‘Onward’ Director Dan Scanlon Subverts Fantasy Tropes, Channels Pain Into Art With His “Love Letter To Siblings”

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Matt Grobar
·10 min read
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With Onward, writer/director Dan Scanlon made magic out of a profound personal experience, using his understanding of loss as a foundation, from which he’d craft a quest story like none other.

The second Disney/Pixar animated feature from Scanlon, following 2013’s Monsters University, centers on Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), elven brothers in search of a magical artifact that will bring their father back to life for a day.

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One of few films in 2020 experienced as intended, Onward enjoyed a splashly premiere in Berlin and debuted in theaters across the world in early March. Subsequently, with the enormous degree of loss brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Scanlon’s film would only become more timely—his notion of channeling pain into art, all the more resonant.

“A big part of the film is about, there’s things you want in life and people you want to be with, and really making the most of who you can be with right now, and what you have. That’s certainly something that we’re all going through at this moment, in this last year,” Scanlon tells Deadline. “But I think channeling your life into art is a wonderful way to connect with other people, too. Chances are, people have something like that, that they’re going through in their lives, and so hopefully, they’ll connect with the film.”

Below, the director digs into the roots of his Golden Globe-nominated film, and the visual ideas behind it, explaining why bringing the project to fruition was “a highlight” of his life.

DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the experiences that inspired Onward?

DAN SCANLON: My dad passed away when my brother and I were really young. I was a year old and my brother was three, so we don’t remember him at all, or have any memories of him. Luckily, we had my mom, who was wonderful, and told us lots of stories about him—and when I was a teenager, we got a tape from my aunt and uncle that had his voice on it, which was really cool, because we never thought we’d hear him speak. He only said “Hello” and “Goodbye,” which was a bummer, but at least it was an idea of who he was. So, the movie was really just a question of, who was he, and how are we like him? That was basically the inspiration behind the film.

DEADLINE: How did you come to conceive of the film as a work of fantasy?

SCANLON: I wanted to figure out a way to have the father come back for a day, and at one point, we talked about, “Maybe it’s some sort of machine that brings him back.” But the idea of magic came up because it just felt like a more beautiful way to do it. We thought, “Well, this could be a fantasy world then.” We wanted to keep it modern because it’s a very personal, modern story, and that led to the humor of, “Who’s to say a fantasy world can’t be modern?” And that led to this particular world.

Then, it was fun for us because my filmmaking partner, the producer Kori Rae and I weren’t big fantasy fans, and didn’t know a lot about the genre. So, it was fun to talk with other folks at Pixar who were really into it and knew a lot about the history of fantasy, and the tropes, then getting together with the story team and turning those on their ear, yet trying to make sure we weren’t just making a parody of fantasy, or making fun of it—that it was funny, but that it was real to us, and that it still felt like a real world. I mean, that’s the fun of Pixar, I think. You’ve got six years to really dig deep and make a world seem real.

DEADLINE: Were there specific influences behind Onward, visually or otherwise? I know the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was one source of inspiration, in shaping the story.

SCANLON: Yeah. The role-playing game part just felt like, “Oh, you could only do that in a modern fantasy quest story,” and the idea that all of that would have been real to them, that those games would have been based on their actual history, felt really fun. It felt like a specific-to-this-movie way to show the boys learn magic, and to teach the audience the tropes of a quest, so that we could change them a little bit.

That’s just one of those fun things that happens when you get a world that’s a different take on a genre. Then, I think we tried to stick as much as we could to general tropes because we were going to be changing them. Again, to avoid a sense of outright parody of a specific movie, it was more fun to say, “Well, in every fantasy movie there tends to be a tavern they go to, to get information. So, what would our take on a tavern be?” It would be like, “Oh, it’s this place that, over the years, has basically lost its edge, and now it’s like a Chuck E. Cheese.”

DEADLINE: How did you go about designing the films’ characters?

