Interview: ‘ParaNorman’ Co-Directors Chris Butler And Sam Fell On Childhood Trauma, Zombies, And Outsiders

Earlier today I brought you my review of Laika’s “ParaNorman,” which hit DVD and Blu-ray today. Two of the people key to bringing this supernatural animated comedy to the screen are Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Butler, who also wrote the screenplay for “ParaNorman,” worked on previous Laika effort “Coraline” as well as Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride.” Fell was an animator on Aardman’s “Flushed Away” and directed “Tales of Despereaux.”

“We’ll identify ourselves so you can differentiate,” Butler promised at the start of our call. It’s not just that the two British filmmakers have similar styles of speaking–they also have similar cadences and, more importantly, nearly identical levels of passion for “ParaNorman,” a script that Butler had been working on for years before finally being able to convince Laika to give it the green light.

“I’d been working on the idea for many years, just writing on and off,” Butler tells me about the path to getting “ParaNorman” made, attributing its production to a combination of hard work and timing. He says from the beginning, it was always a zombie movie for kids, but that because it touched on deeper themes of bullying and acceptance, he was afraid it would never get made. “ParaNorman,” for good or bad (really to the good, though) doesn’t look or feel like other animated movies out there right now.

It was working on the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” as head writer that Butler got the courage to show the script for “ParaNorman” to director Henry Selick. Selick liked the script and had him pass it along to Laika President and CEO Travis Knight who greenlit “ParaNorman” based on what he read. “Coraline,” a dark, strange, and challenging animated film in its own rights, found a home at Laika, a place where Butler says he say a team that had, in his words, “the balls, to maybe want to consider the project.” He credits Laika with being willing to push the boundaries in storytelling beyond what you’d expect in typical Hollywood animated fare.

That’s not to say they were attempting to make an art film for kids–Fell adds that they were very much interested in making a mainstream animated film, but that the focus on bullying, on outsiders allowed them to say a little bit more with “ParNorman.” “I think that’s the challenge with this film,” Fell explains, “we wanted to create a really fun supernatural adventure film […] but Chris’ story also has a dramatic heart.” He says that during pre-production and production, they were constantly trying to find the right balance for “ParaNorman,” between the drama and the heart and the celebration of and homage to films like “The Goonies,” classic horror, and old “Scooby-Doo” cartoons. It’s a film that opens with a playful riff on stalk and kill horror films and ends with a character making a heartbreaking realization about years of anger and rage.

Plus, it helps that zombie movies, on about the eighth year of the genre’s resurgence, show no signs of going away. “I think zombie movies and kids were just waiting to happen,” Butler says, given a generation of filmgoers raised on the living dead taking their kids to an animated film. And he says that Laika could have easily gone for a zombie comedy for kids, but that the challenge and the opportunity was to deliver a zombie movie with social commentary–something that the classics like “Dawn of the Dead” or “28 Days Later” (shut up, it’s a zombie movie) do well. “I like that we got the opportunity to play in that world without getting dumbed down.”

When I ask if there was any concern about “ParaNorman” being too scary for their target audience, both directors laugh. “That was always the discussion” Butler chimes in, promising that “we never set out to traumatize children–honest!” He added that every day it was a point of discussion, and that they were very cognizant of how small elements can stick in a kids’ mind. He pointed to one incident where a scene that felt very benign on the page became more intense when filmed and accompanied by the score.

“I think that in the 80’s, the boundary between kids’ movies and adult movies were a little more blurry,” Fell says, when I ask about some of the 80’s movies that made their way into the DNA of “ParaNorman.” He brought up “Gremlins” and “Poltergeist,” both movies with family-friendly ratings that probably shredded the nerves of some of the younger viewers who either intentionally or not stumbled upon the film back in the day.

“I don’t think [those movies] were necessarily careless when it came to younger viewers, they were just braver,” Butler says, adding that going back to fairy tales, there have always been scary challenges. He worries that removing them from movies these days removes some of the challenge for the younger viewers. He worries that there’s a conservatism in some modern animation which makes some features simply benign babysitters. “From a parent’s point of view, they want them to be safe so they don’t have to worry about them,” Butler tells me, saying that in his own youth, the most memorable movies to him growing up were the ones that he would want to talk about with his parents. “That seems to be different now.”

Fell says that the whole project was about “finding something that would stand out–that was different,” and part of that came from the film’s unique look. He attributes the distinctive visuals of “ParaNorman” to CalArts graduate Heidi Smith, whose portfolio Butler discovered early in the production’s life. He feels that Norman is kind of an extension of Laika as a whole–unique outsiders who go their own way. They wanted to create something like the real world that wasn’t a fantasy, that was based on their observations on the real world, then building it in miniature. The Laika team wanted to show that “it’s a little bit of a mess out there.”

Butler adds that there’s been a tradition of masterful stop-motion features by the likes of Henry Selick and Tim Burton and he and Fell really wanted “ParaNorman” to stand out from those works. “Tim Burton does what he does so well that there’s no reason to imitate him.”

“ParaNorman” does have a feel of its own, and it’s a lovely movie for it. You should really check it out now that it’s hit DVD and Blu-ray.

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