Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian interview: on making Brave

With the UK release of Brave imminent, we met with director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian to talk about the making of Pixar’s latest film…

Having first heard him through the walls at the press junket for Brave, and then sat down with him to chat about the film he co-directed, we can vouch for reports that Mark Andrews tends to fill a room all by himself, such is his immutable energy and enthusiasm. He came onto the project late in the day, alongside original director Brenda Chapman, and shepherded the story to the screen. 

Producer Katherine Sarafian worked on the film since its inception, throughout various changes to the story and creative direction, but both have been around Pixar Animation Studios for even longer. Together, the two of them talked to the press at the junket in June, and then one-on-one with Den of Geek, on topics ranging from Pixar’s celebrated story process to the ubiquitous Pizza Planet truck.

On Brenda Chapman and the Pixar story process

Katherine Sarafian: Pixar’s a filmmaker-driven studio, and all of our ideas are gestated and born within our walls. In this case, it was the right film, with the right idea, at the right time. Brenda Chapman was developing an idea, and her core idea was about this mother and daughter who don’t see eye-to-eye, and she wanted to set it in Scotland.

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That was the kernel of an idea that then became developed to the point where Mark and Brenda and I all went on a research trip and then fleshed out what this world could become. It had these elements of magic, a little bit of magic in it, a lot of adventure and action and heart and humour, and it didn’t feel like it was just one thing. We really just started with that story idea. 

Story is – Mark calls it alchemy, I call it messy. In every one of our films, from the beginning of the process to the end, the core idea may stay the same, but the execution of it is dramatically different. If you look at various versions of this film, during Brenda’s time, during Mark’s time – all of those are completely different.

Even Mark’s first crack at this movie  [Mark interjects with a raspberry noise and thumbs down] is not what you’ll see on the screen. We put it through its paces, and look at it every three or four months as a whole movie and ask, “Is it working?” and the answer is always “No.” We have to make it work a little at a time, and we say that Pixar films are never finished, they’re just released.

We did the most we could to make it the best we could, but we found answers by making little mistakes along the way. It’s been this evolution, throughout, and Mark and Brenda both worked hard to enthuse it with their passion throughout, and they both have that sort of Scottish history and background.

Mark Andrews: Story is the most difficult thing there is, and people have asked me about the pressure of making this movie, and this being the studio’s 13th film: how lucky do you feel? There’s been hit after hit after hit, and do you worry about making a hit? I’m not, I’m just worried about getting that story right, and it’s been worked on for a while. When Pixar asked me to jump on board, they said, “Here’s a movie, it’s coming out in 18 months and it’s not at the level we would expect at this moment; how’re you going to get it there?”

Looking at Brenda’s story, I had a lot of pieces on the table, and arranging them to make it super-entertaining, and super-appealing, and full of all that heart, that’s when it becomes alchemy. I’m sitting there and just trying stuff. One thing that I brought on board was objectivity; being on the outside of it, I could just come in and clear the table away.

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I think that all filmmakers run into this, when if you’re on something that you feel very passionate about, and there’s so much you can do with it, you sometimes need that clear headspace. Director changes happen all the time, and we’ve had change at Pixar before. The thing I really respect about Pixar is that story is king, when story is incredibly, incredibly difficult to pull off. 

On the absence of a Prince Charming 

MA: We said no to that. It’s been done, and it does not define a person, whether they fall in love with someone or not, or whether they have the ability to fall in love – that was a dilemma on its own, that has stakes.

KS: That’s a different story.

MA: It would be love versus “Here I am; a child, on the edge of adulthood, and I need to learn about consequences, but how can I learn about consequences if I don’t have myself to find?” Being set in this medieval time period where she has to be married off to keep peace with everybody, or there’s going to be war – uh oh!

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It’s that kind of a tale, so we didn’t need the love interest. We gave her three, in fact, and we have a great twist on that, that we put in the film, where the parents are totally out of sync with their kids, as we are, and they have to decide for themselves.

On parenthood in Brave

MA: I’m a parent, I have four children – a girl and three boys, just like Fergus does in the movie – so what I loved about it was the parent-child relationship, whether it’s a mother and daughter, or a father and daughter, or a mother and son. 

Any combination of that relationship is highly relatable, because we’ve all been teenagers, and fought with our parents and fought against what the world wants us to be, versus “I don’t even know who I am yet.” So, that is incredibly, incredibly powerful stuff, and that’s what I latched onto.

I did talk to women to see what that perspective was, and ultimately found out it’s the same kind of perspective as mine and my dad’s perspective. It all has to do with listening, and respect, and letting go of that control in your parenthood.

To a certain extent, I’m still trying to tell my kids that I know the pitfalls they’re going to face and if they listen to me, I can give them a map to avoid every single one of them. But they’re never gonna listen, and they’re not going to follow that map, because they have to find it on their own. I have to take my hands off and just support, and that’s in this story. 

