Sunday, January 23, 2011

"The thing I realised from directing is, nobody's to blame but you" - An interview with Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Being responsible for Disney's 50th feature animation may be a heavy burden of responsibility, but directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno seem to take that pressure in their stride. Their new film Tangled is a hugely entertaining picture that imbues the Rapunzel fairytale with a sense of wit, romance and adventure, and the result is one of the most accomplished and satisfying Disney films in years. The two directors were in London earlier this week, and I met them to talk about finally bringing Rapunzel to the big screen.

Before discussing Tangled, I'd like to ask you about Bolt. You made your directorial debuts on that project, both on the feature and the Rhino short, so what lessons did you take from that experience that you could bring to the Tangled production?

Byron Howard Well, one of the great things about Bolt was that it was really Lasseter's first film with us, and because it was his first film at Disney, we kind of got exclusive rights to him for about a year and a half. He spent a lot of time on that film with us, so for Chris Williams and I, it was a great mentorship programme and we learned a lot from John, as did Nathan, who was our brilliant head of story on that film. We got to spend a lot of time around John, learning his likes and dislikes, and he would communicate what he had learned from others, you know, he would talk about Lee Unkrich, who had taught him screen direction tricks and editing tricks, because he was an editor. We absorbed all of this stuff from John so when Nathan and I made this film we were very familiar with his bag of tricks and preferences, and we were able to go out on our own and play a bit more, because John wasn't able to be around nearly as much on this film as he was on Bolt. So that was a great experience for us. If you have to make your directorial debut on a film it's great to have John as a mentor, because when you graduate and go out on your own you're in much better shape. And Nathan, do you want to talk about your short?

Nathan Greno Yeah, sure. I really learned a bunch of things doing that. I had been at the studio for a dozen years or something, but I had only been in the story department and there was a whole other side of that studio that I didn't know, so I learned a lot just from working with these other departments and that kind of thing. You know, Disney has had its great years and its lean years, and even if I've been working on a project in the past that's not working and everyone's complaining, Byron and I are two people who would always give 100% and think, "We can turn this around." If at the end of the day it doesn't turn around, you sit back and say, "Well, the director didn't listen to the story department, or he didn't do this, he didn't do that," but the thing I realised from directing is, nobody's to blame but you. If the film works then you'll get a pat on the back, but if the film doesn't work, then your name is coming up first, like, "Here's who to blame!" [laughs] There's no other finger-pointing you can do at that point, and you realise you have to bring your A-game every single day. There's no going back too, because in story you can redo it and redo it, but once you're in production it's incredibly costly to animate it and then throw that out, so you'd better have that story in your head and you'd better have that direction in your head. I guess the pressure of directing is what I really learned.

I guess that's the benefit of having two directors, you can share the pressure and also share the blame if it goes wrong.

BH That's true, we can do a little finger-pointing at each other [laughs]. It's a really good point because your brain is being used at such a level that the demands are incredible, and it's great to have fresh eyes once in a while. Sometimes I might be tired and he'll be really sharp and it's great to be able to balance it in that way.

Is that why co-directors are so common in animation, because of the sheer workload involved?

BH It is massive, and you're with it every step of the way. We're there with the blank page and the story outline right through to choosing how many lashes Rapunzel has on each eye. It's crazy the detail that goes into these films and you wonder how they ever get done.

NG The other thing is that you can really challenge each other to be better, which we do a lot. We also encourage our crew to speak up and push back on us, and there are parts of our crew who have no problem throwing rocks at us if they don't like something, but there are others who are like, "Oh, it's the directors" and they get intimidated and won't speak up. So at least Byron and I have each other to say, "You know, this could be better." Because we came up through the ranks in different ways – Byron is an awesome animator and I came up in story, like I said – our minds work in different ways, so at least you have two people beating up the product as you go along and you come out with a stronger product because of it.

The idea of a Rapunzel movie has been floating around at Disney for a very long time. When you finally got involved in the project, how did you find a fresh take on the material?

You're right, the idea for Rapunzel had been around since the 40's. It was actually on Walt's original list of things to explore along with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and it's amazing that it has been at the studio for 60+ years and it's only now getting to the screen. The original story was a very tough nut to crack because it's just about a girl who's very passive, just sitting alone in a tower for the whole movie waiting for someone to come and rescue her – I don't want to go and see that movie! [laughs] So we had to give people a reason to come and see the film and give them a heroine who is applicable to the 21st century. We really had to find a dynamic female character who is intelligent, quirky and real, someone you can relate to. We loved the fact that she runs around in her bare feet, she gets muddy and she's out rolling around in the forest like a crazy person. The joy and genuine emotion packed into that character was something we were really attracted to. So that was a big part of it, just finding her character, and once we had her we had to have a complement for her, which was this Flynn Rider character. When Flynn was first invented in our minds we thought it would be a movie like Cinderella, where you have the main female character and once in a while this prince guy would come in, but he'd remain a lesser character. But as we worked on the story it became this very strong duo and that's one of the reasons we changed the title to Tangled rather than focusing it on Rapunzel. It was great, because for a lot of the movie you're relying on these two people interacting as the main source of entertainment, so if that chemistry's not working you're in trouble.

