They can be as creaky as an old wooden door, but tales of the supernatural still manage to wrap their tendrils around unsuspecting viewers. Moviegoers like this reporter are particularly intrigued when filmmakers try to mix up shopworn horror tropes in fresh new ways. The stop-motion feature ParaNorman brings together ghosts, zombies, tree huggers, and pre-teen angst to tell a tale of a young misfit (voiced by Let Me In’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) with fabulous hair – it’s perennially in “boo” mode – who has the gift of gab…with dead people. His parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) just don’t understand why he insists he still watches TV with his dead grandma (Elaine Stritch). At school, a hulking bully (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse) slams the vertically challenged loner against the locker, and the moment, instead of being played for easy laughs, carries a dehumanizing sting.
That’s because ParaNorman has a more ambitious agenda than your typical kiddie flick. Credit this potent witches brew’s mastermind, former storyboard artist Chris Butler, who makes his feature directing debut, and his partner in crime, director Sam Fell (Flushed Away, The Tale of Desperaux). These mad scientists have teamed up with the folks Laika Entertainment, the Portland, Ore.-based studio behind the Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s sinister-yet-tender children’s novel Coraline. The result is a Corpse Bride-meets-The Monster Squad, Goosebumps-by-way-of-Degrassi High hybrid that, one suspects, might just garner a cross-generational following. (The movie hasn’t exploded at the box office, but it’s showing signs of longevity. On its second weekend, it held the third spot behind The Expendables 2 and The Bourne Legacy.)
MIAMIARTZINE sat down with Butler and Fell during a brief South Florida stop in the filmmakers’ promotional tour at Brickell’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Please be advised the interview contains very minor spoilers, as well as an unexpected, um, technical incident.
MIAMIARTZINE: The one element that really struck out to me [while I was watching ParaNorman] was a theme the movie explores, which is the concept of the bullied becoming the bully. At what point in the creative process did that become an important story element?
CHRIS BUTLER: That was the “birth” story element, actually. When I started writing [the screenplay], I knew basically what tone I was going for: John Carpenter meets John Hughes. I wanted it to be a zombie movie for kids. I knew there was going to be an old witch’s curse, but the first thing I actually put to paper – oh, how to say this without ruining the ending? You won’t ruin the ending, will you?
MAZ: No, no!
CB: It was the climax, actually. It was the scene between Norman and Aggie, because I knew that I wanted it to end up with the two sides of one coin arguing.
MAZ: It is a very extended scene.
CB: Yeah… So I started at the end and worked backwards, basically. Where the movie goes…I don’t wanna ruin it!
MAZ: I can be vague. You took the character of [Norman’s eccentric uncle] Mr. Prenderghast in a different direction physically from its original design. How did that come about?
CB: Well, a character like Mr. P, he’s basically the character in a horror movie that’s like the old caretaker who delivers some important exposition. So he was a bit of an open book in the script, really. In my head, he was this frail old man, but he didn’t need to be, and I think that’s the beauty of what we do is that when someone comes along with a take on something that’s their own and it just blows you away and you can do it. This character could have been thin, big, he could have had one leg, he could be anything, and what’s great is having this amazing team of artists who are bringing their own take on your material. The last thing you ever want to do is be so…
CB: Yeah, rigid.
MAZ: So, Sam, I know that you came [into this project] later in the process. Was there anything that you brought forth that you suggested that wasn’t there before?
SAM FELL: I think I mostly thought it was ready [to shoot]. I had some questions about story and there were some things that we discussed and we’d done a couple of drafts. I think there were some scenes that I didn’t feel played [well] or I didn’t quite know the shape of [them]. We spent time together, we talked things over, and Chris turned around another draft.
CB: A couple.
SF: Yeah. I was like a fresh pair of eyes, suggested some things to do with just making things a little clearer…
CB: There was one thing, specifically, where it was written pretty big, and when you came in, you were, like… I think we were goading each other.
CB: Actually, the ending, again, became such a huge spectacle.
SF: I’ve been in CG [computer generated imagery] for a long time, where anything is possible, so I still have that mentality [working in stop motion]. It’s what you want to do, anyway, to come in and push the project as hard as you can.
