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‘Onward’ Press Conference: Dan Scanlon & Kori Rae on Creating a New Fantasy World for Pixar

Last year, Geeks of Color had the opportunity to attend the Onward press days at Pixar Studios in San Francisco. We are so happy we can finally talk about everything we learned from the visit! Expect a lot of Onward content from us leading up to the film’s release.

During our visit we had a press conference with Kori Rae (producer) and  Dan Scanlon (director) to discuss their process behind creating this movie! 

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney and Pixar’s Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there.

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“The story is inspired by my own relationship with my brother and our connection with our dad who passed away when I was about a year old,” says director Dan Scanlon. “He’s always been a mystery to us. A family member sent us a tape recording of him saying just two words: ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Two words. But to my brother and me—it was magic. That was the jumping-off point,” continues Scanlon. “We’ve all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them—what an exciting opportunity that would be. We knew that if we wanted to tell that story that we’d have to set the movie in a world where you could have that incredible opportunity.”

Q: Why did you go with Onward as the title? 

Scanlon: There’s mention of onward in the film that is sort of a Barley reference. And you know, Barley, as you saw speaks in your old timey language, so it’s a guy that would use that term. And we struggled a little bit – it’s a hard movie to name because it’s a complex idea. And some folks pitched us the idea of saying, ‘what about onward?’ What I love about it in the movie, it is maturing, it is growing up, it is moving past loss, it is learning to deal with loss and so it has this funny kind of pretentious nature to it, but it also is really moving and felt like what the movie is positive you know, we wanted to make sure it was a positive because the film generally is ultimately a positive and and we wanted to make sure that was inherent in the title. So yeah, but there were a lot of funny titles! 

Q: In fantasy certain creatures are depicted as certain races. Did you think about that while making these characters?

Scanlon: Yeah, absolutely. We wanted to be really careful about that kind of thing. And we wanted it to be a modern fantasy world. So, we want it to be as modern and diverse as our world is. And so, even when we were having elves or different species, we worked hard to make different races within those species, so that every kid could look and say, like, ‘Oh, I’m an elf’, or ‘I get to be a centaur’ or ‘I get to be the Cyclops’, and because we wanted that that rich feel. So, I think it’ll be fun as people see more of the movie they can see themselves in different types of fantasy creatures

Q:  What was your genesis of the story?

Scanlon: I started from the personal story first. And as I’m sure you heard, my father passed away when I was a year old, my brother was only three. I always, obviously wondered who he was and how I was like him. And really, the idea of what if I got a chance to meet him and spend a day with him? What would my brother and I learn about ourselves and about him? That was the genesis, genesis of the story. And then the next question was, well, how could you meet someone for a day? And that’s what led to magic like, well, magic. And I thought, well, I don’t know if I would want to set a movie as a period piece, which is what most magic films are. I felt like, this is such a personal story. And if it’s taking place long ago, I’m not really going to connect with that and then thought, ‘Well, why does it have to be long ago? Could it be a magic piece now?’ And that’s what led to the idea of well, that’d be funny, then you’d have unicorns and all these things in a modern world. But I think what happens a lot of times as stories, is you make strange bedfellows like ‘Well, then I have to make a fantasy movie.’ And I hadn’t seen a lot of fantasy movies that I personally liked because I think I was seeing a lot of the wrong stuff. I’ve since had the fans of Pixar point me in the right direction. Kori and I both became a little more fantasy fans. So naturally, a lot of it started off as kind of poking fun and then the cool thing was the fans here at Pixar said, ‘No, don’t just poke fun – make this a cool world, have fun with the world, but honor what’s so cool about fantasy.’ 

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

The filmmakers decided their world needed magic.

“It’s a modern suburban fantasy film—a new genre for Pixar,” laughs producer Kori Rae. Filmmakers populated their world with elves, sprites, satyrs, cyclops, centaurs, gnomes and trolls, among other creatures from mythology, folklore, fables and fantasy fiction. But the magic, it turns out, has been disappearing from the world for years—it’s nearly forgotten. “Only certain people could do it,” says Rae. “It was difficult, and you had to really practice. As technology was introduced, everyone found easier ways to do things. Magic is possible, it’s just that nobody really does it anymore.”

The story introduces Ian, an elf who lost his father before he was born. Uncertain and introverted, Ian longs to be confident and strong—and he’s sure if he’d grown up with his father, he would be both. “He’s a little shy and awkward,” says Scanlon. “And we paired him with a wild and chaotic big brother, Barley, who is constantly causing problems for Ian. Barley wants to teach his younger brother about life, but Ian isn’t exactly sure Barley knows what he’s talking about.”

Ian—a dogged list-maker—finds himself on his 16th birthday wanting more than ever to be better, bolder—more like his dad. So, when his mother presents the boys with a gift their late father left them—Ian sees an opportunity to finally do what he’s always dreamed of doing: get his father’s guidance. “Dad left a letter for both of them along with a mysterious spell, staff and a special gem that will give them one day with him,” says Scanlon. “When Dad got sick, he wanted to find a way he could see how his sons grew up.”

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Barley is immediately on board, as he’s long been a fan of the history of their world and the possibility of magic. But the spell doesn’t go as planned and the boys end up destroying the gem before the process is complete. “They end up only conjuring their dad’s legs, which are very much alive,” says Scanlon. “And they have 24 hours to find another gem and try to fully conjure their dad before he vanishes forever.”

The brothers summon Barley’s treasured van he calls Guinevere, and embark on a quest that promises to test their relationship. “Barley has spent his life studying how quests work, but Ian is the one capable of doing magic,” says Rae. “They realize that they need each other.”

Onward features the voices of Tom Holland as Ian, Chris Pratt as Barley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Mom. Octavia Spencer lends her voice to the Manticore, a once-fierce warrior who has lost her fighting spirit, and Mel Rodriguez voices Officer Colt Bronco. Wilmer Valderrama voices an old friend of Dad who shares a story with Ian.

The all-new original film is directed by Scanlon and produced by Rae. Pete Docter is the executive producer. The score is composed by Mychael Danna, who won an Oscar® for his Life of Pi score, and Jeff Danna, who composed the score for The Good Dinosaur with Danna.

Onward opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. 

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