‘Elemental’ Director Peter Sohn And Producer Denise Ream On The Cultural Influences & Casting Process of Pixar’s Latest Film – Interview
During a recent visit to Pixar Studios, Geeks of Color had the wonderful opportunity to explore the campus and engage with the talented filmmakers behind Elemental. Led by Peter Sohn, the film introduces an enthralling encounter between fire and water, embodied by the endearing characters of Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie). Their unexpected love story intertwines with an amazing adventure as they join forces to unravel the hidden threats that lurk within the barriers separating their respective communities.
Director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream have forged remarkable career paths that have led them to helm Elemental. Sohn, known for his previous directorial work on The Good Dinosaur, has displayed a unique talent for crafting heartfelt and visually stunning storytelling. With Elemental, Sohn brings his distinct directorial touch to deliver a mesmerizing tale that explores the powerful dynamics between fire and water.
Working alongside Sohn, Ream has contributed her invaluable expertise and passion for storytelling. Ream’s journey in the film industry has been marked by a dedication to bring visual effects combined with captivating narratives to life. With a diverse range of producing credits, including Pixar’s Up, Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur and Toy Story 4, Ream has demonstrated her commitment to creating immersive worlds and compelling characters.
Together, Sohn and Ream have embarked on an incredible journey, leveraging their skills, experiences, and shared creative vision to bring Elemental to fruition. Their combined talents and commitment to storytelling have undoubtedly shaped the film into an enchanting exploration of love, adventure, and the boundless possibilities that emerge when seemingly opposite forces collide.
Check out the interview with Peter Sohn and Denise Ream for Elemental below:
Can you talk about the inspiration for Elemental, bringing this to life, and why you felt like this was a story you wanted to tell?
Peter Sohn: Yeah, there are so many pieces of it. I mean, these things come out of nowhere. And then some of these come from personal life. You know, if you’ve ever Googled, it’s almost like free riding, you know? Like when you’re free, right? It’s just whatever comes to me. And there’s a form of doodling that I do that’s very similar to that, where you’re just drawing, and then that leads you to something. And then these elements are characters that have come up, but they weren’t tied to immigrants right away. And then there was this idea of the periodic table, like the whole world of that. And then, you know, my parents and understanding who they are as people, and then, this personal thing of marrying someone who was Korean. All those ingredients somehow got into the soup, and then that became the seed of this whole thing.
Denise Ream: From the very beginning, there were so many exciting things about it visually and from a technical standpoint. And even though I don’t have immigrant parents, I was really tempted to empathize with the potential of the story, which I thought was really exciting.
I feel like this was one of the more collaborative Pixar movies just from everything you both have talked about from the Q & A. So can you just talk about the process collaborating with all of these different teams to make sure it’s a cohesive vision?
Ream: So, the story to edit team all worked just as one team for such a long time that it started right from the beginning.
Sohn: Yeah, there was an experience on The Good Dinosaur where it was like a Superstore–it was just all the story artists and everything was working on top of each other, and I love that idea. So we talked about like, no walls, just be open, and we have fishbowl. We’re never all in there together. Messing around with people, but then focusing on something and taking a breather, and just mess around. And I’ve realized the difference between Dino (The Good Dinosaur) and here, is that I knew that I’d like that. Then trying to build a world where we could do that was awesome.
Ream: But most of that was virtual. We didn’t start the departments right away. The idea is that we’ve put everyone in a room together. The characters aren’t people, because we didn’t know how to do it. So that was also when we started that, only we did it virtually. So, I think that really did help create sort of his cohesive team. It was all managed by one manager.
I feel like with every Pixar movie, there’s underlying themes or messages. Can you talk about trying to make sure you’re balancing themes, but also make sure it’s a story that’s universally appealing to everybody?
Sohn: It’s a hard balance; hopefully, I pulled that part of it off. But, you know, in your gut, you sort of have to love movies. You can’t love niche movies and then try to make something–at least for me, I don’t have that skill. The type of movies that I love, I just grew up with movies that were more universal because when I grew up, there weren’t a lot of movies with Asian people. So, you find movies that my parents could connect to, movies that a whole family could connect to. I remember watching Ghost with my parents, and even though we weren’t on Wall Street or didn’t know Patrick Swayze, the empathy we felt in those movies was immense. The way they were told visually, is something I really love – a well-told story visually, where you can see. That’s what’s so funny about water and fire; you just don’t see it, you just know that they can’t be together.
So, that visual concept is something I just love. Also, they’re not a particular community that you and I know; they can be anything, any community, any culture. I love that – that sort of gateway for people. So, when you’re starting, you just try to keep that going with everything you’re doing. It’s like, ‘Oh, you presented an idea. Is this idea too out there where someone won’t get it? Or is this idea something that people can understand, but is it truthful? Yes.’ We have all these layers of stuff where you judge something to make sure it works as a movie moment, but also that it can be accessible, not on a community basis, but in your gut. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I understand what this concept is.’
Furthermore, could you elaborate on your experience working with the two voice actors? Did anything undergo changes, such as the portrayal of their characters or the way they appeared and behaved, compared to the initial conception?
Sohn: Absolutely. They were amazing! I got lucky with each of the performers. I would go down to them and then do our first sessions. And then afterwards, it would be Zoom. Or sometimes, if we were lucky, they could come up here. But it was during those initial sessions when I met them that I really got to vibe with them. I’m such a film nerd, so I would always ask about their favorite movies to gauge their tastes. And after that point, it was all about building trust. Because you know, there are going to be moments where you’re going to ask for something very vulnerable or uncomfortable. And definitely, there’s just a lot of pre-work that you do in real life.
And then the way each of the performers presented themselves and talked about their styles really made me understand that they could be really open and vulnerable. Mamoudou, who plays Wade, connected with me because his father is from Mauritania. He understood the immigrant story we were exploring, and when we discussed sequences and characters, he totally got it. Mamoudou is an educated performer with an intellectual side and a goofy side. When he was trying to get into these characters, he would talk about the writing, and then he would just go, ‘Okay,’ and he would laugh and say, ‘Let’s do one more.’ He always found the fun in it.
Leah Lewis was a performer who really had to charge up to deliver a line. She had to fight herself to get into it. I would say, ‘Okay, this is a moment where you’re conflicted with what this relationship is going to be,’ and she would respond, ‘I’m conflicted with this relationship! I’m conflicted with this relationship.’ And then she would deliver performances that I was just like, ‘Wow, it felt raw and real.’ When we were writing the scripts with John and Kat, and they would talk about how Mamoudou did something, we would try to find a way to capture that.”
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