Strange World Producer Roy Conli On Primal Outpost, Altering Characters, And More [Exclusive Interview]

Disney Animation's latest feature, "Strange World," hits theaters today. The film is an adventurous romp that focuses on themes of father-son relationships and taking care of where you live — not only for yourself, but for future generations. It also has some twists and surprises that I highly recommend you avoid finding out about before you see the movie.

In "Strange World," we follow the Clade family — grandfather Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), father Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), mother Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), and 16-year-old Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White). Along with their town's leader, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), they go on a journey underneath their land and find themselves in a very strange world indeed.

I recently spoke once more with "Strange World" producer Roy Conli before the feature's release. We veered away from major spoilers in the film, but touched on the characters (and the actors who play them), how the creative team met with Disney game team to create the movie's prevalent board game, and why Ethan Clade is such a great character.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'What are we as fathers going to leave our sons, and what are our sons going to leave their sons?'

You mentioned in our earlier conversation that one of your favorite things about the movie was the message it had about protecting the environment. Now that I've seen "Strange World," I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit — when you first heard of this project, how was it pitched to you? Was the environmental message part of it, or was it more the father-son story that was the main focus?

The wonderful thing about this project has been that from a thematic standpoint, it's really been solid. So many films that I've worked on, you find that you're chasing theme. You go in with an idea, and then once you get it up on the screen — because we do several iterations — you just sit there and you go, "Oh, the theme is actually this." Or, "Oh, the theme is that." And what's wonderful is during that period, all those little pieces of themes that you've been traveling through, connect.

We walked in on this and the environmental story, the three generational story, and the familial aspect of this was there. And we've never really been chasing theme on this one. When I heard about it the first time, [director Don Hall] pitched me the story, I was taken with the three generation element of it because I love father-son stories. I mean, it's something that I've loved since I was a kid, reading. But then also, it's that big theme of: What are we going to leave the next generation? What are we as fathers going to leave our sons, and what are our sons going to leave their sons? I think it's so important and so pressing in terms of today.

Absolutely. And that's interesting how it was a package deal.

Yeah. It's so wonderful working with Don because I think he creates these amazing worlds that are theme-rich. And the great thing is that these incredibly diverse and inclusive worlds are reflective of ours, but you can only visit them in animation. You couldn't go to "Strange World" in our world. So to me, that was the other element that really drew me in, was how this was so right for animation.

'The heart of Ethan is so pure, and that's why we love that character so much'

One of the things I also loved about it is that Ethan is gay and he has a crush, and it's totally not a big deal for anyone, which is such a nice thing to see. I'm so happy that so many kids are going to be able to see that in a Disney film. Was that also always part of the story?

From day one. And again, the wonderful thing about Don, too, is creating these wonderfully diverse worlds. It was something that we fell in love with: this character's compassion. And he's such a wonderful human being that it was just part of who he is.

He's one of the most with-it characters, I think. His mom, too.

I'm a big fan of Meridian [Ethan's mom]. I think Meridian, she is the glue because she's able to see those three generations and communicate with them all, in a weird way. The thing is so paralleled in terms of character to theme — you have Jaeger, who is the conqueror, you have Searcher, who is the controller, and then you have Ethan as the conservationist. Searcher wants to control nature because he's a farmer. And Jaeger wants to conquer it. But the heart of Ethan is so pure, and that's why we love that character so much.

'He went away and wrote a suite for the film before he ever started putting anything to picture'

Yeah. Another thing that really made an impact on me was the music. I would love to hear more about how that score came about and how the creative process for that went.

Henry Jackman, our composer, I think is brilliant. And not only is he brilliant, he's a really good friend of ours. We worked together on "Big Hero 6." He worked with Don on "Winnie the Pooh" back in the day.

Henry is a storyteller, and he's able to help support story through his music. And early on we were showing him reels. We do iterations of animatics of the whole film. We showed him an early iteration, and he went away and wrote a suite for the film before he ever started putting anything to picture. And that suite, which is essentially played at the very end, for the end credits, that suite defined the themes in the film. I mean, it's great because everyone on this film, from our technical staff to our animators, to our technical animators who make the hair wave, they bring something to the film, and it's always focused on what makes the best story. That was something that Henry did as well. I think he helped support the story with his music.

'For this board game, it was really about creating a civilization that functions'

Another thing I thought was fun was the board game, Primal Outpost. I loved it just as a game and also how it functions as a metaphor in some ways. How did that become part of the story, and does anyone know the actual rules of that game to play it?

It's funny because we met with the Disney game team, and we sat down and asked, "Okay, what is this game going to be?" Because you've got certainly the video games, but we thought in this film we didn't want to bring a video game into it. This world was going to be powered but not necessarily have that element in it. We started getting into the different types of board games there are and the different iterations of those board games through the years.

For this board game, it was really about creating a civilization that functions. I think that, to me, is a great Gen Z kind of issue. When you look at the three generations and the conqueror, the controller, and the conservationist, it really does fit within the conservationist.

'When we first met with Jake, it was clear he wanted to be involved'

You mentioned earlier how you love the cast so much, and no argument here. When they were doing their parts, was there any particular ad-libbing they did that made it into the movie?

This is where Don is, I think, a brilliant director. Don does not come in with a solid preconceived idea of what he wants. He allows his collaborators to come in and help shape things. When we first met with Jake [Gyllenhaal, who voices Searcher], it was clear he wanted to be involved in helping create this character.

We did our first recording session in New York — and we did a two-day recording session — we decided that the first day, we were just going to get through the entire script so that Jake could learn the film. And then we were going to come back and focus on sequences that we wanted to put into production. Well, somewhere in the middle of that recording session, Jake said, "I don't think Searcher would do this." And we sat down and Don and [co-director and writer Qui Nguyen], we all sat down at a table and talked it through. Qui went away that night and rewrote the sequence. We came back the next day, recorded it, and it's in the film.

Gabrielle [Union, who voices Meridian] and Jaboukie [Young-White, who voices Ethan] are also phenomenal in terms of their improv. And then Dennis [Quaid] came in. We had pitched him the story. He came in, and he just had a take. The three of us looked at one another and went, "That's our Jaeger. That's our Jaeger."

I couldn't think of a better cast for this. And Lucy [Liu], too. With Lucy it was interesting because the character of Callisto changed.

How so?

Well, she was much more of a Jaeger type of character at first. And we thought, "Oh, god, it's too much ..." And we had pitched her that and then we went back to her and said, "Listen, we're thinking of changing this character." And she said, "Well, let's see what it is," because she really wanted to embrace that character. We went back to her twice because we wanted to work with her so badly. She totally embraced that. I mean, that's an amazingly subtle character, Callisto. Not only is she an explorer, but she's a leader.

"Strange World" is in theaters now.