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For ParaNorman, the latest release from Focus Features and stop-motion animation studio LAIKA, screenwriter/director Chris Butler and director Sam Fell knew they wanted to imbue the children’s horror/comedy film with zombies, ghosts and an aesthetic they describe as “naturalism.”
“I think our approach to this movie overall was to try and capture a kind of naturalism that you don’t often see in stop-motion animation,” Fell told Spinoff Online. “We were really aiming to make a movie that felt like a big live-action movie in a way, and we were looking to have really nuanced performances. We were never really looking for cartoon voices or people just putting on a voice.”
Because of that emphasis, Butler and Fell decided to make their casting decisions based on audio interviews that featured the actors speaking in their normal voices. They then cut together snippets from different performers to see how they sounded together.
“It was for quality of voice that we were looking for,” Fell said. “I think that’s why, when we were initially talking about actors, we wanted to get a real sense of the quality of their own voice, so they were never stretching, that they could give a genuine and natural performance.”
That search for naturalism also led the directors to cast actual kids for the primary roles: Kodi Smit-McPhee as protagonist Norman and Tucker Albrizzi as Neil, Norman’s friend and sidekick.
“It was very important the kids felt real,” Fell said. “The whole script is written from the kids’ point of view, really. What we did as well, which was great, was to get the kid actors, Kodi and Tucker, together when we were recording them so we got a lot of spontaneity and naturalistic feeling out of having them together.”
“They were stuttering and stepping on each other, all the things you do in real life, but edited out or streamlined in animation,” Butler added.
“So we really feel we have a kid’s movie here,” Fell said. “Kids can come and see themselves on the screen and really relate to them.”
The central theme of ParaNorman is bullying and the effects of mob mentality, but while conversations about the subject have dominated news media for the past couple of years Butler and Fell said that didn’t affect the script, which they had been working on for some time.
“It was always part of the fabric of the story, and even though bullying is very current, it’s very much in the news, the unfortunate truth is that bullying is always there, it’s never going to go away,” Butler said. “It may find different forms but there are always people who are willing to judge other people and treat them badly because of it. It’s an unfortunate truth. So I think it’s something everyone can relate to and definitely the fact that it appears more in the news right now makes it feel like it gives extra strength to your convictions, it makes you realize what you’re saying is worth saying. But it was there from the start, it’s part of the DNA of the story.”
Also influencing the DNA were the works of the Italian horror masters, such as Dario Argento.
“We looked at some Italian stuff, Mario Bava and Dario Argento, for the color,” Fell said. “We wanted the film to be a color movie. We didn’t want to do gothic or black-and-white ‘50s-type thing, so we were really into the color from those directors, and we looked at early Sam Raimi stuff for some of the kinetic camera work.”
The directors’ horror influences also come through in myriad references scattered throughout ParaNorman, from the lighting to props to locations, such as the bar named “the Bargento” or the “Suspiria Blue Drink” vending machines.
“I love some of the shot choices when Norman first sees Mr. Prenderghast,” Butler said. “That sequence of shots where you cut to the hedge, he’s there, you cut to Norman, you cut back to the hedge, he’s gone, was sort of Halloween.”
“And actually Neil’s dog, Bub, Bub is the name of the tame zombie in Day of the Dead the zombie the scientists are trying to socialize,” Fell added. “So there’s tons of them — we can’t actually tell you how many references there are because it’s dripping in them!”
The film’s third most important ingredient was the location. It’s set in Blythe Hollow, a fictional Salem-like town in Massachusetts that has its own history with witches and the supernatural. While both directors are British, Butler actually visited the state while writing the film to capture the essence of the area.
“The interesting thing for me is that [Blythe Hollow] was supposed to be a crappier version of Salem that really knew no bounds in terms of where it would go with its tourism — but actually Salem’s already got that covered! All the bumper stickers and T-shirts and signs, they’re not too far removed from reality,” Butler laughed.
“It was important to us to create a naturalistic sense of the world,” Fell said. “It was all about observation in minute ways that’s somewhat satirical, somewhat comical. That’s kind of unusual in animation.”
Although both directors have worked on multiple stop-motion and CGI movies, Fell compared his time working on Flushed Away, Wat’s Pig and other projects at Aardman Animations to working for LAIKA.
“It’s less of a nation thing and more of a time thing for me because I did my work at Aardman in the ‘90s and I actually got drawn into computer animation, and all my feature films were complete using computers. So this is me returning to stop-frame, and boy has it changed!” Fell said. “LAIKA’s philosophy is to plug in brand-new technology into the old technology, so there’s this wonderful high/low tech thing there going on which, with all of these tools you can pretty much solve any problem you want these days, so the scope of the filmmaking is much bigger than it ever was back in the old days!”
“The differences that you might be seeing are different styles, different types of stories being told, because we’re using the same medium but we’re all doing very different things with it, and that’s really cool,” he added.
Looking toward the future, the two directors said they aren’t sure what their next project will be, but they know what they want to do as soon as ParaNorman is released: Take a break!
“I think both of us need vacations! That’s the immediate priority,” Butler said as Fell laughed.
Butler then continued, “And then I don’t know, really. I’d love to do a bit more writing but we’ll see. These things are such huge undertakings that you sort of have to live through them and take a breather.”
“I love animation and stop-motion, so I’ll do some more, definitely,” Fell added. “But not tomorrow!”
ParaNorman opens Aug. 17.