Although you have given Tangled a contemporary spin, the film also manages to retain the feel of classic Disney fairytales. Was that a difficult balance to maintain?

NG It was something we had talked about. When we first started on the movie, we went out to lunch and we were talking about the nostalgia for the great Disney films of the past – and we love them – but we couldn't make a movie that was just like, "Doesn't this feel like a 1950's movie, everyone?" I don't think anyone would show up to see it. It has to be a movie that will compete with other contemporary movies, and up until this point, I don't think you've seen a fairytale with the kind of blown-out action sequences we have in this movie. That was something we were really interested in, we wanted to know how far we could push it. How far can we maintain what's great about Disney, and make it recognisably Disney, but surprise the audience and take it a step forward for Disney at the same time. Byron was talking about changing the title and it was a struggle in many ways for us to do that, because it was like, "The tradition! The tradition!" When we first had Flynn Rider be a thief there were some very traditional people in our building saying, "Why isn't he a prince? What are you guys doing in there?" We also didn't want Rapunzel to act like a soft, traditional Disney princess, so everything we were doing was to flip it on its head and do something new, fresh and different, but at the same time relating to that classic library.

Part of the classic feel comes from Alan Menken who has contributed to so many Disney films over the years. How did you work with him to incorporate his songs into the story?

BH Nathan and I liked the idea of having songs in the film, but we didn't so much like the idea of giving it a Broadway-style treatment, because we've seen that before in the films of the 90's, and that had been done to some success, but we felt we'd seen it enough times before. What we really liked were the films of the 40's and 50's like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp, you know, there are songs in those films but it doesn't feel like a Broadway musical. We thought, that's great, and if we're going for the 50's look for this film then why don't we use that template as well? Let's make the songs really meaningful so that all of the songs are very emotional and there's something important story-wise about every song, but it's not really in the format of a stage musical. When Alan Menken came in, he knew we were trying to go for a more bohemian, girl-next-door, intelligent, artsy type of girl, and he said it would be great if Rapunzel's songs had a more handcrafted feel, more like a Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell song, and he played us Chelsea Morning, which we really loved. Then he took those influences and he worked them into Rapunzel's opening song and the lantern song, and you feel that great contrast to Gothel, who is very traditionally stagey, and she's got this big, trained actress personality, and you feel like she may have been on the stage 400 years ago when she was a young woman for the first time. We thought that was great. Alan didn't want to do the same thing that he had done before and we did want to repeat ourselves, so any chance we had on the film we tried to flip expectations and do something new.

When you're working out how sequences are going to look on screen, how much of an impact does the 3D factor have on that process?

NG Quite a bit. There are places back in the states where they won't have the option of 3D, so it was very important to us that it works just as well without the 3D. However, as we also knew that we had 3D as one of the tools in our toolbox we decided that if it's going to be 3D, let's have our 3D be there for a reason. Byron and I have been to 3D movies, and I'm sure you've seen the same thing, where you walk out of the theatre and say, "Why did I pay extra money to see that in 3D?" Sometimes when those movies are made it's like an afterthought to add 3D and make extra money, and there's just too much of that out there. When we were making the movie we thought that every single scene in the movie, every single shot, even the things we were doing with the story, we should always have 3D in mind. What is that going to look like in 3D? When we got to things like the floating lantern shot, part of the evolution of that was the fact that we had 3D at our disposal and we could have these lanterns flying around people's heads, so it enhances your storytelling if you use 3D in a smart way. So yeah, it was something we always kept in mind, because if audiences are paying extra money you have to give them more bang for their buck.

Finally, is it too early to ask what you're going to be working on next? And will you continue to work together on projects?

NG Yeah, we'll definitely keep working together.

BH [To Greno] Oh, do you think so? [laughs] No, we love working together and it's actually very hard to find a directing partner you're so in tune with. It's funny, because you work so hard on these movies for years at a time and when they're over a lot of directors go through this almost post-partum depression, where you feel anxiety and feel like you need something to do with yourself. In order to combat that, and because the production schedules are so long, Nathan and I actually pitched our next project to Lasseter about six months ago. We pitched six ideas and he picked two of them and said, "Why don't you take these two and just mash them together?" He came up with something that's very wild and different and exciting, and it's a very different type of movie to Tangled. What it will share is that it will have all of the things we love about films, great action, great characters and emotional relationships, and a world that I think – from the research we've been doing – hasn't been explored before, and that's exciting because it really helps to push the boundaries of what animation is capable of. You know, people ask us if we're interested in doing live action and we're really not. We love the medium we work in and there are so many tools available to us now that you're just going to see animated films getting better and better, and it's great to see other studios upping their game as well.