Kissing Frogs: An Interview with directors Ron Clements and John Musker
by Chief Justice Michael Stailey
15 March 2010
It's somewhat fitting that Disney's first musical fairy tale since The Emperor's New Groove (2000) would be brought to life by the two men who gave birth to the studio's second golden age in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The dynamic duo of Ron Clements and John Musker have been making magic together since The Great Mouse Detective (1983) and once again captured lightning in a bottle with The Princess and the Frog. Chief Justice Michael Stailey was invited to sit in on a virtual roundtable with the writer/directors to discuss the film, the DVD/Blu-ray release, and the Disney Studios return to traditional feature animation.
Q: I understand you guys were let go from the studio, when the hand-drawn animation department was disbanded.
John Musker: We were banished, actually. [LAUGHTER] It was very fairy tale, yeah.
Ron Clements: We had reached the end of our contracts--
JM: No, we were fired.
RC: Well, yeah, but it was the end of our contract. But we actually ended up being gone for only about six months, although at the time that we left, we didn't really picture coming back.
JM: Disney had changed around us, somewhat, and the Disney we were leaving wasn't the Disney we had been raised up by. It was heading in this direction we weren't so crazy about.
RC: A lot of artists left. And it was very sad, although they never mentioned that they didn't actually get rid of all the animation desks after all. They were supposed to get rid of them, but there was actually a person in charge of that job, and he stashed enough desks to do a movie in a warehouse, because they --
JM: They expected a fairy tale ending --
RC: They just felt that it wasn't right, somehow. So we actually had the desks.
Q: Were you surprised to be invited back?
JM: I hadn't anticipated that they would put John Lasseter in charge here. And that was a whole new wrinkle, and suddenly, there was a possibility we could come back. And then when John called us and asked, "Hey, would you guys like to make another movie here?"
RC: We were close to actually signing a deal to do a movie at another studio.
JM: John just said, "There's all this stuff going on. I can't talk to you in any great length, but just trust me. Don't sign with somebody else." So we said to our lawyer, "We can't do this. Don't sign this piece of paper."
RC: And a few weeks after that, the announcement was made, and we were very happy about that.
JM: We had known John for a long time. I went to school with John. I was part of the same class in character animation, so he knew our work, and we knew him. He had talked to us in the past about coming to Pixar and doing a movie up there if we wanted to, but we never really thought we wanted to relocate up to San Francisco. So it was really exciting. It's been great working with John--he's the best executive producer. He's very much a cheerleader; he's a filmmaker, he's got great story ideas. He is very passionate about what he's doing and he's fun...he's a big kid.
RC: He's very courageous like that, and fearless...which is a good thing for someone in that position. So many people tend to operate out of fear a little bit, and I don't think the best results come from that. But he has the courage of his convictions and is not hesitant at all voicing his opinions of what we should do. He was always very positive.
JM: Yeah, even years ago, I was working on The Black Cauldron, very briefly. John had said that there was an artist named Tim Burton--he was an advocate for him, who was totally unknown at the time, but John loved his drawings and said I should hire him. So I think John's always had an eye for what I like and, I think, other people will like, and that was a typical case in point. He touted Tim, who had done all of these drawings of the lines of people waiting for the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He had sketchbooks full of the stuff, and it was great. But, unfortunately, that stuff never made it into the film.
RC: I didn't go to Cal Arts, but it was an interesting group. I was at Disney before the Cal Arts people came. I was very young when I started at Disney, but the group of John Musker, John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, were all these kids, all really, really interested in animation, and they came in at that time. It was an interesting atmosphere and interesting to see what was happening.
Q: Given the success you two have had in the past and that this was the first traditional animated feature in five years for Disney, did you feel a greater sense of pressure/expectation from John Lasseter or yourselves?
RC: John was always very supportive and never put any extra pressure on us. But yes, we felt a lot of pressure. We knew the stakes were high on this movie in all kinds of ways. We just tried not to think about that too much and attempted to make the best movie we possibly could.
Q: Having worked together for so many years, what is your collaborative process?
JM: We co-write the first draft of script initially, so that helps us. And usually, we have agreed on the outline of the story and the characters' names, and what they do, and all that. But then I start and I improvise on paper. I write multiple versions of the scenes. I just spit out all sorts of ideas and hand them to Ron, and he's really good at structure and editing, and he will take and pick and choose from that. But even though I may have written the scene four different ways, none of them may hit him as the right version. So he might write a completely new version. And he continues assembling the script, and I don't see anything he's doing. He sees everything I do, I don't see anything he does, until about six or eight weeks later, when the script is done. He hands me the completed, hundred-page script.