CB: I think the dangerous thing in this project is that he wanted to push it, I wanted to push it, and the owner of the studio wanted to push it, so there’s no one saying, ‘Stop pushing.’ But that’s how you end up with a movie like this.
MAZ: How different was it, Sam, from The Tale of Despereaux or Flushed Away?
SF: Well, I began in stop frame [animation].
MAZ: Yeah, but in terms of features, these are the ones you’re known for.
SF: It was probably a good time to come back to stop-frame, because a lot of advances have been made. There’s some new technology now more readily available, and the team at Laika, they made it not so different [from CG] in some ways. In terms of scope and scale, where you can go and what you can do, I felt there was a lot of freedom. I think one of the big differences [between formats] to me, one of the things I loved about coming back is the fact that this is real photography and you’re lighting real sets, real textures with real lights, filming through real lenses, much more like being in a live-action world. We struggle in CG to create that sense of the tangible. It has been done; the biggest studios can do great lighting.
CB: It’s very difficult to put your finger on it. If you ask people what they find appealing about stop motion, I think a lot of people find it difficult to put it into words, but there’s something fundamentally magical about seeing real things come alive onscreen. I think audiences today are very attuned to CG. There’s nothing really surprising about it. It can be good; we understand the difference between good and bad CG, but…
SF: The novelty is gone in CG.
CB: Yeah, and it’s the same with 2D [animation]. If, for example, you see, I don’t know, a talking dragon, if it’s 2D animation, you know it’s a drawing of a dragon. If it’s CG animation, you know it’s a digital dragon. If it’s stop-motion, that’s a dragon that exists somewhere. It’s real; it had dimension and scales. That’s a thing.
MAZ: Going back to stop-motion, I interviewed [Chicken Run and The Pirates! Band of Misfits director] Peter Lord earlier this year, and we talked about The Pirates!’s breathtaking opening shot. Was there something you were able to pull off in ParaNorman that you weren’t able to before?
SF: In a number of different areas, one is scope and scale, bigger shots. We used computers to extend our world. With crowds, we used to have, like, six puppets. We used digital characters in some of our big wide crowd shots. There’s a subtlety in the facial acting that was very difficult to do in stop-frame, so [the advances in technology] have allowed the acting style to be that much more sophisticated…
CB: And actually, that carries through to the puppets themselves, because we always talk about the replacement technology of the faces. Everyone is very interested in that because it’s a new thing, but at the same time this is happening you have a team of puppet makers. The quality and sophistication of the armatures is also getting better year after year after year. I know a lot of the animators said that Norman was the best puppet they’ve ever worked with, in terms of the performance they could physically get out of it.
MAZ: So tell me about Norman’s hair. It was amazing, the best stop-motion hair I’ve seen.
CB: Well, that was something that we talked a lot about at the beginning, because just from my point of view, Coraline did some amazing things with hair but there was something about using real hair or synthetic hair – I think they used a combination – that has this gloopy wet look…
MAZ: (scribbling “gloopy wet look” in notepad)
CB: It was put together in a way that I didn’t like. No one walks around with wet hair all the time. Our design style was very, um…oh, don’t put ‘gloopy.’
MAZ: But I love it!
SF: (laughs loud)
CB: It was a different look. I think the design style we had was very illustrative. The way [character designer] Heidi [Smith] drew characters was by scratching pencil lines, so we wanted that to come across too. But we also wanted [Norman] to have his own naturalism, so it had to feel like it was real hair growing out of his head. So we experimented a lot, and [the animators] tried everything. They tried wood chippings, they tried real hair. In the end, Norman’s hair is goat hair and a little bit of raffia.
SF: Yeah, and a little bit of wire in it. When we came to make the world [of ParaNorman] and the people in it, we didn’t want it to be like miniature realism, which is really boring. We wanted to maintain the life of the art. If you look at all sorts of things, they’re all made out of materials that are an abstraction. The trees were all made out of corrugated carbon; it’s screwed-up paper. It’s not exactly a million leaves or a million little twigs. The whole thing has a very lively feel to it.