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On recreating Scotland

MA: It’s just a fantastic place, and it evokes so much. If you guys get a chance to go out into the woods, and get out of the rented car and walk, it’s a dark, mysterious place, with these great vistas and epic scenery. You don’t get this effect anywhere else on the planet.

There’s an allure that we just wanted to capture in that character, and place a darker story in it that just lends itself to it so well. When you’re creating something, you want to give it some authenticity, because it doesn’t exist. On WALL-E, they went to the garbage dump and just looked at decay, and rotten things, and rusty things, so that they can take all that stuff that they learned, that language, and they put it into this world that they’re creating, to make it look authentic. 

We have it at our fingertips. We just get out of a bus and walk in there and start taking pictures, and painting, and sketching; grabbing plants and stealing roots and things, to look at and find out the character of this thing. But then again, to translate that into animation and make it look so that you just accept it right off the bat, and don’t think about it, is incredibly difficult.

But also, one of the beauties about doing it in animation, is that nothing’s for free, and you get to design it within an inch of its life, and bring that character to life in a hyper-realistic way. In real life, the tall stone barely reaches the ceiling in here. In Brave, we make them way bigger, and we can have control over scale, and again, it’s telling the story.

[That afternoon, I got to meet Mark and Katherine face-to-face. Mark was there first, and after chatting about haggis and the delicacies of my hometown (he didn’t say no to a Pixar film set in Middlesbrough), we decided to get started on the interview.]

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Congratulations on the film. I’m a huge Pixar fan and I really enjoyed it. Watching Pixar movies, I pride myself on always being able to spot the Pizza Planet truck on the first viewing…

MA: Nice!

I had kind of wondered if it would turn up this time, because it’s Pixar’s first period piece, but it’s in there. So, the Easter Eggs are one thing, but what were the other practical challenges of making a period piece?

MA: Well, one thing we ran into a lot was whether we were going to go historical or not. Early on, when I came on board, I said, “I’m not worried about a historical,” there’s a flavour to the time period that we need to get, but the stone castles weren’t built in the time that we were setting this – those came much later.

Kilts, as we know them, and some of the weapons and whatnot, weren’t around in that time period, so we just used what we liked from between the 9th and 12th centuries and just incorporated it into a fantasy Scotland setting instead of an accurate historical setting. It had to have a sense of an authenticity, that’s the only thing we were going after, not factual accuracy. So there weren’t too many challenges once we got settled in on that, and we could just use what we wanted. 

It benefits from that mystical, fairy-tale feel; this is more like a traditional Disney fairy-tale than anything Pixar has done before.

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MA: We haven’t done that before, but it’s not like any fairy-tale that you’ve ever seen before either, so I think it’s new, and I think that’s the great thing about Pixar. Whatever we do, we kind of make it our own thing and it just kind of transcends it, because we really don’t like labels, or being put in a box. We’ve been very good about opening that up.

It just comes down to “what’s the story we’re telling?” It may have flavours of the classic fairy-tales and whatnot, but if you really analyse it, it’s completely, completely different.

[At this point, Katherine arrives.]

I hate to apply another label, but another one that’s coming up quite frequently with Brave is that Merida is Pixar’s first female protagonist.

There’ve been characters like Mrs Incredible and EVE throughout Pixar’s filmography, but in a market where Katniss Everdeen and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White are doing great at the box office, do you feel like this is great timing for a strong heroine like Merida to be released into the world?

MA: It is good timing, but it’s also coincidence. If you look at strong female leads in the movies, there’s stuff way back, like Princess Leia as a lead. You’ve got Lara Croft; Angelina Jolie got her whole start being a strong female lead.

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So, they’ve been around for a while – it’s just starting to become aware in the last few years. Movies are becoming more supportive. We’re getting away from guys only in a lead-driven movie, and everyone can get behind a woman as a lead when we go and watch a movie. It didn’t come into our marketing at all, it’s just something that we wanted to do. 

KS: Yeah, I don’t think you’ll see a single piece of marketing that says, “It’s Pixar’s first female!” We started on this character so long ago, and yeah, it is interesting timing that she ends up coming into the marketplace at the same time as Katniss and Snow White, but there’s going to be more and more of these moments of convergence in the future.

Katherine, you used to be the head of marketing at Pixar. With Brave, the marketing has preserved the twist in the tale, and sold the film on the basis of the visuals. Was it a conscious choice to hold back on the plot, or more to do with showcasing the way that the film looks?

KS: Yes, absolutely. 

MA: We don’t want to let anything out. I have my pet peeves about what to show in trailers. I think people are so concerned about getting people into seats, they don’t trust what the movie is going to do to get them into the seats, like the visuals, and a couple of snippets of the promise of spectacular images, and they feel they have to tell the audience the movie. 

