'Luca' Director Talks About Crafting The Movie's Ending, Taking Inspiration From Fellini, And More [Interview]

While Pixar's Soul grappled with existential questions about what happens before and after death, the studio pivoted to a far simpler story with its latest movie, Luca, the story of a sea monster who can pass as a human boy on the surface and who yearns for freedom. But it didn't always have such a simple narrative.

I spoke with director Enrico Casarosa and producer Andrea Warren in a recent Zoom interview about earlier iterations of this story, their film's LGBTQ+ metaphor, how parts of Luca were subconsciously inspired by Fellini's 8 1/2, working with the folks at Vespa to incorporate that brand into the film, and more.

I know Mystique from the X-Men movies was used as a reference point for the transformation sequences in this movie, and the central metaphor of the X-Men films, which is those characters' mutations serve as an allegory for them being members of the LGBT+ community, seems to be present here as well. Can you talk about the intentionality of that metaphor in Luca?

Casarosa: Yeah, what I loved from day one about the sense that these kids could have this other side that they had to hide was that – my experience was I just felt like an outsider, and my best friend and I were feeling a little nerdy and losery and there were always cooler people that we were looking toward. That is my experience of it, but we knew from day one that it's a wonderful prism for the audience to come in and bring their own experience of feeling "other." So, in many ways, yeah, I love the idea that [the LGBT+ allegory] can be brought in and projected. I think the best movies leave some room for a read into it.

Where I keep on thinking that the read into all the otherness and difference feels right is that [Luca] is a story about, at a certain point, like, "Here I am. Let the chips fall where they may." And so that is a coming out moment. We kept on saying, "This is not about people accepting them." Some people will accept and some people won't. But it's more about, "I'm going to fly my flag and I don't care, and here's me." That was such an important part of this coming of age. And the friendship is such a big part of it, too, because they are the people that are around you and see you for who you are, and they don't care [about] whatever differences [you have]. So we love the line in the movie, "Am I too much?" No, you're cool. I love that whatever possible way we feel gets brought to this movie. So yeah, it wasn't exactly how I started because my story was a little different, but I love that there's that read into it.

We often hear stories about how Pixar is relentless in breaking down stories over and over again until landing on the final version. Assuming that process happened with Luca, can you tell me about some of the earlier versions of this story?

Casarosa: Yeah, there are long roads. It's a diamond in the rough at the beginning. It's very sculptural, in a way. It was a little too complicated. The first pitch was a little more Stand By Me. There was a larger group, we had another kid with Luca and Alberto as a sea monster. His name was Ciccio, so we recast him as a goon for our Ercole, and they were on a bigger quest. They were going to become human. They were going to turn fully human, and there were magical tokens, and we realized that it needed to be more focused on the friendship. We got rid of the third wheel, we kept Luca and Alberto a little more at the center, and we realized that is really what we're interested in here.

We also didn't have our ending, so that was a key thing. We had a big ending with a kraken, Alberto turning into a kraken magically and Luca was going to protect him and defend him. And we realized that we want to tell a smaller kid-like movie world here, so the monster movie ending – which was very much about the two factions, very much about two worlds against each other – that might work with the Romeo and Juliet version of the story, but it didn't really work for the one that we more and more fell in love with. A kid's world and stakes and goals, with this kind of slightly strange and silly idea: "We're gonna ride into the sunset with a Vespa!" So those were some of the changes. Andrea, I don't know if there are any others that come to your mind.

Warren: Oh, there were a lot. I mean, you're right. And I like this point coming up in the discussions because I think when you see a movie or a finished book or whatever it is, it can feel from a distance like maybe we just sat down, wrote it out, and then that was that. And I think the process really does involve tons of trial and error, and really, in some ways, the biggest challenge is deciding what to keep. What are the pillars that you want to hang on to and keep building around? And we do have a lot of screenings along the way. We rely on other directors, producers, writers at the studio working on other projects. It's very collaborative. But we're our own first audience, and we all love films and we want it to be the kind of experience that we would want to have walking into a theater and seeing something. So yeah, we're tough on ourselves. A lot of "Silencio, Bruno!" along the way. But that is what it takes to find a story.

[Warning: spoilers ahead in this next question and answer.]

So if this ending is not something you had planned originally, how did you come to that? Were there any cinematic touch points for inspiration of how you wanted it to feel?Casarosa: Yeah, there were a couple of things that happened. One, I rewatched Breaking Away, that was one of the early ones. There's just something about that movie that I love, so we took a little bit of inspiration from that. But then one important thing was I had a conversation with my best friend about our friendship, and we kind of honed in on the fact that there's a moment where you are better off going your separate ways. You kind of have to, because you've grown up in life and you have to, one way or the other. But exactly because you have helped each other, it's that moment.

The thing that I started really falling in love with there is this thing that I experienced many times: the bittersweetness of having to leave behind what you cared about – your family, your home – but going out into potential and something feels right. I experienced that many times, every time I left home. Every time I go back, I still can kind of think of those first few days where [I said], "I'm going to go to New York and chase animation and filmmaking." So that was something that interestingly brought it together. Now we're talking about friendships and these very wonderful friendships that make us grow up, but there's something to say that's a little deeper. But that empowered me to say, "I felt this. I have experienced this. This is a good ending." We put it out, we put some music to it, we boarded it, and it made us feel something. That is a moment where you, as a director, feel like, "Okay, something's clicking here." It clicked into place and it helped us immensely.

