'Raya And The Last Dragon' Producer And Screenwriter On Creating A New Kind Of Disney Hero [Interview]

When the rumblings for the project that would become Raya and the Last Dragon first began at Disney roughly five years ago, producer Osnat Shurer (Moana) was brought on board to spearhead the House of Mouse's next animated epic. The general ideas were there: a fantasy world based around the Asian dragon, usually a symbol of water and harmony, and a "kick-ass warrior" to lead the adventure. And Shurer knew just who to call about these ideas: Crazy Rich Asians writer Adele Lim.

"When she called me, she was just like, 'Asian, kick-ass warrior, dragon,'" Lim recalled to /Film in an interview during a Raya and the Last Dragon early press day. "I'm like, 'done.'"

From those general ideas, Lim and Shurer, along with directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-screenwriter Qui Nguyen, began to sketch out the character of Raya, voiced by Kelly-Marie Tran. Lim wanted Raya to be a different kind of heroine from "those in Hollywood movies [that] tend to be, you know, very attractive, physically very capable, but also very stoic," she said. "And we knew that we didn't want that for Raya."

But the character of Raya wouldn't really click until Tran stepped into the recording booth and gave her performance.

"Kelly coming into the studio and doing our first recording session was for us, one of those revelatory moments for all of us who were there," Shurer said. "That was the moment that Raya came alive as the character we wanted her to be."

Read our full interview with producer Osnat Shurer and screenwriter Adele Lim below.

Osnat and Adele, you were both brought onto Raya and the Last Dragon after it had already been in development under Disney by a different name. Was it already in the process of being the Southeast-Asian inspired fantasy epic that we saw in the footage? Or were there major changes when you retouched the script in particular, Adele?Adele Lim: Why don't you go first [Osnat], since you were there from almost the beginning?Osnat Shurer: Yeah, I've been on this film for about four years. And I think the things that were really strong we had — we didn't actually have the title until way later on — but the things that were...really strong that we wanted to keep had to do with the idea of the five lands that are divided that are set around the dragon-shaped river. We knew that that dragon was going to be inspired by the Asian dragon, which is connected to water, and to harmony, and to auspiciousness. And that was really important to us because it was just such a beautiful idea. And we knew that we had this kind of kick-ass warrior. We were playing with different ideas of how all of this evolves and how it comes together. And then I called Adele.Lim: Yeah, so when she called me, she was just like, "Asian, kick-ass warrior, dragon." I'm like, "done."

So the different influences that I grew up with...I was like, let's see if I can put all of my childhood fantasies and see if the filmmakers or the directors caught it. But first, growing up in Southeast Asia, we didn't see ourselves in movies very much. So I watched a lot of Hong Kong action movies, and the female protagonist, you know that archetype made a huge impression on me — whether it was Michelle Yeoh or Jet Li movies — these women, whether they were the villain or they're the love interest or the wise old nun, they could still whoop ass.  And then there was also the tradition of Southeast Asian female leaders and warriors, and the fact that even to this day, within the region, Southeast Asia women are very empowered. And so it led into the conversation of Raya and whether or not she's a princess. Well, yes! Because she's also a leader who feels very invested in trying to save this land that she loves, and also being able to carry that through her journey.

And the other influences we had when we have all these long conversations — like, okay, what are the other big action movies with strong young females at the center of it? Those in Hollywood movies tend to be, you know, very attractive, physically very capable, but also very stoic. Like they don't really crack jokes, there isn't like a depth, or warmth, or humanity to them. And we knew that we didn't want that for Raya. I didn't know any girls that perfect as I was growing up. And so with Raya, we wanted a very different character, and in an intellectual way we kind of knew that it wasn't scripting and visual development to be like, well this is what she looks like. But really it wasn't until Kelly-Marie Tran came in into the recording studio that gave Raya a soul and made her come to life. Because there's so much that is inspired by the culture, and there's so much that the team really steeped itself in, but there are also things that are in our DNA that is not something you've learned from a book or watching a performance, it's like a sensibility. Instincts and things you don't even know— the storyboard artists from Thailand [can] put it into a board or you write it in a script or you see it on the screen, [it's] Kelly-Marie's interpretation of the character where you really feel it.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – Visual Development art of Raya by artist, Shiyoon Kim, Visual Development Artist. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

