Hitting theaters today is the animated film ParaNorman. The coming-of-age dramedy, written by Chris Butler who also co-directed it with Sam Fell, follows a young boy named Norman who has the unusual gift of seeing ghosts and being able to interact with them. That gift doesn’t exactly win him many friends until a zombie ghost outbreak occurs and he leads an unlikely band to stop the forces of evil. Laika, the team behind the stop-motion animated Coraline, provides the visuals which are nothing short of incredible. Last month I had the chance to sit down with Butler and Fell to discuss the Scooby-Doo influence, whether Butler laughs at his jokes as he writes them, bullying in daily life, the massive process and daily activities, whether you can become overly nitpicky when you are only receiving three to five seconds of finished film per week, and much more. Because the interview was done on camera, I have a full transcription and the video, so check that out first followed by the write-up.
The Film Stage: The film is very much about bullying but neither of you all, I can only assume, have been bullied in quite a while. Was it hard to go back to that place?
Chris Butler: It was very difficult.
Butler: No, when I was writing it, I think everyone in some degree has experienced bullying. It doesn’t have to be having your head flushed down the toilet or it doesn’t have to be on a large scale. But even in day to day, even as an adult, it’s there. There’s always someone who is being intolerant or pushing you because they don’t like the look of you. It’s always present. I know it’s very much in the news right now, but it never goes away. So it’s always going to be a topical issue.
Sam Fell: I think it’s great though because also the story deals with how bullying works and what’s behind it. So it’s not just wringing that subject. If you’ve seen the film there’s a mob mentality that goes on in the story. So that notion of a mob mentality and groups of people deciding the minority are wrong. It happens all over the world, unfortunately.
Writing comedy, people have this idea that you sit down and write with a pen and paper or on your computer. Are you laughing at your own jokes or do you have to show it to someone else to get that kind of feedback?
Butler: It’s weird because I think it’s funny, and I’m pretty sure about it. It plays a certain way in your head. You give it to other people to read and they say it’s funny, so you’re pretty sure. But the thing about animation is that you work on these things for so long that by the time you’re done with the movie, I have no idea whether it’s funny or not anymore.
Fell: None of us. Like we’ve watched the film a thousand times. By the end of it we’re like, [puts chin in hand] ‘OK, yep.’
Butler: You know when you’ve seen one joke, and at first you’re like, ‘Hahaha. He said diarrhea, haha, how hilarious.’ But then, 60 times in, it’s like, ‘Yea.’
Fell: Luckily our editor…
Fell: Some of the jokes our editor would laugh at, still.
Butler: That’s always a good sign!
Fell: We’d have him back there and he’d say diarrhea: ‘hehehehe.’ He’s off again.
Butler: No, we often have crew screenings or even just the rushes at work. I think one thing that’s really floored me in this process is that the crew are always laughing at the movie. So we’re doing something right.
There’s a heavy Scooby-Doo influence…
Fell and Butler: Yesh.
That just happens to be one of my childhood favorite cartoons…
Fell: Oh, cool, yeah.
Can you talk a little bit about how much you drew from that and obviously the supernatural element helps to play into it as well.
Butler: Actually, it was one of the defining influences at the very start. It was this idea of a gang of outwardly stereotypical kids, together, in a van, investigating the supernatural. But one thing that I wanted to do, even as a kid when I used to watch Scooby-Doo, I used to think, ‘Why are these kids friends with each other?’
[Fell and I laugh]
Butler: It doesn’t make any sense. It was taking that to its logical conclusion. If you really did have a jock and a cheerleader, and a bookworm…
Fell: And a bully.
Butler: Yea. If you had these different stereotypes, in a car together, they would fight. They would bicker.
Butler: They would have nothing in common.
Fell: And they wouldn’t get anything done, would they?
Fell: They wouldn’t be solving mysteries and stuff.
