Save for a few of the original directors, few people can give you a better snapshot of what’s going on at Pixar than Katherine Sarafian. The production coordinator turned director of marketing and now producer has been with the company since 1994 and their first film, Toy Story. For the past five plus years, she’s been working on Brave, Pixar’s upcoming feature about a wild Scottish princess whose fate is tied to the family kingdom. Sarafian has been with the production from its inception and has intimate knowledge on the controversial directional change, massive story rewrites, cast changes and more.
Recently, I was at Pixar to see the gorgeous first thirty minutes of the film (read about that here) and spoke to Sarafian not only about those things, but the surprising power of being a producer at Pixar, the marketing of the film (including when we might see a new trailer) as well as the company’s feeling facing their first critical disappointment: Cars 2. Check out the interview below.
/Film: The role of producer is such a varied thing, what’s the role of a producer at Pixar? Specifically on BRAVE as well.
Katherine Sarafian: I think in a lot of ways it’s not that much different producing here than it would be producing elsewhere in the industry, because like other producers we are responsible for getting the director’s vision on the screen and delivering the final film and building a team and getting resources together. At Pixar I think it’s worth noting that it’s a partnership between the director and producer, so I don’t work for the director and the director doesn’t work for me. We are equal partners and that helps create I think a nice healthy dynamic of creativity. So we can butt heads I think in all of the right ways over whether something is worth doing or not, “Does the film really need this?” He can push for what the film has to have and I can really advocate for that and things where I feel like we could work smarter on something I can advocate for that and make a creative contribution. So there’s a good level of trust in partnership and we choose our director-producer teams carefully. We don’t just sort of throw ourselves together, we think it through about how the dynamic will work.
Much has been made today about story: the evolution of the story, how much has changed, when it’s changed and so forth. So, what I want to know is what was the original pitch for this movie? What are the elements from then THE BEAR AND THE BOW that made it through to today? What did Brenda Chapman pitch to the team years ago that stuck with it?
Right, first off the title from the very beginning was BRAVE, so BEAR AND THE BOW was actually a later detour and then we came back to BRAVE.
Oh? Okay, that’s good to know.
Yeah, so when it was conceived it was actually BRAVE. The earliest pitch, which was before my time, was way back when Brenda was just finishing CARS and that was really, I believe the seed of it was very much this core of a mother and a daughter and a great rift that would have this magical element to it, some fairytale elements, and a lot of action. That was the seed of the story and that there would be a father and Merida would be more eye to eye with her dad. The other elements of it were fleshed out over time as other Pixar stories are.
Okay. Now when I was doing research to speak with you, I was fixated on the fact that you were the Head of Marketing here for a little bit, because I love marketing. I love all the intricacies behind it. How early in the process at Pixar is that discussed? When do you guys decide that “This is going to be the image. This is what we are going to sell. This is how much we are going to sell. This is when we are going to sell it.”
We make a lot of those decisions within the last, I’d say, eighteen months of the film. For me, and I only had about two years of experience in marketing here at Pixar and Disney, but because I had that experience it was foremost in my mind from the beginning. So when I started five or six years ago, I was already worried about it like “How will we trailer this?” I was worried about it before I should have been, because then I would ask people questions about like “Shouldn’t we be thinking about this and that?” Everyone was like “Don’t worry Katherine, we focus on the movie.” So then I learned to focus completely on telling a great story first and then everything else with marketing decisions come later, but really in the last eighteen months or so is when we start thinking about that stuff.
And are we going to get another trailer? Are we done with the marketing sort of thing?
No, you will see more trailers and TV spots. Really we just had that first teaser that came out and then we started putting out trailers. We have another trailer coming out soon and then you will see more TV spots, but we are coming to the end of the trailer blitz.
And it’s all going to be… We are pretty much going to stay in this first 30 minutes, is that right?
I think we are being careful not to give away too much about what happens later in the film, but I think we are teasing it when you see shots of bears and chases. There’s big action and we are trying to tease that, so people know that they are going to be getting a lot of different stuff.
