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TSR Exclusive: 'ParaNorman' Interview with co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Better than Brave and frighteningly more powerful than last March's over-hyped documentary Bully, ParaNorman is a huge summer surprise waiting to be discovered by animation fans, of all ages. Created in beautiful stop-motion animation by Laika Studios, previously known for the film Coraline, ParaNorman tells the story of a zombie movie-loving middle schooler (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see ghosts. His biggest issue, however, is being accepted for who he is, both by his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and school bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse). He receives support from his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who isn't too popular himself.

I sat down with co-director/writer Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell to discuss in a roundtable interview their unique animated film. We also talked about annoys them about kids movies, and how this movie about the living dead came to be about something more human, and much more meaningful.

ParaNorman opens nationwide on August 17.

Are you guys familiar with Troll 2?

Chris Butler: Yes, of course!

Was it intentional that ParaNorman started off a bit like Troll 2, with the corny opening story and visions of dead grandparents?

Butler: Yes. That's the kind of movie that we were going for [in the beginning]. In fact, I think Troll 2 is worse than what we did [with the fake movie].

Sam Fell: Is it a zombie movie?

Butler: No. It's just awful. We tried so hard to make that initial scene really bad, but I don't think we got even close to Troll 2.

Fell: We were trying to make it bad, and our crew were so good.

Butler: It wasn't specifically referenced, but I'm a fan.

Fell: I want to see this ...

Butler: Oh, you have to have alcohol. And you don't need to see Troll 1.

'ParaNorman' certainly is more than a zombie movie, but has the beginning of the zombie movie. Did that change in story direction come from a love for zombie movies, or the desire to do something different?

Butler: Both. The original idea came a long, long time ago. People keep talking about how zombies are really popular now, and it is a zeitgeist thing, but it is one that has been steadily running. The intention was always to play this middle school comedy drama as a zombie movie, because the best zombie movies always have some social commentary. I thought it would be really interesting to tell a kid's story about bullying with zombies.

I can't think of a zombie movie that has tackled bullying.

Fell: And the school is actually worse than the zombies.

Butler: That was the disposition. If you're a kid, a far bigger horror than a horde of zombies is the kid down the lane.

What came first, the bullying concept, or the zombies?

Butler: It was a combination. A lot of Norman was based on me, and my childhood. Not that I was excessively bullied, but I definitely didn't fit in. When I was originally talking about the idea, it was an exploration of bullying, fitting in, finding identity, and zombie invasion, all things that are important to kids. It was always supposed to be if you took "Scooby-Doo" to its natural conclusion. If "Scooby-Doo" was real life, and you had those kids in a van, they would hate each other.

Fell: And they wouldn't get anything done.

Butler: That was the idea. "Let's take these John Hughes-ian types, throw them together in this supernatural adventure, and see what happens."

Sam, what did you want to add to this handling of the concept of bullying? There's no B.S handling about the topic in this movie. 

Fell: A lot of it was in the story, and what I like about it is that it isn't preachy. I take my kids to a lot of films, and a lot of the time when you go to a movie you just want to be entertained. So when you say, "I'm going to see a film about bullying. I need some cabbage." Kids don't want to be talked down to about stuff. That's what I love about it. It's integrated. I love that it's not just about the issue of bullying, it's explored. It makes you think about what happened 300 years ago in the witch trials. That was bullying, and intolerance. You get inside bullying, and you realize that bullies were bullied, and are probably angry about something that happened to them. There's this cycle of bullying. I like that this is explored, but it's not rammed down your throat. As a director, I love just making this cool movie.

Butler: And it's fun. We were pretty careful. One thing that we wanted to do is that every character in the movie judges someone else. Even the good guys, even Norman. Every single person sees someone and makes an assumption.

Going with that, there's this great idea of intolerance, and this movement of people trying to accept people especially nowadays with homosexuals. Was it very intentional for you to round out the story with the small reveal with one of the characters in the third act?

Fell: What I like about that is that it's thrown out there, but it's not loud.

Butler: It's fun as a joke. All the characters, you think you know who they are. But, the bully is a coward. Courtney is a a bitch, and she turns out ... well, she turns out to be a bitch. But she's nice though. And she's one of the smarter character in the movies. Every character is not who you think they are. I like the idea you think you know who [a certain character] is for 80 minutes, and then it's like, "Nope!"

Fell: Neil is a constant character. He's the moral compass.

Butler: But he's like orbital.

How exact would your screenplay have to be to the final product? Are there any painfully cut scenes on the cutting room floor?

Butler: No, there are a few scenes that I liked from earlier drafts, which just weren't important. But it doesn't have to be that way. A lot of animated movies are not made that way. But in this case, it was really helpful and functional that we did have a tight script.

Fell: Somethings got reordered a little bit, and some things were longer than they had to be.

Butler: I love dialogue, so it was as bit too much.

Fell: We moved a dialogue scene so there was action and dialogue at the same time.

Butler: But none of it was reinvented. We didn't have that awful story meltdown, where we sat in a room crying.

