Roy Conli interview: Tangled, John Lasseter, Treasure Planet and changing Disney
Tangled producer Roy Conli discusses the challenge of making the film, and looks back too at one of his earlier features, the underrated Treasure Planet.
As this article goes live, Tangled is top of the UK box office, it’s closing in on $200m worth of takings in the US, and it’s proven to be something of a critical and commercial success. Back when we sat down with Roy Conli, the film’s producer, times were a little less certain.
Here, then, is our chat with the man, where we also get a chance to look back at one of his earlier films, Treasure Planet…You mentored under Don Hahn at Disney, and you faced some interesting parallels on this project. Don Hahn, on Beauty And The Beast, faced a change of director once production had started. And on The Lion King, he’s fairly open to the fact that, even by animation standards, they found the film extraordinarily late.
As a producer, you get to do the nasty bit. You’re surrounded by very creative people and your job is to give them the platform to create. What did you pick up from Don, and how do you weather the storm when, in the case of Tangled, your original director has a heart attack once production has started?
First of all, going back to Don, who better to walk into this organisation with? I had a theatrical, literary background. Script development and whatnot. Also production, though. Fortunately, what I had to do was transfer a certain amount of knowledge from theatrical production into animation production. The literary aspect took care of itself.
Working with Don, under Don I was able to get in there and go to meetings with him, just to see him work. It gave me a concept of how to finish a film. He was literary in the last throes, the last year of The Lion King when I got there.
Which was the really tricky year?
Yeah. That’s the tricky production part. On the Pocahontas end, I was able to sit with Jim, who was a first time producer at that time, and kind of watch what his mistakes were. There was a balance there.
Don, I think, amazingly gracious man, was an influence in the sense that I got to see a master at work. How much of my style emulates Don, I’m not quite sure. I do think in terms of crisis management, you look at the cards that are dealt and you basically deal with the cards that are dealt.
Oh, yeah. This is the thing that we decided to do. We had two years to put this together. Nathan [Greno] and Byron [Howard] came in, and they were amazing together. Those two guys think alike. They feed off one another.
They seem close, too.
That’s not always the way when directors are paired on animated projects?
Yeah. The interesting thing is that oftentimes, when you work with a pair, you want to split them up. So, one will do layout, and one something else.
What I found with that pair was that they think so much alike, and they feed off one another, that it was better to keep them together. So, if I needed to, and things from a scheduling standpoint were such that I needed to have one in editorial and one in animation, I would do that. But I did it as little as I could. Because both of them are great actors. Byron is a superb animator.
What we did, how I scheduled this, was basically allowing the creative to really come to fruition before I pulled the trigger on the next step. We were really careful not to jump ahead. Often we would say, “Alright, I know the schedule says we need to start today, but I want to hold this for another few weeks until I know it’s baked.” Knowing that, in the rhythm of production, you can always make up at the back end those two weeks.Because there’s an ongoing assumption with animated films that it’s a three year cycle.
Yeah, three to four.
And the assumption is, sometimes, that one-hundred percent of that is animation. Yet, if my maths serves me well here, forty percent of your two years on Tangled you’ve spent actively animating the film. Sixty percent was finding the story?
Easily, yeah. I would say that between June and now we did the most animation. Literally, we lit the film in 16 weeks.
Obviously, there were tests going on before. We made sure that we knew what the palette was that we wanted to work with. There was a tremendous visual development team.
My art director is brilliant. When you have that power, and you have a guy like Steve Goldberg, who was my visual effects supervisor, who knows how to put sequences together, I had complete faith.
In many ways, my job is about hiring people who are better than me to do the work. And as long as I have trust in them, and they are able to communicate their needs, and be able to communicate with the rest of the team, the schedule is tough, but do-able.What I found interesting with Tangled is where it brings Disney to. I don’t want to get bogged down too much with Pixar, because what I think is often forgotten is that Pixar stood on the shoulders of someone itself.
This is the return of Mr Lasseter.
In France, in the 60s, there was a blight on the vineyards in the south. Now originally, the vineyards in California had taken vines from France and brought them to California, and that’s where our wine industry started.
So, in the 1960s, when the vines were dying off, they cleared the fields, went to California, took the vines that were related to France originally, and brought them back.
That’s how I liken Lasseter. Lasseter was a Disney guy. Lasseter learned his tools at Disney. Lasseter went away, perfected his approach utilising those tools, and what he’s done is bring those tools back to us, making it a filmmaker-driven studio. It’s strengthened what we’re doing.
