Tell someone the premise of the new film “ParaNorman” — Smart Young Boy. Soulful Eyes. Sees Dead People. — and the listener’s likely to say, “Ooh, like ‘The Sixth Sense.’ ” But tell the “ParaNorman” filmmakers that some people are making that comparison to the ’90s thriller, and they reply passionately in unison:
Co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell volley the charge swiftly, as though they’ve heard it before. As stop-motion animators, they are masters of the split-second, and they sense immediately this narrative needs to be righted. Butler, 38, and Fell, 46, are both British children of the ’70s and ’80s, so if fans are going to go back to the future to discover “ParaNorman’s” influential reference points, the directors are quick to point them toward the era of the cinematic DeLorean.
“It’s clearly not ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ” Butler says with crisp, lilting diction, sitting up alertly recently in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. “It’s John Hughes and John Carpenter, it’s ‘Jaws’ and ‘E.T.’ ”
Butler — who also wrote the animated comedy-thriller that opened Friday — was born in Kent and weaned heavily on such ’80s Hughes teen comedies as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” the latter of which he says is practically an art film in its story and craft.
“John Hughes used humor to tell something that’s emotionally true or has resonance,” Butler says. “It’s humor from the characters. And I always think of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’ One of the most heartbreaking monologues on film is John Candy talking about [his flaws] in the motel room. It’s shockingly powerful.”
Hughes was a master of depicting kids who, in the better roles he wrote, went beyond stereotypes and cliched comic tones. “This is like Norman,” says Butler, referring to his film’s spiky-haired 11-year-old who can indeed see — and communicate – with the dead people of the accursed Blithe Hollow, Mass. “He’s the smartest character, and we had to be careful for him not to come across as whiny or [a know-it-all]. . . . You have to believe in that central character. If you’re not along for the ride with him, then you’re not along for the ride.”
Because they are both mining their childhood and creating largely for children, Butler and Fell wanted their cinematic journey to be a joy ride, as well. The van full of “meddling” teens and tweens that careens down the zombie-infested hillside summons direct allusions to “Scooby-Doo.” And when a John Hughes joy ride is called upon as inspiration, only one film naturally comes to mind. “I think about ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ and how the ride you go on in that is just so fun,” Butler says. “Life just feels like it’s worth living.”
Butler and Fell contrast the action — in which the adult townsfolk turn to bullying the zombies — with the poignant plight of Norman, who is more comfortable conversing with monsters than his fellow middle-schoolers. The film’s message about bullying — rendered as strikingly in the dialogue as it is visually — is directly culled from Butler’s own adolescent horrors.
“It is a lot based on me, certainly my approach to not fitting in,” Butler says. “And I think that was important to Norman’s story, that he was not this mewling victim. He sees ghosts, but that’s not the issue. He’s very comfortable talking to ghosts; he’s very comfortable being different — he knows who he is. But he’s also acutely aware that no one else understands that, so his approach to getting through life is just to keep his head down and be quiet and keep himself to himself. What I like about that idea, and I think it probably rings true for a lot of kids, is that you’re not being a victim — you’re dealing with it the best way you can.”
This is how Butler survived, keeping to himself, and he says that’s why he’s such a devotee of films and games and comics — many of which were American, thus becoming all the more alluring as outsider culture. But Butler thinks of what he — and perhaps Norman — might not experience.
“The shame of it is, you’re missing out on a lot, because you never realize it at the time, but there are so many of you out there who don’t fit in,” says Butler, tugging at his flat cap. “They aren’t outwardly themselves, because they think they’re going to be punished for it. And I thought that was something really worth saying in the movie — to have that kind of complexity to it.”
It was in Oregon, in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, that Butler found a place he fit in: at the Laika studio, where, he says, “we’re all geeks!”
Butler was first hired by Laika for a short stint — to work as a story supervisor on its first stop-motion feature film, the Oscar-nominated “Coraline” based on the Neil Gaiman book. After Butler presented his own script — one that feels like the perfect bookend to the empowered-girl-in-the-supernatural-world “Coraline” (also in stop-motion) — his time at Laika morphed into six years and counting.
And Laika, whose president is animator Travis Knight, son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight (who bought the studio about a decade ago), continues to grow and innovate. Fell emphasizes that “ParaNorman” features innovative use of 3-D photo copiers, allowing the filmmakers to readily create millions of intricate facial expressions. By changing the possibilities of old-fashioned stop-motion thanks to computers, Laika is, in fact, going back to the future.
Then again, perhaps it only makes sense that Butler and Fell ended up at Laika. Founded by animator Will Vinton — whose classic stop-motion commercials include the California Raisins — the studio was born, like so much else influential to the filmmakers, in the ’80s.