A weird start to an interview, this one. I was sat patiently outside the door of a posh London hotel, when a man wheeled a trolley of warm, nice-smelling food into the toilet. I’ve heard that these posh hotels cloud some bizarre behaviour, but canapes on the bidet was a new one on me.
We ran a non-spoilery interview with directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck on the film’s release day in the UK. But the pair also granted us a bit of extra time to chat in more detail about the film. What follows, then, is the kind of interview that it’s best not to read until you’ve seen the film. Right from question one, in fact. There are spoilers for Tarzan and Frozen below.
We’re going to put a picture of Olaf the Snowman in the way before we get to the interview proper, so you’ve got time to run away unspoilt. After Olaf, you’re on your own…
Can I start with you, Chris? Because you now appear to be the go-to-guy for killing off parents at the start of Disney films [off the back of directing Tarzan and Frozen]….
Chris: [Laughs] Oh, come on!
Jennifer: It’s true! I’ve never thought of that.
Chris: I’m not the only one!
You’re not the only one, but if you dig further into your past, I read that you worked on The Fox And The Hound. That’s the most brutal Disney film of all time there…
And you’ve got Brave Little Toaster on your CV too.
Jennifer: This is an epiphany!
Chris: I’m not responsible for those!
It’s clearly your fault. But it’s an interesting story decision, and not one to be picked as first choice necessarily. Tonally, too, it makes an immediate impact. And you’ve co-directed two films for Disney now that both start with that, albeit in very different ways, with different impacts. So what’s your thinking, and why go that way?
Chris: There’s a reason for it, and it’s in a lot of stories. It’s usually so that the main character, which is usually a younger character, can grow up on their own. A coming of age for these characters. And you have to get characters out of the way that are still helping them grow up. You need to let them go out on their own.
But was it harder to get through in Tarzan, for instance? You come to it this time, and there are some high profile precedents in big budget animated films. Yet that wasn’t so much the case with Tarzan – the death of Mufasa in The Lion King for instance isn’t right at the start.
Chris: Tarzan, you had to. It’s in the story, and you have to do that, so he can be raised by apes.
Appreciating that though, it’s pretty brutal how it comes across.
Chris: It’s in the original story. Not my fault! [Laughs] Now you can blame us for this one….
Jennifer: We tried so hard not to kill them.
Chris: We really did. Because even if they’re not necessarily in all the action, they’re back there, they’re behind the scenes. You always want to go back to them. What are mom and dad thinking? Why aren’t they getting involved in this?
Jennifer: And there’s putting the most pressure on your main characters. There’s no greater thing in terms of understanding their judgement, the complications of the choices they take, if they don’t have the guidance. I think we all understand something like that. I think you can sympathise with them when they make mistakes a bit more when you realise they don’t have that. They have that feeling of being on their own.
You say it’s common in a lot of stories, but in this one in particular, we kept saying that moment when she says “we only have each other”, yet they can’t be together. That’s the whole movie.
So they had to go…?
Chris: We’re sorry…
Jennifer: My daughter though has decided that [the parents] just arrived in Europe and came back. And then there’s one where she’s pregnant, and they crashed on an island, and gave birth and then they were killed, and so Elsa and Anna’s brother is Tarzan.
Chris: Simon, if you want to go there…
Well, back when Disney was chucking out straight to DVD sequels in the 1990s, they probably would have gone with that…
My question to you Jennifer is on the tie between Wreck-It Ralph, which you co-wrote, and Frozen, which you also wrote. I think you address loneliness in both films exceptionally well. Venellope in Wreck-It Ralph is the stand-out character for me there. She’s a terrific creation, and the nature of her glitch and what they could or couldn’t be mattered an awful lot.
You’ve now written three characters – in Vanellope, Anna and Elsa – who have differing facets of loneliness and cope with it in different ways….
Jennifer: You’re onto me…
But there are the films that should be addressing things such as that, aren’t that? I’m not snobby about films that just want to entertain you, but if you’re going to get a mass audience in, there’s no reason not to be more ambitious. So how do you see it? When you approach a script, do you see it as a responsibility and opportunity in your films to address something weightier?
Jennifer: Oh definitely. Certainly not in a way to preach or to have some big lesson. But I do think that to me the way into good stories is the characters. And the way into good characters is real characters. Meaning that they’re going through hard stuff and good stuff.