We don’t give the audience the movie, we just tell them the tiniest, tiniest amount. I worked on Iron Giant, and Warner Bros showed the Iron Giant fly in the trailer. And I’m like, “What are you doing?!” That’s why you go to movies – to be surprised!

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Every trailer for a movie that you see will give away the most spectacular moments, the funniest gags. That’s why I can’t go and see comedies any more! The trailers have all the funniest gags, so now you’ve seen it! There’s nothing left to build on, and I think that’s a huge mistake for trailers and marketing to cut this stuff together and not have the faith that you just want to show one or two things to entice, so that when the audience goes to see the movie, they’re going to get so much more.

KS: I mean, we want paying customers to be able to enjoy a great movie, and not give it all away early and ruin that experience for them.

Getting back to the film itself, I thought the vocal performances were superb. Reading about this movie online, I remembered hearing, ages ago, that Reese Witherspoon would be voicing Merida. At that point, had you planned to cast actors doing Scottish accents, rather than the Scottish cast that we hear in the finished film?

KS: We did have Reese on board for quite a while, and she was good with the Scottish accent – she had a terrific vocal coach, and she was already terrific with accents. She had done an English accent for Vanity Fair, and worked with us and the vocal coach until scheduling issues made it impossible for her to do it. So we missed her, but we were able to quickly get Kelly [Macdonald] for the role, which was great.

But the goal was not so much an all-Scottish cast, as much as finding actors who could really enhance the story in such a way with the teenage-ness, that energy and spirit that Kelly’s really been able to bring, plus Scottish-ness, of course.

But then Mark has not been very particular about what kind of accent, from which region of Scotland, and so we have a breadth of different dialects and accents throughout the country, and so we were very open to hearing what actors brought to things.

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I wanted to ask about the short film that plays before Brave: La Luna. I hadn’t expected it to link so nicely with the plot and themes of the main feature. How much were the two of you involved in programming that?

KS: We weren’t, we kind of heard from the studio, “We’d love to put La Luna in front of the film”, and we said, “We love that idea!” That was about it, because it’s more of a tradition to put a great Pixar short with a Pixar feature. 

We’ve both seen our own shorts benefit from that, with One Man Band [which Mark directed] on Cars and Lifted, [which Katherine produced] before Ratatouille, so we were happy to continue the tradition. La Luna is such a personal and emotional story, and it seemed to fit well with it being about a family, and we just fell in love with it.

The film was screened for us in 2D. It’s not a post-conversion process to make it into 3D, is it?

MA: Both will be available in theatres, yeah – 2D and 3D. But in animation, it’s not a post process, because it’s all virtual, so we can put two eyes on the action whenever we want, and put the focal distance wherever we want. The truest 3D you’re ever going to find is in animation.

What do each of you think about 3D in general?

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MA: For me, as a storyteller, it has to enhance the story. Every other decision I’m making, of how the light’s coming in, or the colours that we’re using, or what we’re doing with the camera, is all to help the story. So, 3D’s got to be used the same way, or it’s pointless.

KS: We’ve found that we like to give audiences a choice of seeing it in 3D or 2D, so we put both options out into the world. If you’re into 3D, you’re going to have a great experience, because in those moments where 3D can really enhance a point in the story, we’ve done that. Where it’s not needed, we didn’t. We were very careful with shot choices and where to do it, so it’s not just a visual trick. And for 2D, we tried to deliver an exciting and beautiful adventure as well.

MA: Yeah, to me, it’s audience choice now, at this moment. I wouldn’t want to put out a movie in 3D only and say, “forget 2D”, because there is a depth to film already. It’s like comparing a painting and an ink drawing of the exact same thing . They’re both valid, but they’re both a different thing – it’s what you prefer. For us, it still has to be artistic in both cases.

One last question. Mark, ever since I’ve arrived at this junket, people have been comparing you to Merida’s dad, King Fergus… 

MA: Wow, I haven’t been hearing that. Interesting. Well, I was the scratch voice of Fergus early on. I was the stand-in Fergus until Billy [Connolly] replaced me. I’m still hurt by that.

KS: You’re almost as good as Billy!

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MA: Almost as good? I’m a feeble shadow underneath Billy.

My question is, to each of you, with Fergus being such an insistent storyteller, do you have a big war story that you’d like to share over and over again?

MA: I have many stories I like to tell over and over again! Too many to actually give you one, actually, I don’t have a favourite. Katherine tried to chew my leg off, that was particularly frightening.

KS: That was, yes. With Fergus being a natural storyteller and Mark telling stories for a living, and they both have a great, boisterous, fatherly energy, yeah, I can see it!

MA: [Very suddenly] Skinny dipping in the loch! That was my war story! [Both laugh]

Excellent! On that bombshell, it seems we’re out of time. Good luck with the film, I hope it does brilliantly.

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MA: Fantastic, thank you.

Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian, thank you very much.

Brave is out on Monday the 13th August in the UK.