Did you have many re-shoots for 'ParaNorman'?

Fell: Yes. We spent them on Courtney, actually.

Butler: She was a difficult puppet. It was proportions, and the feminine acting. She has very long forearms. It's the weird little things. There was a moment where Courtney leans on Mitch, and it looked like a tentacle. Because you have to make these tings into physical puppets, you have to be aware as to how they are going to move. Certain traits and attributes you usually avoid, but we didn't. We said, "Okay, if we're going to have a character with small ankles and a fat neck, let's just go for it."

Fell: Sometimes the character has an unfortunate angle you don't film them from, just like an actor.

Chris, how was it writing dialogue for child characters as an adult?

Butler: It was something I thought a lot about. It's a personal peeve of mine in kids movies that have obviously been written by adults. I hate it. I hate movies that are clearly written by adults, who have never spoken to a child in their life. And i hate movies about kids that are voiced by adults, I find it fake. It was so important to the tone of this that it was naturalistic, which is why we went with Kodi [Smit-McPhee] and Tucker [Albrizzi] for the two young kids [Norman and Neil]. The writing of it, I was so conscious of it. These things take so long that I'd be trying to find out, whichever way possible, current slang words or even the way sentences are structured on the playground - not that I was hanging out at playgrounds! But you put it on the page, and it's just not very current anymore. Some things just became alive in themselves. I think Anna [Kendrick] in particular, with Courtney's dialogue, she didn't change it,but she brought life to it.

Fell: And Tucker and Kodi, as well. We got them together, and they recorded dialogue together.

Butler: Norman was the trickiest, because he is the brightest character in the movie. He is smart, and I wanted to acknowledge that when you're eleven years old, there's an awful lot going on in your mind. We didn't want to dumb him down. If you put a certain amount of smart dialogue in a kid's mouth, they sound ... [groans]. I'm trying not to swear.

Fell: It's the thing I really love about this. But I don't see places where people talk about these things directly. I hate when movies do that. It's part of the formula for animated movies, "Now it's time to talk about the theme."

The third act is such a surprise. To put it quaintly, it's very effective. It's direct, but not preachy, but gives what needs to be said to a lot of kids, and a lot of adults.

Fell: It's universal. And I love that scene because it's very epic.

When it cuts to that meadow ...

Butler: That's lit by our DP, Tristan Oliver. He personally handled that scene, that was his labor of love on the movie. It is stunningly beautiful. But it's interesting what you were saying because that's not the climax, it's a fake - the real climax is in the meadow.

Do you have any favorite jokes in the film?

Butler: The scene where Neil is watching TV, and then Courtney turns up and is in the bath towel. I love that scene, it just cracks me up, and it's probably the performances. It just works.

Fell: I love when the guy trying to wait for the candy bar while the zombies are coming. And I like the van collapsing. I love the timing of it. The bit where Alvin says "Diarrhea," our editor still laughs at that. He's been laughing at that for three years.

Though this movie does tackle bullying, there's also a lot of humor about adults in a childish society.

Butler: The main aim with the adults was to paint them as stupid, yes. When you're a kid, you look at adults, and they tell you what's what, and you think "They know better, but that can't be right." I think as you get older you realize that there are lot of things said by adults. We wanted to make the adults as much as an obstacle to Norman being himself. But with the main adult characters, we wanted them to be like real people. There is nuance to them, we didn't want them to be like cardboard cutouts.

These aren't pot shots either at adults, though there is humor at the expense of the adults. It's different. Right?

Butler: It's very easy to just say about Norman's father, "He's a bit of an asshole." But all those awful things he says to Norman, he does because he loves Norman. I thought that was an interesting to take on it.

Considering this film's morbid humor, was there anything that was too dark that you had to change in the script?

Butler: No, ghosts got cut out only for time.

Fell: There was a postman with a dog clamped on his head, or a knife assistant walking around with a knife in him. There's a test of that.

It starts off zombies, ghosts, witchcraft, bullying ...

Butler: It comes back to, "Don't judge a book by its cover." It's a heady soup.

Fell: A seven course meal!

Quick Questions with Sam Fell and Chris Butler

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Butler: Oatmeal. Fell: Egg white on oatmeal, with asparagus. It's because we're in a hotel. But if we were in a studio ...

What would be a typical studio meal?

Butler: I get a bowl of cereal. Or protein bars. These things are such juggernauts that we are fighting to maintain health.

What is something you can't wait to do?

Butler: Now that this is done, I can't wait to go back to Europe. When I lived in the U.K. I took it for granted. Now that I've lived in the U.S for six years, I can't wait to go back and take a vacation. Fell: I just want to go outside.

What is your favorite summer blockbuster?

Butler: It's always hard to pick one. Raiders of the Lost Ark, by far. Fell: I was gonna say that. I'm gonna say Jaws.

Age of first kiss?

Butler: Five. I had to pull my hood up. There were no tongues. Fell: I do not remember, but it was not five. Eleven, or twelve.


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