MARK ANDREWS’S MISSION, if he chose to accept it, was clear: Assume the helm of Pixar’s “Brave” and bring the finished film into port within a mere 18 months — in time for its scheduled June 2012 release date. And one of his first assignments involved a snow job.
Brenda Chapman — the first woman to direct a Pixar film — had birthed the Scotland-set film based on her own mother-daughter experiences. But as the end of 2010 approached, the Pixar brain-trust expressed “creative differences” with Chapman, and a new director was summoned. (For the record, this was no Julie Taymor-like ouster, even though both the former “Spider-Man”-musical director and Chapman have ties to “Lion King” productions; Chapman is still employed by Pixar.)
Enter Andrews, who quickly decided that this cinematic Scotland needed to be a verdant green again.
“Most of the movie was going to be in a snow-covered Scotland ... ,” Andrews tells Comic Riffs on the eve of the opening of “Brave” — the 13th Pixar film, and the first to feature a lead heroine in empowered teen Princess Merida. The snow “was a big element that [required] years of research and development. ... When I got on board, I cut that out of the film. I didn’t want magic that was that overt and happened for no reason. ...
“It was kind of unfair, but this was what was needed — to go in and kill the babies that people were clutching onto because of the amount of work. But you make your decisions based on the story.”
Working swiftly and decisively, Andrews — whose resume includes “Ratatouille,” ”The Incredibles,” “Iron Giant” and 2002’s live-action “Spider-Man” — indeed homed in on putting everything in service to the story, as the Pixar mantra goes.
“I had to sift quickly,” Andrews, a 43-year-old Los Angeles native and Cal Arts grad, tells Comic Riffs. “Andrew [Stanton] likes to say: ‘Fail as fast as you can and fail often’ — so you figure out what you need to do to get it right. I knew I had no time.”
Andrews — the live-wire father of a 12-year-old daughter and three younger boys — brought his own sense of how to handle “Brave’s” central parent-child relationship. He also role-played with producer Katherine Sarafian to try to fix a few crucial “missing pieces.” And ultimately, he helped bring into harbor a film that impressed even his mentor.
Comic Riffs caught up with Andrews the Avowed Kilt-Wearing Caledophile (nickname: “Mandrews”!) to talk about just what he brought to the much-anticipated “Brave” — Pixar’s first historic film, as well as its first true “fairy tale”:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So with “Brave” finally opening after its six-year saga, does this week feel surreal?
MARK ANDREWS: Every week feels surreal. But that’s just my usual state of mind. [Laughs]
MC: So just how recently did you put your finishing touches on the film?
MA: Last time I did that was five weeks ago, during the mix. I saw a couple of things that shouldn’t have been there. I needed to put in this shot, or [take out] that shot.
MC: Can you tell us about any specific shots that got changed at the 11th hour?
MA: There’s a shot at the end where the lords are headed out to sea, at the harbor. ... Young Macintosh is supposed to be pointing in this cocky way — but he wasn’t pointing in a cocky way. ... I had sent a note on that earlier, but [the change hadn’t been made]. ... I saw it and said: What’s wrong with this shot?! It was totally incorrect and not in character.
MC: What’s the saying? A film is never finished —
MA: — It’s just released. Yep!
MC: Since “Brave” features teen Merida and her little triplet brothers, did you road-test the film on your kids?
MA: No. Not at all. Kids aren’t a good road test. ... The hardest test to pass is with [Pixar honchos/filmmakers] John Lasseter and Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird — and they loved it.
MC: Do you consider Brad Bird [“The Incredibles”] a sort-of mentor?
MA: He’s a full-on mentor. A full-blown mentor. We speak the same [professional] language. I’ve been working with him since 1997 and “Iron Giant.” ... So to get his kudos at the end of [making “Brave”] and for him to say he’s impressed — well, I’m good to go.
MC: I’m curious — at what point did you think Pixar might be your professional true-North as an animator?
MA: I never did. I didn’t give a rat’s a-- where I worked. I just wanted to work and was doing storyboard and working for the Chuck Jones studio for peanuts. Just trying to keep from starving to death. [A professional connection led] to working on a new “Jonny Quest” for Hanna-Barbera. I did five episodes of that show and it was awesome — the greatest learning experience. ... I was testing all this stuff and developed my approach -- a style that’s more of a live-action approach.
MC: One great scene in the film is the intercut split-conversation between Merida and her mom [Queen Elinor]. I understand you made that decision once you came on as director. Can you speak to that decision, in terms of storytelling?
MA: We had this conversation [between mom and daughter] that we created as this cornerstone. We had to address Merida — no matter how hard we tried, Merida was coming across as a bratty teenager. And Elinor, no matter how hard we tried, was coming across as Mommie Dearest ... we needed to soften her up. ... These are “real” people, they love each other — they’re just not listening to each other. That’s the idea of that scene. We [asked]: What if they did talk to each other? ... So we intercut their [monologues] and we’re like, it’s fantastic! Everybody’s eyes lit up. ...
And when [Merida and Elinor] encounter each other later, there’s that awkward silence that you know is the opportunity for each to speak [but] neither can take it. How can they let their guard down? It was organic and it was real and it was relatable.
[THE RIFFS INTERVIEW: Pixar’s “Up co-director BOB PETERSON]
MC: Bob Peterson has said that on “Finding Nemo,” they made significant cuts that meant being willing to lose many months of work and “footage.” What significant changes did you have to make once you came aboard “Brave”?
MA: Most of the movie was going to be in a snow-covered Scotland. When the [magic] spell happened, the whole world changed and snow dropped. It was a big element that [required] years of research and development. ... When I got on board, I cut that out of the film. I didn’t want magic that was that overt and happened for no reason.
