Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae talk about working on Onward, inclusion, and the special sauce that makes Pixar such a unique place to work at.
Disney and Pixar’s latest film Onward is a fantasy adventure about two brothers, Ian and Barley, who embark on an unexpected adventure in order to spend 24 hours with their father who died when they were younger. Directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae, Onward is set to be released on March 6, 2020.
Back in October of 2019, I participated in an early press day for Onward at Pixar Animation Studios in San Francisco. While I was there, I got a chance to see the first 30 minutes of the film and the next day had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Dan and Kori. We discussed what it was like working on the film, what the difference was between working on an original concept at Pixar vs. a sequel, and what makes each film released by Pixar so special.
Scott Menzel: One of the things that I always hear, every single time I come up to Pixar is the level of creative freedom that everyone here has. And since both of you have been here for a couple of years now, what is that like to work in an environment like that? Does it ever get tiresome, to have that much freedom?
Dan Scanlon: No. And, that’s a good point. I think, like any job that’s hard, you probably take it for granted at times. You comment like, “I can’t decide what color the unicorn supposed to be, dang it.” And they pick it. Take a breath, you have an awesome job where they’re letting you make these types of decisions.
Kori Rae: Exactly.
Dan Scanlon: So, we’re just been very lucky to have that. And, to have so many people here with such creative freedom, you learn so much. You learn so much from everybody and on a daily basis.
Kori Rae: Yeah. We learn from the crew every day. So that’s the joy.
Scott Menzel: You feel the energy when you walk in the door here, which I don’t think you feel at many other places. And I’m someone who goes into studios quite a bit. So to still feel that way on repeat visits, that says something.
Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon: Yeah! That’s great.
Scott Menzel: Dan, I know this story is very personal to you. That being said, where do you draw the line where it goes too far, and you have to let other people have their say?
Dan Scanlon: I think the trick is to dramatize your story and be open to dramatizing your story because you’re trying to give people the feeling you have about your story without actually knowing it. And to be honest, just telling your story might not even do it, it might not be enough. And so, that was the thing that was helpful, I always had the North Star of this story that we’re telling, still giving me and everyone the feeling I have about my family. And if not, what can we do to either dramatize it, to get us there, and do things that certainly didn’t, in any way, happen to me. Or in some cases, I pulled back too early and Kori and the team would say, “Tell us more about your life because we’re missing something.” And they’d squeeze details out that they’d realize, “Oh yeah, we’re not being honest here or we should be more honest here.” So, it’s really just a back and forth between the honest truth and this dramatization, all with the goal of getting to something that ultimately feels true.
Kori Rae: Yeah, it feels true and universal. And I think, the most personal stories, ultimately, are the most universal, but that’s also something that we’re thinking about and making sure that everyone can relate to it, in some way, shape, or form. And that’s always the goal.
Scott Menzel: That’s good to hear. Both of you have worked on some projects at Pixar before, so what’s the difference between working on an original concept versus something that’s already established like Monsters University?
Dan Scanlon: The truth is they have equal pluses and minuses to each of them, so it evens out. I think there’s an illusion that a sequel would, somehow, be easier to write and, if anything, it’s almost the opposite. Because you are creating a new story based on characters that were designed to tell a different story and you’re trying to create a story that is just as good or better. And that’s hard because you can’t get rid of characters, you can change them a little bit, but not too much.
Kori Rae: Yeah, there are certain limitations that create a challenge. For MU an example, it was a fun challenge, but it was nevertheless a real challenge to figure out who might these characters have been prior to the previous movies, since we did a prequel. But there are challenges both ways.
Dan Scanlon: The benefit with a sequel is everyone, for the most part, liked the characters and are excited to see them again. And so, you know that you got that going for you, whereas with an original idea, you think “I have no idea if people will like these characters. They might hate this.” But the benefit you have with an original is that you can change the characters as you write the story. You can get rid of a character if they don’t fit or can remove them completely if they end up like they don’t belong in the story. So there’s an immense amount of freedom, but no safety net. Sequels have a safety net and less freedom, or more of a challenge. So, they both kind of even out.
Scott Menzel: You spoke a little bit about the inspiration for the story, but obviously fantasy is so grounded in popular culture and has so many fans of its own. What elements of fantasy or what films, TV shows, games, etc. did you draw the most inspiration from for Onward?
Kori Rae: I don’t know that there is one specific thing because we watched and read and looked at as much as we could. Because our goal is always to try to find a general amalgam, a sense of like “I can’t put my finger on one thing.” Because we don’t want to do a parody of something. So, we wanted to boil it down to, what are the generalizations people know, what are the general paradigms and structural beats people know? And then use those for fun and general storytelling. But part of the fun of this weird personal story being in there is we’re going to do this thing that you haven’t seen much in fantasy. Although I do think some of my favorite fantasy, if you boil it down, they’re usually about pretty personal human stories. I think where fantasy sometimes gets it wrong is when they leave that part out and it’s just an adventure.
