Over the summer, Disney held a preview of their upcoming animated film Moana, a Hawaiian tale starring Dwayne Johnson as the voice of Maui himself. We learned all about the various Polynesian folk tales that influenced the story of Moana and the animation techniques used to bring the detail of Moana‘s island world to life.
After the presentations, I got to meet with screenwriter Jared Bush and head of story Dave Pimental to learn even more about how they researched and developed the story of Moana. Bush also worked on the screenplay for this year’s Disney film Zootopia and Pimental was a story artist on Big Hero 6. Moana opens in theaters on November 23.
First, Zootopia, I don’t normally put big budget movies high on my best movies of the year list, but guaranteed it will be on my list and I think it’s a shoe-in for Best Animated Feature.
JB: Oh, that’s so nice. Oh, God. That’s really nice. I was saying earlier, everyone in this building works on all of these movies and so for us we put so much into it and it takes so many years, it’s really exciting when audiences respond and when the movies feel like they make a difference to people. That’s huge for us.
The themes of Zootopia really sold it for me. It was so ballsy for a Disney project to tell a story that kids can see but there are so many hidden themes for adults to pick up on with race relations and different cultures. How did you come up with that and balance the children’s story and the adult story that could spark conversation?
JB: Early on, Byron Howard had his idea that he wanted to put predator and prey together in a movie. If it was going to be an all animal world, something that’s never really been touched on is that division between those two groups. That felt like a really great jumping off point for okay, we have two different groups in this world and maybe they don’t get along. How do we treat each other? How do we view each other and what are our preconceptions about each other? When I came aboard Zootopia which is five years ago almost to the week, which is crazy, one of the big questions we were trying to ask ourselves over the course of the years in making it was: how do we tell that story in a way that feels contemporary? That is not giving an audience an easy answer but rather, like you’re saying, asking questions that hopefully people will think about after they leave the movie for themselves. Have conversations with their children. That was really important to us. And to have it feel like something that could start a modern day conversation. Then in terms of trying to make that entertaining, that was obviously something we wanted to do because we didn’t want the movie to feel like a message movie. We wanted people to go in and enjoy it and by enjoying it they would think about it, and made that conversation easier to talk about. I think having animals, Byron said early on, because it was animals, it made it somehow digestible, and made it approachable. It’s a difficult subject to talk about, but because of the way everyone here spent all this time trying to craft it in a way that felt like it was accessible to everyone. Then trying to think about okay, certainly children are going to look at this movie one way. Adults are going to look at this movie another way. That’s why, making sure that both groups can be entertained by the movie is really important because we want everyone to enjoy the movies. But, sometimes you put things in there that you know the kids will like. Sometimes you put stuff in there that you know adults will like. Interestingly, when my kids first saw it, the deeper messages and themes, they got those. Even though those were more sophisticated, difficult things to talk about, they could understand that one group was treating another group differently or had preconceptions of another group. They got that. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about the movie.
DP: Oh gee. It really starts with the leadership of the show. Also the directors and Jared and myself just being very conscious of what we’ve learned and trying to spread as much information out to the rest of the teams who work for us or with us. Trying to share as much of the information as possible. Also, like our story guy, Dave Derrick was so incredibly passionate about everything. He would go off and do his own research and bring it back to us. We would also take information from what other people have learned or studied about the culture and just infuse it. The same way that story ideas come from everyone, cultural sensitivity could come from anyone. If they learned it, they’d bring it to the table and we would vet it with the Oceanic Trust and make sure that we’re following in line. It’s just an organic process that we all would tell everyone we have to do good by this. We have to do our due diligence to be honest and true to the research and to the people. We’re trying to create a story about them, so it’s not easy for us to just say oh, let’s just make it up. We just cannot. We can make up the story of the emotions and the character’s drive and all that stuff, the original side of it. The cultural side of it, would only be the undertow, the foundation of what we tell in the emotional side.
Was it hard combining all the different stories you heard?
JB: Yeah, when I first joined the project about a year ago, the first thing I did was read pretty much every Maui story from every island in the entire region. There’s dozens and dozens of different versions of who Maui is. That said, there were some similarities in terms of the character and what motivated him and what he was about. And so, when I looked at it, instead of trying to pick one specific, I really looked at it as what is the feeling I’m getting from this character? This is a guy who pulled islands out of the sea. He slowed down the sun for mankind, put wind in their sails. He did all these amazing things to help mankind out. Why did he do that? What was his motivation for doing that? Many of the stories hinted at an answer to that. By reading them, you can be inspired as to why he would do that. So I tried to infuse that part of those stories into the character. That said, we also had the Oceanic story trust so we would constantly be vetting these things with them. So as you’re looking at it and trying to find a character that hopefully everyone will see as that’s our Maui, we wanted to make sure we were also vetting that with the story trust so it also felt true to the character of Maui that they knew so well.
DP: It’s interesting some of the Polynesian story trust people who were with us would make jokes about Maui. They would say, “Oh, sometimes when something happens at home, like if I misplace my shoes or something, we’ll say, ‘Oh, the trickster Maui took them.’” So they would always see him that way like as a trickster or shapeshifter, somebody who’s charismatic and has fun with them, plays jokes and he’s a little bit tricky. That was a really awesome thing to know that when we were developing this character and then inevitably working with Dwayne Johnson who’s so charismatic.
JB: He’s huge.
DP: He is a demigod himself. It just played hand in hand in the fun that we could have with this character.
JB: The trick though is that he is an incredibly revered character throughout the entire region and so we really wanted to be mindful and respectful of that because I can’t even think of an equivalent. It’s a character that they love. It’s someone that they’ve grown up hearing these stories so it’s someone that’s very dear to them. So we always wanted to keep that top of mind. We can’t make him who we want. We have to make him feel of that world.
Did you go on any of the research trips for Moana?
JB: I didn’t go on the big research trips. I did get to do some research when we went to Hawaii to do some records.
What was that process like? Three different trips, one for the story, one for the music and one for the visuals?
DP: I went on the second trip and I did meet Lin-Manuel Miranda. The first time I met him was out there in New Zealand, and Mark Mancina as well and Opetaia Foa’i. We went on a trip from New Zealand to Samoa, an island of Savai’i and another small island of Manono which was honestly, they have no cars there. They just walk and bike around there because it’s such a small island. But in any case, we were shuttled around meeting anyone and everyone who was on the trust and who was set up for us. Like every second of the day was covered with meet this person, go here, do this, do that. There was no time for relaxing on the beach with a Mai Tai or any of that sort of thing. You were working and researching, taking thousands of photos, thousands of videos and just trying to get as much reference as you could get. We would also take our script, the script that we had at the time, we did a table read for the whole Oceanic brain trust where we literally assigned characters to each other and read it out, and get their honest feedback. They had great notes and they would give us their interpretation of what they thought could happen or whatever would happen in any part of the storyline. We would take that back, take as many notes as possible, bring it back to our screenwriters at the time who were with us and develop the story and keep going. We also put all the photos, all the videos in a huge folder in the Disney library here. Everyone on the show would always reference it, or I would cover it too. Like, oh, there’s a great shot of the fale that they live in so I’ll show you this. Then give that to a story artist and we’d all use it. We’d all share it as much as possible.