Paranorman interview with director Chris Butler

We caught up with animator extraordinaire on his visit to Dublin

Chris Butler is the man behind the very impressive gleefully ghoulish stop motion animated film from Laika Animation & Universal Pictures, he was in Ireland this weekend, where he stopped by Movie Fest, Brogen Hayes caught up with the writer, director and all round nice guy for a quick chat… 

Where did the story of ParaNorman come from?

Chris Butler: A long time ago, many years ago, I thought a stop motion zombie movie for kids would be great and I think that comes partly from growing up watching horror movies, but also watching… I remember the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts distinctly as a kid – the Ray Harryhausen monsters – and loving them. Even as a kid I was more obsessed with 2D animation. I wanted to work for Disney… When I would see the Sinbad movies or Clash of the Titans I was just wowed by those monsters. One you have seen that skeleton fight there is no real other way to think of zombies animated. Stop motion has always had a penchant for creepiness. I got the chance to work on Corpse Bride and various other creepy movies but ParaNorman, in particular, over the years became my nod to all the 80s movies that I grew up watching. I talk about it as John Carpenter meets John Hughes and it really is. It’s like the characters of The Breakfast Club dropped into the plot of The Fog. I think that part of it just appealed to me repeatedly over the years, so I just went back to it.


There is a theme of acceptance throughout the film, was that something that was always there?

CB: Yes. I think that’s fundamental to the story. In a way, the zombies are like dressing. The story was always about a kid who doesn’t fit in, it’s almost irrelevant why. All good zombie movies are social commentary and they use zombies as a metaphor, and this goes back to the original idea of; why not use that same technique in a kids movie. In a kids movie bullying and tolerance seem like an obvious choice. When you’re 11 years old, the kid who bullies you every day is more terrifying than zombies you see on TV. It was that fictional horror versus the very real horror of what it is like to be 11 years old. I liked playing with that; it’s a story of intolerance and that’s why the zombie thing made sense for it. There has been a lot of talk, in the States, about Norman being me and based on my childhood and it is, it is definitely. I didn’t fit in; I was the loner who watched horror movies and had zombie posters all over his wall, but what I tried to do with writing him was not just make him me. Everyone who has ever been 11 – which is everyone – knows what it’s like to not fit in and it’s that stage where you are not a kid, but you are not an adult; you are somewhere in between. You don’t know how you fit into the world and it’s uncomfortable and you feel lonely. The popular kids go through this just as much; for whatever reason it is, you just don’t quite know if you belong or not, and I think that’s what makes him a relatable character.


The film is gleefully ghoulish, were you anxious about making a film with a dark tone and how it would be received?

CB: No. I never had any reservations about how far to take it. Obviously it’s a little unnerving… You know that there is going to be a certain reaction against it… By adults. There is nothing glib about our approach to dark material in this movie. Yes, we go to some dark places, yes we have scares, but I think it’s done thoughtfully and responsibly. I always talk about fairy tales and children’s fiction in general through the years; part of it always has a foot in the shadows and that has a purpose, and the purpose is to empower, that purpose is to challenge a child’s formative mind to prepare them for adulthood and to help them grow. That’s always been an accepted part of children’s fiction – literature and movies – and for some reason, in recent years there seems to be a more conservative attitude to children’s fiction, which I hate! You don’t make the artists and thinkers of tomorrow by force-feeding them bland nonsense today! Neil Gaiman said it very succinctly and perfectly about Coraline; ‘It’s OK to show monsters, as long as you show that they can be defeated’… There is something incredibly empowering about that, for a child to see a kid who isn’t strong, who is flawed, who is vulnerable, but see that he ca actually achieve something and beat the odds and beat the monsters. I think that’s hugely important.


Was it a deliberate choice for Laika to follow Coraline with another dark movie?

CB: What’s interesting about Laika… I don’t think it’s that every movie has to be scary but what every movie does need to do is tell a story that’s different. If you look at Coraline and ParaNorman together, yes they both inhabit spooky territory, but they are very different tonally. That’s what excites me about Laika; they are willing to take risks, and they are willing to tell stories that maybe other studios wouldn’t. I don’t know whether that necessarily means that it has to be scary, but it definitely does need to be different from what everyone else is doing.


