Directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno Interview TANGLED

     September 30, 2010

The fourth and final interview at Disney Animation Studios for Tangled was with the directing duo of Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with at Comic-Con less than two months before. The best thing about Byron and Nathan is that they are a great pair to interview; fun, energetic, and full of passion for what they do. Seeing as they are the minds behind the scenes, I prodded for information about their future plans, what it was like to gather this kind of cast, and how one of my favorite characters, Maximus, came about. Join me after the break for my full interview and a brief recap of the highlights from their roundtable interview earlier that day.

tangled_movie_poster_teaser_01First up are the highlights from the roundtable interviews they conducted with my group. There are a lot, and they covered a wide variety of topics, including key differences between the eras of dress that Gothel and Rapunzel wear, and the voice cast audition process.

*Gothel’s dress is from the Renaissance, which is 400 years before the time period of when the film takes place in the 1780s. This was in an effort to emphasis how the two characters don’t matchup.

* When doing voice casting, they usually get to a final five and then put the voices onto the animation, to kind of blind test them. So they really get a feel for how the audience will experience the voices.

*Once they get one voice actor down, they compare it with whoever is being cast next. They pegged Mandy down as Rapunzel, and then paired it with Zach and Donna. They actually had some voice actresses that were perfect for Gothel, but were too similar in tone or age when compared to Mandy’s.

*Ariel was a key signifier for what a Disney female character could be, because she was so three dimensional and not flat or bland. So they knew that was what they were aiming for.

*Didn’t know Zach could sing, so when he came in and nailed the voice part, they were just hoping and praying he wasn’t a terrible singer. Zach came in and sang “Sweet Baby James” and they felt a great sense of relief.

*About 4.5 years ago, before John took over Disney, they used to walk the hallways in not always the happiest times, and would say, “Wouldn’t it be great if John Lasseter came down and took this studio over.” Then, a couple weeks later, bam, he was there.

Collider: You are hitting the home stretch. How are the nerves?

Nathan Greno: I think we’re doing pretty well. The nerves are fine, but I think it’s not just us, but the entire crew… there’s an exhaustion. Byron and I, we really shoot for the moon when it came to this movie. We kind of ask for everything. If something’s a B, we want it to be an A+. What that involves is longer hours for us, for the crew, for everyone, but then at the end of the day, hopefully the movie is stronger for it. That’s the point.

Byron Howard: And we’re so proud of this crew. Their so passionate about the movie and they’re really pouring themselves into it. They know they are working on something really good. They want to be proud of it, so we don’t have to ask them to go the extra mile because they already do.

3D, 3D, 3D. What you are bringing to the table?

Howard: For this film, there are some sequences where we have 45,000 lanterns flying through all around you, and it really is a great story-telling tool for us because as much as possible, we want to put you inside the characters’ heads. We want you to experience what Flynn and Rapunzel experience. Kind of slip those glasses on and be surrounded by that amazing sense of the spectacle. The one she’s been dreaming about all her life. It helps us to get you into the character.

Greno: Well, and film in general is escapism. The better we can immerse people into that world, the stronger the experience will be. Definitely, 3D, when it came to approaching this story, we knew that one of our story-telling tools was 3D so we put it to use to make sure that it really complimented the story.

When I got out of the character creation panel at Comic-Con, I knew Pascal was going to be a hit. I loved him. But I didn’t know I would fall for Maximus. [Everyone laughs] What was the inspiration to make this… horse-dog?

Howard: Yea, it’s true. It’s funny because as his animation developed we kept trying more and more sort of dog characteristics with him. The sort of ultimate super-cop, this Tommy Lee Jones of horses, we really tried to get this cop with a goal, and he’s not going to let go and he’s going to be driven throughout the whole thing. It was great. The animators started to make really great choices with him, and for a character that started off as pretty serious, he got funnier and funnier. We’ve had a lot of people say that he’s their favorite character. He’s just a real standout.

Greno: We looked at all the different horses that have ever been in film or on television, animated or not. Just looked at all these different things and we wanted to do something fresh, and something different. Our whole goal on this movie is to do something fresh and contemporary and unexpected… with Maximus, he could have easily slipped into the category of, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” But I guarantee you; you’ve never seen a horse like Maximus. He’s pretty wild.

Talk about how you lucked out in going through over 500 auditions, and then landing Mandy and Zach. What was it like to have a contemporary backbone with those two, before you did anything story wise?

Howard: Yea, that was great for us. We really tried to say, no matter how famous these folks are, it just had to be the right voice for those characters. Ultimately what we were looking for was someone who could come in and bring a natural ease to those characters. Like Mandy is so good-hearted and so sweet, and so smart, she’s perfect for Rapunzel. She doesn’t even have to try; it’s like that is just her. For Zach, everything he says is funny and he’s incredibly smart, incredibly charming, and you can hear it in his voice. It just sounded right and they sound great together.

