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Exclusive Interview: The Directors of ParaNorman

Horror fans looking to induct their kids into the type of teenagers who will rush out at midnight to see the latest gore-filled zombie flick need look no further than Focus Features and LAIKA’s upcoming stop-motion animated movie ParaNorman.

It’s the second feature-length film from Portland’s LAIKA Studios following Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline a few years back, which was nominated for every major film award in the animation category, and it once again shows the clever and amazing things that can be done using stop-motion animation. While it does involve zombies and witches and other scary things, it’s still very much a family-friendly film (i.e. no stop-motion innards splaying at the screen in 3D or anything like that).

You may remember the earlier report on our set visit to LAIKA’s Portland studios a few months back or read our review. Clearly, we’ve already spent a lot of time talking to co-directors Chris Butler, who also came up with the idea and wrote the script, and Sam Fell, whose previous movies Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux did not show any signs of being made by a horror fan, but we figured it was worth one more interview now that we’ve seen the movie.

ParaNorman takes place in a small suburban town called Blythe Hollow where young Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee from The Road) sees and speaks with the ghosts of the dead. When he’s visited by his eccentric uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), Norman is sent on a quest to put a stop to the town’s 300-year witch’s curse which leads to the walking dead arriving in town, along with his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck).


ShockTillYouDrop.com: When I spoke to you guys in Portland, it was before we had the tour of LAIKA and saw that huge process of making the movie, and after doing that, I immediately had more questions for you guys, particularly how you could oversee that whole machine.
Chris Butler (on the left below):
I think at some point, it’s like a boulder running down a hill and you just have to know where you’re aiming that boulder to start off with because it just takes off. Sam Fell: It is like that. The first half is pushing that thing up the hill and for us, that’s all the work. Getting it up there and then you’re right, it tips and then your job is chasing it down the hill trying to control it.

Shock: Even keeping track of where everything and everyone is. I have to imagine that new people would immediately get lost there.
Fell:
Oh, yeah, yeah, but we were guided around…
Butler: We have wranglers.
Fell: They have walkie-talkies.
Butler: Seriously, it became difficult at times to even go to the bathroom.
Fell: Well, they’d let you in there but they’d wait outside, wouldn’t they?

Shock: Let’s start with you, Chris, because you’ve been working on this for so many years, so now that it’s done, what was the biggest surprise in the whole process of getting this made and finishing it.

Butler: I think for me still the biggest surprise is that it happened at all. When I first started writing this, I knew it was a good idea and I was very passionate about it, obviously. It was very personal to me in many ways, but I honestly never believed that someone would want to make it and want to make it with me as the writer and actually give me the chance to direct. That’s unheard of, I think, especially in animation. Animation tends to be written by committees, it’s directed by multiple people who come in and out. I think it’s very rare to be given the opportunity to nurture your baby and then follow it through. I just didn’t think it would happen so I’m amazed. You say it’s all done now, but we still haven’t actually sat with an audience and watched it, not since it’s been done. That to me will be the defining moment for me when I’m surrounded by other people with the finished thing.
Fell: And then you know it’s actually done.

Shock: You haven’t had test screenings of the movie before?
Fell:
Yeah, we have.
Butler: Yeah, but we’re often not there.

Shock: I noticed there’s a lot of great sight gags in the movie but I see these things that appear on screen for mere seconds but they probably took months to animate. Like when the van is going down the hill and it cuts to the people in the restaurant in the foreground. It’s a great gag that probably took months to animate.
Fell:
Oh, gosh, yeah.
Butler: That’s the whole thing with jokes especially. When they’re in the script and you come to storyboard them and then you re-storyboard them and then you do them again and then you get the temp recorded and then you get the real actors recorded. By the time you actually come to shooting that joke, you’re not even sure it’s funny anymore because you’ve heard it so many times. You get to a point where you’re just like, “I think this is funny?” you know?
Fell: In the end, you just gotta trust what you’ve written.
Butler: One good sign was that at the end of every week, we’d have Friday crew rushes where the whole crew just gets together with beer or whatever and watches the week’s work, and the jokes would always get laughs. I’ve worked on movies where it’s just silent because people are so tired of what they’re seeing and working on something and the crew on this was always very ebullient. They were just really into it and that was a good sign.

