For ParaNorman, the latest stop motion animated feature from LAIKA, the studio that previously wowed audiences with Coraline, writer and co-director Chris Butler wanted to create a film that had the feeling of John Carpenter and John Hughes working on an episode of Scooby-Doo together. From the opening frames of the film depicting a really crappy ’80s (and most likely European) zombie film, it’s clear that Butler and co-director Sam Fell wanted to create a wholly original animated film.
Telling the story of 11 year old Norman Babcock, a young man who gets constantly teased despite his ability to see and communicate with ghosts, Butler and Fell worked with the only studio they felt capable of staying true to their somewhat edgy, but heartfelt vision. ParaNorman not only tells the story of a young man who will come to save his rural Massachusetts town from zombies and a thousands of years old witch’s curse, but who will also force some of the people around them to confront their own intolerance with those around him.
Criticize This! got a chance to talk to Fell and Butler just after their film closed the Fantasia Festival in Montreal to talk about their influences, how to balance scares and laughs for kids, their research, and the over three year process it took to make the final film.
Criticize This!: You guys just closed out the Fantasia Festival in Montreal with ParaNorman. How did that go over?
Sam Fell: It went great!
Chris Butler: It was very well received.
SF: We were slightly nervous because it should be right for them, but you know, if you get it wrong for them and it’s a pretty wild crowd and we would have been chase out.
CT: Well, that’s kind of the best trial by fire because if a genre crowd like that loves the film, then you know it works.
CB: Definitely, and they really seemed to love the film. It was really cool, and we got mobbed. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, especially that particular class of “mobees.” They were a little on the older and scruffy side, but I’ll take it! [Laughs]
CT: There seems to be a real lack of horror movies for kids. How do you put your frame of mind into that of a child and figure out what’s scary enough and what’s too much?
SF: You know, with scary things it’s not that hard. This isn’t a pure horror film and it’s not going out there to scare kids. That’s not the main reason for it. The wrapping is horror, the references are horror, but I think it’s very heartfelt and very funny, and we put scares in there that we think kids can handle and that they’ll be entertained by it. Kids kind of like scares. The parents worry a lot. Parents worry a lot more than kids do. I mean, it’s up to them because they know their kids. It’s not a film for toddlers or preschoolers, I don’t think. I mean some preschoolers might…
CB: I think I would have loved it as a preschooler.
SF: Well there you go. You see what I mean? It’s a grey area, and it’s all up to the parents, I think.
CB: Like it says on the rating “Parental Guidance.”
CT: It’s mostly the climax of the film that starts to become intense.
SF: But even that I wouldn’t call it so much horror.
CB: It’s intense, but it’s more emotionally intense, but I kind of like using the horror to forward things, and a big part of the film is not judging a book by its cover. Every character in the movie I think makes a judgement on someone else, whether it’s through good intentions or bad. It kind of makes the audience complicit in that, too, by dressing it up as a horror movie for kids and delivering something else, which is what we always wanted to do. We often talk about this as a rollercoaster ride. We set out to make a fun, funny, spooky, and touching movie. We balanced it, and it was something that every day of the process we considered to remain responsible about it.
SF: But you’re right. That’s the thing that I loved and that attracted me to the project; just the idea that we would go there and maybe even a little bit further at times. It was just really surprising and rich and it leaves you thinking. To me it all feels very positive.
CB: Certainly for me in the writing of it I knew that I preferred things that had something to say in the first place, and for kids that’s challenging. I think the best kid’s fiction should be challenging. The best movies, literature, comics, or whatever… we’re going back to a rich tradition of scary, spooky stuff for kids that goes back as far as the written word if you’re talking about fairy tales. There’s always been scary or monstrous allegories and things that need to be overcome, and we didn’t want to do anything that was saccharine. A lot of the influences on this movie were from a different era of moviemaking. You know, the 80s had more brave, smart, and irreverent movies for families and it was something that we definitely wanted to go back to.
