Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee interview: on making Frozen

Mark chats to the co-directors of Disney's Frozen, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee...

If you’ve checked out our review already, you’ll know that we adored Frozen, the latest addition to the Disney canon. It’s an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a project that has been in development limbo at the House of Mouse since the days of Walt Disney himself.

Back in 1943, Disney and Samuel Goldwyn collaborated on a biopic of the author, including animated adaptations of his stories. Goldwyn eventually parted ways with the studio to make the live-action 1952 movie, Hans Christian Andersen, leading to a number of animated projects that had been going on at Disney, including both The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid, were shelved.

Some time after 1989’s The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance, the studio came back around to look at the story in the late 1990s. One of the filmmakers who went in to pitch a version, called Anna And The Snow Queen was Tarzan director Chris Buck, who was the last to work on it as a traditionally animated project.

Following the success of Tangled, Disney thawed out the project, re-envisioned it as a CG movie with Buck directing, and brought Wreck-It Ralph screenwriter Jennifer Lee aboard. Completely overhauling the story, Lee was eventually promoted to be the first female director of a Disney animated feature, sharing credit with Buck.

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We interviewed the two directors over the phone last month, discussing topics such as the story’s lengthy development process, the tale of two sisters at the heart of the finished film, and the way in which the film revisits the musical traditions of the Disney Renaissance…

Congratulations on the film- I really enjoyed it and a big part of that was seeing how it really recaptured something, musically, that Disney has seemed to shy away from in the last decade or so. You pulled in resources from Broadway, had characters singing to drive the story – what was your ethos going in?

Chris Buck: Our ethos – it was kind of taking a new approach to this kind of movie, and a story that is timeless, and had been in development at Disney for a long, long time. So, it was really about trying to tap into that kind of movie musical, and make a movie which lasts for a long time, but also really connect it to what makes it relevant to audiences today.

Jennifer Lee: Yeah, we love a lot of the Disney classics, and we wanted to look at how we could relaunch that. And working with Bobby and Kristin Lopez, [Frozen‘s composers/lyricists] we thought we could treat the music in a different way, where it would really drive the story, and be an integral part of it. It just made for a film that was able to get bigger, and more epic, and more emotional.

Jennifer, as a screenwriter, how do you map out the songs that are included in the film? How do you attribute which parts of the story you want them to tell, and how do you keep control over that throughout the process?

Jennifer: It’s very tricky. We never had an outline of where the songs would go, but we worked with Bobby and Kristin every day, via video conference. I would bring in pages and we would think about what kind of song could go here, and if it wouldn’t work there.

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And if it didn’t work, I’d rewrite everything leading up to it. The best example of that is ‘Let It Go’. Elsa was much more of a dominant character when we began, like a straightforward villain, and with ‘Let It Go’, we were inspired by them writing that song. We were so blown away by it, we really wanted it to be powerful and to resonate, so I went and rewrote the whole first act, just for that song. There was a lot of back and forth.

The Snow Queen is a classic tale, and it’s a tale that Disney has been trying to adapt for decades before now. Was there a complete break between previous teams and the crew that you guys worked with, in finally getting to Frozen?

Chris: There was no overlap. I pitched the story about five years ago – or a version of it – and it wasn’t based on anything that had been done before. It was a whole new crew, too.

Jennifer: We found it was a very challenging story to do, because it’s very ethereal and poetic, and not necessarily concrete, in the way that a film needs to be. I think that’s part of what made it such a hard nut to crack, and I think we had to do a lot of exploring ourselves. I don’t think it was until we decided who the film was about that we really found where it was going.

Yeah, it’s been said that the “eureka” moment in the film’s development was in making Anna and Elsa sisters. Did everything fall into place quite quickly after that?

Jennifer: Not quickly! [laughs]

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Chris: Yeah, nothing ever goes “quickly” in animation. Sorry!

[both laugh]

Chris: But you’re right, it really was a key moment. Emotionally tying these two characters together was something that we were really struggling with. We had these two women, but having that emotional bond helped us throughout the movie. It was how we could play with the story and make it as strong as it is.

Jennifer: With a film, things constantly have to go up in the story, and you’re constantly putting pressure on the main character. We wanted that to be Anna, who’s an ordinary girl with no magic, just a heart of gold to drive her forward.

Her kingdom’s frozen, she has to save that kingdom, and it’s her sister doing it – what a way to put a lot of pressure on her. It allows us to go really deep into what their relationship is. In every single way, we just kept finding more and more great stuff.

Chris: We saw Elsa as a kind of superhero, with superpowers, with snow and ice, whereas Anna has no powers at all, except for her extraordinary heart.

