The director of Pixar’s latest feature discusses the daunting task of taking the helm mid-film.
Six years in the making, Brave hits U.S. theatres today. Taking over as director with just 18 months left, on a film that needed a fast fix, would be pressure enough in any circumstance. But this is no ordinary film and Pixar is no ordinary animation studio. No one else sets the bar quite so high, nor has such a track record of success. Facing such a demanding task was no small feat. Mark Andrews tells us how he got it done.
Dan Sarto: Tell us about the dynamic of you coming onto the film, initially as a creative consultant and later, replacing Brenda Chapman as director.
Mark Andrews: I was walking down the hallway and started seeing these drawings that Mike Mignola had done of castles and guys standing around in Scottish kilts. I thought, “Wait, what in the hell is this, who’s developing this? This is my movie. I would have totally done this story.” Then I find that Brenda [Chapman] is developing this idea set in Scotland. I talked with her and she pitched me her idea and I told her, if you need any materials, let me know because I know all this Celtic and Scottish mythology, Scottish and Middle Ages history. So some of the first research books she used were my own books. I became a kind of unofficial consultant on all things Scottish and Celtic mythology for Brenda and her team.
When they went on their first research trip, they asked me to come along. So I was there as the in-house research guy, being there with the team, seeing all the possibilities that you can get from such a rich culture that goes way, way back. Even the time period they were circling around to set it in, they didn’t want it to be actual history, just kind of a fantasy version of the middle ages. Still there was a lot [to take in]. What do you take, what do you not take? There are so many interesting stories. It was a compiling of information.
Then I went on to Ratatouille, and then I went back into development, developing my own thing. Then John Carter happened. But I’ve been in all the brain trust sessions, seeing the reels develop, then not so develop, kind of get stuck along the way. It was apparent it was becoming an issue, even though they moved back the original due date of the movie a couple years because we had just merged with Disney and they wanted a Toy Story 3 and then Cars 2. So that kind of gave them room, that’s what they needed. They need more time to tell the story.
But then it came to the same point as we did on Ratatouille, 18 months to go and it’s just not clicking yet. What do you do? So, Pixar had done this 3 or 4 times before where, unfortunately, you do a director change. So, they didn’t just go to anybody, they came to me because of my history with the project. I knew the story, I was friends with Brenda, I liked the story. First, they came to me and asked, do you want to do this and I kind of had to think about this. This is a big deal. I wanted to be right by Brenda and right by the story and not just come in and retool the whole thing. My marching orders were, they loved the parent-child relationship and they loved the direction of the story, it just needed to be at that level that Pixar needed to be at where everything had to be firing on all cylinders. It’s a daunting task. I said, “OK, I’ll try my best.” And the rest is history.
From a story sense, I treated it as an adaptation. I had this great source material, but some of it didn’t work. Just like John Carter. I had this great source material, but some of it didn’t work. I had already gone through that exercise with Andrew Stanton, of adapting that [John Carter]. So, I just took Brenda’s original story and adapted that. I had the superpower of objectivity because it’s not mine. I could come in and go, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.” There was a lot of blowback from parts of the crew, my co-director, my head of story, some of the animators, people who had been living with this. But once they saw what was filling in those spots, the idea of taking these themes, just making it Merida’s story, where she is the focal character, it brought the alignment of the story path where we needed to go, then everyone was jumping on board.
They could see it for the first time in a long time. They knew they had something great. But the path to what it actually is…
DS: They couldn’t see it…
MA: Right. They couldn’t see it yet. I did that four times, from top to bottom, in just a year. Taking the whole story, putting it up [on a board] and going, “Yep, nope…” Taking it down and doing it again.
DS: What are the challenges of picking up a project like this? Brenda has been at the helm for years, it’s her story. She’s working tight with the crew. What’s the dynamic of such a move?
MA: It’s huge. Remember, they’ve also had the brain trust with them every step of the way. And they haven’t been able to crack everything or help them out either. So, what’s the dilemma here? I’m very respectful of the crew. I’m very respectful of the work that’s been done. I didn’t just want to throw stuff out willy nilly. So, how can I make this work using as many of the assets as I could? This was a big part of the challenge I put on myself. I could have redone the whole thing. Keep the mother – daughter relationship and throw out everything else. Keep it in Scotland but strike out on new things. But, that would have been a mistake, because there wasn’t anything wrong with the central idea.
DS: Were there any material changes at that point with design…
MA: Not with character design. We added new characters. We had the Lord’s sons become more prominent. They had been more background characters and we made them more centralized. We added the crow. We changed what the witch’s cottage looked like inside. We added more sequences inside the castle. Mor’du, that whole story, which was just a rough idea that didn’t have a lot to do in the story, I made more of a central idea, a parallel track to what could happen, what could go wrong. There was something in the theme of duality, which came out of the duality of the word “Brave.”. So I applied that theme of duality to every character, every scene, to everything that they said. There’s always a duality to everything. There’s a duality to Merida’s relationship with herself. She’s a child and an adult at the same time. That’s why being a teenager is tough. Elinor. She’s a Queen and a mother. Fergus. He’s a warrior and a dad. There’s duality to everything that helps you hone your take on every scene and how to write it in every aspect.
DS: Was there any point where you thought, “Jeez, I’ve got a bigger tiger by the tail than I thought.” Conversely, was there a specific time where you thought, “OK, we got it, we’re there, we just have to finish and we’re good.”
MA: I never look down. I don’t think there was any time I looked down and thought, “Oh shit, oh my gosh, what the hell have I gotten involved in?” I can’t do that. As a leader, I would not be doing right by my crew. So, even if I was shitting my pants, they would never know it. Never ever ever ever. There would only be a handful of people that would ever know I felt any kind of doubt. It’s a big deal, a director change. At crew meetings, I would say, “Don’t shit your pants” because everyone at Pixar shits their pants too soon. So I would say, “Don’t shit your pants, we can do this. We can pull it off, don’t worry, everything is going to be OK.” That’s what I said for a year and a half. I would start every meeting, every story change that I did, “It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be good.” So I never look down.
There was, however, a point in time, just this past December, where we finished off the witch’s scene, which was one of the hardest scenes to get right, to where John was laughing out loud, where I said, “We got it. Done. Check. Now I just have to make it.” I realized I had had this objectivity when making it [the film], it’s not my film, it’s not my film. As soon as I felt this was my film, I’d lost my objectivity, I realized I’d just turned a corner, that being said, it’s done. Now I have that ownership over it. It’s mine and Brenda’s film, ultimately. It’s a nice concerted effort on both our parts. There’s a lot of Brenda in this film that I wanted to honor. But what I brought to bear on the film is what it needed. It’s that perfect balance in the film, ultimately, at the end of the day. As soon as I had ownership of it, where it’s hard for me to cut something for the betterment of the film, as I was getting into this strange territory, I knew we had a great film.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.