Out Character Gets Animated in ’ParaNorman’
With a slew of award nominations including an Academy Award for Best Animated Film and a GLAAD Media Award nomination, Focus Features’ "ParaNorman," a 3D stop-motion animated comedy/horror film, is going places animated films haven’t gone before.
Besides confronting such topics as death and bullying, the Focus Features’ film also has an animated gay character that is handled with a subtle touch that keeps it from becoming a "message movie."
"ParaNorman," which played in theaters last summer and was released on home video in November, features the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Elaine Stritch, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck (as Mitch, the character we learn is gay), Leslie Mann and John Goodman. The main character, Norman (Smit-McPhee) has the ability to talk with the dead, but it is a power that keeps him feeling isolated and alone.
Screenwriter Chris Butler (who also co-directed the film with Sam Fell), sat down with EDGE recently to talk about the accolades the film is receiving as well as the creative choices of having a gay character in a film geared to a young audience.
Love writing, love animation
EDGE: Congratulations on the movie and the nominations. Does that (the prospect of winning an award) enter your head at all when you’re in the early process of writing the script?
Chris Butler: No. Not even slightly. I don’t think anyone would do these things if that’s the reason to do it. These projects just take so long. There is so much blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. I love writing and I love animation, so they are my passions and, you know, I just wanted to have this idea of mine be realized.
EDGE: Besides the Oscar nomination, which is huge, you also have a GLAAD Media Award nomination!
Chris Butler: I’m really thrilled by that. To be honest, all the awards are a thrill because what I wanted was to make a movie that people would respond to and we definitely did that. You are always looking for rotten tomatoes; but, critically speaking, most of the reviews were good. You’ve always got your eye on what the critics think regardless of the box office. I think that’s what you look for.
You just want to know that people agree with you, that it is a good movie. Because it’s a vindication. It’s not so much an ego thing; it’s more like, ’Am I insane?’ Because I was writing this thing for so many years. I thought, ’Okay this is fun. This is funny. This is worth saying.’ Then when other people say they like it, you’re like, ’Okay, I’m not insane. I can do this again.’
A message movie?
EDGE: What were the challenges in making sure those messages were in the movie without making it a message movie?
Chris Butler: I think that’s partly the approach. The kinds of movies, the kinds of books, the comics that I like do have something to say. I can happily go sit and watch some brainless, in-your-face blockbuster and just enjoy it for the spectacle. And I can do that. But what really resonates is the stuff that leaves me thinking. And I don’t think that family movies should be exempted from that. They certainly never used to be. The stuff that I remember from my childhood had a lot to say.
Certainly, the influences were movies like ’ET,’ ’The Goonies,’ and certainly horror movies. The John Hughes movies were also a big influence, actually. But all these films used humor and spectacle, but they all also really did have heart.
EDGE: Was making one of the characters - Mitch - gay something that you wanted to be a part of the film early on?
Chris Butler: I wanted to present these stereotypes that we’ve all seen before. In many ways, the characters represent the stereotypes that you see in horror movies. Every horror movie has them. And I wanted to present them, and then turn them on their head a little.
Again, it’s those certain stereotypes. It’s those characters that we see. We see the bullied fat kid, we see the bully, we see the vacuous cheerleader; but I wanted each of them to have something else going on. And the character of Mitch is a stereotypical jock. Honestly, that partly came about because of Scooby-Doo. Because I always used to think of Fred as the kind of guy who wears white cashmere sweaters and...
EDGE: A scarf, yes.
Chris Butler: And a hat and scarf. He’s definitely not as interested in Daphne as she thinks he is. So that was the idea like if you took Scooby-Doo characters to their logical conclusion, Fred would be gay.
Talk of mortality
EDGE: For a kid’s movie, there’s a lot about death in ’ParaNorman.’
Chris Butler: Yeah, I think something that’s always interested me as long as I’ve been working are those kinds of stories. Certainly as a kid it was the darker stuff that compelled me more. Like the Grandma/Norman relationship. That comes from my relationship with my Grandma (voiced by Elaine Stritch). Because when I was a kid my Nana used to say to me that when she died she was going to stick around to watch over me to make sure I was okay.
Now, I because she was old and going to die, I personally think that is such a great way of introducing the concept of death to a small child. But rather than making it some taboo scary subject, it was actually quite heartwarming. She expressed something that didn’t have this uncomfortable finality that should never be discussed.
EDGE: I like the big climax with Agatha and the fact that Norman does call her a bully. And I thought ’Wow, this is a great scene where a kid has been kind of beaten up through this whole movie is finally facing up to his bully.’ And I’m guessing that was very intentional.
Chris Butler: Yeah. And I think that meant a lot to me. In a lot of the preview screenings that we had even the really young kids got that. They got that Aggie and Norman were flip sides of the same coin. You know, that one is bullied but knows that the answer is not to do it to someone else. I even heard that from kids younger than five who got it.
EDGE: That’s great. Was there ever any push back about Mitch announcing that he has a boyfriend at the end?
Chris Butler: No. We discussed it, I guess, but not real length. I mean everyone, everyone was on board. The studio supported it wholeheartedly. At no point, and I’m not just saying this, at no point was there ever, was I ever forced to compromise in what the movie should be.
EDGE: As a gay filmmaker do you feel like you need to put something gay-themed in every project?
Chris Butler: No. And I would never call myself a gay filmmaker. Because it (being gay) does not define who I am. We were making a movie about tolerance and acceptance and I thought in doing that we should have the strength of our convictions and really say something. I don’t necessarily think that needs to be said again by me. If (a gay character) is important to the story fine. But I don’t have a burning ambition to do that.
For information on "ParaNorman" or to buy the Blu-Ray/DVD, visit http://paranorman.com.
Watch Casey Affleck talk about playing the character of Mitch in "ParaNorman":