ParaNorman's directors discuss three-year journey
MSN caught up with the directors to discuss the film that is taking award season by storm
AP Photo; Focus Features
ParaNorman is the Oscar-nominated story of a misunderstood boy, Norman, who has the ability to see dead people and zombies and is ostracized because of it. When his town is plagued by a centuries-old curse, it’s up to Norman and his abilities to save the day. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler decided to tell Norman’s story in a stop-motion world that took almost three years to create. MSN caught up with the directors to discuss the film that is taking award season by storm.
Where did the story come from Chris?
Chris: It all began 16 long years ago. Honestly, it just started with the thought that’d it be cool to make a stop-motion zombie movie for kids. That comes from growing up, watching horror movies that I probably shouldn’t have been watching, and a whole bunch of monster movies that I shouldn’t have been watching. The skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, that kind of thing. It was in my head. I’ve always liked the idea of playing with dead things. I thought it’d be cool. Over the years, it pretty quickly became something else. It became influenced by all those movies and TV shows that I grew up watching, like The Goonies, E.T., etc… We also talk about it as John Carpenter meets John Hughes. Over the years, it became this heavy brew of all these childhood influences. It was an era in filmmaking that we both really appreciated. There was an irreverence to the family movie-making then that we really enjoyed, and sometimes feel is missing now. We were definitely kind of harkening back to that. I think the main thing for me, was when I wanted to write this zombie movie, I looked at what makes the best zombie movies tick. What it comes down to, is they all have some kind of social commentary. I wanted to do the same thing, but from a kid’s point of view. I think the most important issue when you’re a kid is fitting in. It very quickly became this zombie movie and high school hybrid.
Sam: That really called me. What Chris is talking about there, just the influences and that period of filmmaking just really grabbed me. I could instantly tell what kind of movie we wanted to make. It was just uncanny how many of the influences, and the favourite movies, music, photographers and everything that we found we both liked. To add to that, like Chris said, it was slightly richer period of filmmaking in a way. There was a lot of emotion in those films, as well as action, comedy and mystery. It’s a great recipe to have. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, but it doesn’t just have to be a comedy. I was really fascinated by the idea of making an animated movie that dug a little deeper.
How did the two of you work together directing? How do two people direct a film?
Chris: The trick is to not split up the movie and give separate pieces to separate directors. It can feel disjointed. You want a singular voice, basically.
Sam: It was important that the film had levels. You can only achieve that with one voice. I think if you’re making a very formulaic comedy, then I think you can divide the thing up into portions. Then you just work on some kind of formulaic thing. We were aiming for sophistication. We really had to be completely in tandem, and harmony. We actually hung out together a lot. We were like the two-headed director.
Chris: The initial months were all about sitting down in the same room. We had a room that we called, “The War Room,” which is where we pinned up all of the influences, all of the story beats, all the discussion points, where we were headed with the art direction, production design, character design, etc. It became this hub where we talked through everything. We were absolutely on the same page.
Did you have ideas for who you wanted to play these roles?
Chris: We did. We definitely had a point of view. Again, it goes back to the source material. We wanted this to feel like the real world. Then we you introduce this fantasy side of things, which is the zombies and the witch, that properly contrasts with a world that’s relatable. If you’re telling a story about a kid that doesn’t fit in, and is having a tough time at school, you want that to feel like a real kid. We knew we always wanted, for example, kids to voice the main kids. We wanted actors to use their own voices, and not put on goofy, cartoon voices. We approached it in a very much live-action sensibility, in terms of the acting we were looking for. What we actually did was get clips of actors we were interested in just being interviewed, so it was their natural voices. We played them together, to find a symphony where the voices would work with each other, because there is a lot of dialogue in this movie, and a lot of characters.
How much room did you give the actors to work in the booth? Did you want them to be able to play off each other?
Sam: As often as we could, we put the actors together, and allowed them to work with each other and ad-lib a bit. It’s great, because Chris is the writer of the movie, so we were able to re-write on the fly. We were really aiming, as Chris said, for that sense of authenticity, that sense of spontaneity, that sense of these being real people. It’s the hardest thing to get in animation, because it’s so contrived, is a sense of spontaneity. We do everything we can to fake a feeling of spontaneity. Working with the actors is our best shot at getting that fresh feeling.
Chris: A good example would be the two kids in the garden when they’re playing with the stick. That was like gold to us. In recording them together, and being slightly awkward with each other, naturally, they kind of stumbled over each other. There were messed up words. They interrupted each other. They repeated themselves. They were sputtering. There were all the things that you do in everyday speech. I’m doing it now. Being able to get that, you can’t script that. It’s very hard to direct if you haven’t got the two people there together. Naturally having a conversation and finding themselves in that situation, you can come up with something that feels truly real. That actually is a gift for the animator. When they get that stuff, they can bring out a beautiful, nuance, performance.
How quickly does stop-motion work? I feel like it would be an arduous process for even a 5 second scene.
Sam: An animator can knock out five seconds in a week. As part of our whole philosophy of creating these naturalistic performances, and having it feel real, we actually gave whole scenes to one animator, which is a little unusual. Sometimes on big productions, you just chop the whole thing up into little parts. We had people working on one scene for a year. The scene where zombies rise up from the ground took a year. It took one person a year to do. It’s interesting; they’re basically like actors, these animators. They’re performers. Especially in this medium of stop-motion, you only do one take. The performance unfolds frame by frame in front of the camera, and it’s captured. They really have to get themselves into character. They have to get a feeling for who that character is. Sometimes they act out the stuff beforehand on the video camera. Other people, they like to read a lot about the character, and hear about their backstory. It’s very much like an actor’s process.
Five quick questions. One word answers. Hitchcock or Kubrick?
Lennon or McCartney?
Your biggest influence?
Chris: For me it’s Hitchcock, actually.
Sam: There’s lots of them
Film you’re the most proud of.
Chris: [Pause] ParaNorman. I was actually dribbling with that. It should be obvious! [Laughs]
And in one word, ParaNorman.