And obviously you brought some of your own Malaysian of heritage into the script, and Qui [Nguyen] with his Vietnamese heritage, and of course Kelly Marie with her Vietnamese heritage. In the research process for Raya and the Last Dragon, was there any particular Southeast Asian culture that kind of came to the forefront in terms of influencing either the architecture or the characters, more so than others?Shurer: That's a great question, because it's always this balance. So we have, as Adele said, quite a few people in key creative roles that come from different parts of the region, but we also send some of our artists on research trips and visited as many of the places a couple times. We're talking about a vast region with many countries, with many, many cultures, with many races within each country. And so what we started looking for — and of particular help on this was our visual anthropologist, Dr. [Steve Arounsack]. He's Lao, but his expertise sits across Southeast Asia. As a visual anthropologist, what are the visual elements that that express a culture? When we would have long conversations about this...part of what we were looking for are what are sort of shared motifs, and shared design elements, and there are quite a few. And they're really beautiful. Some of them are more cinematic. Obviously, you spent a little time in the region or with some Southeast Asian friends and you know the importance of community, and love, and warmth, and how we come together around food and things like that that became thematic, we really fell in love with, and wanted to express the power of unity.

And another thing you find in Southeast Asia is with this multiplicity, there's still this great inclusion. Like people are different, and have different ideas and different fabrics, and different cultures ,and different languages, and yet there's this inclusion, this ability to kind of work together for the greater good, which is something really wanted seated in the film. So we went and we tried to make sure that there was enough expertise, like Dr. Arounsack, that goes across the region, or Juliana our linguist who's Indonesian but her expertise is in multiple languages. Also, in a variety of the people who are in the room, when they get to these moments where [Head of Story] Fawn [Veerasunthorn] or Adele would say something and the other one would go, "Yeah we have that too! Yeah we all do that! Let's put it in the film," and the production designer sitting right there, and the next day is in the film, as well as our team of our Southeast Asian Story Trust, who are always on call.

So, if we wanted to talk about, for example, how a character would leave their shoes outside of a sacred place tidy, without touching it with their hands. Our dancer, who was Balinese, sent us the video half an hour later showing us exactly how you do that so the animators have that for reference. Or Qui comes in, and aside from being Adele's co-writer, turns out he's a martial arts expert with a real focus on Southeast Asia. This is the kind of thing that makes a producer very happy. We knew that somebody with some knowledge is helping make sure things are grounded in the right way, even though we're in the world.

