At Pixar last fall, I was given the incredible opportunity of talking to story artists Kelsey Mann and Maddie Sharafian, and the director-producer team of Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae! That was my first time speaking to Pixar filmmakers face to face. I think it goes without saying that I was nervous – so much so that I was trembling. But they all made me feel so comfortable and at ease. And I got to gain even more insight into Onward through our conversations. So read on and learn about the film which is playing in theaters now.
UP: What are you most excited about in the film?
Kelsey Mann: I would say a lot and then very little. The part I’m most excited about is the very little. Initially, we didn’t have anything and then Dan started to think about his own experiences and what makes him unique. Part of it was growing up without a father. His dad passed away when he was just a baby, so he has no memory of him. So he started to think about how that shaped him and this is where we start with a lot of these movies. We look inward. “What have I felt in my own life? What are the things I’ve learned?” And he came to this realization about himself. He thought that would be a good thing to make a movie about and that’s really the reason we’re making this film and what he’s learned in his own life. At the first screening, we storyboarded that ending, and that ending has remained the same since day one. That is unique. I can’t think of a film I’ve worked on where we knew where we were headed from the beginning. Everything else changed a lot but not the ending.
KM: Maddie worked a lot with Ian and his introduction. Every screening, we had a different Ian. It wasn’t until halfway through – “There he is!” There’s a perception that we had the movie figured out because we always had that ending.
UP: What was it like balancing the silly with the heartfelt?
KM: That’s the type of film Dan wanted to make; that’s Monsters University and the films he made before he came here; that’s the way he usually makes films. He really wanted to make a fun comedy that hits you with emotion.”
UP: How did you come up with the concept of the unicorns?
KM: That was Dan’s idea early on.
Maddie Sharafian: It’s funny but it’s also sad. You can tell with the world, something’s a little bit off. You’re laughing at it but you also wish there was something better, which is sort of the way that Ian stands in his life. He wishes he had his dad but something’s not quite right.
UP: Was Onward more challenging to direct than Monsters University because it was a personal film or did that make it easier?
Dan Scanlon: They have their own challenges and benefits. Doing a sequel was nice because people love those characters and were excited to see them. Doing an original was nice because you could change the characters drastically to fit the story and even get rid of them if you needed to, and in a sequel you’re beholden to what you have. So it really became this push of benefits over losses for the two. And I don’t know that I can say that one was harder than the other. It’s nice to have a little experience under our belts for this one.
Kori Rae: Having done Monsters University really helped us have a little more confidence.
UP: Not that science and technology are bad, but the movie seems to be criticizing our world where people don’t care about finding whimsy or having an imagination.
DS: It’s more about finding balance. You’re right. It is more about making sure that we’re still challenging ourselves; still finding the potential in ourselves; still enjoying the nature around us and not getting too comfortable in every day things. It’s not meant to be a hard social criticism – certainly there’s some of that in there and it reflects Ian; the fact that he is too scared to get out of his comfort zone; afraid to take risks. He just wants to blend in and throughout this journey he comes out of his shell and I think the world mirrors that.
UP: You two have been a duo since MU; what’s it like working together?
KR: On the first film we were figuring each other out and as we figured the film out, we’ve always had great respect for one another and I think on this film we were able to teach one another what our areas of expertise were. I was super interested in story and being in the story room and Dan was interested in how the production works.
DS: General leadership and inspiring people and artists. We started to learn from each other.
KR: We got to know each other better working this closely together.
DS: We knew that we wanted to work together again, so from day one, Kori and I were talking and working on ideas and getting her support to make sure we could grow this story. It’s interesting because we’ve learned a lot from the other film and it’s nice to continue to grow and learn and I think the film benefits from it.
UP: Besides the lion for Corey the manticore and horses for the centaurs, what were the other animal references?
DS: That’s a good question.
KR: Goats for the satyrs.
DS: Antelopes too. With Blazey the dog, they looked at – she’s so cartoony but she has a lizard-y, snake quality to her. The fun of this movie is that fantasy characters are treated pretty realistically and this was fun to get a more cartoony take.
As an aside, Blazey the dragon is a girl! Everyone thinks she’s a boy.
UP: Did you find it difficult to strike a balance between the silly and more heartfelt moments?
DS: I think life is so funny and so emotional and – this is going to sound really pretentious – but they’re the same thing. The reason something is emotional is because it was funny first. The reason you love a character and you cry is because they made you laugh. I feel like it’s all interwoven. You cry because they said something funny. To me, emotion and comedy always stick together.
UP: What was the most difficult thing about directing this film?
DS: The story is always hard. We always had our ending, but trying to earn that ending. It meant a lot to us to get this point across. I think the burden of wanting to honestly and entertainingly get audiences to that point was really hard. You take it home when it’s a personal thing.
Read our review of Onward here, and be sure to spread the love for this very wonderful movie!