Focus Features releases ParaNorman on Friday and one of the many things it has going for it (along with its amazing animation) is its message about being yourself. We live in increasingly intolerant times and its nice to see a film that addresses that issue and accompanies it with a higher body count and more flying limbs than you’d expect from a kids movie.
I recently hopped on the phone with directors Chris Butler (who also wrote the film) and Sam Fell and we talked about their approach to the film’s message – and if they thought that there was anything too gross that they might have to cut.
The film takes place in “a small town that comes under siege by zombies. Who can it call? Only misunderstood local boy Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is able to speak with the dead. In addition to the zombies, he’ll have to take on ghosts, witches and, worst of all, grown-ups, to save his town from a centuries-old curse. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.”
One of the things I took away from the films was its point of view about being yourself. Do you want to talk about the thematic content?
Chris: Right from the start I knew I wanted it to be from a kids point of view. Most zombie movies have a social commentary and I thought it would be cool to explore that and apply it to kids. Reach out to 11 year olds and use a zombie movie to do it. From the point of view of an 11 year old, the kid who bullies you every day in school is as frightening potentially as a horde of zombies. It was playing with the real horror of what it’s like to be 11 along with the fictional horror of movies.
Sam: For me I really enjoyed that it wasn’t just preaching about bullying in a simplistic way. It was nice to dig in what’s behind bullying and where it comes from, and if you walk around judging a book by its cover or judging people by the way they look then you may be surprised because there’s more to people than meets the eye.
Chris: Yeah I think it’s definitely a character based story. We never wanted this to feel like a cartoon. it’s not about mugging for the camera or broad slapstick or anything. It was a lot of fun exploring these characters you think you know.
That extends towards the end of the film and the reveal of the witch. Was that the kind of thing that changed during the development process or was it like that all along?
Chris: That was always the end. In fact it was probably the first scene that I wrote. The confrontation between Norman and the witch. That really helped because to know where you’re going in an animated movie is sometimes a rare thing. I wanted to tell a clear story which had a very definite beginning, middle and end.
The zombies are portrayed differently than normal zombies. Can you talk about developing their point of view?
Chris: It was a tricky thing because what they did was actually unforgivable. It’s a disgusting thing that they did. We’re never saying that they’re forgiven. It’s about moving on.
Sam: I enjoyed the parallel between the current day residents of the town who are in fact the descendants of these people. To see that not much has changed. To see that the same cycle of fear and judgement takes place today as it did 300 years ago.
You’ve got a couple of hardcore elements in here that kind of push the boundaries of a kid movie. Were you ever concerned you wouldn’t get a PG? Do you want to talk about balancing the tone of it?
Sam: I was going to mention the Amblin movies like E/T. where you look back and realize they did tackle some difficult stuff. The families were messed up in those films.
Chris: It’s about going for a naturalistic point of view. And certainly from a writing point of view it was important to have an imperfect, relatable family. When you’re a kid you’re told what’s right and what’s wrong by people who you see making mistakes all the time.
Sam: Also Laika, the studio, is also a very brave place which you can tell from watching Coraline.
There’s a lot of mayhem. A lot of limbs flying around. There’s one moment where Norman is buried under a dead dory and the tongue laps out at him. Was there anything you thought you might have to cut?
Chris: We were walking that line. What we tried to do with some of those moments was to immediately burst the bubble with some humor.
Sam: And sometimes it’s music or sound that you could have gone too far with and you need to change the tone by changing a particular cue.
This is a movie about tolerance and, in some ways, we live in less tolerant times than we did ten years ago. What do you want the impact of this film on the culture to be?
Chris: What I want is for kids to go see this movie and have a scary roller coaster ride. And I want them to find it funny. But at the end of it maybe they’ll look at the people around them a little differently. Hopefully what we’ve done is never preachy, but I hope we push the envelope and I’m glad that we do have a voice here.