The hard-working artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios still had a ways to go to finish Raya and the Last Dragon when the pandemic hit last year. This forced the people at Disney to finish a film remotely for the first time, a challenge that had its drawbacks, but that also inspired the filmmakers to make some changes when they get back to the office.
Recently Collider got the chance to speak with Raya and the Last Dragon producer Osnat Shurer and co-writer Adele Lim about their work on the film. The story takes place in the fantasy world of Kumandra, which long ago fractured into five separate lands when dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity from an evil force. When that evil force returns 500 years later, it’s up to a warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her ragtag group of companions — including the titular last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) — to save the day.
During the interview (which was conducted by Drew Taylor), Shurer and Lim talked about the original version of Raya and the Last Dragon and why the story and character changed during development. They also spoke about the importance of casting, and how the timeliness of the story was no coincidence. And Shurer, who produced 2016’s Moana, explained how they finished the film remotely and how that experience has informed some changes he’d like to make once they get back to making films together in the office.
Check out the full interview below. Raya and the Last Dragon will be released in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5th.
Image via Disney
You’ve both been with this project for so long. You were there at the inception. So I wanted to know what those early days were like, why there was such a kind of seismic creative shift in the process and where you are now?
OSNAT SHURER: Where we are now is with you here celebrating, and we’re very proud. I’ve been on the film for, oh, about four years and you know, you’re familiar with our process. We put screenings up, we kind of all get together with all the smart people in the studio. We tear it apart. We build on what’s working, we fix what isn’t again and again and again. And so our teams evolve. They evolve a lot and sometimes that evolution needs a shift in any part of the team or in any part of what we’ve put together. But the heart of the film has remained the same.
We had a divided land, with these multiple lands around the Dragon River. The dragon itself was always Asian inspired dragons connected to water and became more and more specific as we went along, which in Southeast Asian inspired Naga, who’s about water and about harmony, and about life. And we wanted that relationship of the dragon and the humans. We had the character of Raya, but she was very different back then. And we definitely had a strong warrior character who fights well, but has to on this journey regain something that that is lost. We were in love with all these elements. And then we started adding to it. And one of the first wonderful things we added to it was Adele. Right, Adele?
Adele, what was your take on this whole adventure?
ADELE LIM: Well, you know I came on pretty early on when they had an Asian female, kick-ass warrior and a dragon. I was like, “Done. I’m in”, like 100%. And I think in the evolution of Raya, and who she was, I think when we started out she was very much like a Western-type lone warrior. And we were excited about this character, but really when you see it up on its feet it’s just like … it was lacking a certain warmth for the character itself, how we conceived of it. And also in terms of being inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, that is also not part of our culture that even though Raya herself, raised to be a leader, is kind of full of herself, and has the love of her father.
But when you meet her as a grown-up she’s kind of bittered by the world. It can create a sort of like distance in the character, someone that you don’t connect with as much. And really one of the defining characteristics of Southeast Asia, and you’ll feel that if you’ve ever visited, is this warmth that even though Raya is distrustful of the world, is in a broken world, she’s still wanting to have that warmth and that emotion to her, and that was a big part of the evolution of the process.
Also what was always at the center of the movie was her relationship with Sisu, who is also a woman and you don’t see a lot of that close female friendship and that buddy comedy dynamic at the center of an actual Hollywood movie very often. And even with Numari as the villain, she’s not just a villain who’s out to destroy the world. She is a person very much like Raya, who Raya has a history with, who has this complex deep, combative relationships that have to evolve. So these were all things and aspects that were always in the movie that we’re always evolving to the end result that you have today.
Image via Disney
The other filmmakers on the film talk about how sort of timely this story is, too. I mean, I’m assuming that at the inception you wanted it to sort of have that resonance, but it sort of evolved as it went on as well, too. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
SHURER: Yeah. You know, we’re all living in our times, and as you know the Disney films, while we have the support of these 450 amazing artists, they’re very personal films. We spend a lot of time digging into things that mattered to us, and that are important to us, especially knowing that there’s a certain responsibility that comes with telling stories. And the idea of the fractured world. We knew very quickly that what we wanted to find was that the conflict is between the humans. This is about a story that the humans have to solve. And so the Druun are a little bit more like a natural disaster or play, and this happened long before the last year and everything that the last year has brought with it.
But the fact that we’re living in a world that requires us to rise above our differences, to embrace them in fact, and to work together has been going on for a while and it couldn’t feel more timely than this moment. It’s not coincidental, but it was also not something we expected, just how really very, very timely it would be, but we all felt it. We all felt that this is a story that we want to tell. This is what we want the next generation to know, like include and embrace, and trust even when it’s not easy to do, so that we can make the world what we know it can be.
Osnat you brought up the Druun. I wanted to ask you, you’ve had two movies now where the villain is sort of an abstract thing. You really seemingly like these kind of philosophical villains. Are we ever going to get a villain that sort of twirls its mustache and sings a song? Adele, were you like, “I want to have a real meaty Disney villain”?
