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Immersed in Movies: James Ford Murphy Talks Pixar ‘Lava’ Short

Immersed in Movies: James Ford Murphy Talks Pixar 'Lava' Short

The lovely Lava short, which was overlooked last year by the Academy, will soon be screening in front of Inside Out. It’s a soft and sweet love story between a lonely old volcano (patterned after Jackie Gleason, the bulldog from Feed the Kitty and Kuana Torres Kahele, who voices the character) and a young one (voiced by Napua Greig). It nicely captures the environment and spirit of Hawaii, wrapped around the song, “I Lava You,” and utilizing helicopter physics and speed. When I was recently up at Pixar, I chatted with director James Ford Murphy about his personal inspiration and storytelling choices.

Bill Desowitz: This really is such a good pairing with Inside Out: the co-mingling of joy and sadness in Hawaii.
James Ford Murphy: Absolutely. [Inside Out producer] Jonas Rivera was just saying how they dovetail with Ren Klyce doing sound design for both. It just comes from a place of love, genuine love. You hear Pete talk about Inside Out and it’s the same way. 
BD: It comes from personal experience: Your honeymoon in Hawaii, later observing your sister finally getting married. And connecting it with the life cycle of volcanoes.
JFM: Yeah, just the crazy cycle of life. I think it’s such a profound statement on those islands, not only how beautiful and how it’s considered Paradise but also the sadness of it too. There is a life and a death of a volcano and there’s an isolated beauty to those islands that are trapped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with nothing else around them that it seemed like such a powerful vehicle for something like this.

And the Hawaiian culture is so rich with tradition and inspiration. And we were very respectful in how we tried to integrate the actual environments with the traditions of the people and the traditions of the dance and costumes and instruments. And try to combine those components but not be obvious about it. And I thought what would be fun is the only thing they have together is the song that brings them together. It was the best use of that song for the storytelling. By the time he’s sung the chorus twice, she gets to see it.

BD: How hard was it to get the song right?
JFM: Pretty hard. I love writing songs and I wanted to keep the song simple and clear and not call attention to itself. It had a personality and sucked you in. And by having the right musicians for it they floated on the beauty of that song.
BD: The only precedent for this is Boundin,’  which went for the humor.
JFM: I love Boundin’ and it tied everything in so beautifully. But I wanted to do something that was really emotional. And what I love about music is that it cuts into our heart and our truest emotions faster and truer than most mediums. And we all have songs that take us to a place and I wanted to connect than in with the power of a love story. And it was such a leap of faith. I had this idea of a volcano’s face saying, “I lava you.” There’s a song in there but what’s the story? And as my sister was going through her wedding and I was studying the life cycle of the volcanoes, there it is! But you end up with so much information and like a chef, you wanna use the fewest ingredients possible. And while you have these giant characters, it’s still an intimate love story. I wanted to build the empathy for this volcano and play with time and two ships passing in the night and becoming a two-headed volcano sharing this waterfall.

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