Scott Menzel: I agree. Personal stories seem to be key to good fantasy in popular culture. I’m curious for you, Kori, Pixar is one of the few places that has always been about equality and inclusion. The people who work here seem to represent all cultures. Do you hope that one day you will be able to direct a film here? I hate to say this, but in terms of filmmaking, it’s been very male-driven so far.
Kori Rae: Yeah, for sure. We have amazing up-and-coming female directors, by the way. So, a lot of folks are doing short films, doing the Spark Projects and then we have a bunch of females in development right now working their way toward feature films. Yeah. So that is definitely changing. And, I’m not sure. The jobs of producing and directing are quite different. There are elements of the creative aspect that I like but while I love partnering with the creative, I love being involved in it, I’m not sure that I would even want to direct. It’s a whole another world and I’m not trained in that area, necessarily. I’ve learned a lot working on this film, but it’s a whole different career to be quite honest.
Scott Menzel: That is a good answer. I honestly, just wondered because there seems to be so many incredibly passionate people here, so I was wondering if that kind of conversation was happening internally?
Kori Rae: I mean, anything’s possible for sure. If I really wanted to direct, I would have the opportunity here.
Scott Menzel: One of the things that really stood about being at Pixar today was the whole interactive scene read where the animators acting out the scene using different voices to match the dialogue. You’ve probably done a ton of those when making this movie and I just loved watching everyone in the room do the voices while reading their lines out loud. Which scene was your favorite that they’ve done?
Dan Scanlon: Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. One thing that was really fun was the trust bridge scene that you saw. Handing that out was really fun. But also the moment in the story room where we all came up with it. We worked on that scene forever and couldn’t quite get it to work. And then there was one moment where we just thought, “What if we did…” and I forget the exact detail, but we made one little change and suddenly the scene played out. And it was so fun because taking what everyone had said about the scene and I just ran through it again for everyone. And it was a blast. And the scene took off and you could see people laughing and you could feel us all realizing “Yeah, yeah and then this and this.” And then everyone stands up and they’re acting it out. And it was just one of those, rare, magical moments where it all happens in one click. And I think it plays out that way in the scene. You can watch that scene build and build and build which was a joy to do.
Scott Menzel: I think that is fascinating. So today at another one of the panels, they were talking about how it’s all about interpretation. And it’s funny because at the press conference earlier, you two were talking about how perfectly cast all of the voice actors are. And one of the things that actually stood out to me was that Barley actually reminds me of Jack Black when he was in Tenacious D. I don’t know if hi character was inspired by him at all, but that’s what it reminds me of. But do you ever feel like the voice talent, maybe not at Pixar, but at other studios that it takes away from the other aspects of the film? Because when they market a movie, it’s always like “And this person and this person” where it seems like they are using stars to sell the movie instead of story or animation?
Dan Scanlon: I think that here at Pixar the characters are the characters and the actors add so much to them. But yeah, you always want to make sure you’re always picking someone for the right reason. You want to make sure you’re picking them because they bring something to the character and that they embody the character. You don’t want to choose, necessarily, based on some other reason.
Kori Rae: For sure. Yeah. We’ve put a ton of time and energy into the casting process. And we do it blind where we don’t know who the actors are. We just listen without looking at who it is.
Dan Scanlon: Yeah, I don’t like to know.
Kori Rae: And we don’t know who the actors are, we don’t want to know. We’re just looking for the voice quality and the acting. We never even know who they are because we don’t want to. We want to just make sure that the voice is right for the character.
Scott Menzel: Last question, we always hear that there is no creativity left in Hollywood all the time with claims of no originality, etc, etc. But yet every time a Pixar movie comes out. It’s oozing of creativity and originality. Even if, it is a sequel. A great example is Toy Story 4, where everyone is initially like, “Oh, we don’t need this” and now everyone is like, “Oh my God, they did it again.” So, what’s the secret Pixar sauce?
Dan Scanlon: I feel it’s that we trust each other, and trust is super important, that we’re rooting for each other’s films as a whole, as a company. I think the time is really important, that we take the extra time to do the story several times, in storyboard form and then get notes from ourselves. For me, those are some of the big ingredients.
Kori Rae: No, I agree. Everybody wants each movie to succeed here. So, when you’re getting feedback, when you’re getting notes, everybody just wants to make it great. It’s nobody trying to tear you down or tell you that your movie sucks. It’s that everybody wants everybody else to win, so to speak. And that goes miles because these films are so hard. And creating a story from nothing is just a very unique experience, I honestly don’t know how we do it sometimes, because it’s really challenging. And so, I think that support and knowing that everyone has your best interest, as filmmakers, at heart and just want the same thing that you want, which is to make a great film. And that’s the special sauce. Because I don’t know if other places really have that.
Dan Scanlon: Yeah. I don’t think there is any other place that has as much collaboration as here. I mean, every single role, collaboration, we work together, you know, “This is great, this is great.” And, there’s no ego, which is also fascinating, for a studio like this, there’s no ego.
Scott Menzel: Well, thank you for chatting with me. I love learning about what makes Pixar so magical.