Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck interview: Frozen, Statham, Frozen 2

We catch up with the directors of Frozen to talk about where next, and the ramifications of the film's success...

Since we last chatted to directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, Frozen has become the biggest animated hit of all time, it’s won numerous awards (including a pair of Oscars) and now arrived on DVD and Blu-ray too.

We thus chatted about the legacy of Frozen, where next, and, of course, about Jason Statham….

SPOILER NOTE: Best not to read this one if you’ve not seen Frozen

I need to address something I forgot, scandalously, to ask you last time.

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[They look worried]

What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

[They still look worried. Then they laugh. I think they think I’m joking]

Chris: Jason Statham film?

Yeah. He’s the high priest of British action cinema.

[Jennifer is laughing a lot now, but both still look puzzled]

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You can go with Gnomeo & Juliet if you want to keep the animation flag flying?

Jennifer: I know!

Chris: What’s the one where he has to keep moving… [gestures to his chest].

That’d be Crank. A fine choice.

Chris: Yeah. Crank.

Jennifer: Crank is a good one, yeah!

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Crank it is. So, Frozen then. We spoke before how movies transcend can talk directly and indirectly to people going through challenges in their life. A young relative of mine has had hearing problems, for instance, over the past year or so, and so she responds to visuals – including those in Frozen – very strongly.

What struck me though, and I’m going to invent a word here, is how ‘unbusy’ the visuals are. And likewise, I think sound is a hugely underappreciated element of animated movies, not least the deployment of silence. When you have hundreds of people working on a film, the temptation is surely to add rather than take away. So you’re surrounded by people – some of them more experienced than you – and have to say no?

Chris: We gather brilliant people around us. Now when it comes to the look of the movie, you’ve got Mike Giaimo, our amazing art director. He did a lot of research, and he’s a great designer. But he also looked at a lot of films… Black Narcissus, and some others that just spoke to him. He also looked at very theatrical lighting for the movie, and also for the songs and stuff. Simplified, you just focus on that area where the action is, and let the other stuff sort of drift away.

Jennifer: Definitely.

Chris: So that takes away the busy-ness of the look of the movie.

Jennifer: The philosophy I always have is what’s the sentence that would tell me about each shot. If I can’t read why the shot’s there, what is the story trying to say? Then I know if it’s too busy, or if we don’t know yet. I have that issue where I’m watching, and when I don’t know when to focus I will look at all the options, and get taken out of the film. Really for us we were constantly asking what are we saying here, where should we be? Let’s focus the audience.

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And then with sound, we just really felt that we wanted this to be visceral, and to be transported, and sound is a huge part of that. In letting it tell the story emotionally, the sound of the ice when it’s at its most dangerous just makes you shudder.

The silence… John Lasseter really wanted that silence when Anna freezes. We took out even the ambient sound even that is normally just there to make it feel unusual. We crafted that with him, because that was a moment where we wanted everything to feel suspended.

Particularly in animation, where everything is crafted from scratch, I think silence is hugely potent. Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol got lots of criticism – some of it justified I think – but the deployment of silence in that film is quite brilliant.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Can we talk then about the legacy of what you’ve done? Because since we last spoke, the film is clearly a phenomenon now – I don’t think we can deny that – you’re both multi-billionaires…

Jennifer: Wait… what?!

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… but if you take it down to a very ground level, you have kids now who can’t buy the toys because they’ve long sold out. People queue for hours at a theme park to meet Anna and Elsa.

When, though, did you know? I’ve read an interview of when you knew in early screenings where you felt the film had clicked. But when did you know once the film had been completed?

Chris: I can tell you when I knew. And that was the text that I got! I got a text from a friend, one of the animators. He’d gone to a screening on the opening weekend, and right when the movie ended, there was a group of ten or so teenage girls, and they got up – right when the end credits song is going – and they started dancing. Then they all got so excited they ran up in front of the screen as the credits were rolling, and took pictures of each other in front of it.

And even just the text, I thought this is different. This is not your normal animated movie, or any movie. Somehow, there was this passion. They loved it. That was my cue that this was something different.

Jennifer: For me – and in many ways I’m still processing it – it’s so hard to get your head around it. The one thing I remember though is Christmastime being back home in New York, and walking the streets. Every day I was so busy visiting people I’d missed. I’d go out, and there was not one time – not one – when I went out and didn’t hear someone on the street or in the subway singing a song from in the film.

Just walking across town, there was a girl singing For The First Time In Forever. And then another one singing Do You Want To Build A Snowman? Then Let It Go. Every time. And that – I was like, something’s going on.

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I then made the mistake of going to the Disney Store on Times Square and there was nothing! So I think it was the holidays, but then that always feels like a magical time anyway, because I was home. But I was crying a lot!

I love that you went to the Disney Store to buy Frozen stuff and they told you that you couldn’t. I’d like to think someone pushed past you to get the last toy or something!