RC: It's a hundred-page script, but I get a lot more from him --
JM: I give him a four-hundred page script and he gives me a hundred-page script and then --
RC: And he doesn't really remember what he's written. So for him, it's like reading a brand new script.
JM: A lot of times, when I read it, I ask, "Why didn't you use my part for this?" And he'll say, "That is your part." [LAUGHTER] And I have to go back, "Oh, yeah, I wrote that. Okay." But basically, then, we rewrite and we go back and forth until it gets to where we want it. And then in the directing of the movie, some things we do together, some things we do separately. We look at all the storyboards together, and we work with the voice actors together, but we divide the movie into sequences, so when we work with the animators, we each work on different sequences. So, for instance, he directed Mama Odie's song, and I directed Dr. Facilier's song.
RC: Which indicates the differences in our personalities! [LAUGHTER]
JM: Basically, I'm far more sinister than he is. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, right!
Q: How cautious are you of sidestepping overused or cliched conventions to keep the film from becoming too predictable or formulaic?
RC: John and I really hadn't done a fairy tale since The Little Mermaid twenty years ago. It was interesting for us to reexamine this stuff from a different perspective. From the beginning, we thought of Tiana as someone who would never have been a big fan of Disney fairy tales. Our attempt was to take a lot of the archetypal elements of these films, (the Prince's loyal manservant, the fairy Godmother, the wishing star, death and resurrection, etc.) and add some kind of twist to them. But we were always thinking of this as a kind of retro film, trying to recapture a bit of what Disney magic means to us.
Q: The story was originally set in Chicago and the film planned for CG animation. How did the changes come about?
RC: A few years ago, Pixar had explored a version of The Frog Prince set in gangland Chicago. John Lasseter wanted to switch the locale to New Orleans, a city he loves, but the project was eventually shelved. Meanwhile, Disney had explored various versions of The Frog Prince going all the way back to the time of Beauty and the Beast. In 2006, Disney bought the rights to a book called The Frog Princess which was the fairy tale with a twist. When the Princess kissed the frog she turned into a frog as well. When John Lasseter was put in charge of Disney animation, in February 2006, he asked John and me to take a look at all the previous versions and come up with our own. We combined the New Orleans setting with the twist, added some new characters and pitched a take that became the basis for the movie.
Q: Can you talk a little about the characters and their evolution?
JM: In our basic approach to the character design, we wanted them to be round and volumetric. It's the way the Disney style began, but then, they became more stylized and flat. From Sleeping Beauty on, things got more graphic and flat. We were wanting to go back to an older style, where you really drew in a round shape, and there was a softness to the character.
RC: The touchstones really were The Lady and the Tramp, and also Bambi, somewhat. Lady and the Tramp for New Orleans, and Bambi for the Bayou. They utilize a very sophisticated style of animation, but it's not overly stylized. It's very dimensional, very appealing, and very easy to animate. Well, I wouldn't say it's easy to animate, but easier than some other styles, because of that little bit of a softer element to it.
JM: And in terms of the character design--I drew the first sketch of the Prince way back when, and I did my drawings based on Cary Grant. But then, as Randy Haycock took it over and we really invented this country of Maldonia, we got pictures of handsome men from many cultures around the world, and we brought women in to look at these pictures. And we asked them to flag the ones they found most handsome. And we even did that with the English-language voice of the Prince, Bruno Campos. We had a taste test. We had three finalists for the Prince's voice, and we didn't say who they were, just A, B and C. And we brought some women in and asked them, "Which voice engaged you most?" We wanted him to be both funny and a leading man, and dare I say it, sexy? Attractive. And the women chose Bruno. They all responded to him so much.
RC: And with Tiana, there were boards with pictures of African-American women, and we used them to evolve her design.
JM: We had a character design retreat. We actually went to Ojai, which is a city not far from here, very pretty city, with all the supervising animators, Mark Henn and Bruce Smith and all. We all got together and we put all the drawings of the characters together and different animators would take a drawing. Bruce might take a drawing of Tiana that Mark had done, and he would do some refinement. So there was a lot of cross-pollination, to try and fit the animator with the character, to find the artist that produced the appeal, the dimensionality that we were going for. It was not an instant process.
