Byron Howard & Nathan Greno interview: Tangled, Disney, animation and directing Disney royalty

The directors of Disney’s latest animated movie, Tangled, spend some time with us for a detailed chat about the making of the film…

A bit of history, first. The story of Rapunzel is one that Disney first looked at for an animated feature back when Walt Disney was alive. Walt Disney couldn’t crack it, and over the years, others came and had a go.

Eventually, it was decided to press ahead with the film as a CG movie to be directed by legendary Disney animator, Glen Keane. However, Keane suffered a heart attack early on in the production (returning to the film months later as Animation Director), giving new directors Byron Howard (Bolt) and Nathan Greno two years to bring the film in.

And that’s roughly where we started our conversation…

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You know how to set yourselves up on this one. You came to the film after production had started. John Lasseter was quoted as saying Disney would never release a film that wasn’t good enough. Then you find out it’s the 50th Disney animated movie.

Nathan Greno: I know, I know!

Throw in the fact that you only have two years to make the film. That strikes me as some convergence of pressure! Can you give us an idea of how you tackle that?

NG: I do wonder, if we knew all the obstacles and all the pressure, if we’d have taken the film on. It’s just so crazy. I’m glad we made it, looking back. But it was hard. There were so many technical challenges, and it was an incredibly difficult film to make. It was a beautiful film.

Byron Howard: Yeah, it was really rewarding. And it was great, because when John first started talking about stuff, we love legacy Disney. We love that. Just to feel like a part of that.

Six months into the project, someone did the math and worked out that it was the 50th film, so that was extra pressure. But even more, that’s great, because it’s even more important that this is really, really good. And we’re so proud of it.

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One thing that struck me is the approach of Flynn in the film. I find that animated films really went full circle. At one point, we had really passive female characters and big strong butch guys. And then it swapped then, so for a while the guys were idiots.

I saw in the character Flynn signs of a third way, a logical approach, perhaps, but one that animated films have been reluctant to tackle. What was your thinking there?

BH: It’s a good balance. It’s hard. A lot of times, especially Disney male heroes, they’d go pretty soft.

NG: Safe.

BH: Safe. And we know we didn’t want to do that. It’s one of the reasons we didn’t want him to be a prince and made him a thief instead. So, we said, “Can he have an edge to him? Can he be a bit cheeky and sarcastic and funny and charming, and have an appeal to him?” Because those characters can be unappealing if they’re too snarky, and we didn’t want to make a snarky film.

But landing Zachary Levi as the voice is a big part of that. He’s so smart and clever, and his adlibs are so great, and you like him straight away. You can’t help yourself. And he brings that to Flynn.

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Flynn’s not soft. He’s got an edge to him, but he does have that appeal. We were pretty careful about that, crafting his character. And balancing that, crafting Rapunzel too.

Does the relaxation of the rating help? Because this isn’t a U or G certificate film, and it’s going out as a PG. That tonally lets you take things a little darker, such as the pub scene, but you’ve also got a really unconventional approach to the villain. Mother Gothel isn’t obviously villainous from the start. There are almost traces of Gaston from Beauty And The Beast to her. She’s complex. And villains in storybooks aren’t.

So, is that where the PG rating helps?

NG: Honestly, it all comes back to story. And it all comes back to telling a good story, and telling a very compelling story, and what is that. We don’t think about ratings in the beginning. We got the rating we got, and we got a PG.

Disney would have challenged that heavily, once upon a time.

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NG: They would have, yeah. And we liked that these days, because of John Lasseter, it’s ‘tell a great story. That’s your job. Make a great movie’.

BH: And then whatever it gets, it gets. It’s funny, because we saw when the ratings board was going to review it. It was so late in the game and the film was done. They demanded the film be done by that point. And in animation, it’s very hard to change anything once the film’s done, because it’s so expensive, and so labour-intensive.

So, we knew we had made the best decisions to tell the story the right way, and we were right. We’ll see what happens. We didn’t really know.

NG: And Gothel, I think one of the reasons she’s so scary is that she’s not a witch, and she doesn’t have superpowers. What she has is her mind. She can manipulate. There’s people like that in the world. She’s a real-world-type villain.

