Onward Director, Dan Scanlon, Says Pixar Never Talk Down To Children In Their Films Because ‘Kids Are Smart’
Late last month I wrote about my experience of watching the new Pixar film Onward, the way it made me reflect on the death of my own mother, and how her death had changed my relationship with my younger sister.
Needless to say, when I went to watch Onward I didn’t expect it to have the impact it did. I can honestly say I’ve thought about it at least once a day since watching it, and I consider it one of the most beautiful and affecting films of recent years.
So, I was honoured when I got an email from Disney explaining the director of Onward, Dan Scanlon, had read my piece and he wanted to talk to me about the film. Our conversation took place earlier this month, the day before Onward was released to cinemas. We spoke for more than 20 minutes and modesty prevents me from including everything we spoke about in this Q&A, but it was a privilege to speak to Dan about the film, his own loss, and Pixar.
UNILAD: Onward is a story about brothers who lost their dad at a very young age, I know you drew inspiration from your own life for the story, how did it feel putting something so personal on the big screen?
Dan Scanlon: Well, Pixar really encourages that among its filmmakers in a really special way, they want something honest and true that comes from a personal place, because that way you’ll be able to mine more from it, and then the chances are that the film will connect with audiences.
So I felt really supported by the folks here at Pixar, my fellow filmmakers and the crew. Even the cast had their own personal connection to the film. It’s harder now to be honest, it’s a little scary because it comes out tomorrow, but already I’m seeing such a wonderful response from folks who connected with the film, it’s been really special and I’m so glad that I did do something personal.
UNILAD: Pixar has never been afraid to explore more ‘adult’ theme in it’s films, despite them being nominally children’s films. How difficult is it when you’re making something like Onward not to talk down to your audience and instead make it accessible?
Dan Scanlon: Like you say, we try to never talk down to our audience, and it’s very rare in the process of making a movie that we’d ever turn round and say ‘oh is that too much for a child?’ It’s because kids are really smart, they go through some tough stuff, so it doesn’t come up that often.
You know we try to make films for ourselves, we would probably dial it back if it went too far, but that makes a lovely challenge because filmmaking should be about inferring and not just spelling it out for your audience, so it forces you to do things in more clever ways.
UNILAD: You wrote this with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, but this is sort of your story with your idea at the core of it, how was it collaborating with them on Onward?
Dan Scanlon: I love working with at least one other writer or a story team, we have whole teams of storyboard artists who help us with the film and those people are in the room talking about ideas, including Kori Rae my filmmaking partner, so there’s always a lot of people to bounce ideas off.
What’s great about working with Keith and Jason though is, is it’s like playing in a band with different band members and by working together you can get new sounds and ideas, which you don’t when you work alone, and I love that. We bring out different things in each other and just having those extra creative brains to help you, because I come in with this idea of where I want to get, and they then help us get there.
But it’s fun, you know in the early days we’ll split it up and all go off and write two scenes, then swap, and write each others scenes, and refine the work, then finally I go through and sand it down [laughs], It really is a wonderful way to work.
UNILAD: It seems like everyone at Pixar is very collaborative, which brings me on to Ian and Barley, how much of an influence did Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have on those characters? Did you have a concrete idea of who they were when you started writing Onward?
Dan Scanlon: I didn’t have a strong idea of them as characters right away. The one thing I knew was Barley, I wanted Barley to be someone who’s in his own goofy way a support. My brother is very thoughtful and together, the opposite of Barley, but like him he’s very supportive and encouraging and I liked the idea of dramatising that, you know? So I had this idea of what if someone was questionable in their behaviour and caused more harm than good while also trying to be supportive.
Ian then came out of the contrast to that, what if you had someone who was more ordered and scared. Someone who didn’t want to be like their big brother, who he loves, but secretly he really doesn’t want to be Barley. Over time then, we had this idea that was true to my life and where I come from in the Midwest, where we don’t talk about our feelings. So Ian will never call Barley out on anything and will just go with him, but that means he’ll never grow as a result. So Ian’s personality definitely came after Barley’s and it took a lot of time and talking to work out what Ian’s growth would be in the movie.
But what Tom and Chris brought was a specificity and a deeper reality to the characters. Our original Ian was a little more sarcastic and Tom didn’t do that, he pulled away from that, instead playing up the fear, which turned out in the long run to be better for the character. Chris Pratt was good though at keeping an eye on Barley so that he never got too cartoonish and silly, you know he’s supposed to be a screw-up so we had him knocking stuff over and his pants would fall down but Chris would be like: ‘Wait a minute, he’s not a buffoon.’ And he ended up being a guardian of the character.
UNILAD: You touched on there the idea that Barley is supportive of Ian, but through his behaviour he’s kind of an antagonist in the film. Was there ever the idea of playing up the friction between the brothers?
Dan Scanlon: I actually wanted them to be more loving an supporting because that’s what my relationship with my brother was like, but people quickly pointed out that there’s no drama in that, and that brothers don’t get along that well, even though me and my brother did.
Then the next reaction was to make them fight all the time and hate each other, and I pushed back very hard on that because I’ve seen that movie a million times and that’s the cliche of brothers, that they don’t get along. So the compromise in the middle is what we found and I think it’s a bit more nuanced, you know the idea that you can love someone but also be embarrassed by them, it’s a lot more realistic.
UNILAD: You’ve created such an interesting world in this film, this strange combination of magic and modernity, it’s so creative, were you a fan of the fantasy genre?
Dan Scanlon: Weirdly, I wasn’t when we started. I just set it in that world because I wanted magic so they could bring the dad back. But a lot of people at Pixar who worked on the film were fans of the genre and they pointed Kori and I in the right direction.
But I definitely grew to love it and I’m a comic fan, so I started reading more fantasy comics and that sort of thing, and I started to love the surprise of fantasy and the discovery of new characters – so I’ve grown to love it.
It’s strange though, when you’re making a film you get in these weird situations where you’re like ‘I never thought I’d make a fantasy movie’ or even with Monsters University, which is kind of a sports movie, but filmmaking can lead to you making things you never thought you would.
UNILAD: All Pixar films are great but some Pixar films are truly special, they go on to be considered classics. I believe Onward is one of those films, but what do you want the legacy of Onward to be?
Dan Scanlon: Well first of all thank you for saying that, it means a lot. I would love that when people see it, like you, they’re reminded of someone who went above and beyond to become who they are today and that they thank that person if they’re still around, and that if they’re not, they go on to try and be that person for someone else.
That would be such a wonderful thing and that would make me feel like I made a film that changed someone’s life in a positive way.
UNILAD: You got your start at Pixar working on a prequel to Monsters Inc, the story of Onward seems one and done to me, but would you be open to returning to the world of Onward?
Dan Scanlon: In Onward? At this point I’ve given it no real thought. I do love the world though, and we’re going to bring out a Quests of Yore game which is a role-playing game like Barley’s playing.
We also spent time with the team working on the world and the magic and, as I said, I’m a comic book nerd so I’m working on a comic that’s a prequel to Onward, and it’s set 800 years before the film and it’s the story of Manticore and her quest. The fun of it though is despite not being set in the modern day it still has the sense of humour of Onward, and it was a real joy to write.
Onward is in cinemas now.