RC: John actually did the original designs of all the characters, which I still remember. For our original pitch of the movie to John Lasseter in March of 2006, we had drawings of all the characters that John had done, along with photographs of settings from New Orleans.
JM: Certainly, the actors affect the design. Anika Noni Rose, the English-language Tiana, she has these dimples that Mark Henn included. Keith David has this split in his teeth that Bruce Smith gave to Dr. Facilier, our villain. And I think Naveen was pretty much designed before we got Bruno, so that design didn't change too much with Bruno, they're both really handsome.
RC: The trick on this from the animation point-of-view, particularly for Mark Henn and for Randy Haycock, was to take the design of Tiana and Naveen as humans, and then express that character through a frog, who looks very different--
JM: Randy Haycock did an early exercise, and he animated Prince Naveen saying a line from Johnny Depp in Don Juan de Marco --"I give women pleasure" -- or something like that. And he did it very saucy, coming from this dreamboat, handsome guy. And then he did the same animation with Naveen as a frog, and tried to keep the same come-hither look on his face and the same attitude. So it was a great animation exercise for Randy. And Mike Surrey was the lead animator on Ray. Reggie, our tour guide we talked about before, he was a little different, and he was missing a few teeth. I mean, he joked about it a little bit. I'll try and tell his joke as Reggie: "People stare at us Cajuns, and think we're toothless and illiterate and we chase our sisters and we're crooked cops. That's not all true. I don't have a sister." [LAUGHTER] And that was his joke. He is a great guy, salt of the earth. But, he had no teeth, so when we did Ray, we said, "Why don't we give him missing teeth?" Also Randy Cartwright, one of our storyboarders, came up with the idea of making his rear end like a light bulb, even though real fireflies are shaped differently. But we like the idea, and that became a source of comedy.
RC: Part of the idea of Ray is that his appearance belies what's underneath--there's really a beautiful soul there. And that comes through--from our screenings, he's been one of the most popular characters in the movie. We think of him as the heart of the movie, and he embodies a lot of the themes of the film. And he's more than what he seems on first appearance.
JM: The first drawing I did of Ray, I drew him like [the musician] Dr. John. I gave him a little beret and a mustache and all these things. And that went away.
RC: He's a character that was not meant to be traditionally handsome, and I think even though he's not really handsome, there is an appeal to him. That's what we always wanted to get in him, a lot of appeal.
JM: Bill Schwab, a visual development artist who was a character designer, he took the drawings of Ray that had been done and he really refined them, so the design that you see is really a combination of Bill Schwab and Mike Surrey, who ultimately designed the character.
Q: The magical elements of this film are decidedly underplayed compared to past Disney fairy tales -- Mama Odie did not give our heroes a powerful talisman nor step in to save the day, while Dr. Facilier and his superiors were much less dark and foreboding than their villainous predecessors. How did you set about breaking these story elements?
RC: Mama Odie was based on Ava Kay Jones, an ordained Voodoo Priestess who we met with in New Orleans. She told us that even though magic is part of the Voodoo religion, when people come to someone like her for help, she advises them to never use magic to solve their problems. That almost always backfires. Rather they should look inside themselves for the answers. Dr. Facilier was based on the New Orleans "Bokur." People who've broken away from the religion, made pacts with dark Voodoo spirits, and sell their magic for money. In terms of scariness, I think Facilier was handled similarly to our other villains like Ursula, Jafar, and Hades. We like scary stuff but don't want to go too far. Some people thought Facilier was too scary. You think he's not scary enough? Maybe that means we got it about right.
JM: In earlier versions of our story Mama Odie gave our heroine some gris gris, herbal charms that got "energized" in the climax. We wound up rewriting that as our gris gris felt like a bit of a deus ex machina. We do think of Facilier and his shadows as scary and were not trying to soft pedal that. Some of his scariness we thought of as "funhouse" scary and not slasher film scary.
Q: The film truly captures the essence of New Orleans in a time period very few of us experienced first hand. How much research was involved?