LAIKA’s a brave studio, I think. Coraline was certainly a movie that went there and we wanted to go there, as well. Not to the same place, but to places that other studios don’t go. We aren’t interested in making Pixar or Dreamworks movies.
CT: It’s kind of like how another animator from the 1980s, Don Bluth, would say that kids can handle anything that you throw at them providing that you’re always reassuring them, and you definitely seem to be going for that ’80s tone of some of the films Spielberg produced like The Goonies or Gremlins. How do you guys sort of find the line between what would reassure a younger audience and what would become saccharine?
SF: I think a lot of it has to deal with having a real truth to it. If you’re true to the emotion that you’re bringing and exploring, I don’t think it’s saccharine. I don’t know. That’s just my take on it.
CB: It’s something that was always in my mind when I was writing it because I HATE kids movies that condescend. I really don’t like to hear an adult’s voice coming out of a child. That could be either literally as a voice actor or if it’s dialogue. We absolutely wanted to do this from a kid’s perspective. The main character is 11 years old and we wanted to strip away the years of maturity, if you like, and try to remember what it was like to be an 11 year old. That’s where a lot of it came from or at least the intention. But I think a big part of it is humour. That’s how you balance it. You introduce an intense situation, but whenever you feel like it’s going too far you burst that bubble with a laugh. Also, these characters, they are layered, but they are highly comedic, so when you put them in an intense situation, the intensity is already leavened somewhat, which is better than having characters that are completely useless. [Laughs]
CT: That definitely calls to mind when things are just starting to get really scary and you cut to a sequence of the school bully, Alvin, trying to breakdance, which is great.
SF: Thanks, and that’s also the kind of thing that would have been cut from an average studio movie. You would have to justify that screen time, and a number of times we give screen time to things that would normally be taken out. Like with the boys in the film playing in the garden with a stick. You don’t NEED all that.
CB: We wanted to find humour in the characters as well as in the incidental details, because that’s where the world of the characters lies. It’s what you do in live action all the time and it tends to be the truest moments. I’ve worked in story and animation for a long time and anything like that, no matter how fun it is to storyboard, there’s always this force of the conscience and economy that’s drilled into you in animation. There’s a formula that you follow and anything extraneous to the plot, it’s gone. We didn’t want to do that. Actually, if you look at Miyazaki’s movies, that still has it. He spends time creating a world, and again that makes the story more relatable and it makes you connect more to the characters, too. Even as stupid as that krumping scene is, how much does it add to Alvin? He becomes this tragic figure, you know? [Laughs]
SF: And when it comes to character we both often go back to John Hughes. Going back to The Breakfast Club, that’s a film that’s all character and all incidental, and that was a very successful and popular mainstream movie.
CB: Yeah! And there’s actually one particular scene in a John Hughes movie that I always go back to that’s like a benchmark for me and something that I always keep in my mind. It’s John Candy’s big, memorable scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles when he’s in the motel with Steve Martin. It’s a hilarious monologue from Martin, but it’s also heartbreaking and it does everything you need to possibly do to create that character. I think that counts for the scary stuff, as well. You have to have that heart behind it. We weren’t making a pastiche of a horror movie. We could have just done a bright, colourful, frantic, camera mugging, in-your-face horror movie for kids and done all the scary stuff and made it silly and goofy and over the top, but I think we wanted to say something with it.
CT: Do either of you have kids of your own?
SF: Yeah, I have a little boy.
CB: I’m just incredibly immature. [Laughs]
CT: What position do you take, then, in terms of what your kid watches? Are you pretty tolerant?
SF: Yeah, I’m pretty tolerant. I think it’s just the psychological stuff that I’m more careful with, to be honest. Weird and difficult psychological ideas. I think Coraline was a much more difficult film.
CB: Yeah, I would agree with that.
