"ParaNorman" directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell test the boundaries of what kids can stand
Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Fox Animation have come to rule the world of animated films with stories of talking toys (“Toy Story”), talking animals (“Madagascar”) and more talking animals (“Ice Age”). Each hit box-office gold again this summer, though Pixar did so with a Scottish princess instead of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
But will kids show up en masse when zombies and stop-motion get thrown in the mix?
Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the filmmaking duo behind Focus Features’ “ParaNorman,” will soon find out. They’ve made a horror movie for kids, a mix, they say, of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” and “The Goonies.”
TheWrap sat down with Butler and Fell to talk about Hollywood’s greatest fear, the kings of animation and their own opening day jitters.
So it's opening day; how have you found the reception so far?
Fell: Critics seem to have gotten behind it. Our message has landed, and it’s not even us talking about it. The film itself seems to have done what we intended it to do.
Fell: We wanted to push the family film a little bit further.
Butler: We didn’t want to do what any of the other guys are doing.
Fell: Fox, DreamWorks [Animation]…
Chris: We didn’t want to make a Pixar movie. We wanted our own voice and people are picking up on that.
Fell: There’s been a debate as we’ve gone around about how scary can you make a kids' film. Is it too scary for kids? After five weeks of talking about it, we have not reached a conclusion; no one has.
Do each of you have kids?
Fell: I have a boy; he’s 8. He saw it at the premiere and was cool with it. He was 5 when "Coraline" came out, and I didn’t take him to the theaters. He was going through a phase where he was having bad dreams.
Butler (no kids): If you make a scary movie for kids, you’re inviting an incredibly divisive group of comments.
Alienation and exclusion are evident themes of this movie. Is that from personal experience?
Butler: I was definitely an outsider. I wasn’t trying to make Norman specifically me, but I was trying to write from an 11-year-old’s point of view. That was what was going to make the movie relatable, our through-line to the audience – knowing that everyone knows what it feels like to not fit in.
That’s difficult for a 38-year-old. It’s so easy for kids characters to become whiny or precocious or annoying. Because he’s got to carry the movie, and he’s kind of the straight man — he doesn’t get all the funniest lines. He does have humor in him, but he must also have vulnerability and bravery.
At a screening last night you talked about hiring people based on their voices in real life rather than their acting resume or what they look like. Why did you take that approach?
Fell: We wanted to make the setting feel like a real place, like something you recognize. That’s the hardest thing to do in animation. There’s a sense of making it spontaneous and real, but it’s artificial. We wanted it to feel more like a movie we were shooting in a real place. One reason to do that was just to be different.
So a real movie about zombies?
Butler: Yeah, why not? It increases the audience’s engagement with the characters.
You mentioned not wanting to make a film like DWA, Pixar and Fox — why? How would you compare their movies to yours?
Fell: The computer-generated ones are more cartoony.
Butler: DreamWorks certainly.
Fell: And “Ice Age.” Pixar a bit less so.
Butler: Maybe “Brave” was a bit of exception, but it’s all boldly colorful, bright worlds of whimsy. We wanted to play in the shadows a little bit more. We don’t think any of the other studios would have done this movie because it doesn’t fit into their criteria. There are so many different kinds of stories you can tell in animation; it doesn’t just have to be humorous talking animals.
You’ve said you took inspiration from 1980s movies. What types of movies are you talking about?
Fell: Early Amblin – “The Goonies,” wild adventure character comedies with a dark edge and some black comedy. “E.T.”
“ParaNorman” has an unlikely team fighting adversity — a pair of kids and their older siblings.
Butler: With “Ghosbusters” and even “Gremlins” and definitely “The Goonies,” there is a sense of naughtiness, irreverence maybe. They were not quite as safe as a lot of the family movies today.
Fell: The modern age started with “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and Spielberg. They invented the modern pop movie.
And Hollywood now?
Fell: It’s overly protective; boundaries have been set. Executives worry about offending anyone and want films to be for everyone. To create something for everyone in the world, you can become safe.
Butler: A lot is deemed inappropriate for kids these days that I don’t think is. Some people say it’s not right to talk about death. Why is that?
Stop-motion has a loyal group of people who love to watch those movies.
Butler: The problem with niche audiences is: how do you justify spending millions of dollars appealing to them? Part of it has to appeal to the masses. Otherwise, we don’t get to make movies on the scale of “ParaNorman.”
Fell: It didn’t cost as much as a computer-generated movie. It came in surprisingly cheap.
Butler: Less than half of the average computer-generated animated movie.
Fell: So we don’t have to quite do the numbers “Madagascar" does.
Butler: We do want it to be successful; stop-motion is still a fringe thing.
The film has a lengthy car-chase scene; were there any films or sequences you looked at?
Fell: “Ronin” and “The French Connection.”
Butler: We hired a live-action storyboard artist, who worked on chase sequences in the Bond and Bourne movies, to do a first pass at the chase sequence. We wanted to get a different vibe, chasing naturalism.
We wanted it to look like chase scene you hadn’t scene in stop-motion before. For one shot, we had a 70-foot piece of road. That shot was gone in two seconds. That road was lined with handmade trees by the way. You pretty quickly realize why there aren’t chase scenes in stop-motion.
Given that “Chicken Run” is the most successful stop-motion film at $106 million, are you at all nervous?
Butler: We’ve stepped out and done something different and if people go see it it’s vindication that we made the right decision. If they don’t see it, it’s easy to say we made the wrong decision doing something new. It’s scary for me, not being able to do what I want again.
Fell: So how many people have to see it for it to be legitimate?
Chris, this is your first time as a director. Has that made you more conscious of these kinds of things?
Butler: On other movies, even if I’m proud of it, there’s a part of you that’s like ‘it’s gone now.’ I don’t feel like I’m out of this. I’m still standing in front of that crowd naked. You shouldn’t be interviewing us on the release date; you’re just getting a mess of anxiety.
Well you’ll be feel gratified or enter depression…
Fell: In 24 hours.
Butler: Why thank you.
Fell: You can quote us ironically either way.