By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
EMERYVILLE, CALIF.—The first thing you notice outside Pixar’s college campus-like headquarters here is a collection of oversized rocks strategically laid out in a circle. Is it some sort of holy place where offerings are made to the animation gods? Perhaps it’s something Wall-E brought back from outer space? Or maybe the successful movie studio has taken possession of Britain’s mysterious Stonehenge?
Actually, it’s a model of a backdrop used in the Academy Award winning studio’s latest film “Brave,” an exciting action-adventure centered on a bold young princess and set in medieval Scotland.
Titian-haired Merida (voiced by “Boardwalk Empire’s” Kelly Macdonald) is the eldest of four children to King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and prissy Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is bound to duty and tradition in her idyllic kingdom. Elinor tries her best to groom her only daughter to become a ladylike queen, but independent-minded Merida would rather be outdoors riding horses, sharpening her archery skills and basically just enjoying herself as a teenage girl. Tensions mount between mother and daughter when Merida discovers Elinor has secretly offered her hand in marriage as a prize to the winner of a competition among a trio of scions of neighboring clans. Upset with what she perceives as her mother’s betrayal, Merida makes a pact with a witch that she soon regrets and she must endeavor to correct. A story about growing up and having a chance to change one’s destiny, “Brave” isn’t just another princess fairy tale.
Veteran Pixar story supervisor Mark Andrews, who worked on “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Cars,” makes his feature film directorial debut with “Brave.” The energetic and affable Andrews just happens to be an archery enthusiast and expert on all things Scottish. So it’s no surprise he was called in to take the reins of the picture when it got bogged down midway through production. Previous director Brenda Chapman, who’d conceived the story, stepped aside about a year and a half ago, clearing the way for Andrews to step in and offer from fresh ideas to the plot and shepherd the ambitious project to the finish line.
Sipping a protein shake that seems to fuel his boundless enthusiasm, Andrews explains how he and his fellow Pixar wizards brought Pixar’s first female-driven animated feature to the big screen.
Front Row Features: Merida is Pixar’s first female heroine. How is she different from previous Pixar protagonists?
Andrews: She isn’t any different. She’s like Woody. The thing that makes “Toy Story” work is that Woody’s problems come about as a result of his own faults. The thing that makes “Brave” take off is a result of Merida’s own faults. She’s the cause of her own woes, as is usually the case with most of us. In “Brave,” (the villain) is the internal force. We have other things that bring in more conflict to the story like this demonic bear or the overprotective parent or the clans’ rivalry. All those things heighten the stakes of the story to make this a real powder keg of a situation that quickly becomes the issue. So Merida is like every great Pixar protagonist, regardless of her gender. You can relate to her regardless of your gender. You want to be her. You care about her. You want to see her succeed.
Front Row Features: Her long curly red hair is absolutely stunning. Why was the hair so important?
Andrews: When Brenda developed this story as a relationship study between mother and daughter, she knew the mother needed to be this strong person. She has this long hair too but it’s kept in this perfectly bounded braid. She’s this statesman and she talks with this mannered, very light Scottish accent. Who’s her daughter going to be if there’s going to be a conflict? Well, she wears a dress that already looks like it’s torn up. She’s gotta have wild crazy hair, if her mother’s is bound up. And she’s kind of a troublemaker, a firestarter and passionate, so we made it red.
Front Row Features: What do you think you added to the story when you became the director?
Andrews: I knew what the story was. I’d been an unofficial consultant on it already, being a medieval buff and a Scottish buff. I do archery and sword fighting and I ride horses. Being a director here at Pixar, being part of the brain trust, I was there for every version of the reels that come with it. I understood the story and what some of issues had been. I tried to help Brenda get through those. Then they came to ask me to jump on 18 months ago to take the film and finish it. It had just gotten stuck and they had to break it loose from the story mire in which it had gotten stuck.
Front Row Features: Is it unusual to change directors midway through production?
Andrews: It doesn’t happen all the time but it does happen. We’ve had four director changes here at Pixar in the history of our films. It’s unfortunate but it does happen.
Front Row Features: What did you bring to the film?
Andrews: There’s an objectivity that I brought with me because I hadn’t been invested for the previous five or six years the film was in the works. It’s what Brad Bird, brought to “Ratatouille” (when he took over from Jan Pinkava). He brought that objectivity and said there’s too much clutter here. What’s the story about? Bam. He didn’t change it from the original story about a rat that cooks. I didn’t totally change Brenda’s original pitch of what Brave is about. Pixar loved it; we just had to make it work.
Front Row Features: Was there anything cut that was painful?
Andrews: Not for me. I know there were scenes the story artists had worked on such as one where the lords were trying to talk to Elinor through the door to her room, thinking she’s in there, but it’s actually the triplet (sons) who are trying to distract them. It’s funny and they spent a lot of time on it but the whole idea was just lifted (out). Also, animals weren’t in the film at all (before I came onboard) so I put animals in. The tech guys who spent two years creating scenes with snow weren’t happy with me because I cut out those scenes. I had an alternate beginning that takes place in the snow. I had the snow in there but we weren’t starting with our main characters right off the bat. It was hurting the story. We came up with the idea of Merida and Elinor when they were having that great mother-daughter relationship when she was younger. That got us into an emotional beginning off the bat.
Front Row Features: What message do you want kids to take away from this movie?
Andrews: That they are brave themselves. Brave isn’t this thing where you can fight monsters or run into a battle or something like that courageously. It’s about looking at yourself. The world’s a scary place, especially for a kid on the verge of being an adult. Teenagers are in one of the most awful places there is because they’re teetering between being a child and going into adulthood.
Front Row Features: The original title was “The Bear and the Bow.” Why did you change it to “Brave?”
Andrews: “The Bear and the Bow” was a working title. We need to call it something before we find the title. “The Incredibles” was originally called “Hero.” “Ratatouille” was originally called “Rat.” “Up” was always “Up” because it was simple—the house goes up. One of our production titles was “Bravehair,” which was a play on (Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic) “Braveheart,” but everybody hated that. We needed to call it something so we shortened it and called it “Brave.”
Front Row Features: How do you think the title ties in with the movie?
Andrews: It’s the epitome of the theme of the movie. It works on every level. If you look at the movie and watch the characters they all go through an experience of being brave: Brave enough to say you’re wrong. Brave enough to make a mistake. Brave enough to face the thing you don’t want to face because it would mean giving up something. There are all these aspects to bravery that are in the film.