It’s a two way relationship, though, isn’t it? If you go to the core of a couple of the early scenes between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, it seems quite a pure mother-daughter relationship at the start.

BH: I think so. Whatever Gothel understands about motherhood doesn’t seem to be very much! She’s got a very unique mothering style! There’s something there, though, even if it does have a twisted core, where she has to play mom to this kid to make the ruse complete. She has to convince this smart girl that she is her mother, and whatever her motivations are, she just intends to use this girl as long as she can to protect herself.

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There’s this complexity that exists. If she’s too villainous, too obvious, she’s going to get figured out.

Did you see Coraline?

[Both] Yeah!

At first, I’m thinking there’s a parallel with the Other Mother, although the Other Mother in Coraline could afford herself far more visual cues, which you couldn’t in the first instance?

NG: Yeah, that’s right. Going back to story. If it’s a story about a girl who’s stuck in a tower, and we wanted Rapunzel to be a smart character, she’s being manipulated. So, if Mother Gothel was a mean villainess, and looked like a villainess and acted scary, you’d be like, Why is Rapunzel staying in the tower?” You needed to buy that this girl would be there for 18 years.

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Mother Gothel can’t be mean. She has to be very passive-aggressive. She was one of the hardest characters to crack. When we were developing her, people were saying that she doesn’t feel enough like a villain, and people would point to characters like Ursula. And then she was too dark for a while. She was the toughest one, right?

BH: Yeah, exactly. Because what you do with her directly affects how you play Rapunzel in the movie. Because, if you play an extremely dominant and cruel villain, that girl is going to become meek and downtrodden, with almost nothing of a person, with low self-esteem. And we knew we didn’t want a character like that.

She has to have this drive in her, to propel the movie, and for you to like her. We had to balance it out, and figured that Gothel has to be more subtle than that, rather than a one-note, domineering mother.

You see it with the stepmother in Cinderella. She’s a real-world character, but she has no mercy on Cinderella. But Cinderella herself isn’t as dynamic as you’d expect from a heroine in a modern movie.

You’ve spoken about your reverence and respect for the Disney canon. One thing that struck me about Bolt and about Tangled is this.  I’m a massive fan of animation on a huge screen, and what I like animation to do is construct things you just can’t do in live action.

So, you had the action sequence at the start of Bolt, which would bankrupt Bruckheimer, and you also moved your camera at real speed here, which I hadn’t seen done quite at that pace in a Disney film since The Rescuers Down Under.

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[Both] Yeah, yeah!

In Tangled, you then had the lanterns on the big screen, which follows The Princess And The Frog with its fireflies. But you didn’t ground your camera. You were flowing through it. And there seemed a little tip of that of The Little Mermaid there.

NG: Again, going back to story, we looked at Rapunzel and we thought, “What does Rapunzel need?” If it’s just to get out of the tower, the movie’s over when she puts her foot on the ground.

We had to get her on a journey, something she needed to go and discover, and in the process she discovers she needs to get out of that tower. She needs to be free.

So, what could she see? Was there something she could see from the tower? But then the tower needs to be hidden in this valley. It was really complex. So, it had to be something that could go up high enough.

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We thought fireworks, but they felt very contemporary. And eventually one of our story artists came up with the idea of these lanterns.

So, we did some research, and thought, “That’s really beautiful, and there’s a real scale and scope to it that would be unlike anything else.” And so, we were kind of looking into that. When it came to that sequence, we did our own selves in, because we were trying to develop what is that sequence?

And there’s the Kiss The Girl thing [from The Little Mermaid], and we’re aware of that. But we wanted to do something bigger and different. So, we kept telling people as we were pitching the movie, when it was still written on a board.

BH: There wasn’t a frame of the movie done. We had no idea how we were going to do it.

NG: So, we were pitching it to John Lasseter and the crew, and we were saying, “”This is going to be the most incredible…”

BH: “… mind-blowingly complex romantic movie moment ever filmed.” With more emphasis than you could ever know!