Greno: When we were doing those auditions, and all those hundreds of people were coming in, it was never about the name. It was never about how big the star was or anything like that. It was always about who would make the best character, who’s best for the part, and who’s best for the story. It always comes back to what’s best for the story, but it’s just a bonus that these two… they’re great. They’re these awesome celebrities, so that’s always a huge bonus for us.

When you got Zach onto the studio lot, what was it like to keep track of him? He’s a huge Disney fan, so was he kind of sneaking off?

[All laugh]

Howard: Yea, we didn’t know when we asked him to be a part of the film, but he is a Disneyphile. He loves classic Disney and so I think he was really excited to be involved with this. But that makes our job easier because when people are excited to be a part of a Disney film, that’s just a great bonus for us because that means they’re passionate about it just like we are.

Both of you have worked your way up the ranks at Disney and are now co-directing Tangled. Is there a feeling that this is the only capacity you will work in or will you fill other capacities on another film in the future?

Greno: I guess, my whole career, when I got into the storyboarding department, all I wanted to do was be the best storyboard artist in the world. I wasn’t looking to be head of story, I wasn’t looking to run the department or anything like that. I just really wanted to be the best story board artist I could be. At some point, as I was getting better and better at the job, I felt like a natural progression was to be head of story. So I transitioned into that place, and my goal then was to be the best head of story I could be. The best head of story in the world; that was my goal. I kept pushing and pushing for that and at some point, the same thing happened. I had confidence that I could become a director. At this point, I think my goal is to be the best director I can be.

Howard: I think we’re both really excited to do more films together. I think ultimately wherever we progress to in the future; it will always be about helping this studio make great movies. We love filmmaking and this is such a great job, honestly. As animation directors you’re the first one on the film, you’re the last one off, and you get to learn from and touch every department throughout the whole journey. I don’t know any other job in the world that’s like that. I don’t think live-action is like that. It’s a very different sort of experience. I think we’re very, very lucky and everyday, as hard as it is, we always appreciate what kind of a magnificent place this is.

Speaking of live action, Andrew Stanton is stepping out and making John Carter of Mars, which is an interesting transition because not many go from success in animation and then move to live action. Is there any desire to follow those footsteps?

Howard: Oh, no. Not for me.

tangled_movie_posterGreno: No, we love animation. Our hearts are in animation. If these movies are done well, they live on forever. You know, even last year, there was this little girl that came up to our door during Halloween dressed as Snow White. That movie was made in the 1930s! How many other movies can you think of, outside of animation, can live on like that? That is relevant to kids like that, and adults and everyone. If these things are done well, they really do live on forever. There’s something about that that really feed into our passion of wanting to keep making animated films. Animation is sort of an amazing storytelling tool, and that’s not something that we’re interested in leaving.

Howard: No. With all the tools we have available to us now… like we have almost every filmmaking tool available to us as live-action filmmakers do. Just the types of stories that are opening up to us that we are now able to tell because of the toolset are so great and so tempting. You go, “Well, I want to make one of these, and I want to make one those, and one of these.” So there’s all this potential out there. And now that we feel Lasseter trusts us with these projects, the trust and the faith that they have in us to keep pushing the envelope of what these movies can be is great. That’s what all of the directors here should be doing. We should all be seeing how great and how amazing we can make each movie. We should build on what the previous movie did.

So, as you keep mentioning, the animated filmmaking process here is very collaborative. You have dailies and shared responsibilities for the animators. However, that isn’t the case at all with the voice actors, who often come in for a day and then leave for a few weeks. Obviously they are talented, but they rarely even get to work with their own co-stars. Is it frustrating?

Howard: Yea, and most of the time it’s the schedule that prevents them from staying. I think we did get Mandy and Zach together, probably twice during the last year and a half. We do try and pick versatile, skilled actors and actresses that are good in the room by themselves and good with other actors. We try to fill the void as much as possible by running lines with them. Hopefully it’s imperceptible.

Greno: Yea, it’s only frustrating when you’re working with actors that can’t pull it off. Luckily we didn’t have that problem at all. We’re working with actors that, when it’s all edited together, it’s seamless. It feels like they’re in the same room. It’s almost magical in a sense that you’re able to pull that kind of thing off. But it’s all about casting the right people and really smart, talented, sharp actors.

This concludes my interviews and reports from my visit to Disney Animation Studios. I truly had a blast interacting with all the talented and kind people there and I look forward to the release of Tangled because I think people will really like what Disney has done. If you haven’t already, check out part 1 and part 2 of my set visit reports, and my interviews with Zachary Levi, Alan Menken, and Mandy Moore. Tangled hits theaters in 3D and regular 2D on Thanksgiving, November 24th of this year.

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