Having just arrived the night before, co-director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian were on the final leg of their press commitments after showing their new film, Pixar’s Brave, off to receptive audiences in France, Italy, Japan and Canada.
In production since 2004, when the idea was first pitched by original director Brenda Chapman, the film – then titled The Bear And The Bow – saw the filmmakers travel to Scotland for a research trip to the Outer Hebrides. Armed with thousands of photographs, the production team returned to their offices in San Francisco and began work on the project in earnest. Before it would reach screens, however, the team behind Brave would experience a directorial reshuffle. Cue Mark Andrews.
MA: I remember walking down the hall and seeing these guys in kilts and swords and seeing this fiery red-haired lass with a bow, and peaking in and being, like, “What are you doing?” It was a story based on [Chapman's] own experiences with her daughter, but set in Medieval Scotland, and I’m all, “You know, I’m Scottish, let me give you all these books and these things on Celtic history and mythology.” And Scottish myths and legends because I too am a truth-teller and you can be pulled and inspired by the more you know. I wasn’t directing on it, I was just the unofficial consultant.
When Pixar asked me to take over directing on the film, I said sure, it’s in my wheel house. I’ve seen all of the elements and watched them grow. Brenda and her team built this amazing story and these amazing characters, but what really drew me to it was the core relationship between the parent and her child; it was universal. I’m a parent myself and there’s a lot of me that I could put into that, because I kind of get it. [The setting of] Scotland, and in the era that I love, the middle ages, just gave me the advantage as a storyteller, because I understand the traditions.
But a title and directorial replacement wasn’t the only change to the original idea, after a couple of years in the role, Reese Witherspoon dropped out of filming.
KS: [Witherspoon's] a great student of accents. And what a dedicated pupil! I don’t know if you’ve seen much of her work before but in Vanity Fair she did an English accent that was quite remarkable. And she had the teenage appeal that we loved but was also really, really busy. It’s not live action, but it’s a long time over a long time period, and not every actor can dedicate that kind of time over that many years. But Kelly [Macdonald] jumped in, and right away her appeal and heart and warmth and humour gave her the teenageness that the role needed.
MA: And bonus she was Scottish.
It seems that despite a few surface changes, however, the core story – that of Meredith and her mother – has remained the same from the get-go. Unperturbed by the contextual similarities that their picture shared with 2010′s How To Train Your Dragon, Andrews and Sarafian were confident that Brave was different enough to DreamWorks’ own medieval movie to find an audience of its own.
MA: Sometimes there’s worry that the audience is going to go, “Oh, I’ve already seen this, I’m not going to go”, but usually that doesn’t prove the case because they’re so vastly different. With How To Train Your Dragon they’re just making up a world, whereas ours is a little bit more authentic, a little more tender love and care. It’s so much more than a character and a setting.
KS: One example that comes across – I don’t know if you saw How to Train Your Dragon, I didn’t – is that they’ve got someone with a prosthetic leg in there. But we would never say that Craig Ferguson can’t have a prosthetic leg if it was core to the story.
Once How To Train Your Dragon came out, many of our artists saw it and loved it, but it felt so different from the core relationship in our movie, regardless of setting or place or any of that. Braveheart was set in Scotland too. If we’d never done some of our movies because it’d been done before – I remember Finding Nemo came out and there was also that DreamWorks one, er…
MA: Shark Tale.
KS: Shark Tale, and there was room for both.
MA: And Ants.
KS: Bugs and Ants.
MA: Abyss, Leviathon.
KS: Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Deep Impact and Armageddon. So there’s a lot written about that, but if you actually watch Brave you can see that it’s just so different.
MA: I mean, Tangled came out before us and it’s a princess fairytale just like us. We gotta make this, and we gotta make this work. Hunger Games has a girl with a bow in it.
The script itself – the product of both improvisation from the actors and years of research by the production team – is one of the film’s biggest selling points. The first half of the movie in particular shines with personality as the four clans gather for a traditional Highland Games, allowing the full voice cast a chance to shine before the movie shrinks in scope to focus on Meredith and her long-suffering mother.
MA: I was very open for out actors to ad-lib, or ask, “How do you say kick-ass in Scottish?” or any other Scottish-isms they would have. Billy [Connolly] was just rife with them, he’d rattle off about four or five of them and we’d just pick out the ones that seemed the most funny. Robbie [Coltrane], Kelly and Craig [Ferguson] all did it, too. A couple of them had to call home, or Kelly would call her husband.
KS: Kevin McKidd would phone his mum in Elgin to get the dialect of the region. With Billy we would take all of these audio tapes back to Pixar but then we would have to look up the words to make sure they were appropriate because you never know what he’s going to say.
MA: It wasn’t just words either, but syntax, too. There’s a way Scots build a sentence that I – Craig Ferguson was great at this, ” Get in the castle? He can’t even open doors!” – that I never could have written in a Scottish way.
So what’s next for Pixar? Having now ticked off what many are calling the traditional Disney movie (even if Mark Andrews is quick to point out that there isn’t, in fact, a check-list), the studio is again looking to put their own trademarked spin on a new story.
KS: I don’t know if you’re aware that a film coming up in Pixar’s slate is called The Good Dinosaur? People are saying, “Oh, Pixar are doing a dinosaur movie.” But we’ve seen an early version of it and you’ll never predict just how Pixar will do their dinosaur movie. It’s like the dinosaur movie you’ve never seen. That’s the thing about Pixar: they have all these stories that come from their hearts and their souls. I’ve been there eighteen years and I’m still surprised by each new film.
Following a stilted release which saw it open in Scotland and Ireland on August 3rd and Wales and England on August 13, Brave is now on general release across the UK. You, too, should go and be surprised.