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Meanwhile, we hadn’t done anything to accomplish a thing, and we knew that it was going to be big. And then we talked ourselves into more.

NG: And then we were, “How the hell are we going to make this? We keep telling everyone how big this is going to be! And we just kept pushing it and pushing it.”

They’d show us the lanterns in the sequence as they were building it, and we were saying, “It’s got to be more. It’s got to be more.”

And at the end of the day, it really is unlike anything that’s been done before.

I think that many of Disney’s best projects tend to come at a point where there’s a generational shift. That it requires two young, almost fearless directors, and a lot of your job is basically having to say no to Disney royalty. Alan Menken, Glen Keane… there’s an abundance of people with real heritage, and you have to go in and call bullshit on them all?

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BH: Yeah! You have to stay true. Part of our job, when John Lasseter put us in place, is that you have to say no. To have the final word on the movie.

John has a great philosophy, which is there are no mandatory notes. The wisest thing is to listen to everyone’s notes and work out what’ll make the film better. We don’t have to take the notes. We can make our own decisions. And guide the film the way we need to.

The best thing about Nathan and I, I think, is that we try and be as ego-free as we can be about all of this. It’s not about where the great ideas come from. It doesn’t have to be ours. We’ll listen to any of the 500 people on the crew.

If the guy who makes coffee says, “What if Flynn did this in the middle of the sequence?”, and he’s right, then we’ll put it in the movie. Because everyone’s very passionate where we work. Everyone wants to make a great movie. We all have the same goal, and we have to keep the big picture in mind.

NG: And it is tough. There’s this great story about Alan Menken. We were working with him for a while and we were actually recording music at this point. And they had to show us some artwork for another sequence, so we took a break with the orchestra and everybody and we went into another room, and Alan said, “Can I come?” So, we said, “Yeah.”

So, he came in and we were talking and giving notes, and wrangling this artwork, and Alan was like, “Oh, you guys beat up everybody!” We were like, “Yeah, we’re not out to get you, Alan! It might feel that way, because we are really tough on our crew, and it’s really hard. But it’s nothing personal. We just want the best.

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And you know what? John Lasseter is like that with us. He just wants the best. I think that’s how you make great movies. You just have to be fearless at times.

We totally respect Alan, but at the end of the day, we have a vision, and we have to get everybody on board.

BH: Yeah, and we expect people to push back on us, too. We expect people not to just cower and say what we expect them to say. We want them to understand where we’re coming from and make our decisions based on that.

How close did it get to the old fashioned Disney sweatbox, where animators crowded into a room for some very heated debates?

BH: Oh, pretty close! The sweatbox is all about getting a bunch of people in a room to really hammer a scene.

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BH: Yeah, brutally. And that’s what dailies are for. Most of the departments have a stage like that, where we have a bunch of people we trust in the room, as well as the artists. And we really let all the arrows fly at scenes to make them better.

In animation, that means Nathan and myself, and other animators, getting out to the front of the room and acting out these scenes. And at the tablet, doing these amazing drawings to help the animations get to the next level. And in lighting, that means bringing in cinematography references, saying, “This Ridley Scott film has a great sense of atmosphere.”

Every department has this crucible level, this boiling chamber where stuff falls away, and you’re left with the shining diamond of a scene. I think everyone came to expect that on this film, and I think the next films after us will follow that.

NG: It’s kind of funny, because everyone in animation gets to that one point where they say, “What do you do?” and you say, “I work for the Disney Animation Studios. I make animated movies.” And they say, “Oh, that must be fun!” Well, yeah! At times it’s fun.

But it’s also really gruelling, and there’s always people getting into these constant heated debates and arguments. And in the story room, it gets to the point, at times, that people are just pissed. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all coming from a place of real passion. It’s nothing personal.

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And we have these really crazy story sessions, then all of a sudden it’s lunch, and we go to lunch and are all friends. And then we go back to the story room and get pissed off again.

If it wasn’t that way, I think there’d be a problem. If it was easy, you’d think something’s not right.