JM: That was John's mandate when we first pitched the movie to him, he said, "You've got to go down to New Orleans and really see it for yourselves." Neither one of us had been to New Orleans. So we went down for a week and we saw as much as we could--we toured the cemeteries with a Voodoo priestess, we went to the Bayou with a Cajun tour guide named Reggie, who fed the alligators marshmallows. He was a character study. He said, "This is how you can tell the good tour guides from the bad--by how many fingers they got! I got all mine." And we based Ray, the firefly, on Reggie. We went to the Garden District. We went to Jazz Fest, which is a yearly festival of music and culture. If you go there, it's at a fairgrounds, and you hear every kind of music--there's a Zydeco stage, there's a Gospel tent, there's Dixieland swing and there's African music, all happening all around you. You're hearing all these waves of music, and we heard the lingo and the dialects, also. And we were trying to get all of that in the movie when we came back.
RC: We also went to the Ninth Ward. This was about eight months after Katrina, and the city was still trying to recover. The progress was very slow--
RC: Just very just devastating. I mean, I've never quite seen anything like what we saw down there.
JM: Certainly, we saw firsthand where the obsession with New Orleans came from, with both music and food. I mean, those are the two things that drive the city. It was John's idea that Tiana would want to open her own restaurant. I think he saw that as an interesting goal, a new goal, for a Princess--to not be chasing down a prince, but to actually have a career goal. It was interesting--
RC: And a modern thing.
JM: We pitched the idea that she'd be a waitress before we quite realized how obsessed with food people are down there. And they really are. They talk about food all the time.
Q: Randy Newman's score lends itself beautifully to both the location and time period. Was he the first composer you had in mind for the film, and at what point in the production did he begin developing the music?
RC: We pitched the idea for this movie to John Lasseter in March of 2006. We pitched it as a hand drawn film with an African American heroine, and as a musical with Randy Newman doing the music. John said yes to all those things. We thought of Randy almost immediately because his music is iconic, classic Americana, and we knew he spent his boyhood summers growing up in New Orleans. We met with Randy the following May, took him through the story, and talked about the placement of songs and styles of music. Randy took to the project immediately. He hadn't written many musicals before but he was a great collaborator and we were thrilled with his brilliant work.
JM: Randy was our first and only suggestion to John Lasseter to do the music. His feel for Americana, and in particular the music of New Orleans, a place he spent boyhood summers, made him an ideal choice. We "pitched" the movie to Randy. We had an idea where the songs might come in, in order to tell story points and convey emotions on our characters. We did "idea" storyboards full of visual ideas for Randy to react to. We wrote the script without songs but knowing where they might fall. Randy then wrote songs that in some cases absorbed some of our dialogue. Randy's writing of Facilier's song, in which he gave him several sardonic asides, influenced us to try and put that quality and tone into his other non musical scenes as well. He wrote the songs over the course of a year and a half as we animated the movie, although we would always animate the song after he had written and recorded it (in animation voices are recorded before animation, not dubbed in later.) Likewise with the music we animate after the recordings and try and exploit things we hear in the music track.
Q: With he world as cynical as it is today, do you think children will continue to embrace cinematic fairy tales as much as we've seen in generations past?
JM: That's a good question.
RC: Yeah, that's the big question. We're realizing that there are a lot of children who have never seen a movie like this in a theater. They've seen videos and DVDs, but--
RC: But kids have really embraced it. It seems like in our previews, from the cards that both the kids and the parents filled out, they just thought about the story and the characters.
JM: When I was a kid, I was fascinated by flip books, where you take the little drawings and you flip the pages. And there's something about when you flip the drawings and they come to life, it's like a magic trick that is just primal.
Q: How different was your experience with this project under the new Disney regime?
JM: I think people feel the future is more open-ended now. And that it's a return to Disney--even "Disney" itself was a bad word, a few years ago. It's almost like, if you were doing something that smacked of being Disney, that was wrong, don't do that. John basically said, "I love Disney, I love Disneyland, I grew up with them--why would we not be doing that?" But he's a creative guy who is in charge, and arguably, you could say that that hasn't happened since Walt Disney.
RC: I think so. And he really cares so much about the movies, I think, and that just comes through. He wants everything to be as strong as it possibly can. He pushes, because he has so much enthusiasm, and it's very inspiring for the artists. I think people want to do their best work and want to work in an opportunity where they feel like they can.
JM: John's very much a collaborator, he's not a dictator.
RC: We've worked, obviously, thirty-some years, and we've worked for some very good people, and some people that we didn't like that much. But I would have to say with John, that you couldn't work for anyone better. He's the best possible person I could picture in a position like that.
Be sure to read Michael's Blu-ray review of The Princess and the Frog.