Tuesday 1 January 2013

Interview: Brian Larsen, Brave Story Supervisor and The Legend of Mor'du Director

A while back now, I had the chance to interview Pixar's Brian Larsen, a frequent Genndy Tartakovsky collaborator, who worked on Ratatouille and most recently acted as Story Supervisor on Pixar's 13th feature film, and awards-hopeful, Brave - as well as directing the new Brave-based short film that was attached to the film's home video release, The Legend of Mor'du.

Unfortunately, due to me having a heck of a lot of work to do as of late, it's taken me rather a while to get transcribed. That said, I'd like to, once again, extend my sincerest thanks to Pixar's PR mogul Chris Wiggum for taking the time to deal with me and set these interviews up. Thanks also to Brian for being so courteous with his time and generous with his responses. Brave is available on DVD and Blu-ray now and you can purchase it from Amazon here.

Topics covered in our interview include the inspiration for the short and its distinctive visual style, Brian's reaction to some of the criticisms levelled at Brave, what working on the film was like, including reactions to its high-profile directorial change, and the new project he's developing (we assume, a feature film) with Brave director Mark Andrews - could this be the PG-13 rated Pixar film Andrews spoke about wanting to make recently? Check out the transcription below.

A113Animation: Obviously, you work for Pixar, and Pixar’s thirteenth feature film, Brave, has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Joining Brave and Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna, on the home release, is a brand new, Brave-based, short film, The Legend of Mor’du – directed by your good self. I bought Brave on Monday and watched the short two nights ago, and I watched it again last night, and it’s great. Great job and congratulations to you and everyone else who worked on it!
Brian Larsen: Thank you very much, I’m really glad that you liked it; we really had a lot of fun with that, and just tried to make something that was going to complement the film. But thank you, I’m glad you watched it – even twice!

A113: Mm, I really like the Pixar home media shorts, I was a little upset when they weren’t on the Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 releases, so I’m glad to see that they’re back again this year.
BL: Yeah, for sure, yeah. It was just definitely something that – I think we were all itching to tell another story, or have a different take on it, as far as: this is not just what happened, quote, off-camera, or, it was something a little bit deeper within the story of Brave. I also think it’s something that you could just watch it on its own as a standalone, and I think it kind of complements both.

A113: Yeah, absolutely. Which leads my right to my next question: As we’ll talk about in a minute, you were the story supervisor on Brave, but can you talk us through the production process for The Legend of Mor’du? Did the short come entirely from working on Brave? Because I know, normally when you’re pitching a short at Pixar, you’ve got to do two or three ideas; did you have to do that here, or was it always The Legend of Mor’du?
BL: It was not always The Legend of Mor’du, it was the one that I wanted to do, and it was one that I proposed. There were other ideas as far as other characters that we wanted in the film, to see again, but I really was pushing for this one thing. This is a character I think we want to know more about, he’s already a mystery, and there was a story that [co-director] Steve Purcell, many years ago, early on in Brave, he had kind of came up with a legend – it wasn’t this legend, but it was a legend of Mor’du. There was a character in the movie that was going to be talking about this character around a campfire, to get everybody really scared, so it’s kind of building up this legend. That kind of was cut from the film, but I really, really responded to that. So, when they said let’s do a short, I said this is what I would like to do. I had Steve Purcell, he helped write it with me, it was based off his idea, and that’s the one that everyone really responded to as well, It was like this is something that we can kind of get a little bit darker, a little bit more of a cautionary tale put in. And that’s how it kind of came about; I didn’t have any other ideas that I wanted to do, so this was the one that was really put forward. I think, especially because it’s the DVD-short, if they really just respond to the one that you like, then that’s the one that they’re going to go for. So there wasn’t any “we need three ideas or a multitude of things”, for sure with the theatrical ones, you get the full production, you get everything involved in that, with this one I think they just really responded to the idea.

A113: Yeah. Because I absolutely loved Mor’du in Brave, he’s such a good villain, and – I’ll try not to spoil it for people who haven’t seen it when I put this up [SPOILERS ahead, if you haven’t seen the film look away now!] – but, the bit at the end where you find out that Mor’du’s the prince, it was just like ‘ohhhh, now it all makes sense!’
BL: Right, it all kind of comes together. So we knew, in the film, that we needed to connect those ideas, so under that, we had also constructed, just for the film, what kind of happens, loosely, of the legend of Mor’du. Then when I took the story for this little short, I had to go even deeper; I knew that there had to be four brothers, because that’s what mum said, I knew he had to turn into a bear, and there was the kingdom that fell, and he was cursed – and the witch was somehow involved. So, I had those tent poles, so I had to now fill in all of those gaps. It’s kind of like – I hope people watch this short after Brave; you certainly wouldn’t want to watch this before Brave.

