Disney and imagination go hand in hand, but Jennifer Lee probably never imagined she'd be bringing the next animated Disney classic to the silver screen for her first directing gig.
Alas, that's exactly where the "Wreck-It Ralph" writer finds herself: directing "Frozen" – a musical, comedy, adventure set in a winter wonderland filled with a magical snowman, head-strong reindeer, mystical trolls, and Kristen Bell. Fortunately, Lee has Disney veteran Chris Buck ("Surfs Up," "Tarzan") as her co-director.
And fortunately for us, we had the opportunity to catch up with the dynamic duo to find out more about Disney's "next classic," which opens November 27, 2013.
[Related: 'Frozen' Character Profiles and Biographies]
So, talk to me, we’re doing the next great Disney adventure, Frozen. What do fans need to know?
Chris Buck: It's a big, epic, comedy. It's set in a Scandinavian type environment. Big adventure; it really is; it's a lot bigger than I thought this movie was going to be in scope and size. Yeah, I mean it’s coming along very well and we’re excited to soon share it with everyone.
Is there more to story that you can share?
Jennifer Lee: We have two very strong main female characters, Anna and Elsa who are sisters, one of them, Anna, is sort of the ordinary hero. She does not have special powers. She’s very funny, perky, weird in good way, and fearless. And then she has an older sister who has a special power, so we have a big super hero sister who is in trouble and has caused some problems. So, it’s very much a film about the ordinary hero who can do extraordinary things, and that’s Anna, and the power of family.
CB: And the family aspect will work for everyone: brothers, sisters, whatever. So, I think we found that emotional connection for the story a while ago and it's hung on and it has become the real lynchpin for most of the story.
Is that what makes it different from the archetypal Disney film?
JL: There's a lot of classic tradition that we don’t want to step on, that we really enjoy about Disney, but we also wanted to make some very strong female characters, which we’ve done, and who we think hopefully girls will really relate to, and not just sisters. They are different types and they have their own powers in a way, and even the one that doesn't have super powers.
I think also that the movie, the story itself is big and complex. It’s not just a simple tale. It’s one that starts with great characters you meet and relate to but they end up on a journey that gets bigger and bigger with a lot of surprises. So, I think we’ve really pushed the scope of the film bigger than anything we’ve done before.
Wow. That’s quite a statement. Where did the initial inspiration for the story come from?
CB: Well, our initial inspiration is from the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Snow Queen." But we took off from that. I think the only thing we really have left from that is the character that is a snow queen type of character, but we made it our own. So, it’s loosely inspired. And we’ve moved on and made it quite different, and for today’s audiences too.
JL: We wanted to do something that was timeless but timely. So, we’re really playing with scenes that we hope people really relate to in the modern day.
How much do the characters change once you get the actual cast involved?
JL: It depends. You always find that you’re influenced by the talent, for sure, but in some ways I find it more influences the animation. The actors are so inspiring that we work with, and the animators will watch them as they act, and you find it’s more about taking mannerisms. But the cast comes in at all different stages. So, in some cases we’ve got them fully rigged and designed, and others we take influence from the voice we hear and it sort of shapes the looks. Oaken was a character that the voice that we were using, we fell in love with, and it really informed the look at him. It made us laugh to think that he was this big guy with a sweet, quiet voice and little mannerisms. So, it’s a little fluid.
How did Kristen Bell influence Anna?
CB: Kristen, her personality is just so fun and so energetic. We had an Anna character but Kristen really came in and pushed it and made it even funnier and even sweeter I think, and more believable as a three-dimensional character. They all influence our characters in that way. They come and round out the characters a bit. We play to their strengths, so, they’ll come in for their first session and we really see how the material works. And then, Jen will go off and sort of write with the next pass of the movie before we get them in again for recording sessions. She'd write knowing exactly what's in their wheelhouse. What works best for them. So it’s kind of chicken and the egg kind of thing. We go back and forth a lot between each other.
JL: Olaf was very much a sketch until we had Josh Gad, and then we would just get in the room and play and we’d have a lot of fun and that’s really how we found his voice specifically and how he looks at the world. It really was working with Josh that did that.
Judging from the teaser trailer, you’ve done great work with that. It’s very entertaining. I had a laugh out loud moment, where Olaf's head disappears.
CB: The fun part of Olaf, we learned early on that his body parts can fall apart and we knew that we would want to take full advantage of that. You will see quite a bit more of that in the movie in a surprising way.
Speaking of Josh, there is a "Book of Mormon" connection, also with the original music. So, would you say there is some subversive humor?
CP: With Bobby [Robert] and Kristen Lopez doing the songs for us, Bobby certainly brings that edge. It's a bit surprising. I shouldn't say edge. I mean he does bring a whimsy to it. It still can be fairly adult at times. You know, the adults will get it and then if the kids don't, it won't matter, they'll still enjoy the songs for what they are. But, I really enjoy the songs and I think a lot of people will and have already, people that have seen it. I think it takes the Disney music to a slightly different place, which I think is refreshing.
One final question for you. At the beginning of the interview, you said that this film became bigger than you first thought it would be. Could you go further into that? What do you mean by that and how did that happen?
CB: Well, it's just the scope of the movie. When you have your first draft and it's all on paper and you're just reading it and thinking, “This could be a nice story. There's some fun here, and there's a nice build between the relationships." And when you start really developing it, at least visually, you start to go, “Oh. My. Gosh!” You know, these huge sort of "Lawrence of Arabia" landscpaes and just this epic feel to the movie. You realize you have got a bigger thing going on.
And then adding to that, as you develop the story, we made a lot of changes as we went, especially when Jen jumped on as our writer. The emotional depth of the story, that really grew, so that became bigger also, the relationship between the sisters. After a while, you go, “Wow, what have we done?” But in a good way. Now I look back and this is really, really quite stunning. But we still haven't finished it. We still have a lot of big shots yet to come.
JL: Shoutout to our art director, Mike Giaimo. We had a whole team that went to Norway to study the fjords there particularly and the look of that area is just stunning and the costumes, and everything is so specific and special and yet again, all set against this giant winter landscape. Part of it too as everyday we see more and more of all the shots coming together. The amount of detail, it makes this world come alive in a way that you don't realize how big it’s going to be when it's just on the page.
This is your first time directing, Jen. Was there other stuff that just became much bigger than you imagined?
JL: I think the biggest thing for me is how much fun directing is and how hard writing is. That's a new perspective that I now have.
I guess something bigger than I expected is the legacy of Disney, probably. The pressure of knowing that you are hoping to contribute to this canon that's extraordinary and loved by so many. That's felt every second of the day, I think.
CB: We actually joke about it too. It's like, “Okay, we're working on the next classic." And we haven't finished it yet!
See the teaser trailer for 'Frozen':