Director Byron Howard, director/co-writer Jared Bush, and co-director/co-writer Charise Castro Smith discuss their collaborative process and the making of a magical musical, opening in theaters November 24.
What’s worse than being the only member of your family without magical powers? Probably nothing, but when you live in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto, there’s always the possibility that, like the powerless Mirabel, you might find something interesting to do. Like being the only one who can save your community when the magic that sustains it comes under threat.
Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush, co-directed by Charise Castro Smith (who also co-wrote the film with Bush), and featuring new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ computer-animated feature Encanto will be released in the U. S. on November 24. With a large extended family at its center and informed by the kind of magical realism pioneered by such Latin-American writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luis Borges, the film is a departure for Disney. The magic in Encanto “is tied to real emotions, real events,” as Howard puts it. “It’s not just an easy answer to your problems, it’s actually a reflection of the experiences you have every day, whether you’re enjoying success or struggling.”
We spoke with Howard and Bush, who previously worked together as co-directors (with Rich Moore) on Disney’s 2016 computer-animated Zootopia, and co-director/co-writer Smith about what makes Encanto special, and about their roles in bringing the film to fruition.
Needless to say, it was a big jump thematically and tonally from the buddy comedy of Zootopia to the family-centric magic of Encanto. In fact, though, Howard and Bush did almost literally jump from one to the other.
“The amazing thing is that as Jared and I were finishing directing on Zootopia,” Howard remembers, “we already were talking about this movie and thinking about what we wanted to do next. And Jared had just finished writing Moana and working with Lin, who wrote the songs for that film. So, I felt like there was just this natural convergence of people on this film.”
“It's a very different way of telling a story,” says Bush of Encanto. But he goes on to explain, there actually is a certain commonality between the two films.
“We really like to let our actors play around and discover the characters,” he says. “Certainly, in movies that are comedic, you want the actors to feel very comfortable messing around and improvising in the moment. And I think we were super lucky on Encanto that we had so many amazing comedic voices to elevate the movie. In particular, Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Mirabel, just absolutely crushed it.”
Unlike Zootopia, which had a large story shift late in production, there were no big surprises over the course of making Encanto. Yet, while the process was smoother overall, it was also based on a markedly different approach.
“In this film, we started experimenting earlier with different ways to tell the story,” says Bush. “We tried to learn as much as we could about the different characters, about the voice of our characters, how music would fold into it, the ratio of emotion to comedy. And we let ourselves experiment and actually get uncomfortable with that experimentation over the course of the story. And, weirdly, what allowed us to actually stay on track was letting ourselves veer off from time to time as we were making it.”
Of course, the other factor that played a central role in the creation of Encanto is that it’s a musical. Both Howard and Bush are musicians, which was in part what drew them to the project. However, as Howard points out, the genre comes with its own particular challenges.
“Music is a blessing for animated films, but it's also a huge challenge for screenwriters,” he explains. “Because we have to create these placeholder scenes to keep a space open for the songs before we have them.”
On the other hand, when you’re working with a collaborator as gifted as Lin-Manuel Miranda, the process also comes with its own special rewards.
“As Jared and I were writing the script, we would try to identify moments in the movie that felt like they wanted to be musicalized,” says Smith. “And then we'd figure out what the character was feeling, thinking in that moment, what plot points needed to happen. Then we would hand that off to Lin, and he would bring back this genius thing that was beyond anything we could have imagined. Then we would take the insights into a character or a relationship that he had worked out in the song and work them back into the script. So he was a true partner for us, both story-wise and character-wise.”
Expanding on this collaborative aspect, Howard observes that animation timing has often been compared to musical phrasing. “What's really interesting is that music, dance, movement, all overlap in a really unusual way,” he says. “When you hear our Columbian dance captain talk to the animators, she sounds like an animation mentor. It's like it doesn't matter that dance is her specialty, she speaks the same language.”
Howard continues, “I think that phrasing, language, the sense of pacing in how Jared and Charise put together these scripts – like, this is stalling out here, this needs a lift, or this needs a major chord or a minor chord, or I need to feel something right here – I think all those things are really tied together. They're all like different instruments that everybody's playing, whether they’re musicians or dancers or sculptors or painters. Creativity is creativity, and there’s a common language that we all speak.”
As for the collaboration among the three principals, Howard says that their working dynamic involves “a lot of healthy debate” and that they all recognize that good ideas can come from anywhere.
“We know that it doesn't have to come from us to be a great idea to incorporate into the movie,” he emphasizes. “When I see a director be open in that way, then I know that's a smart person. That's an example I want to follow because, especially with a movie this complex, if you don't allow yourself to be open to other amazing ideas, then you're selling this story short.”
And if, in certain rare moments, he’s ever inclined to exercise his directorial prerogatives in a more authoritarian way?
“They lock me in the closet,” he laughs. “They cut my connection. ‘You’re muted, Byron, we can’t hear you!’”