SF: When it came out and he was, like, five, I didn’t think he could handle it at that point because of the fear of your parents being erased and their eyeballs being replaced with buttons. It’s sort of visceral ride sort of thing, though. You can watch any number of cartoonish sorts of things and it doesn’t bother me. By the by, my son actually makes films, and he makes these films that look like Tarantino. [Laughs] They’re so violent and outrageous and he takes them to school.
CB: But if you remember what you were like when you were a kid…
SF: Oh yeah! Of course I was the same way. I’ve ripped a few dolls heads off in my day.
CB: I used to write stories about what my family would do on holiday. I remember one that I read out in assembly in front of the whole school and the parents who happened to be there, and it was about how our dog had slaughtered a nest of rats, and I had this illustration that was just blood flying everywhere. And my mother just sat there… (looks disappointed)… “No, no rats. No slaughter.”
SF: [Laughs] But yeah, I’m pretty tolerant. It surprises me when I see kids going to see something like a five year old going to see The Dark Knight, though.
CB: Again, that comes down to parents. For me if something’s rated above a PG, then it’s rated that for a reason. It’s content.
CT: Watching the film it seems like the ratings board would have more of a problem with the innuendo and the language than the violence.
SF: Yeah, there was a little bit of that.
CB: As you can see on some of the posters it was rated PG for that always vague sort of “Thematic Content” which could really mean anything that they deem as dark or out of place.
We definitely think of kids as sophisticated, complex creatures and that includes at the age of eleven starting to have sexual thoughts or murderous thoughts or whatever.
SF: They know more than their parents know they know.
CB: Or their parents know and they don’t want them to admit it.
CT: Was there ever a concern since this is a film that took so long to make that there will ever be a change in the world that would affect the references you make? How do you write something so witty that’s not going to come out for several years?
CB: That was difficult for me, especially when creating teenage dialogue. I’m 38 years old and I feel like a dinosaur when I’m writing dialogue for a 15-year old cheerleader. Everything I’m writing I’m thinking “This is not going to work.” I was careful and I listened to a lot of 15 year olds. [Laughs]
SF: And the costumes, too. You know, we wanted to make a contemporary film and we had this 15 year old character in a Juicy styled track suit.
CB: But it’s not QUITE Juicy. That’s what you have to do. You take a reference from today and you take it a step back and away so it can survive and hopefully remain timeless.
SF: Well, they are the types of clothes that tend to stick around. I mean, we talk about the 80s and how they tried to stay contemporary.
CB: You think about it all the time and just as a part of the process, even where the jokes are concerned, just the very fact that it takes us three years in production alone means we have heard those jokes hundred and hundred of times, and we don’t even know what’s working anymore. To a certain degree you have to have that gut feeling from the start that something’s right or wrong and you stick with it.
SF: You don’t have to be too pop culture oriented, either, because that doesn’t need to be done anymore, really.
CB: And on the other side, I know one guy at the studio saw the script and he was disappointed because it was too contemporary. I said I wasn’t writing a fairy tale and to some degree it does have to be vital to the audience that’s watching it. We’re not precious, either.
SF: It’s fun to do the real world. This film isn’t a first, but it feels to me like a first in a lot of ways. It is this crappy, old ordinary world with all these rough edges. It’s a mess.
CB: It’s like putting all your love into a broken bicycle. You know so many animated movies can come off looking so arch because they spend so much money making the design of the world look like this perfect pastel world where everything’s freshly painted and overly designed, and it removes you from it. We wanted to make you feel like you just walked down a street where there’s trash in the gutter and dog shit on the floor. Again, it invests you. Everything we did was to try and immerse you in the film and make you feel like these were genuine characters. If they fell over, we wanted you to know that they were going to hurt themselves. It increases the stakes in a way, but it also helps when you add a supernatural element because when you make the real world very believable, then the supernatural world comes into contrast a bit. So we spent a lot of time making crap look lovely. (laughs)
CT: As someone who grew up in Massachusetts it was nice to see in the book showcasing the art of the film that you guys did a lot of location scouting there and that you really nailed the look of the run down sort of Massachusetts small town vibe. You are making this contemporary movie, but it also has a bit of a historical bent and American mythology tied into it, what was it like to go through and do the research into that background and blending it with the more modern elements?