Chris: We’ve asked our head of merchandising for some products, if we could get some things! ‘I’m working on it’, he said! We didn’t grab the stuff initially thinking it wouldn’t be a problem, and now everything’s sold out!

Just draw some new ones! Is that simple, right?

Chris: Yeah! [laughs]

So: when did you first hear what we’re calling ‘the communcal audience gasp’?

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Jennifer: Oh, it was at the preview.

Chris: The weirdest one, and we’ve heard it twice at two different screenings and it’s always a guy, when Hans reveals himself he goes [Starts clapping].

Jennifer: And there was one time where a guy stood up and went “YEEAAHHH!” [Laughs] What does that mean?!

The best gasp of all though was just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the film with an entire audience of children. It’s called Mike’s Field Trip To The Movies, and it’s for kids who can’t really afford to go to films. They pack them all into the cinema, and so a lot of them hadn’t really seen a movie before in a theatre. And they watched it, and the gasp – “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” – was the best. They had no problem screaming, because they were all feeding off each other! That was the best.

For the next 20 or 30 years now, you’re going to face questions about this film I suspect. Rob Minkoff was over in the UK promoting Mr Peabody & Sherman a few weeks back, and was still fielding questions about The Lion King.

Jennifer: Uh-oh!

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We’re past the age of straight to DVD sequels now, that much is thankfully clear. And obviously there’s been talk about sequels to this, a musical… but how closely do you stay now as guardians of it? How do you stop The Jungle Book 2 happening to it? How do you protect these characters, or do you have to accept that it’s someone else’s now?

Jennifer: We might have different answers because you’ve had some distance from films before? [Chris wasn’t involved in the Tarzan spin-offs]

Chris: Yeah, but those were different regimes. I think with John Lasseter being there, he’s such a guardian of the movies now… especially of Frozen, he really was such a big part of it. And the characters too. I think we’ll be right there, but he’s the 800 pound gorilla who says no, our characters don’t do this. They don’t go there.

Jennifer: Right now, I certainly feel very protective of the characters, and it’d be very hard to see that happen. Having said that, the fans have seen different things in the film, some of which wasn’t our intention, but they’re responding to it, and there’s a discourse going on.

There really is.

Jennifer: It’s flattering. They’re talking about our film at a deeper level than just it was good, it was bad. And that in itself means a lot. You don’t want to take that away from fans. There is that balance of wanting to stay involved and protecting the characters, certainly going forward, but also liking the world that each person is making.

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The one disappointment about Frozen that keeps coming through, certainly in the UK, was that it wasn’t pushed as a film led by two women. We had one movie last year that hit big that was, namely The Heat.

Looking back now, for reasons broader than Disney is your hope that part of the legacy of this is that it’ll give a studio confidence to approach things in a different way? Disney at least tried with The Princess And The Frog, and the marketing here clearly worked.

Jennifer: I will say that I think it’s far more complicated. As a woman, I would love that. But I think that in many ways we have to respect the challenges of getting to a movie-going audience, and the expectation. What I hope Frozen does, really, is show boys that just because it stars two girls, it doesn’t mean don’t go. I think it has: the reaction to them has been great. I think if you create well balanced characters that are well represented, boys and girls relate to them whether they’re boys or girls. I think that’s the direction we’re going on.

I do think it’s a step, but I do think it’s going to take time. It’s one thing to have two female comedians who are very popular, it’s another when you’re trying to reach entire families to try and make everyone feel welcome. We had all the confidence in the world once they’d seen the film, but I think it’s always going to be a challenge. Hopefully one day it won’t be.

Chris: It’s a challenge in different territories, too. In Japan they’re calling it Anna & The Snow Queen. What I do love though is that someone did say that Frozen is a movie that doesn’t say it’s for women, but it’s about women.

In ten years time, I’d be amazed if gender still dominated the conversation as it’s doing even now.

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Jennifer: That’d be great.

Chris: I think that’s true.

Finally then: Jennifer, have you ever written a line on a piece of paper ever in your life that’s created as much work as this one: “In a flurry of creative release, she raises the snowflake on ice beams, builds walls, archways, a glistening chandelier, and an intricate ceiling that leaves the sky visible”.

Jennifer: [Laughs]… [Then laughs a lot]

I was trying to work out where the writer ended, and the director started there? The bit where you as a director have to look at that and say ‘what the hell have I just done?’

Jennifer: I’m still the person who naively thinks if I can imagine it, we can have it! And they did it! Nobody’s proved me wrong, because that palace, they far exceeded that sentence! I never thought they would do it.

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They’re dreading getting your next script though.

Chris: [Nods]

Jennifer: In live action, I can’t get it because of the limitations there. But in animation, the more we pushed, the more they delivered!

If you pitched it to a room of people in Britain, we’d just all look at each other and go to the pub. Jennifer and Chris, thank you very much!

Frozen is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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