“ParaNorman” tells the story of Norman Babcock, a horror-movie obsessed outcast who doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school. But what they don’t know is that Norman can communicate with ghosts — and his ability to speak with the undead is the only thing that can save his little town of Blithe Hollow. So when a vengeful witch unleashes a zombie plague on the community, Norman must use his spectral back-up to defeat the witch… or else lurching zombies will munch down on his friends and family.
“ParaNorman” is the second film from Laika Animation (the team that brought you the Academy Award-nominated “Coraline”), a studio that aims to tell a different kind of story, away from the typical Disney fare. Moviefone had an in-depth conversation with “Norman” directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell about why kids love horror movies, the renaissance of stop-motion animation and how “ParaNorman” is like “John Carpenter meets John Hughes.”
When the trailer for this film used Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” I was in.
Sam Fell: Yeah that was pretty perfect.
Chris Butler: That had a giggle to it.
What drew you to “ParaNorman”?
CB: I think it was an amalgamation of a lot of movies and TV shows that I watched when I was growing up. So I was a lot like Norman who sits at home watching horror movies he shouldn’t be watching. There were a lot of horror movies, a lot of those ’80s movies like “The Goonies” and Amblin movies, “Ghostbusters”, “Poltergeist” and “Scooby Doo.” I think those were just churning away in my mind through adolescence, and then it got to the point where I was like, I want to make a movie about this. But I guess the original idea was a zombie movie for kids, ’cause I thought “Why not?”
People love zombies.
CB: And then it became “John Carpenter meets John Hughes.”
Oh that’s a great way to describe it.
SF: I came along three years ago. I was looking at a number of projects and this one really stood out, for those reasons actually. I grew up as a teenager in those times as well; watching a lot of the influences Chris mentioned were just bang on for me.
Are there any particular horror movie influences that have just stayed with you forever?
SF: For me it’s “Evil Dead 2.” I just can’t get over that film.
CB: I mean it’s basically a cartoon. [Laughs] I remember when I first saw “Night of the Living Dead.” It completely blew me away and I was probably way too young to be watching it. I still have it in my head, that image of that girl eating her mother. Like, There it is.
SF: There’s a certain period when you’re growing up where stuff’s just getting imprinted.
“Night of the Living Dead” was the first horror movie I saw in the daytime that scared the hell out of me.
CB: When I was at that impressionable age there was this whole thing in England, and I’m pretty sure it must have been the same here, “Video Nasties”?
We didn’t have “Video Nasties,” but we had Tipper Gore… so same thing.
CB: I remember sitting around my aunt’s house with my cousin and my brother, and she had all kinds of videos that I don’t even know whether they were, you know, legal.
SF: Beyond that though, the thing that really grabbed me [about “ParaNorman”] was it’s a really strong emotional story about this kid Norman and how he deals with being bullied because he’s different. All the horror stuff is like the wrapping of it. It unwraps and it really delivers a great heartfelt story.
“Scary story” is a catch-all term that doesn’t necessarily just mean scaring kids. But there’s something about that atmosphere and tone; it’s Bradbury-esque.
CB: I think it’s a really fundamental part of kids fiction and literature. It’s art. It’s everything, in movies especially. It’s the stuff that takes root in kids. Everyone remembers seeing “Pinocchio” when they were kids.
SF: Disney was dark wasn’t it?
CB: So were the original fairy tales, and I would hate that to be lost in some bland sanitizer.
SF: Kids wouldn’t buy it, if you make things too bland. I think kids inevitably want what they’re not allowed.
CB: They want to discover… I love [Neil Gaiman’s] perspective. We talk about what is too scary for kids, and his point of view is brilliant: you can show monsters as long as you show them being defeated or that they can be defeated. Kids love monsters, they love villains, they love the drama of it, but to know that if you face obstacles in your life you can beat them — it’s that traditional fairy tale.
I can’t think of too many recent kids movies that are willing to be creepy; a lot of mainstream movies play it very safe. Did you have trouble trying to get the tone you wanted?
SF: Not with Travis [Knight, CEO of Laika Animation] producing. He’s totally up for pushing the envelope.
CB: Laika is very specific about having a vision and really going for it and not being wishy washy. With all those influences that we were talking about, it was pretty clear the movie we wanted to make. It wasn’t this dark sinister creepy thing that leaves pretty people traumatized. It’s actually a fun ride with a few zombies.