Lim: And just to add to that — because this is my first Disney animated movie, I come from live action — what really, really struck me about the Disney process was how much time, and care, and respect they  took into it. And it's not about just on a superficial level of making things look like they're inspired by Southeast Asia, but on every level. Even though I grew up in Malaysia, there's so much about Southeast Asia I didn't know. There was so much about the region that Fawn, our Head of Story, didn't know. But really delving back in about the ways that our societies have evolved, like how we dress, and how we behave, and how we come from our beliefs and our faiths at the time. And so for Kumandra, if they had a faith system sort of based around their dragons, that also dictated the designs, that dictated their form of respect. And so it wasn't just about what are the dressings of Southeast Asia as a region, it was really like, how do we respect that tradition from where we came from and using that to fuel our fantasy world. And that was tremendous for me.Speaking of visual parallels or possible inspirations, I have to ask about the similarities to Avatar: The Airbender that many people have picked up on. Both Raya and Avatar draw inspiration from the Southeast Asia, and in Avatar's case the wider Asian continent, but the story of an epic quest, the dividing the world into a handful of nations, and even that intro, feels very similar to the Nickelodeon cartoon. Were these similarities brought up during the production process or were they intentional?Shurer: I'm not familiar, and I only learned about Avatar later from some friends who loved it so much. And I started watching it, it was super cool. We spend a lot of time first in development, and then in production together, kind of digging into what is the story we want to tell and what are the inspirations, and I think that with an area that isn't seen on the big screen internationally as much as its beauty warrants, parallels will be found very more quickly. Like the parallels are found between movies with female protagonists where you're like, that's just been done enough! And so we don't shy away from the comparison because it's beautiful series, but this was inspired from within, and of any parallels that are there are the kind that happen when both pay homage to such cool cultures.On the subject of those female protagonists, the trio of lead characters — both in the protagonists and also the antagonist — are all female. Can you guys talk about like the significance of that, whether that was kind of something that came about organically, or something that was planned from the beginning?Lim: This was beyond exciting for me. When they brought me on, they were like, there's Raya, our main character, and there's a dragon. And very early on, even with our directors [it was important] that there was a female buddy friendship at the heart of an action movie. That's something you don't often see, and we knew we wanted to celebrate that. But also with the relationship of Namaari, the villain, she is not like a random girl who wants to just tear things down for the hell of it. She is somebody that Raya has history with, that there were times where they could have been friends. And now that they have this combative relationship but they are really different sides of the same coin, because Namaari too, like Raya, in the world could have been a future leader [and] cares deeply about the land, about her people. And they have this push-pull like matter relationship, and it has to sort of resolve at the end. And these things are also like specific to like female relationships, and again, have growing up in a very female-centric family...this is the world I live in and that I never see in Hollywood movies. So I love that it's groundbreaking right now but these are the stories we should be telling nonstop, anyway.Shurer: Yeah, we love that it's groundbreaking, and we really look forward to the day that it isn't, because this is the world we live in. And I do think that it feels fresh because we haven't seen enough of it. The more we see, the more we get a chance to have characters be who they are, they're not defined by their gender. Part of the way Raya ends up solving the problem world is because she has this balance as a character, and I can't tell you how — certainly, though and I could go on talking about this all day — it's super exciting for us.Lim: This is not specific to Southeast Asia, but in terms of female relationships, my grandmother went through the World War II occupation, in a society where you have to deal with illness and families falling apart, it is the women coming together and really looking out for each other and looking out for each other's families that have brought us together through these times. And so being able to be inspired by that, be the product of that, and have that be infused in the story and the fabric of our film, that was very important too.You spoke earlier about how Kelly-Marie Tran's performance really lends to the characterization of Raya. But I do want to ask about how Kelly-Marie Tran did come into the project a little later, replacing the original voice actress, Cassie Steele. Can you talk about what led to Kelly-Marie Tran coming on and how specifically she added to the character as you were bringing Raya together?Shurer: Cassie's a wonderfully talented actress, and you know, the process of animation — like I said, I've been on this movie for four years — and it had already been done before I came on. The movie evolves again and again, and we put up screenings and we kind of tear it apart, and add to the things that work, and take away things that don't with all the directors and writers at the studio setting aside their time and their love to support us. And the character of Raya really evolved. The character became somebody completely different. And so, at that point, we realized that she was Kelly. That Kelly-Marie was perfect. And when I say perfect, it wasn't just for her performance in other movies that we'd seen, it was also from having conversations with her. She's one of the kindest, warmest, most wonderful human beings you want to be working with. And with a character like Raya, who, especially as she evolved, has such a traumatic experience and sets her off on something that she needs to relearn trust, it's very easy to make that character shut down or shut off — or bitter — and so that we can't relate to her as they move forward, is something we never had to worry about with Kelly. No matter what it is that she is conveying in the story, her warmth and her humanity and her own humor — and it's kind humor — comes through it. And so that marrying that character we were creating and then Kelly coming into the studio and doing our first recording session was for us, one of those revelatory moments for all of us who were there. That was the moment that Raya came alive as the character we wanted her to be.


Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on March 5, 2021.