CB: Yeah, (at Sam) you’ve mentioned mention Ross Stewart. He was the art director on [the Oscar-nominated animated film] The Secret of Kells.
CB: The reason we went with him to start off with, when we were coming up with concepts, was because we didn’t necessarily want to approach it from a traditional stop-motion perspective. We wanted to get some good 2D drawings.
(The lights in our conference room begin dimming all of a sudden.)
CB: We worked with Heidi and Ross, and they worked really well together…
(The lights go out completely.)
SF: (giggles heartily)
MAZ: Well, we are discussing ParaNorman, aren’t we?
(The lights come back on again.)
SF: Maybe some sort of energy-saving thing going on there.
CB: Wow! Um, but…
(The lights start dimming once again.)
MAZ: Here we go again!
CB: I swear!
(The lights finally return to normal.)
MAZ: It’s like we’re on some kind of Disney attraction. There was a young girl at the screening last night. I think it was during the scene where Norman goes into Mr. Prenderghast’s house.
SF: How young?
MAZ: She looked like she was six or seven. She asked her mother to be taken out of the theater.
CB: Coming into it, it was always clear that the film would have dark themes to it. It was also clear to me that all of the monsters would be overcome by Norman the hero, and things would end well. I always knew it might not be for the real young ones. But you know, there’s a lot of animation that goes to places that would equally upset this girl. I know a lot of kids who went to see Up and were pretty traumatized by it, but because it’s about a house that floats around with balloons, it seems to be less of an issue. Animated movies, kids’ fiction should address challenging issues. It should. It’s what’s always happened: the best stories, going back to fairy tales, it’s how kids learn, and they at the same time they’re entertained and experiencing a new world of color and shape and abstraction. It exercises their brains.
SF: It’s a way to experience the emotion of fear.
MAZ: It was actually very effective. I wanted it to be every bit as dark as you made it. I didn’t want you to pull back.
SF: I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I’ll take my five-year-old to that,’ and other people said, ‘Hmm, not my five-year-old.’
CB: And I think that’s what it comes down to. Know your kids.
SF: Let your kids watch the trailer, and talk to them about the film, whether they want to see it. Do they think they might be scared?
CB: It is always a parent’s responsibility to know what their kids’ limit is.
MAZ: Last night after I saw the movie, I went home and my roommate had the documentary Vito, about Vito Russo, the author of The Celluloid Closet, queued up [on the DVR]. And I’d just finished seeing ParaNorman, which has ---- [an openly gay character]. As recently as five years ago, this would have been unthinkable in the context of a children’s film.
SF: It’s unthinkable now!
MAZ: Was that something that you always wanted for this character, something that you wanted to reveal?
MAZ: It’s almost like a subtext throughout the movie. I kept saying to myself, ‘There’s something about that character…’
CB: (laughs) First of all, you’ve got to promise not to ruin the ending.
CB: I think because this is, at its roots, a story about intolerance, it would have been gutless of us not to tackle [the subject] properly, and a big part of the story is that every character is showing a side of them that you wouldn’t necessarily expect when you first look at them. The thing about [the character in question] is that it’s not fundamental to the story. We play it as a joke, because it’s funny.
SF: It is funny.
MAZ: It’s cute.
CB: And the reason why it works is that we do it in a very casual way. It’s not heavy-handed, it shouldn’t be a big deal, and so it’s not a big deal in this movie. I’m very pleased that we did, and I’m so glad that the studio is brave enough to do it.
MAZ: I loved [composer] Jon Brion’s score, particularly his use of synthesizers
CB: He went back and found out what John Carpenter used on Halloween, and he found an original Moog.
MAZ: It sounds just like [Carpenter’s score].
SF: Jon is a mad scientist.
CB: He was very excited about capturing this eighties vibe, and he did it.
MAZ: Yeah, it really worked.
The lighting malfunction turned out to be a colleague in the next room fiddling with the dimmer. ParaNorman and its all its stereotype-shattering characters – dead, alive, and undead – are currently haunting theater auditoriums in wide release.