SCANLON: We looked at creature designs and things from the past, and mythology, and then tried to make sure that they were cartoony and fun, but that they still felt based in reality, because we were going to be dressing them in funny clothes and making them look different. Then, the limitations of animation are such that we’d never really done something, I don’t think, that had this many different types of, for example, walking styles—characters walking upright, characters walking with four legs, characters with slithering tentacles. And that had to make up al the crowds in the background, this variety of creatures. It gets complicated, so a lot of the work we did was making sure we felt like we had a wide variety, within reason of being able to produce it.

DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges in bringing Onward to life?

SCANLON: On Pixar films, as you can imagine, people build everything. Everything on the screen is created and designed, and colored and lit. So, it’s hard to pick just a few because there is such a collaborative process.

But it was helpful for us to have so many people at Pixar who love fantasy, who love role play, who can add that part to it—and then also, people brought their own personal stories about their siblings. The story is very much a love letter to siblings, and the people who go above and beyond to help you become who you are—and everybody at the studio had someone like that, or they were that someone, to someone else. So, that really helped us round out that part of the movie.

DEADLINE: Which sequences were the most difficult to crack?

SCANLON: I loved making the end of the movie, but earning it was hard. We had that ending from the very beginning. It was one of the first things that I pitched, and then you spend years trying to earn it. Some days, as you can imagine, you make changes to the story and suddenly, the ending doesn’t work anymore—and then you move things around and suddenly, it starts to work.

I think also just from an entertainment point of view, the big high school dragon battle took tons of work. Everyone in all departments met on a daily basis to work through it, because it’s got everything in it. I never really thought of myself as someone who would direct big action sequences, but man, was it fun with that group of people—and complicated. But I love the way it turned out.

DEADLINE: Onward was one of the few films debuting last year to enjoy traditional screenings, both at a festival and in theaters. I imagine you must have fond memories from those months in 2020 that preceded Covid lockdowns.

SCANLON: Absolutely. We were very lucky that we got to travel to a number of places around the world and share the film, and the Berlinale was an amazing experience, to share it there. You work so hard on these things, and to be able to sit in a theater with people and hear them laugh was incredibly special. I’m really lucky that we got that experience, and that other folks got to see it that way.

Then, lockdown was pretty much right on the heels of that. So, as we were traveling around the world, places were closing behind us. It’s the last movie I saw in the theater.

DEADLINE: How did your family respond when they saw your film, given the nature of the story you were telling?

SCANLON: My brother is nothing like Barley as a character. He’s not a big, messy dude who listens to metal; he’s like the exact opposite. He’s a really soft-spoken computer programmer, but like Barley, he was super supportive and encouraging of me, and has always almost been like a fan, or a parent.

So, he loved the movie. It’s in the teens now, how many times he’s watched it. He kept going back to theaters and watching it till the last minute. I think he got the Guinevere license plate for his car. And there’s a reason. He was always this guy for me. He was always making me feel like the things I made matter, and now, I think I broke him. [Laughs]

I mean, he’s so proud of it. The cool thing is, he was already a regular, somewhat emotionally open guy. But now, we can talk about our feelings and tell each other we love each other. It really changed all that, and then my mom was really moved by it, as well. Telling our story, of the three of us, it’s just been a highlight of my life, and it’s been nice to see online that other people have seen their families in this story.

DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Is an Onward sequel something that’s been discussed?

SCANLON: Kori Rae and I are in development at Pixar, working on ideas for a new movie. We’ll pitch those, and there’s stuff we’re very excited about.

As far as Onward, there is no plan for a sequel, but I was able to make kind of a prequel graphic novel about the Manticore, and I got to do it with Mariko Tamaki, who’s one of the best comic book writers around. I’m a big comic fan, so it was a dream come true.

And there’s also going to be a game. We actually made the “Quests of Yore” game with great detail of the world. It takes place in the time of the Manticore, and it’s super fun. So, as someone who wasn’t a fantasy fan coming into this, I’ve certainly become one. I’m geeking out over being able to expand this world in these different forms.

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