Strange World Directors Don Hall And Qui Nguyen Reveal Things Are Even Stranger Than What We've Seen [Exclusive Interview]

The upcoming Disney animated movie "Strange World" contains a lot of surprises, only some of which we've seen in the feature's initial trailer. The movie follows the Clade family as they find themselves thrown into a mysterious land beneath their hometown that they knew nothing about. Things there are ... different there, to say the least, and the family has to try to stay alive (and save the world) while also dealing with the more mundane but very relatable issue of challenging family relationships. It looks, in short, like a very expansive, very heartwarming, and very fun film. 

During a press day for the film, I had the chance to sit down with "Strange World" director Don Hall, co-director and writer Qui Nguyen, and producer Roy Conli about the movie. Read on for that discussion, which includes their inspirations for making the strange places we see in "Strange World" so strange, and also a tease about what we haven't seen so far.

This interview has been edited and lightly condensed for clarity.

'There's definitely stuff we put in there that they'll be like, 'Whoa, just a minute''

In your presentation this morning, you gave a great overview of your inspiration for the story. One thing that wasn't touched on directly, and I don't know if you can answer this, is that the strange land underneath the earth feels like it has a story behind why it exists. This might be a yes or no question, I don't know if you can tell me, but do you know the creation story for the strange world and how it came to be?

Don Hall: Yes, we do.

Will the audience find out?


Okay! Next question. Another thing you talked about was how the movie touched on father and son relationships. You both have sons, and if your sons or anything like my kid, which I'm sure they are, I'm sure they have a lot of opinions. Did they have any input in the film in terms of creating creatures or plot points or anything like that?

Qui Nguyen: My kids' only opinion was not to show them footage because when we did "Raya the Last Dragon," I shared everything and then they saw the movie and were like, "Well, you spoiled all the stories!"

Hall: [Jokingly] Thanks, Dad.

Nguyen: I was like fine, I won't show you anything. Then of course because I wouldn't share anything, they would go try to see, and my youngest, who's nine, is super drawn to Splat [see concept art for Splat above] and the dog, Legend. He's like, "Wait, wait, wait, I didn't know about this!" And I tell him, "Nope, you got to get out the room now, you made your bed, get out."

Hall: I think they saw the teaser that we released a few months ago and they were like, "That's cool."

Nguyen: The truth is they influenced the movie, but not intentionally. There's definitely stuff we put in there that they'll be like, "Whoa, just a minute".

When they do see it, do you think they'll be impressed or they'll be like, "Are you trying to tell me something, Dad?"

Nguyen: [Jokingly] I think it's a good instruction manual to our kids on how they should treat us. Because at the end, they'd be like, "Hey look, the father and sons, they like each other."

Hall: There's a couple lines in the movie that were direct lifts from a conversation I had with my dad during making of this movie. I wanted to pick his brain about a couple things and he said some stuff and I mentioned it to Qui and he put it in the script. We'll see how he feels about that.

Nguyen: I would love to see your dad be like, "Now hold on Disney!"

Hall: [Jokingly] Don Sr. wants a writing credit now.

'It's so fun to be able to make a film where your goal is to be the one who's leading the roller coaster'

You also mentioned that you didn't want to have any restrictions in the weird land we visit, except you gave some very strict parameters to the animation team — the creatures having no faces and no bones, not using any browns or greens in the landscape — how did those parameters come to pass?

Hall: From a very broad vantage point, it was all about appeal and working in contrast. When looking at nature in the real world, how can we be in contrast to that, so we know we're in a very different place? That's what led to the color restriction. Even shape language-wise — trees are relatively straight and rocks sometimes can be jagged and straight — it was really just trying to make something round and appealing and organic. I think that was the big word is just organic. Those were the broad parameters and then from there it was just the imagination of everybody.

Nguyen: And going from Don's lead, he wanted us to continue to surprise the audience. If this is your assumption of what a ground would be, what is the opposite of that? Or what's the left of center of every expectation you have throughout this film? I think that everyone embraced that and just ran with it.

It's so fun to be able to make a film where your goal is to be the one who's leading the roller coaster and not letting anyone understand where the next turn is. It's like that moment in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride — the first time you ever ride it you're suddenly going from the Bayou and then you just drop. We wanted to control that drop.

Roy Conli: Also, that restriction of green — Pando [the plant that provides energy to the town of Avalonia] is green. It was constant reminder as you're going through the world, that there's a world up above.

Hall: Yeah, we aren't cutting back and forth — Avalonia had to come down with our characters, it was sort of practical. We started with more practical concerns and that led to creative solutions.

'There's a little bit of a false read to the thing that you're looking at'

One of the words that came to mind when I was watching the footage you shared during the present is "juicy." It just seemed very lush and juicy. It's a compliment. I just wondered if that was something that came about through the creative process or was that something from the get-go you had in your mind from the beginning.