SF: We went back to that period, because there’s something about that period where you could do funny and dark at the same time. It’s more irreverent. You could do scary as well. “Gremlins” was a great kind of family movie. People don’t do that so much now.
With “ParaNorman” and “Frankenweenie” and “Hotel Transylvania,” do you think Hollywood is open to exposing kids to scary ideas again?
CB: I think there’s a whole bunch of people who grew up watching and had access to this backlog of horror movies. We’ve all grown up on them and that’s what we’re now introducing to our children.
What’s the appeal of stop-motion animation over any other kind of presentation?
CB: It’s a different way of approaching something, and it has a great tradition of [being] kind of macabre and also very monster heavy. Because you think Ray Harryhausen and “Jason the Argonauts” with the skeletons. How can you make an animated movie about zombies and not go down that road?
SF: Also there’s this kind of black magic about bringing inanimate objects to life, that goes back to those Eastern European films; [animator] Ladislas Starevich, in the ’30s, literally got skeletons and wrapped them together and made them come alive. If we had done this a couple of hundred years ago we’d be burned at the stake actually [laughs].
I love the look of stop-motion animation but I can’t imagine the tedium involved in setting up the shots. How do you keep it fun?
CB: I think everyone that’s involved in it is hugely passionate about it. That is vital because if they weren’t, you wouldn’t do it. It’s not just a creative commitment, it becomes a personal one as well. It engulfs your life. And our studio is just dripping with those people whose life ambition is to do this thing. Every blade of grass is handmade and someone sweated blood over that and really cared about what it looked like.
SF: When you’re doing something you love, time just disappears.
One thing that always takes me by surprise is how big the figures and sets are in stopmotion; I tend to oversimplify it as this diorama-like set-up.
SF: It does surprise people that come to studio; it’s massive. We have 50 units running, a small unit would be the size of this [hotel] room and this would be a very small unit. You have, like, 300 people working away. It looks handmade and kind of crafty and you think “Ah, it must be six people in a barn, up in Portland”.
Back in April I spoke to Peter Lord [who directed “Pirates! Band of Misfits”], and he brought up a great point about stop motion: between “Pirates,” “ParaNorman,” Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and the new project Henry Selick was developing, there were four stop-motion animation projects in the span of about two years.
SF: That’s unheard of.
Why do you think there’s this renaissance?
CB: I think it’s because people got used to CG.
SF: It’s not as amazing as it was anymore.
CB: It’s not a novelty. An audience becomes trained to see how things are done. You go see a big bloody live-action movie full of CG effects and you know it’s not magic anymore. People are always looking for that next thing that wows them and there is something still truly magical about stop motion.
How has the addition of 3D changed things?
CB: “Coraline” was the first stop motion to do 3D, I think, and when I was working on that we had this expert guy come in and tell us all the do’s and don’ts, and I was panicking. I was head of story and thinking “Uh… I have to rewrite everything.” But then we talked about it and it was just “You make the best movie you can regardless of whether it’s 3D or 2D.” We used 3D to pull people in rather than go “boo.”
SF: There’s a few shots of that.
CB: It’s a zombie movie we’ve got to have someone doing that. But mostly our approach is to try and bring people in — especially because stop motion does have this real handmade look. People instinctively want to go “oh that’s real.” To make it 3D feels like you can climb in there next to the puppets.
Laika is still a relatively new company. What do you think is the biggest challenge going up against the audience perception that animation is Disney and Dreamworks and nothing else?
SF: I think it will have to grow slowly. I think it’s exciting that there is a new kid on the block. This is the first animation studio that started since Dreamworks did in ’94. What Laika is doing, which is good, is that they’re being different.
CB: That’s definitely where other people have gone wrong — just making a Dreamworks or a Disney movie and not succeeding. Because those guys are really good at what they do. At the studio, we’ve always thought “animation is not a genre, it’s a medium.” So you should be able to tell any kind of story with it.
What kind of stories would you like to see Laika attempt next?
SF: I would like a musical. I think that would be cool.
CB: Sci-Fi. It’s exactly that idea of being able to tell stories that other people don’t. To do stuff that’s irreverent is a bit scrappy, a bit more challenging, a bit more dangerous.
What do you think will be the next crazy innovation in animation?
SF: I would like to see 2D revolutionized; 2D somehow got stuck in the mud. With shorts and experiments you see people doing more, you could bring a more painterly or loose line style into 2D and it’d be cool.