The dad had to come back to life. That was one of the main things that turned a personal story of loss into a grand, fantasy epic called Onward. Dan Scanlon, the film’s director, never met his father—he died before Scanlon was born. Then, one day he and his brother put in a cassette tape and heard their dad’s voice for the first time ever. It was a landmark, magical moment, like something out of a Pixar movie. But even when he started at Pixar, Scanlon never thought about it that way.
After completing Monsters University, Scanlon and producer Kori Rae decided they wanted to do something more personal for their next film. They just sat down and told each other stories about their lives, including the one about hearing his dad’s voice for the first time
“I certainly tell people the story about the tape because it’s an interesting story,” Scanlon said. “And I think that’s a good gauge of the stories we should tell in our lives. Like, what’s the one you pull out at a dinner party? What’s the one when you’re really talking about life that you go, ‘This is the one’?”
The pair immediately keyed into the idea and began to think about it. At that point though, no one knew what the story would be. Cars, rats, fish, toys, who knew? All they did know was, considering it was Pixar, it had to have that trademark emotion.
“We knew we wanted to bring the dad back,” Scanlon said. “I remember talking to a friend of mine, Meg LeFauve, who wrote Inside Out, about how do you bring the dad back? And I remember saying a machine. They could be scientists who build a machine. Later that day, Meg sent me an e-mail that said ‘Frogs regenerate. Some frogs have the ability to regenerate limbs.’ She’s like ‘Just throwing it out there.’”
Obviously, Onward isn’t about frogs, but that example “gives you an idea of [how] sometimes you start from the world and create a story. Sometimes you create a story and find a world,” Scanlon said. “But in the end, it was like, magic is romantic, magic is exciting, and that’s why we ended up here.”
But even though Scanlon and Rae had landed on an idea, movies at Pixar can change. A lot. In the case of Onward, one of the biggest changes was which of the two brothers—the younger, nerdier Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) or older, louder Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt)—was going to know about magic.
“For the longest time, Ian was very into magic,” Scanlon said. “He wanted to be a wizard more than anything. Barley was kind of indifferent. And it was hard to get behind Ian’s interest in magic because...we [the audience] didn’t know about magic. So you don’t feel in his shoes. He’s knows something that you don’t know anything about or fully understand.”
And so, a major 180 had to be taken. “One of the biggest helps was switching them and realizing, ‘Oh, if your secondary character is into something you’d understand, that doesn’t matter because your main character is learning with the audience.’ And it makes sense that Ian would want to be like everybody else. He’s a shy, awkward kid. And then, if anything felt juvenile or silly about the magic, it was funny when it was Barley.”
One of the other interesting things that happened during Onward’s development was Scanlon and Rae recruited the biggest fantasy fans at Pixar, nicknamed them “the Fellowship,” and got them to pitch deep cut Easter eggs that could be put throughout the movie. For example, one of the restaurants the brothers drive by is famous for serving “second breakfast,” a favorite meal of Pippin from The Lord of the Rings.
“The second breakfast thing came from that,” Scanlon confirmed. “Some of [the references] would be so deep that even I’d go, ‘I guess people are going to recognize that?’” Rae added, “A lot of the spells and everything were created by them. They brought a lot of that fantasy into how would you say a spell and have meaning behind it and things like that.”
Oh, they also named a frozen yogurt shop “Master FroYo.” Precious. Isn’t it?
According to Scanlon and Rae, that kind of collaboration is what continues to make Pixar so successful. It’s built into the company’s DNA from when it was first founded in the early 1990s.
“The origin of the studio was the entire studio worked on one movie at a time,” Rae said. “We have so many people at the studio who are still there, including myself, from those days, that that’s still kind of the mentality, even though we may now be making two or three movies at a time. It all really feels like we’re all making them together.” Scanlon added, “There really is a sense of, ‘Hey, we all kind of have to have movies that do well to keep the studio going.’ And there’s a trust between all of us.”
Onward opens Friday.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.