A113: [Laughs]
Because it isn’t so much, you know what I mean? It needs to be Merida’s story, and you need to understand Mor’du through her eyes, but this is just kind of how the tapestry got shattered, and when, and it’s definitely a mirror story of Merida and her family: there’s these four clans, they can’t get along, this one decides to go on their own and do something, and it destroys – this is what could have happened to Merida if she didn’t do the right thing.

A113: There was a little niggling query I’ve had when watching it: the four brothers, are they – is this a separate area, or are they the ancestors of four clans we see in the film?
BL: We didn’t want to make that connection, because then it would just seem like: well which one is the Mor’du clan? And we just wanted it to be a mirror story, you know, kind of ‘hey, the US could be the next…’, it’s like the fall of Rome – is a mirror story, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ancestral story. You kind of make those parallel judgements, but we did not want to say that this was a continually cursed family line. I mean, you can make those leaps, and we’re not saying one way or the other, but we’re certainly not saying there is a definitive… it really just is a coincidence, believe it or not, that there are four. Because we needed four brothers to hold up the table or the chess board would kind of fall apart. But it just makes it more of a mirror, at least from my point of view. But that’s up to the viewer.

A113: Yeah, because I think, in the film, you had just enough of Mor’du, so the viewer knew what was going on. But also he was mysterious, he was intense. Then, like you say, the short really stands as its own thing, it kind of tells a different part of the same story.
BL: Yeah, exactly, yeah. It just really shows us how when you really are not going to be a part of a family, and you’re doing something for selfish reasons, the way Merida in some ways is doing that, you can have catastrophic events for that. So that was definitely something we were aware of and had to watch how much it was – the intensity of it. We really wanted to lay it out. But also, we didn’t want to just do it scene by scene, by necessarily scene, it’s almost like a story you’re talking about the way that you would talk about gods, or the way that you would talk about someone in a non-personal way, but you’re still understanding everything that’s going on – you want to have Mor’du still feel as if he was this great, huge power. You clearly understood what’s going on, in the way that it’s a legend, it’s still a legend that’s being told.

A113: Yeah. Because two of my favourite things about Brave were Mor’du, as I said, and the Witch and her crow! So I got a real kick out of The Legend of Mor’du. The crow was just hilarious, and the witch, again, she was just such a great character, but she wasn’t in Brave that much, so it’s nice to see a little bit more of her in this short.
BL: Great, yeah, I’m glad that you liked her! Because that was something nice to kind of… we are still in the Brave world, but she’s just kind of introducing you into a new world, so I really responded when we had came up with this idea: ‘hey, the witch would be in and she’ll be these bookends’. It’s really kind of: she welcomes you into the story, and she lets you leave the story. And then you realise that she’s talking to, obviously, somebody else, that we won’t reveal in case you haven’t seen the short. You know what I mean? There’s somebody else I wanted to have in there, for just a little bit of laughter at the end, a little bit of something funny. But yeah, it was just nice to get into this new style – well it wasn’t a new style, but it was a style I wanted to work in; a very painterly, hand-drawn style, which led to, kind of like it’s an imagination, something that feels old and ancient. But she was still grounding you, and you were somewhat familiar with ‘oh, I’m in the Brave world. Oh, now I’m going through the eye of the witch to a representation of her story.’

A113: Yeah. Which leads me perfectly into my next question: because, as you say, the animation had almost a surreal, production artwork look to it; it goes well, it’s a kind of storybook type look. But it’s against the Pixar norm, so it’s nice to see something a little bit different. Was it a hard sell to get the studio to agree to do this, given that the Pixar is primarily a CG studio? Or were John Lasseter, Mark Andrews and everyone all for it?
BL: They were all definitely for it. Because we do that type of work all the time, and if you look at any ‘Art of’ book, from any film, not just Pixar films, you look at any ‘Art of’ book of a movie, you will see these wonderful, pre-production, inspirational discovery pieces of artwork, that they’re trying to represent and get a feel, and go and paint and draw it. I certainly wanted to – because all that stuff, it never gets shown, it’s just in the book, it just becomes something like ‘here’s what we thought would inspire the movie’ and then the movie’s in the CG world. So I really wanted to make a piece that was like, I wanted the actual movie to be the inspirational artwork. I’m not saying we used inspirational artwork from Brave, we did our own inspiration; we were finding our own painterly style with this. But whatever we found in that painterly style, that was going to be it, it didn’t go any further, it wasn’t going to be translated into CG, and I think that kind of helps. In some ways it feels more of a legend, and it’s not – especially with this story, it kind of lightens it a little bit and still allows it to be storybook and a legend – I think if I did it in CG, it would be really heavy, it would be like ‘wowee, too much!’ You know what I mean? So I think the painterly style allows a different type of beauty to come out with this kind of cautionary tale. That was something that they did respond to, like ‘this is going to look great! Especially with the after effects, this is going to have just a little bit of a different feel’. So it’s kind of, again, we’re in the Brave world, but it’s a little bit different, I kind of wanted that extra little spice or feel that is going to entice somebody to want to watch it again. My ultimate thing was that I wanted it to look – Pixar looks beautiful – but I just wanted this one to look beautiful in a painterly style, that was kind of the driving force here, to look like the artwork.