They’re funny by just being people. Because people are funny. They often don’t mean to be, and that’s what makes it even more endearing. Looking at a lot of how we feel in life versus just trying to tell the story, the loneliness is something we go through. We go through mourning and longing. We make some bad choices sometimes because we’re desperate for something, and that’s okay. That’s part of life.
For us, that is really what makes a story resonate for generations. It’s not just entertaining, but it’s willing to go there, and let you take that away. And in those moments when you have a hard time, it’s there for you. My nephew has Asperger’s, and Vanellope means the world to him. And he has her to go to. So we always wanted our characters to be that for someone. It is important for us.
When it comes to putting a film like this together, you’ve inevitably got the backdrop of Disney’s legacy behind you. There was a bit in Frozen where they turn up at Elsa’s castle near the end, and it’s almost like the Kill The Beast/Kill The Queen moment. That it feels like it’s about to veer very close to Beauty And The Beast, and you pull it away just a little. How wary are you of that? Because if you made this film at a different studio, you may have ended up making a different choice?
Chris: I think we’re always aware. We know the Disney films inside out. And if we’re not aware of it, our story artists certainly are!
Jennifer: And our directors. We give notes on each other’s films, and someone will be like ‘that reminds me a little too much of Beauty And The Beast‘. And you’re lost in the moment, and what feels right for the story.
Chris: If it gets too close, we do something that makes it different. As you say, there are certain things, archetypal things, that all these stories have. But how do you do it so it’s different, and feels fresh?
Jennifer: Using that scene as an example too, we always go back to ‘what are we trying to say with this scene?’ And usually when you do that you realise that it’s something different. So what you then do is you steer it to make sure that’s what you’re showing. I won’t give away that scene, but Elsa and the Beast have two very different reactions to being invaded, or being attacked. And it’s different in what we were trying to say about Elsa, and her power, and what she’s capable of.
For us, it always goes back to saying that so many stories have done, so many things have been done, there are so many ways to tell things, but they can accidentally overlap and you don’t even know it. But if you go back to what is it specific to us, I think that’s how you find your way to it being its own.
Going back to the issue of loneliness. I came away on the second viewing feeling that Anna arguably has the roughest deal of the characters we’re talking about. Vanellope, for better or worse, you know why she’s so lonely. Elsa knows why she’s lonely. Anna has no idea.
Jennifer: And then when she finds out the secret, her thought is that fixed everything, now we can be together. And then to arrive at that palace with the expectation that they can now be together, I think it does carry something. For me it did.
One of the deleted songs from the film was from the moment when Anna arrives at Elsa’s palace. And it would have seen her singing a song that suggests all Elsa needs to do is put her glove on and everything’s okay.
Jennifer: The Life’s Too Short song, yeah.
And there are a couple of deleted songs that have now been released on the extended soundtrack disc that if they’d have been included, would have changed Anna in particular quite a lot. The paradox of Anna is that she’s the most positive force in the film, but with the darkest back story. She’s lonely with a smile on her face. Yet there’s a song that would have been near the start – More Than Just The Spare – if you’d have put that in there, where she’s basically singing about things she’s entitled to, that changes it.
Jennifer: She’d be a different person.
Chris: It’d be going off of the idea of the heir [Elsa] and the spare [Anna].
Jennifer: When I first started [on Frozen], that’s where you guys were.
Chris: We were looking for something that would be our way in to feeling for that character. And in that version it was someone who was just a spare. There’s someone who’s going to be lauded by the people, and going to be the Queen, and what do I have? I don’t really have much, nobody thinks anything of me. That was that first version.
Jennifer: It was interesting, because it was hard to sympathise with her. Because she was royal, and her life wasn’t very hard. But loneliness kept coming in. We kept going back to loneliness.
You get a lot of notes making a film, and people push on the character, and they wanted her much more flawed, as in dysfunctional, like Ralph. But we’d say “that’s Ralph”. You tend to do that as you’re having conversations. And we just kept saying she’s lonely. That’s the key.
And finally, I remember standing up one day, because you really get lots of notes and you have to justify your point of view, which I think is why the stories get strong, and say this is a girl whose journey is about love. And it starts off with she’s always got love, her early version of love is naive and desperate, and her end result is sophisticated love. And the truest understanding of love, the greatest understanding of anyone. That was the journey. We really fought for it.