A lot of animated studios have, if we’re being blunt, tried to copy a model that they’ve seen as successful. What I think is interesting about Disney is something I saw in Princess And The Frog, and in Meet The Robinsons, and in a little bit of Bolt. It’s not just re-engaging with its roots, although I’d argue it does villains and music better than anyone. There’s also a real underlying intention to rediscover an identity as to what a Disney film is, as opposed to what a Pixar one is?
It’s interesting, because what I think the great thing about Lasseter has been is that he’s allowed the Disney culture to continue to evolve.He strikes me as a guardian angel now more than anything else?
Yeah. What’s great is that he’s not trying to impose a culture. He’s allowing it to evolve as cultures should.
The culture of Pixar is Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich. Those great directors that have evolved from that place. What he’s allowing is the culture to be Byron, and Nathan, and Chris Williams.
There’s a certain amount of trust that he has to place as a creative artist, and wisely so. You cannot force art. You have to let art evolve, and he’s wise enough to do that.
I think, though, in terms of searching for the identity, I think we, in my opinion, hit it out of the park with this one. The brilliance of Nathan and Byron is that they’re great filmmakers. Our favourite thing to do, on Mondays, is talk about the films we saw that week. We talk about the specific structure, chase scenes, what is about that film that we love?
Secondly, they are huge fans of the classic Disney. So, they bring that new and that old, in such a charming way.
We started off wanting to make this film a 20th century film, touching the legacy.There’s been a lot of talk in relation to this one to Princess And The Frog. Princess And The Frog seems to be deemed, in some quarters, as a failure in some ways. It’s talked about as some kind of commercial disappointment. But that’s casting a shadow, that we have a film that can take $280m at the box office, an animated film, and it’s regarded as a failure. You saw this yourself with The Hunchback Of Notre Dame a little?
Oh, absolutely. Fortunately, Hunchback was actually a financial success. I saw all this a little more with Treasure Planet.
But when all’s said and done, I don’t look at Princess And The Frog as a failure at all. Knowing where that film came from, and who the directors were, and what it was, I think from a worldwide standpoint, it stood on its own.
The difficulty with these films is that there’s an enormous amount of labour that goes into them, and that labour is relatively expensive. So, commercial success, look, being the producer of Treasure Planet, I don’t judge films on commercial success. I look at films like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a brilliant, brilliant, amazing movie. Amazing direction, amazing design.
Edgar Wright should try directing animation.
That’s not how I judge. Look, do I want commercial success? Absolutely. But do I judge the quality of my films on commercial success? No. I came from the theatre, and there’s no such thing as commercial success there!
The only people I hear talking about commercial success or failure that way are people who work for Disney. Most of us from the outside thought Princess And The Frog is was a lovely film. But it’s the rumours from Disney that suggest it underperformed.
There’s something else I found interesting about Tangled. For here, you have the two young, seemingly fearless directors. And then you’ve got a crossover with the old guard, which is you track back to the late 80s, early 90s, when Disney arguably peaked. It was at the point where a new generation and old generation came together. The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast are pretty much seen as the perfect storm, the perfect spot where the generations crossed over. Do you think we might be hitting that spot again now?
Yeah. I feel that. I feel that. To a large degree, it has to do with Lasseter’s return, but also I look at these two guys as filmmakers for the future.
Every generation has a different ways of telling a story. We had a great run in the early 90s, into the mid 90s and we became a little more executive-driven as we got into the 2000s. And fortunately, the mid-2000s, we found John again. And we’re back to being an artist-driven studio, and that’s what it has to be.
I love where I am right now in my career. I’ve always been fortunate. I think the three movies I’ve produced are incredibly beautiful, have wonderful storylines. This one, though, there is not a moment in this film that I sit and cringed at.
There are moments in other films where I sit and go, “Why did we do that?” This one, I sit and there is not a moment where I have any question that we’re telling a story economically, animating it economically, and it is absolutely touching those hearts.
Yeah. I think, had that been done in 3D, completely, it would have been a different experience. As it is, I’m amazingly proud of that film. I think it’s a great film. Unfortunately, it got caught in some weird marketing issues.
From what I could see, it couldn’t have hit at a worst time.
I know what you mean. It ran up against one of the first Lord Of The Rings, and the first Harry Potter.Easy!
Roy Conli, thank you very much.
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