An Interview with Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the Directors of "PARANORMAN"
Published: Friday, August 17, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 17, 2012 13:08
The year’s best animated film, “PARANORMAN” has an almost subversive streak lining through its de-animated DNA. The team at LAIKA first impressed with their work on Henry Selick’s “CORALINE”, but this genre-obsessed effort, about a boy whose ability to see ghosts and an accidental zombie apocalypse, is one-of-a-kind. There’s not a single sequence where the film takes the expected way out; it twists and turns with an aversion to formula that more “adult” movies can only dream of. It’s exciting, funny, and simply a delight – oh yeah, and it might just scare the hell out of you.
So we were extremely excited to get a chance to pick the brains of Chris Butler, who wrote and developed the film over a decade, and Sam Fell, an animation director (“THE TALES OF DESPEREUX”, among others,) who joined after being blown away by LAIKA’s work on “CORALINE”. The two schooled us on the use of 3-D in “PARANORMAN”, it’s myriad (and unexpected) influences, and even whether or not they could see themselves making live action films.
The Voice: One of the first thing I want to talk about is the films use of 3-D. Was that something you guys always had as part of your vision for this story?
Sam Fell: Well this particular medium, stop-frame, is perfect for it. It’s not a gimmick or a novelty, necessarily. Because this is all handmade… to see it in 3-D is cool. It immerses you in that handmade world.
Chris Butler: It’s what’s appealing about stop-motion in the first place. This desire to touch those things, because they’re real objects. I think 3-D is just a tool in the end, but it’s one that really opens things up. And you feel like you can actually walk into the set.
The Voice: This isn’t your first time in the format. With “CORALINE”, did you run into any obstacles combining what you wanted to do with the camera with what you can and can’t do in 3-D?
CB: That was interesting, because I’ve never worked on a 3-D movie before. But I was head of story on “Coraline”, so quite early on they brought on a 3-D expert who started talking on and on about what you can or can’t do…. So I remember sitting with Henry Selick and he’s going “No. No. We’re not going to [follow those rules]. We’ll just make the best movie we can and use the 3-D in a thoughtful way.” He wanted it to feel like in “The Wizard of Oz”, when you go from black and white to color. It pulls you in, and that was our approach on this one. To be thoughtful about it, and not gimmicky. However, here it is a zombie movie, so there are moments where we have hands [popping out at the screen.]
The Voice: Well it’d be a shame not to. Did you guys experience any culture clash coming to the States for the film?
SF: Uh, yeah. [laughs] I came to Portland for the project and…
The Voice: You settle there?
SF: Nope! [laughs again] That’s what I like about films though. They’re a great adventure, Oregon’s amazing, because it’s packed full of idealists. Of all sorts! Right wing, left wing, religious, artistic…
CB: I have to say, I don’t know of another place – because of this idealism, I think – where I could make a movie like this. I gave them a script, they optioned it, bought it, didn’t change it or ask me to change it, then asked me to direct it. It’s unheard of.
The Voice: I was hoping you guys could talk about the score for a minute. It’s got this great John Carpenter vibe going on with it.
SF: Before I arrived they had storyboarded some pages of the script, and put it together on iMovie with some “ETERNAL SUNSHINE” music on it –
CB: That was day one, and it never went away. We didn’t want to do like, “pure comedy”, we wanted a naturalistic vibe to the world, a little bit more downbeat, more of an indy feel to the filmmaking. The music is something we hadn’t heard before in animation. And I think that’s our approach to everything. Why ape Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks or Tim Burton? They’re all already doing what they do, and very well on their own. We don’t need to copy it.
The Voice: The primary influence here seems to be Amblin films.
CB: Obviously we are referencing and are heavily influenced by a lot of 80s movies but it’s a very contemporary story.
The Voice: It’s not just “SUPER 8". You guys understand what made those films work. The references are just part of the texture here.
SF: As you’ve seen the story takes you somewhere else anything, by the 3rd act.
CB: Right, we lull people into a false sense of security, they think they’re watching an 80’s movie, then hey!
The Voice: Which brings me to that amazing opening fake-out, which feels like it’s pulled directly from “BLOW OUT”, one of my favorite movies.
SF: You have to set up the zombies as you expect them to be. A lot of it is setting things up as you think they are, then turning them on their head. These are zombies, they stumble, they eat your brains.