'ParaNorman' activity: Sam Fell and Chris Butler summon stop-motion scares in animated adventure
Anti-bullying propagandists are peddling their wares in the Hollywood mainstream. First, The Amazing Spider-Man (The Early Years, in angst-ridden high school) settled the hash of a brutish youth throwing his weight around the playground. Now, Good Samaritan affirmative action hits the animation front with the mid-August release ParaNorman, the first film to track bullying back to the Salem witch trials.
Salem is not mentioned per se. Its stand-in goes by the name of Blithe Hollow, which vaguely evokes an Ichabod Crane regionalism as well. For 300 years, guilt-ridden ghosts have hovered over this New England hamlet—the lingering, leaden after-effect of having passed judgment on those of contrary behavior and strung them up.
They have the eyes and ears of the Norman in ParaNorman, a lad of 11 who not only sees dead people but also converses with them. This unique “gift” is presented as the natural consequence of having watched too many horror films at an impressionable age. It allows him to chat up his late granny, still crabbing on the coach, in addition to the septet of zombies swirling about. The present-day denizens of Blithe Hollow are about to pay the price of the sins of their great-great-grandfathers unless Norman can pull a paranormal rabbit out of his hat in time to avert the impending disaster.
This flight of frightening fancy marinated 16 years in the mind of Chris Butler, who finally wrote it down and, with Sam Fell, directed it for Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies that did the Oscar-contending Coraline, also a 3D stop-motion opus.
“I haven’t been methodically writing every day,” Butler quickly notes. “That would be just awful. When I originally got the idea, I started making little doodles and notes in a notebook, and I always thought it was good enough to keep going back to. I wrote the first draft properly in 2008, but basically I had to write up the first draft while I was still working on Coraline, so I moved to Portland just over six years ago.”
Butler is still there, Portland being the home base for LAIKA, but Fell recently returned to London. These days, despite the 3,000-plus miles of separation, they’re “Together Again!” for purposes of promotional conference calls. Both are Brits, of comparable age (Fell is 46, Butler is 38) and spent a good portion of their respective boyhoods watching the same horror schlock. Obviously, none of that went to waste.
Inevitably, they would cross paths. “It’s the nature of animation that you can actually work on the same film and never meet each other,” Fell points out. “Some of the productions go on and on and have many changes of staff over the years. Chris was storyboarding on The Tale of Despereaux until he left to do Coraline, and then I came along and directed the Despereaux picture. We never met till ParaNorman.”
LAIKA’s Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight allowed Fell his pick of projects, and he gravitated toward Butler’s script. “Most of it was a gut feeling,” he admits. “It felt very authentic to me. This is a very shallow thing to say, I know, but I actually felt it was just about the coolest one. I have a nine-year-old boy, and I just knew that he would find this attractive and exciting. Another thing: Chris, early on, was pitching it as ‘John Carpenter meets John Hughes’—two very cool references, I must say.”
Their compatibility came easily, according to Butler. “I think the reason it worked so well with us was that, at the start, we were both very clear about what the movie should be, and I think that’s partly because the script was pretty clear. And the John Carpenter/John Hughes thing was easy to get a hook into. We both fully embraced that from the beginning, so we were making the same movie every step of the way.
“One thing I never wanted it to do was have it become a parody or a pastiche. It references a certain time in moviemaking for both kids’ films and horror films, but it’s still a contemporary movie. Part of it is structure, but it had its own thing to say.”
Alfred Hitchcock entered movies a storyboard pioneer, sketching every shot he wanted before he filmed it, so he is something of a folk hero for Butler. “One of the things I did when I found out that ParaNorman was moving forward was to get all the story artists who were staying at the studio who I’d just worked with on Coraline, put them in a room and force them to watch a slew of Hitchcock movies.”
Fell seconds that: “Our thing is to definitely plan everything ahead. Chris and I worked really closely together, just the two of us and a few storyboard artists. We storyboarded every shot in the entire film, so when that army of people arrived, we looked like we knew what we were doing. We didn’t want to be trying to figure out what each other thought of things. We had already had all of those discussions.
“Definitely, that storyboarding thing is so helpful, especially with two directors. You know you can try things in a more unpressured environment. You can make mistakes or infiltrate each other’s ways. One might want to do it all in a wide shot, and the other thinks it should be close-ups. You can try these different ways out. We’re both very thorough in our ways. Neither of us likes leaving something incomplete. We like to hammer stuff out. I think both of us like to get down to the nitty-gritty of things, like really talking about story and camera, why a certain camera angle or a certain lens serves the story or its character better than another.”
