Following the success of Henry Selick’s wondrous Coraline in 2009, the team at Laika studios are back this week with their second animated feature, ParaNorman, another stop-motion marvel concerning the misadventure of a young outsider and his spooky connection to the land of the dead. Pitched as “John Hughes meets John Carpenter,” it’s written by Coraline and Corpse Bride animation artist Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler and Aardman alum Sam Fell, with voices by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick and John Goodman, and music by Jon Brion. We had a chance to chat with Fell and Butler this week ahead of the movie’s release, where they talked about five of their favorite movies — and how they influenced the creation and execution of ParaNorman.
The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985; 100% Tomatometer)
Sam Fell: We’ve compiled a joint list. These five are really about ParaNorman; they’re directly connected.
Chris Butler: Although, to be fair, ParaNorman is definitely a result of these movies that made me who I am — they’re the movies I grew up with, and that’s what ParaNorman is all about. So in a way they are influential on us.
Sam Fell: Complete faves, yeah. We’ve spent a lot of time together, even before we started the film — that’s how we knew we could work together, by comparing films that we liked and talking about them. And so, our first one’s The Breakfast Club by John Hughes. Obviously, in ParaNorman, we’re picking up on different high school stereotypes, and John Hughes touched on that so beautifully — especially in this movie. I think the most amazing thing about this film when you watch it is that it’s just pure character. There’s no spectacle or anything. When you watch it — you know, it was a mainstream, successful movie and everyone went to see it — but when you watch it, it’s almost like an art movie.
So ParaNorman is The Breakfast Club trapped in a zombie movie.
Chris Butler: Yeah. And that leads us into our second movie…
Chris Butler: We’re often talking about ParaNorman as being John Hughes meets John Carpenter, and that was intentional. It was to try and tell a spooky story that was almost… you know, we talked about it like being directed by Sam Raimi as well. It was to try and combine all those elements: All the angst of a movie set in high school, where your issues are more about, you know, being bullied by the kid who lives down the lane, but to couple that with a movie about the more fictional horrors of monsters. I like that play. They’re actually a really good marriage. I’ve talked about ParaNorman being the characters from The Breakfast Club dropped into the plot of The Fog — and The Fog, I would say, would be one of the other influential ones. Right from day one of writing, I think. I love that movie, as bad as it is…
Oh, I think it’s a great film. It tends to get overlooked, coming right after Halloween in the Carpenter filmography.
Chris Butler: Right. It is really good. I think when you watch it today — and I still happily watch it — a lot of the effects haven’t aged very well. And that’s part of its charm, I think. But what I think is really good about it is the mythology that it creates, and it’s mythology based on an historical event, like the best campfire stories. In fact, the movie starts with a story around a campfire. It’s just a perfect way to set up a horror mythology. That was a big influence. Rather than just making stuff up — or just having unmotivated ghouls and monsters — I wanted ParaNorman to kind of hinge on something, an event of history. And in ParaNorman‘s case, it’s fictional, but it very much takes its cues from the Salem witch trials. That creates instantly a very rich mythology to play in. So that was a big thing. The other thing [about The Fog] is that it’s a small town about to celebrate its anniversary and suddenly everything goes wrong — and yes, there are lots of ghoulish corpses walking around. I can’t say how much we owe to that movie, really. [Laughs]
Possible spoilers ahead.
The witch trial back-story also creates a lot of sympathy for the so-called “monsters.”
Chris Butler: Yeah, absolutely. And I thought that was important from day one. If you’re gonna do a zombie movie, you have to do something different. And I thought — I’m sure you’ll do a spoiler, ’cause I don’t want to ruin everything — but if you think about it, logically, if you brought back a host of puritans from the grave, they would be pretty outraged and terrified.
Sam Fell: Number three is George Washington by David Gordon Green.