Yeah, it reminded me a little of the ending of Good Will Hunting, and then also I just recently watched David Lean's Summertime for the first time, which is set in Venice, and that movie ends with this big train farewell moment. It's a wonderful combination of both of those things.Casarosa: You know, one other beautiful farewell movie is I Vitelloni, which is a Fellini movie.I just watched that for the first time, too! Because I know you mentioned that Fellini was an influence on this. I had not really seen a ton of his work, so I tried to watch more before we had this conversation.Casarosa: Yeah, you will see we used the same train design. We wanted to make a little homage to it, so that was really, really fun. But yeah, there's a cinematic scene in that movie that blows me away every time where you see a camera passing in everybody's bedroom at the end.Yes, it's great.Casarosa: Amazing. That is one of my favorite Fellini directing choices. And yeah, that leaving your hometown [feeling] was also something that we really loved, too.Were there any other parts of Fellini's filmmaking or his style that you wanted to incorporate into Luca?Casarosa: Yeah, I think the way that he loves to bring in the dream world. We had a similar – maybe less dreams, but when I think of 8 1/2 and the wonderful breaks into [Marcello Mastroianni's character's] dreams, we had daydreaming. Not exactly dreams, but still. Because we needed to get into this kid's head a little, and when you tell a story about an introvert – we had different versions, and sometimes he was very quiet and it was a little bit hard to understand him. So probably subconsciously, because I didn't think about it at the time, but I love 8 1/2 so much, and there are a similar few scenes that almost give you a spine of what's in [Luca's] head. So I do love that there's a little bit of a thread there.

The other one is that I've always been a huge fan of his wife, Giulietta Masina. And I remember when we were making La Luna, the kid experiencing this family's amazing work, I showed the animators Giulietta Masina in La Strada because there is something about her eyes that was so expressive and so innocent, but full of wonder. So I just love Giulietta Masina and the movies they made together.

Dream sequences are not super common in Pixar movies. Did you encounter any pushback at all? Is there a Pixar playbook and somebody at the top said, "Hey, this is unusual for what we do here"? Were there any conversations about that?

Casarosa: I don't think so. I think what you're going to get is like, "Don't lose contrast." Interestingly, having a La Luna-like short and wanting to make a more lyrical movie, it happens sometimes that if you had too much of it, or if the tone was too slow, you lost contrast. So one thing I realized, and I think it was a great note from Pete Docter, was, "Use [the dream sequences] in the right moment, and don't forget to use contrast." It becomes a rhythm question, which is, I think, a wonderful lesson we learned. You can use them and have fun with them and bring some of that wonderful fantastical side that was part of my first short, which I felt was important to do, but do it carefully in the right moment and not lose the highs and lows of pace.Warren: I think there was a question that came up at one point about the wild Vespas. They were like, "What is that?" And we're like, "We don't know! We just think it's fun, him imagining it incorrectly." But it was fun to have a place in the film just to put such pure imagination.I was actually going to ask you about the Vespas. How did that work, getting that brand into that movie? Did they pay you guys? Did you pay them for the ability to use it?Casarosa: We definitely had a moment where – because we were putting them in it. It felt right, it was a kid thing, and it's a wonderful symbol of friendship and freedom. We definitely had moments like, "Boy, I sure hope they're on board with this, because it would be hard to not have them in!"Warren: It felt like a bummer to say "scooter" instead of Vespa. But no, we had an agreement with them. We definitely approached the company and explained the film and they loved it and they're excited. They're having an anniversary of the company existing, and I think they're sort of combining that as a promotional kind of thing. We're delighted and really happy they're on board.

I think I have time for one more question, so for each of you, when you think back on this movie's entire journey, what aspect of Luca are you the most proud of?

Casarosa: I think I'm most proud of finding a way to collaborate with our crew in a way that always elevated the work. I'm a shy guy, I'm a timid guy, and I had to work on supportive direct collaboration. Which means, like, "Oh, I need this. This is where we're going." For example, when you're working with an animator, you will have times where you're like, "But is there a better idea? Can we make it even cooler? What do you think? Here's the minimum we need, but let's make it better together." I absolutely treasured those moments. It elevates what we do. It really is about collaboration. What we do together with our brains, nobody by themselves could do. So I'm really most proud of that. And also, because I am a little bit more of a timid, accommodating guy, I'm proud that I found a way of being direct. Like, "This is not working yet, but here's what I need and let's work on it together."Warren: Yeah, I'm proud of the film itself. I'm proud that we found something a bit different, that we persevered. Because I think when you are trying to find a different style and tone, you don't know what you're aiming for, and you have to find it along the way. So I think along with that, I'm just really proud of the crew, because it took a lot of collective passion to find that. I think the fact that everybody offered that passion during a pandemic was remarkable. Because it was a layered, tough time with a lot of uncertainty and confusion and responsibilities, but everybody still brought that filmmaking passion and it was incredibly inspiring for me and Enrico.


Luca will be available to stream on Disney+ starting June 18, 2021.