BH: Yeah, that’s one of the things that Lasseter said when he first came into the studio. I think he looked at our story trust, our group of directors and heads of story, and he said, “You guys are being too nice to each other.”

And that’s really a problem in animation, probably in any film studio. If people are being too nice and not saying what they think, that’s a huge issue.

It’s also an issue if one person in the room is ruling the roost, and can’t be challenged. That’s where John’s great. He listens to everybody, he’s very open, and he fosters that same philosophy from the people who work around him all the way down. It’s a great way to keep the place healthy.

It was said that Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were given six months to turn Beauty And The Beast around when the director changed on that particular project, before Jeffrey Katzenberg would push ahead and tell them they’ve got the job.

Given that you had such a truncated schedule on this one, can you encapsulate what goes through your head when you come onto a project such as this after it’s started, and you know there’s no turning back?

BH: Well, at the same time John Lasseter made this very clear: he’s never going to put out a movie that’s not up to his standard, his level of quality.

That would strike me as the biggest challenge, here. Not that the film was late, but the fear of John Lasseter canning the film?

NG: If things were not working out, if we had done four versions of this movie and John saw that it just wasn’t working, they would have taken us off. It’s squarely on our shoulders.

If the film’s successful, great. If it fails, it’s on us, too, because ultimately, we’re the ones responsible for whether this thing sinks or swim. We take that very seriously.

We have the livelihood of the entire studio on our backs, and we always want to make a good film for the audience, and for the people who are working on it. Our studio will kill itself over it. They’ll give 150% no matter what kind of story you’re trying to tell. They always care about the work so passionately, and will work themselves to death. Our job is to give them something worthy of their time, and something that they’ll ultimately be proud of when they’re done.

On the software side of the film, it strikes me as the development software for animated films hasn’t fundamentally changed. Pixar will develop separate routines to do the wheels on Wall-E, for instance, but the core of it remains the same.

Is there any bottleneck left where software is concerned, particularly when you’re moving the camera around so quickly, and also when you have so many objects on screen, such as the lantern scene? Are the days of software as a roadblock over?

BH: Oh, no, no. I think it’s true of anything. You know when you have your home computer? You go, “Now I have the most updated home computer in the world. It’s superfast. It’s great.”

But now they’re coming out with more and more programs that use more and more memory, and it feels the same thing happens as we have technology that’s able to create bigger films. So, we ask more of the systems as we go.

Now that Rapunzel’s hair is conquerable, you’ll see other films with characters who have long hair, or extraordinary fabric, or 23 million gallons of water like we had in the movie. 100,000 objects on the screen at the same time.

These crushing numbers become handle-able as the memory gets greater, but we keep expanding what we’re going to do, and the movies get more and more complex. Which is great, but at any stage, it feels that we’re working just behind what the software can handle.

I’ve spoken to a few directors of animated movies, and you two seem close. You must look at the Musker and Clements partnership, and Wise and Trousdale, and look at what their successes allowed them to do and build up. Is your future looking at more Disney fairytales, or are you interested in building the Disney canon in other ways? Or will you be doing Mission: Impossible 5?


NG: We’ve already pitched more movies to Lasseter. A few months ago we pitched six ideas to John of films we’d like to make, and John picked one of them. It’s very different than this movie in that it’s a completely different world, and it’s very, very different. But the types of movies that we’d like to make are hilarious movies, big action, a lot of drama and emotion, and a ton of heart.

So, that’s something that we’re interested in. It’s not a fairytale, though. It’s something different.

It’s fun to mix it up. You look back at the Disney legacy and every film wasn’t a fairytale. Every couple of years Disney made another one, but there’s big gaps in between. And mixing up the types of film is kind of cool.

The films that are in development right now at Disney are really diverse and different. It’s interesting.

BH: I loved working on Bolt, and I loved working on Tangled, but they’re very different movies. One’s a smaller story, one’s got a more epic scale to it, one’s got music, one doesn’t. And it’s great. It’s nice to have that on your resume.

John will really support you on that, if you’re passionate about something.

Byron and Nathan, thank you very much.

Tangled is released in the UK today.

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