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Berlin: Director Dan Scanlon Discusses Pixar’s ‘Onward,’ and His Michigan Inspiration

Dan Scanlon (L) and US producer
RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Pixar’s “Onward” saw its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, talked to the press at the festival about the film, which follows brother elves on a magical quest to reconnect with their late father. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the brothers who travel through a world in which mythical creatures inhabit a world that’s just like early 21st century America, complete with the customized van the brothers travel in. Pic gets its North American release March 5.

Scanlon and Rae previously paired on 2013’s “Monsters University.”

“Onward’s” story was inspired by Scanlon’s own experience of longing to connect with his own dad, who died when he was just a year old. The suburb where young elf siblings Ian and Barley live was initially modeled on his hometown of Clawson, Michigan, but it quickly became clear that the town was too picturesque, so the team instead took inspiration from grittier L.A. “It was too quaint. We needed something sprawling,” laughed Scanlon.

In the film, magic is used as a kind of metaphor for potential, said Rae, and once magic was involved, it became clear that the story unfolded in a fantasy world. Nevertheless, “we wanted it to be modern, so we could take all those fantasy characters and then turn them on their head a little bit, so unicorns weren’t special and rare and gorgeous, they were eating trash out of trash cans,” she explained.

Dan said that as a director, his job is to orchestrate their huge team of over 300 filmmakers and find the emotional core and direction of the film.

“As a director, your job is to inspire people, to encourage people, but also to get out of the way at times and really let them do what they do well. They’ll come up with things you couldn’t dream up,” he said.

When directing voices, “the only trick is that the actors usually aren’t in the room together, so your job is to add context,” he said. “Don’t try to over-explain. Keep it simple.”