Sam Fell: It’s an interesting choice, yeah. You wouldn’t necessarily associate it with this. But if you think about ParaNorman, one of the things that, from the beginning, we realized we wanted was to create a real place — a real sense of place — and really hold up a mirror to the contemporary world and not create a fantasy American town. We wanted to really believe in it. And it was already in the script that [the movie’s fictional town] Blithe Hollow would be rotten around the edges and not a perfect place. We love imperfection; it’s throughout — even the family in the story are imperfect. So what was really cool about watching George Washington — and looking at the photography by William Eggleston, by the way — was just how the kind of downbeat world was celebrated, though great cinematography and great photography. And in George Washington, a lot of it’s just about the sense of place. It really takes time developing a sense of place with great photography and sound. So in our first act, when we introduce Norman’s world and the town of Blithe Hollow, especially when he’s walking to school, we actually put shots in there that normally wouldn’t belong in an animated movie — not a Western animated movie. Just shots of odd corners of the world that are kind of run down. Not necessary, but they kind of create atmosphere. We love that kind of vibe. Early on, Chris had tried a little bit of [composer] Jon Brion’s music [as a temp score] — and it had that same kind of slightly off-beat vibe to it, and we wanted to have that vibe to this world at the beginning. Then when we introduce the fantasy elements, it’s a real contrast.
Is that how you ended up getting Jon Brion to compose the soundtrack?
Sam Fell: Yeah. It was slightly unexpected in a way. It was purely picking a piece of music that already existed that fit, really early on, and when we got the opportunity to sit around and talk about who we wanted to do it, that piece of music had stuck from day one. So we were like, “Well lets try and get him.” And he jumped at the chance. The music that he did for this movie is sublime. It’s beautiful.
Chris Butler: Okay the next one, and it’s a big one, is The Goonies. I think it’s almost self-explanatory. I remember seeing The Goonies as a kid and I think it’s that sense of — it is almost like a Scooby-Doo-esque adventure become real, and I think that’s what made it so appealing to me as a kid. It wasn’t that it was raucous and loud, it was that these kids were incredibly relatable. They were real kids. They came in all shapes and sizes, they were incredibly flawed, and very funny. They were rude, they bickered; they just felt so real, and they were a lot of fun because of that. So yeah, The Goonies — huge influence.
Sam Fell: Massive one, yeah.
Sam Fell: Number five is Evil Dead 2. Mostly for the camera and the editing in that thing. The sheer kind of bravura, mad energy it had, you know. Like, when we get into our second act and the story starts picking up, we just wanted that energy, and we looked a lot at the way Raimi used the camera in that movie. It was almost cartoonish.
Chris Butler: It’s outlandish.
Sam Fell: Outlandish, yeah. And the sound as well. The sound design in that film. It’s kind of interesting getting from George Washington to Evil Dead 2. [Both laugh] But that’s what we do.
Is it hard to replicate that Evil Dead 2-style of camerawork in a stop-motion film, or easier — because you can pause the camera and control it more?
Sam Fell: It’s a bit of both. The hard thing is to get that sense of spontaneity, you know, that kind of roughness — because it can be a bit too smooth if you program those moves in stop motion. But it was kind of good in this show because we just had a really good visual effects supervisor that enabled us to really fly that camera around more than you usually would. It’s not the usual kind of stop motion.
Chris Butler: Yeah. And you’re right, there are limitations physically. We have a couple of shots that are very Sam Raimi, where we’re speeding through the gravestones in the graveyard, and just being able to get the camera low enough to the ground was a huge ordeal. Logistically it just becomes almost an impossibility, but we wanted to keep those shots in so we found all kinds of tricks to help us through.
The thing about this film, like Coralline, is that it uses 3-D well; especially when people have gotten really blasé about it. Is it the stop-motion that makes the 3-D work?
Sam Fell: Yeah, its ’cause its tangible, very tactile, you know. There’s a magic to the fact that these puppets seem to be moving of their own accord, and watching them, I always wanted to reach in to the screen and grab one of those things. Now with 3-D it just creates another dimension; a window into this magic. So I just think it makes it even more tangible, and even more sort of uncanny. I think they really are made for each other, these two forms.
ParaNorman opens nationwide this week.