Back in September, we shared what we learned from watching an early preview of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Moana. John Musker and Ron Clements return to collaborate for their seventh film together, and their first CGI film which follows the title character as she goes on a journey of self-discovery and saving her people. A five-year long process in development, the movie will be released in theaters in just a few short weeks, and now we can give you our final piece from that presentation that we were invited to (along with our fellow journalists) back in August.
In this exclusive one-on-one interview, we talk to Moana writers Jared Bush and Dave Pimentel about collaborating with the Oceanic Story Trust to develop the story, finding out what a movie wants to say, avoiding being too preachy, the 12 screening process, and much more. Check out the full interview below.
Geeks Of Doom: When you’re developing the story how much influence are you getting from the Oceanic Story Trust? Are you getting any help from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or even Auli’i Cravalho?
Jared Bush: Oh yeah. That’s a constant. Unlike many movies where they have on a period of research and then now let’s start the movie, and for this movie, and pretty much every Disney movie, but this movie that’s a constant conversation. That’s a loop that never stops. We research, we work on the story, we talk to our Oceanic Story Trust about that, they help us problem solve, we go back and forth when Dwayne and Auli’i come in. Auli’i is there with her mother, she has thoughts. Dwayne brought her mom to one of the records, she’s Samoan. This is something we want as much input as we possibly can get because we want authentic and extremely respectful of this amazing culture.
Dave Pimentel: I remember when Dwayne first came in. He got a full pitch of the full movie with visuals and storyboards, as much as we had at the time. After he got the pitch he was like “This is awesome! I have notes,” and we are like “Great! Please, give us your notes!” So it is pretty amazing. It is a constant. We never stop doing that.
Geeks Of Doom: Because this film explores themes of culture and identity when do you as storytellers decide which theme is appropriate for which film?
Jared Bush: Typically Disney when a movie is starting to be developed, one of the first things you start with is “what do you want this movie to say?” It’s not always specific. It’s not always this specific phrase I want this movie to be about, but you know you are in the neighborhood of this idea. So when John [Musker] and Ron [Clements] went and did the first research trip, this idea of who we are as a people, identity was very much a part of that. So as the story started to get built it was always in this area of identity, and over the course of the three to five years it really just tried to hone in on more specific versions of what that is and allowing the audiences to go on that journey with the main character.
Dave Pimentel: It was an amazing phrase they brought back from one of their trips before I went on, they would say “Know your mountain.” That just stuck with me. Ron and Jon kept using that as their guidance for their theme when they were originally starting, and it’s knowing your ancestors. Like you are the tip of the island and everything beneath you on that island is those who have come before you. It’s such a resonating special feeling to either know your family or know where you’ve come from or at least try to go back where you’ve come from or try to find out who you are.
Geeks Of Doom: Going a bit off of that, how do you avoid being too preachy or how do you define the line of what is being too preachy and is that line the same with every other movie?
Jared Bush: We don’t like to make movies that too messagey or too preachy. That is something we try to avoid. I think that the way we try to tell stories is by thinking about the characters and being passionate about the characters, pouring ourselves into the characters, and hopefully, we can present something to the audience that makes them think about those things. So instead of giving the audience the answer we like to ask the audience a question, and hopefully as they go home, they get to think about that, they get to discuss it with their friends, with their children, with their parents, whoever that is. You don’t want to turn the audience off by saying we are going to teach you something. I think it is much better for these movies that we are going to take you on a journey.
Geeks Of Doom: We learned that everyone involved screens the movie at least 12 times to perfect and flesh out the story, so is there a moment during one of those screens where you decide what you take out should be added back in or feel any sort of regret that a scene you liked had to be taken out?
Dave Pimentel: I think it is so organic that we are ready to change anything at any point in time. We are so used to it. At one point we had Baby Moana, did you see that?
Geeks Of Doom: Yes, here and at D23.
Dave Pimentel: So that was a test that found its way into the movie. Then it found its way out of the movie for a while, because it wasn’t supporting the story. Then, inevitably, it came back into the movie where it really made the movie so great and so grand. We always loved that piece. We loved the animation of it, the baby character and all that sort of thing, but we found ourselves needing to be in a structure that made the most sense. So for a while, it did kind of exit the structure the screenings. It was out for one or two. When it found its way back, it found its way back in the strongest way possible, which is what we have. It just kind of happens organically that way.
Jared Bush: Aside from how much time it takes to animate and render these things. There’s no set drop dead time. If there was an idea at screening three and when you get to screening nine, you can put anything back in you want or take anything out you want. We were still making massive changes up to five months ago.
Dave Pimentel: Like four months ago. It’s a luxury we don’t take for granted.
Geeks Of Doom: The legend of Maui, the demi-god, differs from island to island, and you working with the Oceanic Story Trust, which is composed of many different islands and cultures, how did you make sure which aspects of Maui stayed true to the culture while also paying respects to the other cultures?
Jared Bush: That’s why we have the story trust to help us. They’re experts from all the different islands from all the different islands. There’s elders. There’s scholars. There’s fisherman. They help us find who that is. That said, when I first came on to the movie, I spent a lot of time just reading all of the notes from all the different islands, and I did feel like there’s some areas there’s this similarity with all of the stories. You find touch points where everyone agreed he did this or he was this type of person. So you try to build around those things. That said, that’s why we have this oceanic story trust. You want everyone to feel that this is a beloved character in this region of the world, and we were always mindful and respectful of that. So it was something where we’re really lucky to have them to rely on to help us.
Dave Pimentel: And he’s the demi-god of the Polynesian islands, and getting Dwayne Johnson in his own right, it was a match made in heaven for us to like really have what the character needs once Dwayne signed on. We knew we would be able to exemplify this character the way that Dwayne would love to play him. He is so fun, and charismatic, and funny, and he plays a range of emotions. He’s goes from charismatic and funny and witty to really, really deep and emotional, and Dwayne carries superbly.
Jared Bush: And Auli’i had to contend with that in the Moana character. She had to contend with the biggest demi-god in that area and the most charismatic actor on the planet. So no small feat.
Geeks Of Doom: Did they record together?
Jared Bush: No, they haven’t met each other yet. I cannot wait for that to happen.*
Moana opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.
*Johnson and Cravalho would eventually meet a few weeks after this interview took place.