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Jennifer: That was a part of the original Snow Queen story that we wanted to hold onto – it’s a story about love conquering negativity, in a society ruled by fear. Elsa represents fear, and other characters represent aspects of that too, and Anna represents love – in that story, that’s all she’s armed with. I think that’s where we get that very timely, but timeless feeling, with that theme.

There’s been some baffling controversy about the representation of women before the film has even been released, but it really works so well as a tale about two sisters, and a female-led story.

What you often see with Disney princess films though, is that the Prince Charming figure is much more sidelined, and another thing that impressed me about Frozen is how the lead male characters, Kristoff and Hans, are rounded out too. How did you go about toning them and getting them right?

Chris: I won’t speak for Jennifer, but we really create all our characters from a starting point of being interesting, and there’s nothing more interesting than characters who have flaws. So we came from there with each character – even Sven, the reindeer. That was our goal. Male, female, reindeer, snowman – whatever it is, we look to make them as interesting and entertaining as possible.

Jennifer: I think if you wanna do a film where you have a big scope, you’ve got to make your characters relatable and genuine. We spent a lot of time on every character, in great detail, and it always kept things feeling genuine, and that’s the kind of film we like.

The palette of this film is very bright, with lots of beautiful snowy vistas, but without spoiling anything, there are also darker tones in the story. How did you marry those darker aspects with the visuals?

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Jennifer: We worked with our art director, Mike Giaimo, who’s incredible, and he was so excited about dealing with ice and snow because it gave him a big, white canvas. And we really wanted the kingdom to be like a character in itself, and we were able to use it to create different kinds of emotional language.

We’ve used ice and snow to show things, emotionally, that we haven’t seen before, and it totally makes sense to people – you can feel what’s happening to Elsa, emotionally, in the environment around her.

Chris: We did a lot of research with our art director and his team. We went to Norway, and brought back all of this wonderful detail, of those beautiful landscapes they’ve got, and it just helped so much. There’s an ice hotel in Quebec city, and that was a real inspiration for the ice palace that Elsa builds. The way the light refracts, the colours- just so many things were inspired by all of this research.

Jennifer, you were promoted to the co-director’s chair relatively late in the production. Was it a gradual promotion, where the title just followed, or did someone just catch up with you in the canteen and say John Lasseter wants a word?

Jennifer: [laughs] It was more the second! They were still working on Wreck-It Ralph, but we were nearly done and they asked me to come onto Frozen, as a writer. And Chris and I really worked well together, and we really connected with it earlier, so we kind of started over together, and with our combined schedule,

I think with our schedule being what it was, we were moved up a year, and that meant being in production while writing the story at the same time. And I think John and Ed Catmull just saw something in Chris and I together, and it was after one of our screenings – a little earlier than when it was announced, I think it was in August- but they just told me. Chris and I were relieved though, it just seemed like the right fit.

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Chris: When they asked me about having Jennifer as a co-director, I couldn’t have been more excited and thrilled. We were both on the same page, we both wanted to make the exact same movie, and she’s kind of a powerhouse! [laughs]

Jennifer: We were able to divide the work too – we tried to work together as much as we could, but there were times when Chris would work with the animators and I would work with the story artists, and then we would come back together, so we were able to do a lot more.

Chris: Every day we could check in, several times a day, if there were any new things that came up, in either department.

Jennifer: And we haven’t fought yet. He’s a very patient man. [laughs]

Chris, you’ve directed for Disney before, on Tarzan, which was part of a period, sandwiched Mulan and The Emperor’s New Groove, that seems to have been written off, even though it’s a terrific run of traditional animated films. How do you feel about Tarzan now, in retrospect?

Chris: I still love that film. You have a soft spot in your heart for each movie, and you’re doing certain things. You’re learning as you’re going, as a director, and each movie is its own entity. It had such great music by Phil Collins, and that became the voice of Tarzan. It has such a special place in my heart, as the first film that I did, so I love so many things about it.

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But each movie is really its own thing. I love Frozen, too – I love what we’ve done with it, and I love CG. People ask me about CG and hand-drawn and for me, there’s so many things about both of them, but in the end, it just comes down to telling a great story. I love Tarzan for that time in my life, and I think it’s still a great film.

One last question: this is a very snowy movie. After working on this film for so long, is your next holiday going to be somewhere really, really sunny?

[both laugh]

Jennifer: It’s not time for a vacation yet, we still have to travel across a lot of countries before we get to relax.

Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, thank you very much.

Check back next week, when we’ll have another chat with Chris and Jennifer, that’s a little bit spoiler-y. Hence, we’re waiting until more of you have seen the film first!

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