Co-directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno discuss their new CGI animated 3D Disney film, which is based on the classic Rapunzel fairy tale
The new 3D movie Tangled is the 50th animated feature film from Walt Disney Pictures. It is also the last of their planned princess themed movies and is based on the classic "Rapunzel" fairy tale.
Mandy Moore stars in the movie as Rapunzel, a girl with magic hair who has been kidnapped and kept in a tower by the evil Mother Gothel since birth. She eventually encounters Flynn (Zachary Levi), a thief who, along with a horse named Maximus and a chameleon named Pascal, help her escape from the tower and embark on a journey to find out the truth about where she came from.
We recently had a chance to sit down with the movie's directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard to talk about the new film, its unique characters, the classic fairy tale that it is based on, Alan Menken's music and the "2D vs. 3D" animation debate. Here is what they had to say:
To begin with, "Rapunzel" is such a classic fairy tale that Disney has never adapted before, can you tell me about making it into Disney's 50th animated feature film?
Nathan Greno: It is a tricky film to adapt. It has been around the Disney studio since the '1940s and if you have read the original "Rapunzel" story, it is a short story, a very short story. It takes place in a small room in a tower and to make a whole movie about that, its tricky. It took us a while to figure that out. But what Byron and I realized right away is that physically you got to get her out of that tower, mentally she stays there. That was the trick to finally bringing it to the screen.
Byron Howard: We wanted to make it a really smart non-traditional take on this classic story. The thing that people worried about when we wanted to do that is, "Oh, is it going to be cynical?" And it's not at all. We love these kinds of stories. When you see how we tried to get it up on the screen, it was done with a lot of love. We love these characters. It is told from a very sort of genuine place, but we wanted to make sure the dialogue was snappier, the plot twists were smarter and that you weren't seeing things that were stock cartoon characters. You have to believe that these two individuals are real and that they are going to fall in love. Everything had to be a little bit twisted, a little bit smarter.
Normaly in a Disney film the male hero would be a prince, but in this film Flynn is instead a thief and he has more to do in the story than the average prince would, was that a big focus for you in making this movie?
Byron Howard: Princes are always nice guys but sometimes there is not much there. There is not a lot to do with them. So when you start with a guy on the wrong side of the tracks and you give him a little bit of an edge like, a smart-aleck or the smartest person in the room attitude, it gives you more of a place to go.
Nathan Greno: Definitely. Even from the get go, we never really looked at it like we were making a princess movie. There is a perception of what that is. When we first started, when we out to lunch and we said, "What kind of movie do we want to make? What could this movie be?" We talked about giant action, we talked about very emotional scenes and we talked about hilarious comedy. We talked about all these things and we realized this movie could have all these things. The scope of this movie could be huge. It is something we hear all the time when people see screenings of this, "Wow, that was not what I was expecting at all." That is the best compliment we could get because we wanted to give something fresh, something contemporary and something very relevant to today's audiences.
You mentioned that you didn't want to make a princess film, is that why its called "Tangled" and not "Rapunzel?"
Byron Howard: As we went, we figured out the story wasn't about Rapunzel, but about Rapunzel and Flynn. We started to think, what is the best title for the movie? We looked at hundreds of different titles. What we loved about the word Tangled is that it sounded new and kind of non traditional. It gave you an idea of what kind of feeling you are going to have when you go on this roller coaster ride through the movie. Because it is the crazy intricate web of stuff that happens to these two characters as they go on this great adventure and it just felt better to us. It became their story instead of her story.
Nathan Greno: We looked at the film and we thought that in calling it Rapunzel you are only telling half of your story. It is like Toy Story, you wouldn't call it Buzz Lightyear because it doesn't represent the film. The more we looked at our movie we realized that the title Rapunzel didn't represent what we were doing and it entangled it.
In the long tradition of classic Disney animated films, the movie has some really strong animal characters including Maximus and Pascal. But in contrast to other Disney movies these animals do not speak, can you discuss that decision and how you were able to develop such strong and lovable characters?
