In less than two weeks, Pixar will introduce the world to its own version of the fantasy princess: the strong-willed redheaded archer Merida. But what makes Merida different from the Disney princesses that so many young girls regard as archetypes of femininity? Brave director Mark Andrews explains how his flawed princess protagonist is a different sort of role model, his love of Celtic mythology, and why heavy metal fans should keep their eyes peeled.
Andrews took over the directing reins from Brenda Chapman, who pitched the original story to Pixar. He sat down with us to talk about how the story and characters evolved under his direction, his desire for a light hand with the movie's more mystical elements, and how he sought to create a princess character to whom men and women, adults and children alike could relate.
This is Pixar's first film centered around a female protagonist. Why do you feel it important to have a female protagonist?
Mark Andrews: I don't think it was important in that we were looking at a slate of movies and said, "You know, we need a female protagonist. It's been 25 years." It comes out of the director, and Brenda [Chapman] wanted to do a movie - they always say, "Write what you know" - Brenda says, "You know, I had problems raising my daughter; I still have problems raising my daughter. And she's just so willful and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. I just want her to listen. I'll take that and set it in Scotland." So that was the genesis of that.
I think it's important that, especially here at Pixar, we can do anything. So it doesn't have to be talking animals, toys, or inanimate objects - or male protagonists, necessarily, all the time. We can do anything, right? We can do it about children. We've had female protagonists in our movies; we've had Helen and Violet and the little girl in Monsters Inc. who's a little tough cookie. And Eve is fantastic. So we've had female protagonists before, just not the center main character. Or Jessie! She was fabulous when she entered the realm of Toy Story. So it's not that we shy away from them on purpose, but I think it's important to have one because that just opens it up to more. I'm happy that my daughter's going to get to see this film with a strong female protagonist so she can go, "I can really relate to this character."
Is there any of your daughter in Merida?
Because my daughter's a tween, I would say yes. Of course there is. I know when I'm talking, in animation we're talking about scenes, I would reference my wife. So my wife is in Elinor. My daughter's in Merida. My boys are in the boys. I'm in Fergus. There's a lot of that because that's the only thing I have to draw from. And if it gets in there and the animator's picking it up, and I think a lot of the animators who have children, they're teenage daughters, they're getting little aspects of that in there as well.
I realize that Brave isn't a traditional Disney princess movie, but given that the princess phenomenon is huge, what would you say is the current state of princesses?
You know, I guess I've never gotten the whole princess blow-up thing. But I guess to little girls, the princesses are akin to superheroes and warriors to boys. It just kind of epitomizes that perfect being that they all want to be. It's like Barbie on that level. I get it. Just like I played with He-Man and GI Joe action figures that were all buff. So I get that aspect from a kid level. It shows a perfection, something to aspire to.
But I think what people are going to get out of this [Brave], is get a realness that we can aspire to forgive ourselves and to learn that mistakes are okay and you don't have to have things that are solved right away. That plays for a young lady, a teenage woman, an adult woman, as role model as well as boys and men as well.
And I like that you play up the less glamorous side of being a princess.
That was our intent! [We have a] whole montage scene that's meant to be a slap.
I have heard that when you took over directing duties on Brave that Merida's character was a bit different and that her choices weren't as smart, or perhaps not as easy to understand. Is that true?
When I got on, there was still this struggle between defining who Elinor was as a character and who Merida was as a character. We got that they were having their conflict and exactly what that conflict was. There was a lot of making mom too bitchy, right? Making her too Mommy Dearest. Well, that's not going to work. And making Merida too teenager-complainy. I mean, we all hate teenagers because they're so whiny and wimpy. So she would just go that way. So how do we make them both appealing, both we understand what their issue is with each other and be behind both of them? But then, at the end of the day, it's not Elinor's story. It's Merida's story, right? So that's a little shift-tilt that we had to figure out to continue, which is really one of the big issues that had yet to be solved and determined.
And it wasn't just me. It was me getting back into the story with my story crew, with John [Lasseter] and Andrew [Stanton] coming in and banging stuff out when we had ideas and getting their takes on it, too. We've been trying figure this out for years and years and years. But you get some fresh eyes on it. It helps them approach it in a fresh way, too. And then we finally figure out what it was between them and it kind of all came together.
So you geared the story more towards Merida.
Absolutely, absolutely. That was one of the things I did right off the bat. I talked about the clutter before, what happens in the story. Clutter is a bad term; I don't want you to think it's, "Just mow the lawn and you'll be fine." But there's a lot of great ideas and a story always has potential to be anything. Brad would talk about it like how Einstein talked about physics: We know it's a lion, but we can only see the foot at any one time. So we can't exactly define what that lion really looks like. It's the same thing with story. We know what we want the story to be, but not exactly what it's going to be. We only get a piece of it at a time. So you can struggle with that, struggle against it, have all these great ideas for the potential of what it can be. And you want to keep them all because it means all these great things, but at the end of the day, you have to pick one. You have to pick a route, and that may mean destroying some of those ideas or just letting them go. That's what I mean by clutter. There's a lot of great ideas. What I just did, because I could, because I wasn't invested in it as much as Brenda was or my story team or my co-director Steve Purcell, was come in and say, "None of this. None of this. I may be going down a completely wrong path here, but we have to do something to clear it up to then course-correct." That's why story is hell, and it's alchemy every time.
How did you go about researching the Celtic mythology?
Well, I've already been a big fan of Celtic mythology. I've read tons of books on it, Arthurian legends, and everything. The first books that they had were all my books (that they then bought and I got my books back). They were just diving into it, so I was kind of this unofficial consultant on all things Celtic or Scottish or medieval from the get go.
What particularly appeals to you about Celtic mythology?
I like all mythologies, so it's not necessarily that it's my favorite. I mean, I like Egyptian mythology, Japanese mythology, Greek mythology, and Norse mythology. You know, they're all great. The Celtic mythology just seems to me to have a more of an artistic bent because of the language that it comes out of, the stories that they were telling that were transferred just vocally. Beowulf is a Celtic mythology, you know, it's the Norse and Old English tales. That's fantastic to have those lessons, about what they admired the most for people in those times for survival and to be leaders and whatnot. And it seems more down-to-Earth and more normal people and less super-gods bugging you. So they were kind of endowed with superpowers and that was it. There's something a little more earthy to the Celtic stuff.
So is there some Grendel in Mordu, the demon bear?
Maybe a little! Maybe a little! There might be a little bit in there. I couldn't have anybody go into a warm spasm, though I would want to. That would be a little weird for people to get. But we weren't going that super-magical. We wanted the magic in this to be a more mysterious, very light touch magic that we didn't have to explain. So I don't explain the wisps; you just get an idea of what they are. There are other things in that that I don't have to explain. They just happen. I think that's another thing in Celtic mythology: that the magic would just kind of happen and it was kind of unexplainable what the source of it came from, which was appealing to me instead of explaining away, "Oh here's a magic hat and a magic wand and a magic potion. You say magic words and this happens. Well, why?"
I understand that you're a big metal head. Are there any metal references in the movie?
All over the place. There's one big slap in your face meta-reference, but all over the place. In the middle ages and fantasy, that's what heavy metal is. So you can't not see that. But there's lots of stuff and there's one in particular that could be the cover of an album.
Top image from Disney.