CB: Again, it’s really almost the same as that last point. In order to have a degree of believability I thought it would be good to hook this mythology in the film onto a real historical event, and one that most people are familiar with. I think it adds a certain potency to it because it’s not that far off removed from reality.
CT: Massachusetts kind of puts that mythology right out in front. When you’re a child you get trotted out to Salem at least once to get these tours about witches.
CB: I did make a trip out there while I was writing even though I had started before I had been there, and I thought I had gone pretty far in creating this Salem on a budget. It was this crappier version of Salem where it was really tasteless, but when I went there I was like, “Oh no! It already exists!” [Laughs]
SF: It’s hard to parody Salem.
CT: It might be the only place on Earth where you can go into a gift shop and buy a light up pen of a witch on a stake right next to a lobster shaped bar of novelty soap.
CB: [Laughs] It’s like after the years go by after a tragic event, you’re free to commemorate it in whatever way you like. As long as you commemorate it, that’s history, but you can still sell badges and bumper stickers, you know? I just find that really… I don’t know if that’s a uniquely Western point of view.
CT: It’s celebrating a history that you should in no way be proud of.
SF: True, but you know what they say, “If there’s money to be made…”
CB: It’s kind of what the Western world is built on monetarily.
In terms of the setting, we always gravitated towards this sort of brutalism, even with the school that we based ours on and how we framed our version of it. I don’t think there’s even sky in those shots; it’s just a big square thing. We went around to a few schools actually and it sort of became an amalgam of different schools. We chose the nastiest bits of each. [Laughs] At one point we did find ourselves in a children’s bathroom taking photos, which was a little odd. [Laughs] There were no children there, by the way.
SF: When we got there the scout only wanted us to see the nicest parts of Massachusetts, and it took a couple of days for us to say that we needed something different.
CB: Actually our production designer, Nelson Lowry was from the area so once we dumped the scouts he knew exactly where to take us.
CT: It probably would have been so easy to take something like the Salem Witch Trials and turn it into this irreverent and comedic thing, but you actually handle it really tastefully and respectfully as this tragic and sad event. Was that something that was interesting to you?
SF: Absolutely, and it’s something that’s not only woven into the fabric of the story, but is also relevant to modern day.
CB: It’s a perfect historical reflection of every nasty piece of human mob mentality that still exists today. But yeah, I was interested in it historically because it’s just bizarre that that could ever happen. One thing that I thought was interesting about it that you don’t often get the perspective of was something beyond the hysteria and to see who the fingers were pointed at first. As it turns out they were pointed at a black woman, followed by a very old and ugly woman, followed by a grumpy old widower.
SF: The outsiders. The people who don’t really fit into the middle,
CB: And in that respect it fit our story perfectly.
SF: It’s not reverent or anything, it’s just that it’s about something and it ties into the film’s theme of tolerance and not passing judgement and how we want to be judged.
CB: I think it’s interesting because there’s the school stuff and how it all plays into the concept of a modern mob. It’s all a part of the same thing. And we can still have fun with the mob, because you can look at it at any point and realize that they are full of stupid individuals and you can always poke fun at those kinds of people. So we can still say something, but not have it become too preachy or too weighty.
SF: I like that there’s a scene early on where there’s a school play that sort of lays everything out about the town.
CB: And that’s pure exposition disguised as a fun scene. We talked about it and there are certain fundamentals that you have to get, which is why we have that play scene, but there’s also a point where you just buy into it. When you see any adults bullying a bunch of kids, you’re instantly on the right side. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of the historical context.
ParaNorman opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 17. Check out the trailer below.
Top image: A scene from ParaNorman. Courtesy Alliance Films.