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A few weeks ago Dread Central caught up with ParaNorman‘s directing duo of Chris Butler and Sam Fell during the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, where we heard a bit about the basics of their delightful stop-motion animation film.
The flick features an adorably quirky hero named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who must save his town from a 300-year-old witch’s curse and a horde of zombies that have risen from the dead to wreak havoc.
Of course, after we finally had the opportunity to see ParaNorman for ourselves (it will undoubtedly make it onto this writer’s Top 5 list for 2012), we had just a few more questions for Butler and Fell regarding the film’s anti-bullying message, sharing director duties, and whether or not they faced any difficulties while creating a kids’ horror movie that still manages to be loads of fun for older audiences.
Check out some of the highlights from our exclusive follow-up interview with Butler and Fell below, and look for ParaNorman in 3D everywhere this Friday courtesy of Laika Entertainment and Focus Features.
Dread Central: Thanks, guys, for speaking with me again; I have to say that I simply adored the look of ParaNorman and how new, yet retro the movie feels. Can you talk about the look of the movie, particularly the balance of realness to this world but also the fantastical look as well?
Chris Butler: None of this was ever about doing realism for either of us. It was more about doing ParaNorman with a sense of naturalism, and there is a big difference. Or at least I think so. We designed this world so intricately that every part of it, down to each blade of grass and every stitch on Norman’s clothes, all feel natural to the world but not realistic to the real world. We created our own world in this movie, and we had to make sure that every tiny detail served the look of this world, or ParaNorman wouldn’t have worked.
Dread Central: I know you both mentioned in previous interviews that you’re life-long stop-motion fans, and it’s definitely not a cheap way to animate a movie at all. How important was the stop-motion aspect of this project to the heart of ParaNorman? If you hadn’t gotten the budget, would you have ever considered doing more traditional style of animation on this?
Sam Fell: No, I don’t think we ever once considered doing this traditional; it was always meant to be a stop-motion animated movie. And yes, we both grew up loving all those Ray Harryhausen monsters, especially the fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts. I think we always want to try and capture that kind of magic in our work, and the only way to do that is by using stop-motion; there’s nothing else like it.
Chris Butler: I think that having a tactile, handmade feel really suit zombies; they’re kind of these clunky undead creatures being brought back to life, and since that’s pretty much what a zombie puppet is, stop-motion was the perfect way to bring these creatures and this world to life for me.
Dread Central: Can you talk about what inspired the anti-bullying message in ParaNorman? It feels very relevant to a lot of what’s happening in society right now.
Chris Butler: It’s so fundamental to Norman’s story and was always part of the plan. This story at its core is about a kid who doesn’t fit in because he’s just a little bit “off” so he’s picked on by the other kids and in some ways by his father, too, who just doesn’t understand him. And it just so happens that ParaNorman is coming out a time when bullying is very relevant to what’s happening around us, and the sad truth about bullying is that it’s something that will always be around and will never go away. ParaNorman is about “whatever makes you weird also makes you wonderful,” and this message has always been a part of the story’s DNA since the beginning.
Dread Central: Was it tricky at all creating a kids’ horror movie that adults could still find something to enjoy about it or do you feel like this is a movie that pretty much plays to the kid in all of us, regardless of age?
Chris Butler: I really don’t see it as having to make something that works for kids and then having to add stuff in that works for adults; I think that should come naturally, and a good story will be relatable at any age. I’m part of a generation that grew up with some really cool movies for kids that adults loved, too- like Goonies and Ghostbusters, movies like that. But the one thing that I didn’t want to do was have the movie talk down to kids or talk over their heads; kids are smart enough to see through that. And even though there are a few references that kids probably won’t get, like some of the names or the John Carpenter ringtone, it doesn’t really matter if a kid understands all that fully. It won’t take away their enjoyment, at least I don’t think it will.
Dread Central: How did you guys divide up the directing duties on ParaNorman?
Sam Fell: Well, we spent a lot of time together at the beginning, making all the big initial directorial decisions together, and carried on doing that for a while. We didn’t really want to split the film at all because that kind of division didn’t make sense; we really just wanted to have one clear message for the entire crew so we’d meet every morning in an editorial room and look at everything, and then we’d all set out to get the work done.
Chris Butler: I think for both of us the start of production on ParaNorman was more about finding the look of the project alongside the director of photography and production designer. It took some time just to build up a library filled with the signature look of ParaNorman before we started shooting.
Dread Central: Did you take any visual cues from other projects in particular? Was it important to you both that the look of ParaNorman stood independently from Coraline, another Laika project?
Chris Butler: I would say that ParaNorman was influenced by a few different things really. At the beginning of pre-production we were looking through portfolios from all of the big animation schools for a character designer, and we found that there was a standard kind of look that seemed always prevalent- a retro 50’s clean look with smooth lines, which wasn’t necessarily what we wanted, despite those artists being very talented. So after looking through hundreds of portfolios, we found Heidi Smith, who was an undiscovered talent, and her designs were just so beautifully grotesque that we knew we had our person.
Sam Fell: Heidi’s work had the sort of wonky naturalism that we wanted because in the script Chris described Blithe Hollow as this kind of quirky town that’s a little rough around the edges so it seemed appropriate to design everything a bit off. We still wanted to make it feel like a real town so we went out and took a lot of photographs of the real world and then took those visual references and made them “askew.”
Chris Butler: All we wanted from the very start was to make the world of ParaNorman beautifully imperfect and a world of its own so, of course, we made sure that we didn’t copy anything in the world of Coraline in this film; thankfully because of Heidi and countless others, we never did.
I would say that one parallel that does exist between the two films, besides being animated, is that they’re both very non-traditional films and Laika took some major risks by making both projects. They’re interested in stories that other studios wouldn’t make, and that’s something we both agree with. Sam and I have never been interested in making Pixar or DreamWorks movies; that’s not the stories we like to tell, and I don’t think it ever will be.
ParaNorman is directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (Coraline, The Corpse Bride) from Butler’s original screenplay.
A small town 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, moronic 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.
The voice cast includes Academy Award nominee Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me), Tempestt Bledsoe (“The Cosby Show”), Jeff Garlin (Toy Story 3), John Goodman (Red State, Matinee, Monsters, Inc.), Bernard Hill (Titanic), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Leslie Mann (Rio), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fright Night 3D, How to Train Your Dragon), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In), Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch (“30 Rock”), Tucker Albrizzi (Good Luck Charlie), Alex Borstein (“Family Guy”), and Jodelle Ferland (Case 39, Silent Hill, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse).
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