A113: Yeah, and I think particularly because it’s on the Blu-ray alongside La Luna, which has that painterly look as well – you’ve got great diversity on that disc.
BL: Yeah, and it’s something that we all love, that we do all the time, we always do these drawings and these paintings and these wonderful sculptures, we get into almost this impressionistic styles that I would love to see represented – and this was a chance for me to do that. Again, I think we, Pixar, have such diversity that this was just one way – like, again, La Luna looks completely different to Partly Cloudy, you know, or For the Birds. So this was just another medium that I wanted to show off again.

A113: Yeah, and it worked out brilliantly! And now, to steer it more broadly onto your role on Brave: you were the story supervisor. Can you tell us what exactly that entails?
BL: Story supervisor is, I work closely with the directors and I am there to help interpret the visual style of the movie they want to tell. So when they have a script they obviously know the ideas they want to do and they have their own ideas, but it’s my job to filter that to the story team. The story team can range anywhere between 5 or 10 [story]board people, depending on the production; if it’s early it’s less, as it gets into high production it’s more. So I’m there to look at camera moves and make sure the style is, certainly – I want to get the cinematic representation in the intensity of the script, or the non-intensity (sometimes the script needs to have a quiet moment). You know, we are visual storytellers, and my job is to help be the conduit between the director and what he or she wants this movie to ultimately cinematically feel like. I’m not saying that I’m at all the art department, it’s just that when we do storyboards, there has got to be a look, a feel; camera moves are very important, things like that. That’s my job, I’m also there to be a sounding-board for the directors, I will offer up ideas, or challenge ideas, or they will say ‘what do you think of this?’, or I will be some type of fresh eyes for them. It’s really just kind of: I’m working very closely with them; I’m a helping hand, so to speak.

A113: Yeah, so – obviously because you had quite a big role on the film - how hard was it walking the line between making Brave a ‘fairytale’ – not in the traditional sense, but a fairytale still – and making it still distinctly a Pixar film and not what Disney’s interpretation of it might be?
BL: It was… it’s difficult to make any films just flat out, but we clearly knew what we wanted at the beginning, we had clear roadmaps or clear signals of what we wanted to particularly avoid: we didn’t want a love interest, we didn’t want anything that had been done necessarily before; not even a love interest or anyone coming to save the princess. But to do these things was hard because we’re obviously mixing that in with a mother-daughter story, so the core of the movie is about family. On top of that, we’re trying to put it into a genre and make twists on it and be very, very specific. So it was very hard to mix those things and get something that was not going to be harsh, because we could have easily made this film go really serious and really intense, and that was the most difficult part, to try to bring levity out of what we wanted, because we had such a juicy story, that we had to make it have that Pixar… we’ve got to find that humour in there, John [Lasseter] was always there helping with things: ‘okay, look, let’s really look at this sequence again and try to find that’. That’s why the Brain Trust is there for us. So it was definitely a challenge to get everything, we wanted the action-adventure-happy-comical movie, that we could have all those elements put in – you have to have the right ingredients. Definitely that was a balancing act, it was like spinning I don’t know how many plates at once, and then we were ultimately able to find a nice place. But for sure it was a challenge to get all of that stuff in there the way that we feel we should, to get it feeling like a Pixar film. Again, it’s a heavy subject to begin with and we try to find, always, the levity out of that. That was certainly the challenge that we wanted to do, John and Pixar did not want to shy away from that, they were like ‘if this is it then let’s own that, let’s turn it on its head – but we need to meet these other criteria’. I hope that answered your question.

[Both laugh]

A113: Yeah, because that was one of the things – when you’re talking about the love interest – that I was surprised to see some people complaining about: saying ‘oh, she didn’t pick one of the sons at the end of the film!’ As if they were complaining because it wasn’t typical enough of a fairytale.
BL: Yeah, exactly! There’s something that’s so surprising sometimes, when people are kind of pointing out what we were trying to fight against, that we’re trying to give something new and then there are other people that are like ‘well you said you were going to give me this, I’m used to this!’, well we gave you something new and this is the challenge to that idea; this is a whole other story a whole other movie, that is not what we wanted to do here. You know, everybody’s going to have notes on the film no matter what it is or what it’s about. But it certainly was surprising that you got any of that, you know, 99% of fairytales – you can go get the note that you’re looking for out there – this is one that we’re trying to talk about something completely different and just talk about a character, really kind of turn it on its head. I would hope people, if they had that note, would think about that film a little bit, because it’s been done so many times, what would be the value of that at all in this film? I don’t think it requires it at all.