Shock: Right, but that seems like so much work for those jokes and you can’t really test it out on other people and then make changes.
Fell:
We’re always testing everything.
Butler: You’ve got the crew, you got the story team. You’ve always got to gauge based on someone.
Fell: But everybody’s “plussing” it. Like there’s the script and then it’s “plussed” by the storyboard process. Then the art department get to “plus” it. We’re like, “Guys, please, create your world,” so all kinds of people are adding jokes or a prop. We try to get a bit running through the whole crew that there’s the spirit of humor and invention that kind of happens. I don’t think we’ve seen everything. I was surprised occasionally by seeing something on-screen and going, “Oh, yeah, they’ve put Chris’ name on Mitch’s underpants.” That was a new one, wasn’t it?

Shock: As the person who came in after Chris had already had this idea for many years, what was the biggest surprise for you, Sam? You must have had some good reason why you wanted to do this?
Fell:
I guess the biggest general surprise was that we achieved the vision that we created at the beginning, because it was an ambitious script and we set off in a very ambitious way and everything we wanted to do was what you shouldn’t do in terms of scope, scale, for technical reasons and even for story reasons. I was expecting at some point we would be reined in and at some point, I thought we would be pulled back either by practical reality or for financial reasons or maybe even the studio would get cold feet and go, “Oh my God, this story may be a little too dramatic.” That was my big surprise really that the crew rose to the challenges that we set them.

Shock: Maybe Travis (Knight, lead animator and CEO of LAIKA) was too busy animating his scenes to realize how crazy things were getting.
Butler:
He is the greatest person at the studio.
Fell: He was worse than anybody.
Butler: He was the one who always said, “Take it further.”

Shock: When I was at LAIKA, I was really surprised to interview Travis on one of the live sets where he was working. I knew he was an animator but I didn’t know he’d be there working.
Fell:
He’s really unusual, because I think he animated the most stuff in terms of footage count, he animated the most of it.

Shock: Some of the crew like Tristan the cinematographer did an amazing job. I’ve seen a lot of stop-motion animated movies over the years and this seems a lot more cinematic than many of the others, and he had mainly done stop motion animated movies.
Fell:
Yeah, that’s what he’s always done. He and Nelson Lowrey (the production designer) were our key figures. When we were casting the departments, we knew that we needed Nelson and Tristan, ‘cause when I came on board, we spent time together trying to figure out what the mood and the flavor of the film was and we decided, based on Chris’ script, that this should be a very cinematic, live action movie kind of experience, not a theatrical experience and not a cartoon. We wanted this cinematic sophistication, so we knew that if we could get Tristan and Nelson and put those two guys together and give them that brief. We knew that would be the team that would give this movie its own flavor, and we looked through a lot of photography and movie references.
Butler: It’s fundamentally different from I think what you’ve seen in stop-motion before. Instead of lighting the puppets, we’re lighting a location and having the puppets move in and out of them, just like a normal movie. But it’s something that’s really unusual.

