This Friday, "ParaNorman," the new stop-motion marvel from Laika Studios — the same animation house that brought us the similarly enchanting "Coraline" — haunts theaters nationwide (and, yes, the 3D is well worth the extra charge, read our review here). The tale of a young boy who is gifted with the ability to see ghosts, "ParaNorman" a surprisingly heartfelt and wondrously animated delight, and anyone who loves zombies, animation, or really good movies is advised to check it out. We got a chance to chat with the film's directors, Sam Fell and Chris Butler, about the inspirations behind the film, working with composer Jon Brion, and why stop motion is inherently creepy. Minor spoilers follow.
Throughout the conversation, British directors Butler (a storyboard artist and animator who also co-wrote the script) and Fell (a veteran of such films as Aardman's "Flushed Away" and Universal's "Tale of Despereaux"), describe "ParaNorman" a number of different ways. At various points they call it "an episode of 'Scooby-Doo' directed by Sam Raimi," "John Carpenter meets John Hughes," and "something completely new." But they say that the history of stop motion lent itself to the project.
"A lot of that was to do with the history of stop motion as the medium for monsters and creepy stuff," Butler said. "The creepy side of it certainly has always been there – if you go back to Eastern Europe a hundred years ago, the stop motion stuff that was happening was literally like skeletons being wired together and animated." Fell chimed in: "That's what our puppets are!"
There was, of course, another huge influence on the movie. "Then there's the [Ray] Harryhausen thing, which was a big influence on anyone doing anything in stop motion," Butler said, referring to the effects pioneer whose wizardly work on movies like "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" and "Golden Voyage of Sinbad" cemented stop motion's place in the cinematic canon. "Once you've seen those skeletons in 'Jason and the Argonauts,' it's like you can't really think of zombies as anything else."
And there certainly is a creepiness to "ParaNorman," so much so that we wondered if there was any feedback from the studio about toning down the scares. The pair say absolutely no. While Fell admits that, "Animation does give you a little more leniency," Butler was adamant. "A lot of things in this movie is stuff you can see in kids TV shows every day of the week," Butler said. "We're telling a story of real human beings. Our approach to it was to tell a very real emotional story about a kid…we just happen to tell it through a zombie story."
In terms of reference points, the pair put the emphasis on movies from the late '70s and '80s. "We didn't want to do Universal horror or Hammer horror because it's already been done and that schlocky fifties horror is Tim Burton's game," Fell said. "So we were off looking at more eighties, Mario Bava/Dario Argento stuff." While an early idea to have the different ghosts presented via varying degrees of film stock (ghosts from the seventies would be very lurid-looking, older ghosts would be sepia-toned) was ultimately nixed, the emphasis of the eighties remained (Fell cites "Stand By Me," "The Goonies," and "The Breakfast Club" alongside its more horror influences like "the groovy camerawork of early Raimi"). The eighties thing worked, too, because, as Butler said, "The special effects in those movies was stop-mo, because there was no CGI at that time. It all seems to fit."
Another great fit was Jon Brion, the immensely talented composer and producer, who gave "ParaNorman" its signature sounds (the score is already on our iPhone). Butler said, in a way, Brion was there from the very beginning. "Right from the start, when I knew this was going to go ahead, I roughly storyboarded the first few pages of the script with bits of scratch dialogue and took the 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' soundtrack on top," Butler said. "And it stuck." Fell described Brion as "a mad scientist," explaining, "just like us, he's into old tech/new tech, and that's exactly what we're doing visually….he's got John Carpenter's Moog!" When our jaw hit the ground, Fell elaborated: "I don't know if it's the same one but it's exactly that model."
Part of what makes "ParaNorman" so special, too, is that it takes its time. It isn't always in the mad dash to get somewhere, and it doesn't strictly hedge to the narrative. This is unconventional for an animated film, something that the directors are quite proud about. "We wanted to take a real naturalistic approach," Butler said. He then went on to describe the process of most of the animation studios. "Part of the process is streamlining – what's the joke, what's the story point? It's a way of working that is sometimes less than cinematic," Butler said, adding that his approach was influenced by one of the greats. "If you look at what Miyazaki does at Studio Ghibli, it'll have shots that have nothing to do with the story but helps create a world."
Part of that world-creation was a joke that some less than tolerant folks will get ruffled by – the admission that one of the main characters is (gasp) gay! It's a moment that's really hilarious but also feels sort of important. You kind of want to cheer at the screen. "I wanted it from the start, absolutely," Butler said. "It seemed like the best bookend to that whole tolerance thing and to do it as a joke, a kind of throwaway thing, but something that has NEVER been done before. I think we're telling a story about intolerance, so you have to be brave about it." For a movie that flirts with horror, "ParaNorman" is nothing if not fearless.
"ParaNorman" opens on Friday, read our review here.