A113: No, exactly.
BL: Well, actually – hold on, just real quick, sorry to cut you off there…

[Both laugh]

BL: It would actually undermine and derail, I think, the last 80 minutes of what we just saw, that’s what she’s working against. If that happened it would be like ‘wait a minute!’, not that that’s what the movie’s about, that we don’t want people to fall in love, it’s just a different type of love story – it’s a love of family – it would just seem to undermine it so much. I don’t know, I think we could not do that – we could not do that.

Last year's Cars 2 was the only Pixar film to not get a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, Brave hopes to remedy that this year.

A113: Yeah, I agree with you entirely. It would have – you’d just kind of be sitting there like ‘well, what was the point in the rest of the film then?’
BL: Yeah, it would just feel like ‘ah well, let’s just do it anyway’. This whole thing of her fighting for herself is truly that representation, that’s what the film is about, and we’re showing the pluses and minuses of that. So to then kind of have that epilogue, if that’s what it was, of ‘oh that guy isn’t so bad… let’s get married.’ or whatever it would be, I would go ‘what?!’, I would literally… I don’t know what I would do if I had watched that film. Thank God we didn’t do that! You know what I mean though? We’ll try something new, and I’m glad that people are at least recognising that we are clearly doing that, whether they like it or not. They recognise that it’s not there, so, yes, good, you got the point of the film then. [Laughs] For little girls to watch it, you know, even just parents saying ‘here you go, here is something that is not subconsciously telling anybody that you need to be falling in love and that’s what stories are about.’; it’s a different love story.

A113: Yeah. Browsing your IMDb page: you worked on Ratatouille as well, how did this experience, on Brave, compare to that? Because, I know there were directorial changes on both films – does that impact the film? Does it create a little bit of tension? Or is it always handled quite professionally?
BL: Everybody’s, you know – we handled it as professionally as possible – because certainly you get attached to a film, there are people that you like, but we all know that it’s what is for the best of the film. So certainly things get shaken up in the sense that we have a new direction but it’s the same movie. I came on after the director change; actually Mark Andrews brought me on. I actually was on Ratatouille just for like a month or something before the change happened, then Mark brought me back to finish it all up. The main difference on that was it was just fast and furious on Ratatouille, Brave was as well, but I had a much deeper relationship with Mark on Brave than I did on Ratatouille. But everybody wants the film to be good and we love everybody, for sure, it is just kind of, like, change happens – it’s nothing new in movies, for Pixar or Hollywood, it’s just something that unfortunately does happen when something get to a point where there does need to be a change. And we’re all kind of like ‘let’s embrace that and try to make this thing amazing’. You know, because we’ve all poured our hearts and souls into these things. But, it does happen, but we all try to rally around whoever we need to do that with.

Brian and Brave director Mark Andrews (who are currently working together for the third time) have a swordfight... all in the name of the movie, of course.

A113: Well that’s great to hear! That’s what you’ve done before, but what are you moving onto next? Are you moving onto another feature maybe? Another short film?
BL: Yeah, I’m actually working with Mark Andrews; we’re in development now, just coming up with ideas for the moment. So it’s definitely… definitely a change of pace, it’s more…  we’re right at the beginning, just coming up with stuff and we’re really just trying to – the horizon’s open and we’re trying to move forward – we’re trying to move forward and have a lot of fun right now, in a different way! It’s just like fertile ground, we’ll just see what idea, like a seed, what kind of plant it grows into. So that’s what next for me, working with Mark, and it’s just great, having a lot of fun, again. It’s just a different pace right now, things are just a little – there’s not that pressure of production, of like ‘we need to sort everything! It’s all going up on screen and the animators, they need all the work!’, it’s just he and I and a writer and we’re just kind of fooling around right now.

A113: Oh wow! Okay, just one last quick question then, the one I ask everyone: what’s your favourite animated film?
BL: Favourite animated film? Oh my God. Boy, I…

A113: [Laughs] That’s the general reaction.
BL: Yeah… There’s just so many racing through my head. I mean, honestly, it might be… Princess Mononoke. Yeah, I love that film, a lot; I was very inspired by that film. So, there you go!

Check out our review of the Brave 3D Blu-ray package here.

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