Shock: I’d seen a lot of the sets first-hand but the way it was shot really made them look different. I’ll give you an example. The scene where he’s biking through the woods to arrive at the house. When I saw that set, it looked like a forest and a path leading up to the house, but the way they had the camera follow Norman and then panned over to the house. Was that stuff you figured out in the storyboarding phase?
Butler:
Yes, it’s all in preparation. We were very, very, very clear about what we wanted. It’s often common for storyboarding… this is my experience, I’ve been doing a long time, that storyboard artists are seen as gag men and that goes way, way back to the early days of Disney when there wasn’t a script, and the storyboard artist, without really thinking about the filmmaking aspect of it, without thinking of composition or cutting or any of the rules, they would just be thinking of character gags. It’s true that a lot of story artists don’t know the fundamentals of filmmaking. I think what’s interesting about stop-motion is that you often go straight from story to the floor, and there seems to be a lack of formulating it into a real film. In the middle, there’s a lack of that layout stage, and we were very particular about making our boards reflect the movie we wanted to make. We’re not interested in playing around…
Fell: In those movies, the story team are writing the movie on the fly. You can start an animated movie with half of it figured out and you kind of expect your storyboard process to figure out the rest of the movie, which happens and it kind of works in one way, but what suffers is the cinematography and the sense of a real coherent director’s voice. The great thing here was that Chris had explored this idea for 16 years and been up all the blind alleys and so coming to this, we had a script that we believed in—beginning, middle and end—we believed in the characters, we committed to it, and so that allowed us then to commit to storyboarding a sequence, thinking “Well, this is going to stay in the movie. We’re going to storyboard this in a really cool way, we’re really going to think about this and take a little bit longer and be a little bit more specific because we know it’s going to stick.”
Butler: This is the first time I’ve worked on an animated movie where we knew the ending when we started production. It seems crazy when you say it, but it’s true.

Shock: Because a lot of the camerawork is preprogrammed and you were doing facial replacement, which is also planned out in advance, do the animators still get the freedom they usually have
Fell:
Yeah, there’s different scenes. Some scenes are a bit tighter, like the action sequences, where the cutting’s a bit more specific, that’s a little tighter for an animator because they have to hit their marks within a half a second, but there are definitely other scenes which are more character humor.
Butler: Yeah, and we encourage the animators to really bring themselves to their performances. If they have a longer shot where a character’s doing a number of different things, that body language, that performance, that came from them.
Fell: They were given a whole scene. It wasn’t chopped up into shots, it was broken up into scenes.
Butler: So they can follow an idea all the way through.
Fell: Yeah, so it was very juicy for an animator, this movie, I think, because there’s a lot of great, rich character stuff as well.

Shock: Doing horror-comedy is always a difficult thing because you want to be scary, you want to be funny, but in this case you want it to be okay for the kids but also keep the parents from getting bored. It’s a really tough balance and I’m amazed it actually works for people in their 20s and 30s.
Butler:
My point of view has always been to make it for myself. Do I enjoy it? There’s an element in this industry that is a child that hasn’t grown up, that’s why we do it. I think if I’m writing or we’re making this movie, to make something that we enjoyed and that we look at and find entertaining and funny, find it scary, then the chances are that it’ll work outside.
Fell: And it’s based on stuff that you know works. Look at those things that you loved that inspired you like the Scooby-Doos and the Goonies…

Shock: Was that the real voice of Shaggy in this? 
Butler: No, no…


Shock: Okay, because you made a Scooby-Doo reference and then you had a guy who sounded almost identical to Shaggy. If that was the same guy, I’d say that was taking the in-jokes too far.
Butler:
No, no, no.
Fell: Yeah, that would be a funny Easter egg.

Shock: Jon Brion was also a really interesting choice to do the music so what kind of direction did you give him on this? Did you just tell him what movies you were interested in?
Fell:
You know you use temp music when you’re piecing the rough version of the film together, so we used a lot of his music in the first act and that sort of vibe of “Eternal Sunshine” and those movies really fit in Norman’s world.
Butler: Way back, really way back at the beginning, when I knew this was going to be a reality, I storyboarded the first few pages of script and I slapped them together in iMovie with some temp dialogue and I put “Eternal Sunshine” over the top of it and it was such a good fit that it just seemed to stick.
Fell: It was the flavor of the world, but then the middle bit was the stuff he hadn’t really done before, which was the action chase music and stuff, but he’s so smart that guy. He can do anything.

Shock: I definitely felt like it started very much like what we’d heard from him before but then it changed to more horror-type music.
Butler:
Yeah, but then the movie changes.

Shock: Any idea what you guys want to do next? Do you think you’ll continue working together?
Fell:
I dunno, take a break.
Butler: But not a break together.
Fell: (laughs)
Butler: We can find a beach somewhere…


ParaNorman opens nationwide on Friday, August 17th. Look for our video interviews with the cast soon.

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