Butler: And that, to me, was even more fun. And it was also the idea that they’re investigating the paranormal, but in this case there is no janitor dressed up as a ghost. The ghosts are real. I think that was pretty exciting.
With the stop-motion animation and the way that you all filmed this movie—and it looks gorgeous; Laika did an amazing job—I’ve read that three to five seconds per week, per animator.
Fell and Butler: Yeah.
I assume y’all have multiple sets going on, and that’s why you create multiple Normans and other main characters. Is it hard to manage that because so much is going on and you’re only getting three to five seconds of film a week?
Fell: It is a big, monster truck thing to drive. It’s like a gigantic ship.
Butler: That’s why there are two of us, actually.
Fell: Yea, it works with the two of us. We have 25 units running and we have 25 units prepping, so people bounce from one set to the other. Yea, it could be chaos if you… you can’t just walk in there and start making it up.
Fell: So we spend a year planning it together: storyboarding the whole thing; talking about the lighting; talking about every single aspect and every single department and what we would expect them to do to support this story. We have a very well thought-out blueprint before we bring that massive team on-board. That’s our only hope of staying ahead of the curve and to just be prepared.
Butler: Yeah, and I think it’s also worth mentioning: it’s a group of people that never get mentioned, ever, and that’s the production people.
Butler: We always talk about artists, who are phenomenal, but there’s a small army of people who are making sure that the 320 odd people are functioning at any one point. It’s a huge and complicated thing, and it takes three years to do.
Fell: It’s a sort of jigsaw puzzle. We have this whole wall of where this puppet’s going to go next. All of those puppets have an appointment on another unit. Puppets get broken. There’s a puppet hospital that they have to go to and get mended.
Yea, I heard that y’all kept a crew around that originally built the puppets just to keep them…
Fell: Working, yeah.
Fell: Because those animators and their big mitts, breaking things.
So is it easy to become nitpicky on those kind of things because… and do you just go away for a little bit and then come in on a certain week, because I assume there aren’t dailies.
Butler: There are.
Fell: Yea, there’s dailies.
I guess it’s catching back up and there’s finished animation?
Fell: Stuff happens daily and everything has an iterative process: there’s a rehearsal; there’s some basic lighting tests; then there’s the shot. So we see a shot a half a dozen times as it’s going on. But there is a real danger of becoming too nitpicky and lost in the details when, in fact, our real job as directors is to tell the whole, big story. To deliver the emotion of the story.
Butler: Yea. It’s interesting, though, because at the start of the process, when you’re in pre-production, that nitpicky-ness is actually what starts the whole ball rolling. And you do have to be…
Fell: To define it, yeah.
Butler: Once you’ve found that look… and you’re working with a crew. Each project is slightly different. It has a different design. It has a different tone. Sometimes it has a different crew. You have to get everyone on the same page. You build up a signature. You build up a way of working and then by the end of the three years…
Fell: Everyone’s got it, yea. Everyone learns it, and then you finish, and they have to unlearn it. [Laughs]
Do any of y’all have siblings and was it interesting to write the siblings into the film?
Butler: I have a brother, an older brother, who’s nothing like Courtney. Thankfully.
Fell: Is he like Mitch?
Butler: No, no. A lot of me is in Norman, but not the family life. I mean, in terms of my parents and my brother supporting me wanting to get into this. Into art. They were always really supportive and I don’t think Norman’s quite got that support for his gift.
Butler: But Courtney was a bit of… because they are such stereotypes, it was pretty easy to know what to aim for. It’s like, ‘She’s a bitchy 15-year-old cheerleader.’ It was kind of fun to just go for it.
Fell: I love the family story in there, though. I do. I think this is a family movie and it involves a family.
Fell: And then there are zombies and chases and all this great stuff. But it’s great to watch that family dynamic run through it.
Butler: That’s more important, in the end, how Norman changes the relationship with his family than stopping the zombie ghosts.
ParaNorman is now in theaters.
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