Where did the twist on the zombie myth in the film come from?

CB: The tolerance thing… If I boil it down to one theme, it would be ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ and I wanted every character in the movie to be guilty of that, and I also wanted to make the audience guilty of it too. That’s why we start with the horror movie pastiche, it’s to set up that zombies are slobbering, shambling things that want to eat your brain. Once you have set that up you can have so much fun in that world. Every character, every trope in this movie was intentionally done to turn it on it’s head. A few reviews in the States have talked about how they have seen this before and yes, you have… Or you think you have! And then you have some fun with it. I hadn’t seen that before in a zombie movie, where the zombies are misunderstood.


You mentioned the Ray Harryhausen movies as inspiration; did any other movies inspire you?

CB: Horror has been referenced before in stop motion. Obviously, Tim Burton likes to play in the 30s and 40s and 50s, so we didn’t want to. We didn’t want it to feel like we were aping Tim Burton or Henry Selick for that matter. We wanted to find a distinct signature for it. Zombie movies are essentially 70s and 80s fodder, so it made sense to look to that era for the styling of the movie. We went to Italian horror movies partly for the look, but also, these were the movies that I was watching when I was a kid, so there are The Goonies in there, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist… Early Amblin was a huge influence and not just in the tone of it, but also – if you look at something like E.T. – the family dynamic is dysfunctional, the family isn’t perfect and again it was a desire to go back to something that felt more real. We were always pursuing naturalism in this movie – skewed naturalism, obviously – but to try and make it feel more real. I wanted Norman to feel like a real kid, and therefore, more relatable. I wanted you to think that if he fell over, he could hurt himself. Every kid knows what it’s like to hear their parents argue, so not having a perfect family is immediately identifiable. It’s not a perfect world and that was important.


Stop motion animated films often lend themselves to 3D, were you ever going to do the film in 2D?

CB: No, we knew from the start that it was going to be 3D and I think that’s because Coraline did work so well. You’re right, it’s that tactile nature of the medium; it’s genuinely not a gimmick, it’s not just lip service – 3D helps that feeling of being able to touch that thing that’s real. For me, it was no a no-brainer really.


There is some incredible voice talent in the film – John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Kodi Smit-McPhee – what was it like working with them?

CB: I loved all of them. I think the biggest casting choice was Norman. Again, going for the naturalism, we wanted the kids to be played by real kids so we needed a child actor who could carry the movie. It is quite a complex character; he has to be vulnerable, he has to be smart without being precocious – it is very easy for a kid character to be a pain in the ass and we definitely didn’t want that [laughs]. We saw Kodi Smit-McPhee aged nine in The Road and we just knew he would be able to do it, and he does. Unanimously, people have responded to Norman as a great character, not just because he is identifiable, but because he’s quite charming. I think Kodi brought a sense of humour to him that is not overly ballsy; it’s subtle. The rest of it was all about finding this naturalistic feel to the voices. We already had our character designs, we were finding voices that worked for them and sometimes it was against type in a wonderful way that fits what we were trying to do with the movie. Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing a bully as opposed to playing the bullied; that was wonderful. Elaine Stritch has scenes with Norman that could come across as mawkish if they were played differently but because of her voice she just brings all this history to a character, without having to say it. It was about creating this symphony of sounds; a lot of the movie is the kids in a van, bickering and talking over one another, so it was finding voices that worked together. We got to draw up a list of our top picks and pretty much all of them did it.


The film must have taken years to animate; how did it feel to finally see the finished movie?

CB: Weird. It didn’t really sink in until I saw it at the premiere, and I don’t know how I am feeling right now. The dust is still settling.


This was the first time you wrote and directed a film; how challenging was this?

CB: It was easy [laughs]. I worked in pre-production so storyboarding is kind of thinking about how a movie is put together – a lot of storyboard artists become directors – and because I wrote it I knew exactly the story that I wanted to tell. When Sam Fell came on board and liked the story it meant that we weren’t struggling to find it; we knew exactly what movie we were making. It was an incredibly functional production.


What’s next?

CB: A vacation. I would like to say a long one, but already I am like ‘I wanna do another one!’ I am always writing stuff; I don’t know exactly what it will be but I am going to stay at Laika.

PARANORMAN hits Irish cinemas on Sept 14th