Co-directing turned out to be the upshot of not having a head of story on the job, in Butler’s personal view. “We did look for someone to supervise the whole storyboard. It would have been me, but obviously I was pretty busy elsewhere. What we found that we were already doing—both of us—was storyboarding sequences early on ourselves. Actually, a lot of the stuff that we did ended up directly in the movie. The two of us ended up being the head of story with the crew that we had, and they actually worked incredibly well. It’s quite uncommon.”
No nuns went blind during the arduous detail work on ParaNorman. Fell and Butler had 320 to 330 artisans toiling under them for two-and-a-half years of filming.
Adding a third dimension to the already complicated process of stop-motion filmmaking might seem, to some, a hotter form of hell. It did, initially, to Butler. “I always thought that when I was working on Coraline because it was so new then,” he readily confesses. “And since I had a story, I started to panic that I’d have to relearn everything I knew about filmmaking and composition and cutting. They’re all parameters that you have to adhere to, but I think the important thing that I learned on Coraline—which we carried through to ParaNorman—was that you make the best movie possible, whether it’s 3D or 2D. The 3D is just the icing on the cake.
“This whole thing, for me, has been a gift. I never thought when I first started writing this that someone would actually say ‘Yes’ to it and allow me to make it, allow me to write and even—shock! horror!—get up and direct it with Sam. That, to me, was like a pipe dream. It was like something that just doesn’t happen, actually. The moment I walked into Travis’ office and he said, ‘Yeah, we want to make this movie,’ that to me was a dream come true.” Did he hear the Hallelujah Chorus? “No. Apparently, I just sat there, staring at him, and he said, ‘Well?’ And I believe I must have said, ‘Okay.’”
The last thing Butler wrote for the film was its punny (but perfect) title. “I was stuck for a title for a long time,” he concedes. “I kept calling it The Zombie Movie. There were a lot of incarnations of Norman. He was Kevin Jackson at one point. There were all kinds of names. Then, ParaNorman—Norman—came to me in a flash.”
That character he traced from his own life rather than (as has been suggested) The Sixth Sense. “I definitely did not fit in as a child. A lot of Norman’s approach to getting through daily life was definitely my approach—just keep your head down, get on with it and do what you can do. What I didn’t want to do with the main character was turn him into Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense—this angst-ridden little kid who’s having a miserable, miserable time. What I wanted from Norman was a kid who—yeah, his life sucks, but his way of dealing with it is to just get on with it. Also, he has a much better time talking to ghosts than he does talking to living people.”
Kodi Smit-McPhee, who demonstrated his acting chops playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road, turned out to have the light, layered touch for Norman and heads a surprising, if not downright eclectic, cast that includes his buds Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick and Casey Affleck and, among the adult characters, Elaine Stritch, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Bernard Hill and Tempestt Bledsoe.
“Our approach from the start was not to necessarily go the usual route for our animated movies,” Butler says. “Sometimes I feel animation takes very much one kind of path, which is toward contemporary comedians. That’s great, but we wanted to cast the net a little wider for those central kids. We approached it like some kind of symphony thing. Because there is a lot of rapid-fire dialogue, we would listen to clips of actors played right next to each other or even over each other to see how they would work. Then we cast according to how lyrically they worked together.”
The casting director for TV’s “Freaks and Geeks,” Allison Jones, sifted through the candidates with the two directors. “It took a few months because it’s a big cast,” recalls Fell. “It’s almost an ensemble piece. As we went on, we realized that we had to balance the group of voices. It was not just a matter of finding great voices for each character. We had that group of kids in the van, and that in itself was a little chorus thing, and you really wanted those voices to play off each other well. With the comedy, we didn’t bother so much, but we were aiming for a kind of naturalism and spontaneity in the performances. There’s a naturalism in our whole approach to the movie—in the script, in the dialogue, in our whole way of designing the film.”
Fell figured the film’s target market starts at six or seven and goes upwards, all the way through adult and family trade, so the fright effects are decidedly soft-pedaled.
“There are brave little kids out there who wouldn’t blink at the stuff we’re doing,” Butler allows, “but we nevertheless were definitely mindful of our audience. We didn’t want to make a pure horror movie and scare the pants off everyone. We never spend too long in an intense situation. It’s always broken with a joke or character humor, so there’s definitely that nice little Ping-Pong between the two. The film has many levels, and, in many ways, it uses the horror genre to tell a deeper story.”
It’s this deeper story—slipped in between the rude jolts and giddy starts—that Butler is proudest of. “For me, an important part was always the tolerance message that I think is in there. I wanted it to address something that’s actually very current now—the bullying aspect of the story—but I didn’t want to get preachy with it. If kids can watch a movie like this and enjoy the scares and enjoy the roller-coaster ride, but come out of it maybe thinking a little bit differently about the person who sat next to them or the person who’s walking down the street—that would be perfect!”