo was different. There had been superhero pictures before but The Incredibles is still a great one because it has that strong family group. So, we’re still very much in the cannon of Pixar, which is you’re going to get something different, you don’t know what to expect, but trust us it’s going to be good. I kind of like that everyone is gravitating to these specifics about it so then when people actually go to the theater they’ll be like, “it was more than just a movie about one girl or about Scotland?” We get a lot of questions about that stuff, but it just came from our interests.
KS: I’m learning as we’re promoting the film what a big deal it is that this is our first female protagonist. As Mark said, as we made the film the focus was just on creating the best character. We have an awareness that Pixar hasn’t had a female diving the story forward in the past, but it wasn’t until we started talking about it that we became aware of what a big deal it is. But it is, so we’ll trudge forward with that awareness now, knowing that audiences want something more out of their female characters.
MA: And we were aware that Disney has done the princess…you know, a lot. We knew we had a princess and that serves the story, but we knew we were making a kind of anti-princess. She’s everything that a princess is not. That’s why we had the whole scene of “a princess is this, a princess does that,” so that we could abolish all of those things. She’s not even good at any of those things that’s she’s supposed to do! Being a princess and being a woman are two very different things, or can be. We didn’t want to follow those old adages of “you have to be saved” or “you have to fall in love to be complete.” She’s not questing for a happily ever after. She’s trying to find out who she is and how she fits into this world on her own terms. That’s very inspirational, I think and a good change.
Speaking of inspirations, I was wondering if you could chat a little bit more about your artistic inspirations for this movie? For instance, I saw a lot of Miyazaki in the character designs.
MA: Yeah, we had some great character designers on our art team. Steve Purcell is just a fantastic designer. He comes out of children’s books and he’s known for his texture and the roundness of the form that he creates. So there are a lot of influences. I love Miyazaki films, but I love all anime. I wasn’t there for the design process, but everybody had input and they were being designed and driven by what the story requires. I think Miyazaki is a good reference because he just goes in there and takes inspiration from what’s in his stories, he’s not redesigning it. He makes the characters simple enough that we get who they are and they fit with the environment. Steve did the same thing. Here we have an actual Scotland and we’re going to create a highly characterized version so that it’s almost hyperrealistic. I wouldn’t call it photorealistic, but it feels like you could touch it. So the characters had to feel like they belonged in that world and still have a softness at the same time. So, it’s always to serve the story so that there’s a sense of visual storytelling going on at all times that conveys information without me having to type words to explain something in exposition. That way, the dialogue is just the icing on the cake.
KS: We take inspiration from everything in our lives. Every movie we’ve seen or—
MA: There’s a little Conan in there and some Excalibur or Ridley Scott. That’s what’s made me who I am, so those things are going to get jumbled up inside and comes out as something new.
KS: Any Star Wars in there?
MA: Of course there’s Star Wars in there! If you look at this and play Star Wars at the same time they line up cut-to-cut. It’s amazing. (laughs)
KS: We have laminated cards in story meetings and one is a Star Wars card so that you can only make one Star Wars reference per day. If you mention Star Wars in the story room, then you have to turn in your card and can’t mention it for the rest of the day.
MA: It was debilitating.
KS: I think our creativity is shaped by everything we see and experience including Miyazaki, but I think what the cool thing about this film is that everything is grounded in something real. We didn’t have to look to other films for inspiration all the time because we could look to Scotland and the natural qualities. So we felt that was more interesting to us that other texts, for the most part.
During the voiceover recording were the actors able to interact or were they able to do things separately.
MA: All done separately.
KS: They all interacted back when they all did other movies together in the past. (laughs) They all knew each other really well. Some had even seen each other even as early as the previous week and some had directed each other in different things. But we never were able to get any of them together in the same room.
MA: It’s jus t too difficult to get everyone in there. I did that back in school when I was still going through film school. I would have my actors all record at the same time back then, but I know that Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh did that back in the day with The Road to El Dorado where they only record at the same time, but they set all that up in their contracts. It’s hard because you know it’s all about building up the performances. That’s why you do several different takes and one person’s coming on strong and I knew there’s another great take where the person they’re acting with is kind of diminished, then I can form a rhythm and a pattern out of all the different takes.
KS: We have quite the international cast, and we’re in the position where all of them were gainfully employed doing other things. With Kelly Macdonald, she was busy with Boardwalk Empire so she was in New York. With Billy Connolly, he was always doing comedy tours so he was always in Australia or New York or wherever he was doing a shot at any given time. Robbie Coltrane was usually in Glasgow or London most of the time. Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson, usually in LA. I think we would have loved to have them all in one room, but if you asked us if we would do it this way again we would say yes because it was the only way to get all of these actors in the first place. They were the right ones for the roles.
Could you talk a little bit about the arc of your film’s heroine? It isn’t your standard heroic arc.
MA: Well, we had to figure out the character. She was headstrong and wilful, but she also has to be appealing because I didn’t want to go through the whole movie hating the main character. I want to like her by the end and be aware that she’s going through this transition of adolescence to adulthood, that she has to learn all these lessons. But I am totally behind her for being all the ways that she is. It’s a really delicate balance to strike. That’s a lot of trial and error to line up those things. I mean, we hated her in some early drafts for a long time. The main character was (so spiteful) and the mother was like Mommy Dearest, she was awful. We made her this wicked, evil queen. It actually wasn’t even until we had Kelly on board and she lent her voice to this character that it came together. We could hear the stuff in the script when we read it to each other, and we were getting there, maybe 70% of the way there, because you could read it and think that it was still on that teenage side of being too unlikable.
KS: Appeal is a huge thing.
MA: Appeal is magic. It’s an alchemy, but we fell in love with her from the first line out of her mouth.
KS: Even through things like character design and storyboards when you’re just sketching everything out using a pencil, no matter how big her smile is or how wide her eyes are, appeal is something you have to always strive for. It’s appeal plus character design, and then it becomes appeal plus character movement. You need to have that before you have the voice, and then casting is pretty much all about appeal, appeal, appeal, because you’re going to be putting your characters through some gnarly stuff, and the audience has to stay with them. We can never underestimate the importance of appeal.
MA: It’s the biggest part of making the script work, because what is appeal? And it goes just from your gut. And when we know the story’s on the right track, it’s from the gut and it just feels right. And that’s something that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t articulate it at all. Neither can Andrew Stanton, or John Lassetter, or Steven Spielberg, or James Cameron. They can’t do it. They have ideas, but they can’t be right all the time, because if they were right all the time they would be walking out with Academy Awards all the time, and they’re not! It’s hard.
KS: This even goes back to the days of Toy Story with Woody the Cowboy. That came out all the way back in 1995 and that was a hard thing to land the appeal for. He was a pull-string cowboy and he was a jerk. You’ll hear Andrew and John constantly bickering back and forth that he just lacked appeal. He was really snarky and kind of underhanded, and they really had to work to get that likeability out of that character. They found it a bit, but Tom Hanks ultimately became what was needed to give it that appeal.
MA: Like, I talked to Emma Thompson about her character here (as Merida’s mother, the Queen) to tell her that we as an audience have to be able to laugh at her at times. Because as soon as you say a character is royalty, there’s a certain connotation that you have to treat them with respect, but you really don’t. You can be bawdy, and fun, and lighthearted, and comic. It just makes her real.