One of the marketing challenges for the movie is that you guys lost Pixar’s “first female director” and I know that’s been rumored and overblown, but did you guys discuss when that was happening the potential backlash of that? On paper it seems like it’s much worse that it was.
We didn’t talk at the time of a backlash of it, because that would have implied that we would let our decision… that Pixar makes decisions based on backlash. At Pixar, every decision that is made is about what the film needs and I think Mark [Andrews] and I have both been surprised at how much has been made of it, because really it happens to much in the industry and particularly in animation. Director changes happen all of the time, it’s kind of part of the creative process much like the loss of… It’s definitely a higher stakes issue, but I can’t quite compare it to the loss of snow or loss of a story sequence, but the idea that we are constantly changing the process and evolving it, but these changes do happen and creative differences do arise and it was no different here. Certainly we’ve heard a lot about that.
After watching the first 30 minutes, me and all of the other bloggers were talking about how we can’t imagine, even just in 30 minutes hearing Reese Witherspoon playing that role.
How different was the movie when she was that? It seems like going with an all Scottish cast was a no brainer.
You would think so, but actually the character at her core, Merida, is less about being Scottish and more about being a willful teenager and Reese really knows how to play willful teenagers. She’s got that great youthful quality and when you think about her body of work, you could probably think of “Oh, actually I can see it.” Combined with a dialogue coach and an accent, then you could really get that teen spirit in there, but unfortunately it is a long haul and schedules are really hard to align, so she had to step out.
Can you talk a little bit about you and Mark’s relationship and what he has brought to the movie in the last year or year and a half? He’s so full of energy and so crazy.
He is. You noticed that?
A little bit, yeah. [Both Laugh]
We have a great relationship. He’s a lot of fun to work with. Obviously he can be a loose cannon sometimes and you’ll be like “Mark, stop.” He goes crazy with yelling through the walls and disrupting the other interviews, but he’s larger than life, because he’s a family man and he’s great with his kids and really has boundless energy. That actually makes for a great partnership in something like this, because like I said you go for a long time and we spent a lot of time together as a group from that first research trip in the very beginning he had energy. It’s great. It helps carry a crew through the hard times of finishing one of these things. We are working long hours. We work really hard. It’s great that you’ve got great motivation from the very top when the director is fired up.
Sure. Out of everybody I’m talking to today or we are all talking to, you are the person who has been here the longest and the best person to ask this. Pixar just had their first misstep critically and commercially, in a way, with CARS 2. That’s obviously a subjective thing, but how does the company view that looking back now? What’s the tone? Do you guys see it as that? Because it didn’t do 1.2 billion dollars and it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar? Or do you just put it down and keep moving on?
Well I think for all of our films…. That’s an interesting question. All of our films start with that mantra of “Story, story, story” and so we make them with the goal of telling the best story we can and at the studio we are really proud of CARS 2 and it did do very well box office-wise of course, so we are really proud of it. I do think that there wasn’t quite the critical acclaim that we necessarily wanted for it, but it was another story told with passionate storytellers and the audience clearly loves seeing the CARS characters again and having them out there again as the box office told us, it’s like people wanted to see this movie. So, yeah.
Okay, last thing. You’ve worked at other studios, mostly Pixar but other places too, and as I talked about in the round table, the process here is so unique and so creative and open. Could you work anywhere else after working here?
That’s an interesting question and I have actually barely let myself think that way before. I think that for me, not only because I’m coming up on 18 years, so I would be very upset to part ways here and it’d be very hard for me to go somewhere else and try to adjust to another way of life. I’m too stubborn. But I could see myself leaving here and dong a complete career change, because I can’t imagine working in animation somewhere else. I just can’t. I think what has been established as the way we work here is so in my blood now. I think it would be a career change, you know a restauranter or something like that, completely different. I can’t imagine working in animation anymore. I love it here.
Absolutely. Thank you.
Well, thank you.
A huge thanks to Mrs. Sarafian for her candid responses to my questions. Check back soon for our interview with Brave director Mark Andrews and more on Pixar’s 2012 film. Brave hits theaters on June 22.