SHURER: Honestly, I think we really have the best of all worlds. You could’ve probably gleaned it in the 20 minutes you saw, but you’ll see it in the whole movie as well, that it deals with like dark themes, even though the world is so beautiful and it is like this like magical parallel universe. Usually you have your villain in because you need something hard to push against. And the Druun are terrifying. They don’t care who you are. They are there and you can’t fight against them and they annihilate you just like that. And they take everything that’s dear from you. So, when you’re up against something like that you don’t necessarily need like… again, the Numari twirling her lady mustache. Because she’s not that character doesn’t mean she’s any less scary and what I think you get from Numari… again, we’re not talking about, “Oh, we’re just like best friends and I just have to show you the way”. Like Numari, when she shows up she shows up to fight and you are going to see this next iteration of our Disney warrior princess, she gets her butt kicked too. So I don’t think we’re going to be yearning necessarily for a more like traditional villain because of how delicious the action and what Raya has to bump up against is.
I mean, these movies are like herding cats to begin with. I can only imagine what it’s like to do this from afar. Can you talk about that and the creative process, and working through that? And Adele, how that was for you as well?
Image via Disney
SHURER: Yeah. So come March last year and we go home extensively for six weeks and we’re still at home. I think there were different kinds of challenges and some interesting learnings I’d say, certainly technology, but we had a jumpstart in that about almost 30% of our artists were already able to work from home because we set it up so that you can go home, you can have dinner with the kids, and then you can check your render and fix it if you need to and then come in the next day. So we had something to build on, even though we had to up the power and the ability for all of us to be connected at the same time. Then you kind of get into the technology you’re using. Nothing seems to play back in sync. How do you judge? sync. How do you do AVID sessions?
And further from that you suddenly realize, hey you’re dependent on each person’s bandwidth at home, and they have kids going to school at home, and partners doing jobs at home. So all of that had to be dealt with technologically. We’re people who used to rely very heavily on being in a room together and seeing each other’s body language and building on ideas, and running into each other on the way to another meeting, especially for a producer. Feeding people when they had to work extra, happy hours, all those things that we couldn’t do, but we did find different things that I would carry forward, surprisingly.
For example, there’s only so many hours you can sit and stare at a screen and still have a brain that hasn’t turned to mush. So we would end the workday at 6:30 and directors don’t ever do that in the last year of production. And yet we were able to do that with a number of things that we used, and breaks, and proper lunch breaks and things like that. But part of what that required was more delegation, which artists love and brought their A+++ game because they were trusted. Yes, life imitating art. We had to trust each other to do this differently. We had little insights into each other’s lives with cats and dogs and babies, and you name it all around in the middle of conversations. And we’ve all gotten a lot more informal. So I think carrying forward, there’s some things I’d like to carry forward. Let’s keep a better work-life balance for all of us if we can. Let’s keep delegating because we have some of the best artists in the world and everything we saw is gorgeous.
And they all just added to it. Even if we didn’t do extra effects once we saw it. As long as, and this is another thing I’d like to build on, we knew how to brief artists right? If you can really express what we want emotionally and the writers and the directors from us, and what you want visually, the artists could then take it in line because they’re amazing. So there are things to bring forward and I can’t wait for everybody to be together again. To just run into each other and chat, and laugh, and have meals together, and all of that. So it’s a mixed bag. My favorite part of all of it is no Emory traffic.
Adele, what was it like for you?
LIM: I’m going to go back to the herding cats part of your question, which is I’ve worked in Hollywood for like 20 years but most of it was in television. I didn’t get into feature films until about four years ago. So when I came into Disney, it’s my first animated movie, I was delighted because in television it’s incredibly collaborative as writers. You’re in a room with 10 other writers, like bouncing ideas all day, and that is very much what it’s like being a writer on a Disney animated movie. Instead of being around a big table with a bunch of other geek writers you’re around the table with a bunch of geek story artists, and you’re all kind of kicking out together.
Image via Disney
So that was a fantastic experience. And also just the idea of having to pitch out your whole story again, and again, and again, like that’s something TV writers do all the time, but getting everybody sort of on the same page so that we all understand what we are all building towards. Because, again, when you talk about art imitating life, imitating art, that when you break up into your own little factions, if you’re just like the writer or like storyboard artists and you’re not really communicating, the disparate parts don’t come together the way you want it to. It is like the symphony.
So being able to just communicate all these different ideas and having that spirit of collaboration where in your mind, you have an idea and then you give it to us story artists and you’re like, “Oh, heck I had no clue of the potential of three catfish monkeys running around in this fantasy world”. And then you start writing towards that. So, that was the part of the collaborative process that I hadn’t experienced in live action that is very special.
I wanted to just talk to you guys about this amazing kind of pan-Asian cast and what they brought to it and sort of how you decided on those performers.
SHURER: We do it the way we always do it, which is we have a wonderful people who bring in actors for us to meet. I’m actually surprised to hear known ones, not known ones, and the first person we cast on the film was Awkwafina. We cast her off of an hour meeting before Crazy Rich Asians came out, just from meeting her we knew that she could bring to that dragon what we wanted to bring to it. And so she was a great co-creator of the character with us. But we did a lot of auditions, a lot of meetings, a lot of watching people in other films, and what we’re looking for, as we do, is an actor who can really embody the character. You know in animation you don’t get to use your face, you don’t get to use your body language, your beautiful eyes. None of it. It has to come through in the voice. All the rest is brought in by the animator. And one by one we felt like we landed on actors who are that character, and yet taking to this kind of pushed into something new and fresh. And I couldn’t be more proud of the cast that brings life to every one of these characters.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be released in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5th. For more on the film, check out our interview with the directors and other co-writer about blending contemporary elements with the fantasy world.
Reporting by Drew Taylor.
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