Hall: I think it got more that way when we honed in on the actual design and shape language that [Production Designer Mehrdad Isvandi and Larry Wu and Head of Environments Sean Jenkins] put together based on a bunch of vis dev that had been going on. Early on the color restriction came from early pieces of vis dev for Strange World that used those earth tones, and it almost looked too much like what could be up top. That's what led to no green, no earth tones. Those little decisions made along the way added up to a style guide that we could then apply to everything.

Other artists like Tadahiro Uesugi, who was instrumental in "Big Hero 6," did a couple of weeks of amazing work on this film that was stylistically very different from his normal artwork. He's much more about cityscapes and stuff like that. This was like none of that, and I think it freed him up early on and he did a bunch of stuff and there were things Tadahiro did that they aesthetically liked and wanted to bring in.

Nguyen: Here's a little spoiler, which I'm probably not supposed to say, but you get the scoop. There's a little bit of a false read to the thing that you're looking at. "Strange World," the nature of the kind of movie we're making, it's an exploration film that will travel throughout the whole world. Right now you get a lot of footage from what we showed you and in our trailers of a very specific spot in the film, that is juicy. But they'll be traveling in different places that will again surprise, and are actually quite dramatically different then that area of the film. It moves and changes — some places are juicy, some places are jagged, some places are very different, but it is going to be many different lands. It's a bit of a surprise that we're trying to keep.

'Mine's Poop Pickle'

Very cool! Going back to the relationships, so obviously there's the two father-son relationships, but there's also the grandfather-son. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how Ethan and Jaeger's dynamic in the movie and how that impacts the story.

Hall: Ethan has never met his grandpa and he knows very little, in fact almost next to nothing, about Jaeger. Whatever he knows about Jaeger is through public domain because Searcher doesn't really talk about it. I think that's left a bit of a hole in Ethan's cosmology because he wants to know, but he also knows that Jaeger and Searcher had a bit of a fraught relationship. He loves his dad and wants to respect his dad, but there is a longing for what's Jaeger's really like, and am I anything like him?

Those questions get answered when Ethan gets the opportunity to meet him. For Jaeger, I think we have both talked about this, our parents treat our kids so much differently than they did us. That felt so honest to our experience, and we wanted to get that in the movie. And also for Ethan, Jaeger is somebody who actually listens to him and is interested in what he's doing. I think he found a captive audience and of course that puts a lot of pressure on Searcher because Ethan is his everything. In a million years, Searcher never imagined he would be put in a situation where there's a push and pull for Ethan between him and his dad. That's really what the journey of "Strange World" is, comically and even dramatically.

I really got a kick out of the name drops of the creatures during the presentation. Do you all have a favorite creature name?

Conli: Flatty Patty.

Nguyen: Mine's Poop Pickle.

Hall: Mine's Poop Pickle too.

We didn't see Poop Pickle did we?

Hall: Not yet. We had to hold something back.

Conli: All the names are great. Transportasaurus was great too.

'It's this huge coming of age story, not of an individual, but individuals'

From what I've seen, it looks like a beautiful film and I think people will really enjoy it. And from what you shared of the story, it sounds like a very heartwarming tale and that will connect to a lot of people. When kids and parents watch this movie, how do you want them to feel and what message do you want them to take away from it?

Hall: I told this story to our composer Henry Jackman when he finished his cues for the score. When I was eight years old I saw "Star Wars" for the first time, and it had a huge impact on me. At the time I had the "Star Wars" album — it was a double album, and it was John Williams' score. We would put that on our giant stereo, the size of this table, and that music would accompany us while we played. I don't know if kids play anymore, but we played "Star Wars." I was Hans Solo. That music inspired our play of the movie, and I would love families or even specifically kids to walk away from this movie wanting to play those characters accompanied by Henry's score, because there's just such a powerful feeling to it. You got to hear a little bit of it today, but it's a vibe when you walk away. If you love these characters and want to play a version of what you just saw, I think that'd be pretty awesome.

Nguyen: For me it's a celebration of family. On the surface, it is a great father son story. In a weird way it should have come out Father's Day. You can arguably go, this is the film that I can't wait to watch with my kid and watch with my dad. But it's also just about a family, because can't subtract Meridian and Callisto as members of this family that had to come together to save the world. It's just a real celebration of getting past those differences. It's this huge coming of age story, not of an individual, but individuals, of how Jaeger has to grow to be a better grandfather, Searcher has to grow, Ethan has to grow to become the legacy that allows them to fix the world.

Conli: It's the legacy issue for me. It's the idea of, "How do we leave a better place for the next generation?" How do we support those who come after us, and it's important. Oftentimes we don't think about that, and I hope that the audience goes away thinking about that.

Disney Animation's "Strange World" hits theaters on November 23, 2022.