Posted on Monday, March 7th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
If you haven’t already, please read my interview with Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore where they talk about how the latest Disney Animation Studios film evolved from an idea about a James Bond spoof with talking animals.
Today I bring you the other interview that I conducted at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with Zootopia producer Clark Spencer, co-writer and co-director Jared Bush and co-writer Phil Johnston. I touch some of the same ground in this interview, talking about the evolution of this story over the development, but we get a lot of new details about some of the material that didn’t make the final film. I also talk to them about some of the clever gags and Easter eggs in the movie, and much more.
Zootopia Writers Interview
Peter Sciretta: Okay, so I’m very interested in the creative process and I know you guys have probably answered a lot of questions with the same answers and…
Jared Bush: You’re getting new answers this time.
Peter: (Laughs.) I want new answers. No, but I’m very interested in how things evolve. And I know like you go through so many iterations and whatever. What was like the first, the inception of this whole thing? And how did it evolve over time.
Jared: Well early on Byron had this idea. So Byron loved animal movies, talking animal movies. Love them, especially Robin Hood. And early on he had this idea to have two characters, a fox and a bunny together in a world populated by animals. And when I came onto the project it was originally a spy movie. And the first 10 minutes of that movie took place in this mammal world. And then they went to this crazy tropical island where a bunch of other stuff happened. And it was more of a spy movie. And —
Peter: So it wasn’t even set in Zootopia.
Jared: No, and he got notes saying, you know what’s really awesome is this mammal world. And then you go to this island. Just put the whole thing in this mammal world ’cause it’s amazing. And so my first day on the job, I walked in saying okay, so we’re a spy movie on this island. And Byron said, no, actually that’s all getting thrown away. And I said, what’s the movie? So what is it? What’s the movie gonna be about? He’s like I don’t know yet. It’s gonna be a fox and a bunny. They’re gonna be in this city. Let’s go. And so–
Peter: So the spy movie didn’t have a bunny and a fox?
Jared: No, it did have a bunny and a fox, but it was a very different type of a story. And so early on the idea of unraveling some sort of mystery, we wanted to retain that. And as the project continued on and we started to build out the world, originally the fox was the main character as opposed to the rabbit. And took that down a really long path and what kind of life would he have? And we’d spend a lot of time on versions where we got to know his back story, which is a very different back story than it currently is. But then eventually the story started, the movie started to tell you what it wants to be about. And this idea that these animals have preconceived notions of each other became the centerpiece and the thing that we really anchored everything else around.
Peter: One of the things I love about the movie is the world building. It feels like a real place. It feels like, you know, I wanna go. I think we talked earlier and I wanna go there. When you get to that point where we’re basing it in Zootopia, do you start then like okay, let’s start building out the world? Or is it about let’s get these characters right? Or is it let’s get the story? Like what do you start, what comes first the chicken or the…?
Jared: Well, this movie is a little different than most. We did a ton of research up front. So months and months of research. And we, in a way, kind of put the story on hold for a second while we tried to figure out how to build this world. And the world started to tell us those dynamics. We found out through our research that there are 90 percent prey animals in our natural world. 90 prey and only 10 percent predators. And that was a really interesting ratio. And oh, that’s really neat. And then we started to look at the animals themselves how they interrelate with each other. So for us on this one, research really did push a lot of the story. Of course at the same time, you’re investigating who the characters could be and we knew the fox. We wanted to certainly going off of Robin Hood and having that as something as a jumping off spot. We knew that we wanted to have a really charming, sarcastic, likeable, but kind of snarky guy who was cynical as that fox character. And then it made sense for the rabbit to be a little bit more optimistic. But even those characters changed a lot over the course of the research.
Clark: And there’s a point where after the research, there’s a team of people thinking about what does the world look like? There’s a team of people thinking what’s the story gonna be about? There’s a team of people who are saying, how are we gonna create these animals? What technology do we need? So there’s a lot of things happening in parallel that are just about exploration. And then as the story starts to evolve, you start to realize what do we actually need to be built? What character, what types of animals do we actually need for the story? All of those things start to come to light.
Phil: It’s usually it’s difficult to impose story upon character in my opinion. So because once you know your characters, you kind of know how they behave and will react to a given situation. And if you’re dictating exactly, you know, building the plot and not letting the characters kind of help you through that, it’s I think a recipe for disaster. So I think coming up with strong characters that you know how they would react in a given situation, you know, you figure out what their flaws are and what their the obstacles that are in their way and you make then make it as hard as possible for them. That’s a big way, that’s how I attack it anyway.