Byron Howard: To not have them talk was something that really appealed to us. There is so much you can do with animation where characters are mute or where they are reacting. They are definitely very animated characters. The horse is hilarious but he has some dog like characteristics. We really tried to push this super cop feeling to him. I was again trying to put Flynn as the thief and instead of having him have this noble steed that is his best friend, the horse and him are bitter enemies throughout most of the movie. You have this great, sort of mini buddy picture that is happening through those guys. It gives you more fun for your story and more places for you to go. That's kind of why people like it.
Nathan Greno: The thing with Max is that you have seen animated horses before. As this character started to develop, we had a board where we had snap shots of all the horses in animation, or really any television or anything. We put up this big board of horses. We wanted to do something fresh and different. I feel pretty confident you haven't seen a horse like Maximus before. Pascal was the same thing. You have seen the little blue bird, little squirrel or the cutesy little things. We wanted Rapunzel to be more of the girl next door who can get dirty. She is feisty, she is relatable and she is different. We explored different angles. The chameleon is something we had not seen before in animation. We are always looking for ways to deliver fresh, new, different and exciting ideas.
You have both been working with Disney for over fifteen years now and this is the company's 50thanimated film, so is there a significance to the fact that it is a CGI 3D animated movie as apposed to a classic hand-drawn 2D film like Disney's forty-nine previous movies? Do you think hand-draw animation is dying out and if so, will it be replaced permanently by CGI 3D animation?
Byron Howard: It all depends on the story you have to tell. With this story the hair is so central to what this movie is about. The fact is that CG technology is right on the cutting edge of what CG can do as far as this goes. If you look at the poster for the movie, with thousands of strands of hair, we couldn't do that a year ago. We were working on this six or seven years ago and we knew we wanted to make Rapunzel's role as immersive as possible. For us, we wanted to make a big action film with a huge scope. We knew we were going to have to go with CG because we wanted to use movie cameras. For us, it was the right choice.
Nathan Greno: Right, 2D or CG, they are both story telling tools, so it really felt like the right tool for this movie.
The music in the film is wonderful, can you talk about the importance of bringing legendary Disney composer Alan Menken on to this project and what he added to the process?
Byron Howard: Alan is a genius. One of the first things he said was "Lets not do the same thing we have done before." He had a great idea of pushing Rapenzul's music more towards a singer songwriter, '1970s vibe like Joni Mitchell or "the girl with the guitar in the coffee shop." So a lot of the stuff you hear is very guitar based as opposed to the orchestra stuff we have done in the past. Alan did a brilliant job with the score. The final score is just incredible. Talking about scope, it sounds like a massive movie when we were over at Warner Brothers recording it. I just couldn't get over how incredible it sounds.
Nathan Greno: The whole thing with Alan, like with everything on this movie, was to do something fresh, new and unexpected. It was so great working with a Disney legend and at the same time to do something fresh and different than anything audiences have heard before. We feel like we are so happy to be in this totally new place and it feels like it's a bold new direction.
Did the fact that you cast three actors who are also accomplished singers as your leads help, as apposed to casting actors with no musical backgrounds?
Byron Howard: Oh yeah, it was very important that the singing and speaking voices be the same. That was part of why we cast such a wide net with the cast. We saw three hundred people for Rapenzel's role, two hundred for Flynn's role and a hundred and fifty for Mother Gothel. So we were very, very thorough. A lot of talented people came in but these guys were the right people for these roles.
Nathan Greno: We definitely cast what's best for the character and what's best for the story. There were hundreds of people that came in, like really big named people. When the world heard that we were casting this film, there was a lot of interest. It was amazing who was showing up. There were a lot of great people, but at the end of the day we made decisions based on what is best for the movie.
Finally, to follow up on what you just said, do these big named actors you mentioned just come in for meetings with you or do they actually audition for the roles?
Nathan Greno: No they auditioned.
Byron Howard: Big names would come in, read for us and sing for us. It was amazing for us meeting all these people we watched for years and admire. Super talented people, but sometimes it's the voice match. It has to be just right. The personalities have to be true too. Mandy and Zach are just built for these roles.