Netflix Animation and Pearl Studio’s “Over the Moon,” longtime animator Glen Keane’s feature directing debut, lifts off on Oct. 23 after a journey that, in some ways, mirrored that of the film’s young heroine, Fei Fei.
Fei Fei, still mourning the death of her mother some years earlier, builds a rocket so she can go to the moon and ask the goddess Chang’e to help persuade her father not to remarry. Halfway through production, screenwriter Audrey Wells died after battling cancer and her script “was a love letter to her daughter and for her husband,” says“Over the Moon” producer Gennie Rim.
“When we first met her, she said, ‘All of my movies are about healing. And this is no different. This, if anything, is the most important job I’ve ever done.’ At the time, I didn’t understand exactly what that meant.” Rim says she and Keane didn’t know Wells was ill when they signed on in 2017. “I think about a few weeks before she passed [in 2018], she shared it with us.”
“Our team went though so many personal losses during the making of [“Over the Moon”],” says Keane, who lost his friend and fellow “Dear Basketball” filmmaker Kobe Bryant earlier this year. “Some films are much bigger than you are. This was one of those. We were given an opportunity to communicate such an important message of Audrey’s.”
Pearl Studio’s Peilin Chou offered the project to Wells after it was pitched in 2015 because of her work creating strong voices for female characters. “I remember she said, ‘You want me to write the story of a little girl who wants to build her own rocket ship to go to the moon? That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.’ She connected with it right away.”
Wells’ script connected with Keane and Rim, too, when Chou and Netflix’s Melissa Cobb shared it with them after meeting up at Annecy in 2017. Keane put aside another project to do it.
“It just felt like something that I had to do,” Keane says. “Sometimes something comes along and you just feel like this is what you were born for. And this is one of those projects.”
As an animator, Keane took a literal hands-on approach to directing “Over the Moon.” “I would say this was the opposite of hands-off,” he says. “I think pretty much every shot in the movie I drew over, because this was my way of communicating with the animators. I could describe the pose that I wanted [or] how a character would move.”
The Pearl Studio-Netflix co-production was truly an international one with artists working in China and Canada, and an all-Asian cast.
“Given the subject matter of the film, we really felt like [Pearl] was going to be such a wonderful resource for the film, to have people that really grew up in the culture, and live and breathe the culture, a part of creating this world and these characters,” Chou says. “And our wonderful partners at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver. Their crew is also really diverse and international as well.”
Being true to the Chinese culture was key for Keane, who had never been to China before making “Over the Moon.” “When I was actually visiting, it was an explosion to all my senses,” Keane says. “It was the way the light reflected off the textures of the walls, and it was the people, the importance of food.” Keane used that new knowledge in the film. “I ended up really wanting the beginning of the film to be everything that I smelled, saw, tasted, heard and felt there in this little water town of Wuzhen.”