Chris: I always said, from early on, that I love the idea of a character that won’t give up on someone they believe in. Anna knew that at one point they had a good relationship, and she won’t give up on that, no matter what. I know we can do it again, I know we can love again. Your heart goes out to someone like that. You root for them.
It’s almost 15 years ago in film-time that she was happy.
Jennifer: And if you watch her, because she lost her parents, that moment when they were children that she remembers is the only love she’s really got. That’s the only potential. Even meeting Hans, he’s another potential, I think the suspicions of the newness of it are in here. And so her sister’s a greater desire.
Can we talk briefly about directing music? The music is doing a lot of the story work here.
I might not come out of this question well, and I do wonder if I’m going too deep [they looked just a bit frightened when I said that] but I wonder how intensely you direct very specific muscial moments? Because there’s a bit when Elsa sings Let It Go, and she comes to the second chorus, there’s a very, very slight release of the word Go. Not overt, not over the top, and I can’t put my finger of just why it feels so slight yet so important. And it’s just before Idina puts the full throat behind it. That’s the pivotal bit of a pivotal transformation song. So how tightly do you direct it, and when do you defer?
Jennifer: It’s a balance.
Jennifer: We went to Bobby and Kristen (songwriters) first every day, two hours a day. We would run every scene for them, they would bring their rough ideas for songs, and we would give each other notes and push. Any song that they thought we’d landed on, I would have to rewrite a lot of the film to support it. And I was always looking for those threads so that it feels cohesive and the storytelling is always going. But also there are little moments in a song that you set up early, and you don’t know has been set up. We did that constantly.
Chris: [Nods, laughing].
Jennifer: But when it came to Let It Go and that moment that you’re referencing, when you get in the recording room, we all give notes and try stuff. John Lasseter actually was with us for Let It Go, because he felt so close to that song. We wanted that to be a build, from the timidness, to the first release, through to what she builds at the end. So we’re that involved. But we definitely….
Chris: We definitely defer to the experts! And they’re looking at us not necessarily for the technical things, but the emotional things. Are we feeling good about how that’s working in the story?
Jennifer: It’s such a team, we were really lucky.
[We get the warning that we’re nearly out of time. I try my intense glare of charm, but it does not buy us extra minutes. Drat.]
Final question, then. Apart from the fact that you clearly get a lifelong discount at the Disney Store now…
Chris: [Laughs a lot. Really, a lot. In a way that suggests this is not part of the deal] I wouldn’t count on that!
Jennifer: For now we do…!
I’ve a special place in my heart for Beauty And The Beast, another film that infamously set in development for decades. As I understand it, the problem with that was the second act. What do you do for 50 minutes of the film where Belle and the Beast are in the castle together?
Here, you made Anna and Elsa sisters, which was clearly a story breakthrough. But it’s also the start of the hard bit, isn’t it? Once you’ve got that, you’ve still got 50 minutes of story to tell.
So once you’d made that breakthrough, how did you find your second act? How did you go about defining the middle of the film where effectively one of the lead characters takes a back seat?
Chris: One thing that’s always in the back of the audience’s mind is that feeling, the yearning for those two to get back together. We split them apart so that the audience is always hoping. Elsa and Anna have little moments together, but it’s like ‘they’re so close, we want the to get back together’. So at least in the back of the audience’s head, that emotion is there. So they’re always yearning for that.
Jennifer: We always said that the key was always to get back to this is Anna’s story. A bit of Elsa goes a long way in that she’s wow, she’s so appealing and draws you in, and that’s a bit of what she does for Anna. So she’s always slightly out of reach in a way, just as she is for Anna.
But I think the cue is that Anna’s got two journeys. They all come together at the end. But there’s the journey that’s about the eternal winter and her sister. And then she has this journey of leaning about what love is. About growing, maturing, and coming of age. Keeping those two stories going at the same time was, I think, the only way that we could achieve what we wanted. So for us, that carried us through the moments that she couldn’t be with Elsa. We’d be telling that side of Anna’s struggle to mature, and push on and try to explain why. I think it was hard, but it was hard to convince everyone of that in a way, because Elsa is so…
Chris: She’s so great. Everybody would go ‘I want to know more about Elsa, I want to know more about Elsa’. But Anna, as we always said, is our ordinary hero.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, thank you very much!
Frozen is out in UK cinemas now.
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