I could have that objectivity once I got on. ... It was kind of unfair, but this was what was needed — to go in and kill the babies that people were clutching onto because of the amount of work. But you make your decisions based on the story. The snow didn’t do anything for the story -- it was summer and started snowing. ...
[Early-scene spoiler alert] I also changed it and [decided] to start with Merida as a real child. I said: Let’s also start with [her father King] Fergus encountering the bear and [Merida] encountering the will o’ the wisps and that’s when she gets her bow and falls in love with archery. That way we’re hitting five things. Economically, you get all that in one scene and that’s elegant, like a [math formula] — E = MC[squared]. So now I have to lose the scenes with the snow. They can’t be picnicking in the summer snow!
[THE RIFFS INTERVIEW:Oscar-winning MICHAEL ARNDT, on the art of crafting “Toy Story 3”]
MC: Michael Arndt mentioned that in writing “Toy Story 3,” he attributed the story to Pixar’s “group genius” — the collective brilliance of the room. Do you feel the same way in making “Brave”?
MA: No, it was just me. [Laughs.] Just kidding. It was that kind of collaboration — it’s not about any one person. My job as director is to recognize the answers. The solutions are like assists. Someone will go: “Why don’t they [Merida and mom] just talk to each other?” — then that will cue something.
Coming in, I then brought more of an objective line of thinking -- to say, “Well, why not?” That happens all the time. ... Some directors don’t like working in a group -- the project can spin off if ideas aren’t helping. But I like it. You have to know how to control your room. And how to be able to say: “That idea is totally stupid and invalid.” That’s what you’ve got to do. I see it happening in the brain trust. ... The director has to sift through it and find the answers and be able to say: “I don’t want to do what John [Lasseter] says, or Andrew [Stanton’s] way to do it. They’re all fallible. And they’re all just trying to help.
MC: Is that what it was like when you worked with and for Brad Bird?
MA: Brad was great about that. He called me a force of a nature because I would come up with idea after idea after idea after idea.
MC: So amid everything else, “Brave” was created on a different animation system for Pixar. What can you tell us about Presto?
MA: Pixar was using the same animation program for 25 years. That’s like having a Model-T now with new headlights and a drive-train. All these pieces and pipes sticking out.
MC: Sounds like something built by Terry Gilliam —
MA: — It was like a Terry Gilliam contraption. Like the craziest Terry Gilliam machine. It worked for everything — layout and rigging and lighting. It was time to build a new animation software system. But you can’t just stop making movies to do that. So you do it in pieces.
MC: So “Brave” was the first Pixar film made using Presto?
MA: Yes, and that added more length of time onto the project — to give us more time to breathe and get this system up. It’s still full of bugs. Everyone says Presto 2.1 will be better and 3.6 will be even better than that. But [with “Brave”], it started the process.
[THE RIFFS INTERVIEW: Irish animator TOMM MOORE, on making “Secret of Kells”]
MC: Tomm Moore talks about, in [his Oscar-nominated film] “Secret of Kells,” the history imbued in many of the animated objects. You seem to have that same historical richness with “Brave.”
MA: Absolutely — we could have very easily not gone to Scotland and just created a fantasy Scotland. And say: What does it matter at the end of the day? But I would argue that it does matter. A friend said a long time ago: The director is the expert on the subject — and he’d better be. ... My ancestry is part Scottish, and I focus on Scottish history in my free time. ... It’s a rich culture that you can take from, so “Brave” has that feeling of authenticity and not just of the superficial. ... Like with the Standing Stones and why they’re so magical. Or those Will o’ the Wisps. ... They come out of pieces of Scottish legend and the clans and the symbols. They’re ripped off -- or inspired by, I should say [laughs] -- by Celtic myth. ... There’s something about Scotland that’s mystifying and enchanting and awe-inspiring. That’s why Scotland is a character [in “Brave”]. So you have a richer, deeper experience.
[HAYAO MIYAZAKI: John Lasseter celebrates the legendary filmmaker at Comic-Con]
MC: Hayao Miyazaki says he knows of no simple and quick way to get through the process of “story” — do you find that to be true?
MA: Yes — here, I had to sift quickly. Andrew [Stanton] likes to say: “Fail as fast as you can and fail often” — so you figure out what you need to do to get it right. I knew I had no time. ... You have to be decisive. I say that story is the alchemy of turning lead into gold. Once you get to gold, some people say: “We can just make it gold every time.” But that’s not going to work. You have to start from scratch every damn time.
MC: There seems to be a perception that the film’s “feeling” side is all about Brenda [Chapman], who has said that “Scotland is like a woman.” And that all the motion and fight scenes and pace are somehow attributable to you, as a “man of action.” Can you speak to that oversimplification -- and how did you help bring “heart” to this film yourself?
MA: They’re easy-to-digest terms [feeling and action]. I mean to me, something I love about the story is this parent-child relationship. ... You have a very particular child on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. I wanted to focus on that transformation and the duality ... to characters in every scene. There’s a duality to everything, just as in life. Teenagers embody that duality. ...
We also had to sacrifice ... and own up to these mistakes. ... The characters had to be important in how they were serving the story. ...
When I was brought on, the ideas were already beautiful. I didn’t change the bones of it at all. But there were a lot of details that weren’t working, honestly. ... I had to be objective and kill all the bad ideas. ... I had to treat this as an adaptation, just like on “John Carter” [directed by Andrew Stanton] — where I decided which source material was useless. ... You need to have that kind of clarity. ... You have to ask the right questions. ...
I had 18 months — a time period where we were moving as fast as we could. And saying no when it didn’t feel right. And going from your gut and [beyond] the intellectual spot, where anybody can talk you out of anything. You need to get to that right answer.
MC: Lastly — will you wear a kilt to the Oscars?
MA [laughs]: I’m in trouble if i don’t wear a kilt to the Oscars.
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