A Virtual Roundtable with "Tangled" Co-Directors Byron Howard & Nathan Greno
Byron Howard and Nathan Greno have both been a part of the Walt Disney Studios since the mid-1990’s. Howard joined the studios in 1994, earning credits as an in-betweener and clean-up artist on Pocahontas, an animator on Mulan, and a supervising animator on Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. Greno joined the studios in 1996 as a clean-up animation artist on Mulan, but soon shifting over to the story department in 1998 to work on John Henry and Brother Bear, and then as a screenwriter, story artist, and voice actor in Meet the Robinsons. The pair moved into the senior ranks at the Disney studios with 2008’s Bolt, with Howard stepping into the director’s chair and Greno acting as head of story. Greno moved up into the director’s chair himself for the “Super Rhino” short for the Bolt DVD (check out our roundtable interview with Greno and Disney animator/Rhino voice actor Mark Walton).
After Bolt, the two were assigned as the new co-directors of the troubled Rapunzel feature film. Their work on the film (renamed Tangled prior to its release) earned them critical and audience accolades and a domestic box office take of nearly $200 million. Toonzone News was able to participate in a virtual roundtable session with Byron Howard (on the left in the photo to the right) and Nathan Greno (on the right) before the release of Tangled on Blu-ray and DVD. Questions we submitted that were answered are noted as being from “TOONZONE NEWS.”
QUESTION: Did you meet each other while working on Mulan?
BYRON HOWARD: Nathan and I knew of each other while we were working at the Florida studios. Nathan went through his training internship a year or so after me, but we really became friends during the production of Bolt. Nathan was our head of story on that project and I was one of the directors. At the end of Bolt, Lasseter handpicked Nathan to direct the Bolt short (for the DVD) and that led to him becoming a director and teaming up with me on Tangled.
QUESTION: I know you have been working in Disney Studios for many years but I guess you felt a lot of responsibility and pressure in accepting to direct the 50th Walt Disney movie, didn’t you?
NATHAN GRENO: Yeah it was a TON of pressure. We wanted to make a great film and that is a giant challenge. On top of that, we are working with John Lasseter. Lasseter only accepts the best. On top of that, we found out that this was going to be the 50th animated film from the Walt Disney Animation Studios! Ok! Enough! Are you trying to kill us?? It was a ton of pressure and a ton of work… and we couldn’t be happier with the results!
QUESTION: How long did it take to make this project?
NATHAN GRENO: Usually you have 4 to 5 years to create and finish an animated film at Disney. We did it in about 2 years. The film had been in development and it had a release date — and we were brought on to direct, the studio asked us to hit the release date. Now if we couldn’t do it, they would have moved the date… but Byron and I thought it was possible. We work with an amazingly talented crew. A VERY devoted crew. The schedule was hard on us. We worked though most of our weekends and skipped holidays. It was a crazy time. We had a story we wanted to tell and we wanted the film to be great. We made a film in 2 years that looks like it took 5 years to make. That’s pretty incredible. I thank the crew for that. We made a film we are all very proud of.
QUESTION: How did it come about that “Rapunzel” was the basis for this film?
NATHAN GRENO: The idea of turning Rapunzel into an animated film has been around the Disney Studios since the 1930’s! We saw a list Walt had made and “Rapunzel” was listed along with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a great feeling to know Walt Disney wanted to do this film!
QUESTION: From Snow White to Rapunzel – why do you think the Grimms are still popular?
BYRON HOWARD: These classic tales are full of deep, human themes that everyone can relate to. Every great story has that quality at its core.
QUESTION: How much of Grimm’s tale did you use – not meaning the story itself, but more in terms of thinking about the characters?
BYRON HOWARD: What we loved about the original tale of Rapunzel was that it had the potential to be a great coming of age story. Tangled is really about these two characters figuring out where they belong in the world. Again; deep, relatable, human themes are the key to any great story.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the decision to make this a CGI movie versus doing it in traditional animation?
BYRON HOWARD: Nathan and I love BIG movies. CG animation gives you this enormous box of tools to play with to enhance and expand the world and characters that you’re creating to tell the story. We love traditional hand-drawn animation as well, but to realize the scope of the film Nathan and I had in our heads, CG was really the clear choice.
NATHAN GRENO: I don’t think the hair would have worked in 2D animation. It just would have been a big yellow shape… the texture of the CG hair really helps to sell the character of Rapunzel. We also had a number of BIG action sequences we wanted to do in this film. The CG “camera” is great for that. It’s a lot like a live action camera — but even more flexible. You can move your camera around sets and get any shot you want. 2D and CD animation are both storytelling tools. We very much believe CG was the best choice to bring our story to life.
QUESTION: Tangled came after the excellent film Bolt and it is the second time that you worked as director. In a direct compare with Bolt, in what kind of way was the work on Tangled different?
BYRON HOWARD: The scope and complexity of Tangled is huge. Bolt was a simpler story to tell in many ways. The unfortunate thing about both films is that they were both made on extremely short, two year schedules (we normally get four years). I’m immensely proud of both movies but I am staggered by how much our studio has grown and matured between these two movies. You’ll see us tackling bigger and bigger films in the future, I promise.
NATHAN GRENO: John is fantastic to work with. He approves everything we do, and he helps with brainstorming. John is an amazing mentor. I have really learned a lot from him. I can’t say enough great stuff about the guy!
QUESTION: Since John Lasseter took over as Disney Animation’s creative director, all your films have been “princess” films. Why is this?
BYRON HOWARD: Actually, there have been a few that weren’t, like Meet the Robinsons and Bolt. That said, there was a period where we had three fairy tales lined up in a row, Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Snow Queen. That kind of release slate felt too crowded with those types of stories and the decision was made to postpone Snow Queen to break it up a bit. It’s important that the audience know that Disney Animation is diverse. Disney should be able to release an animated action movie one year, a sci-fi film the next, and a musical fairy tale the year after that. Ultimately, the quality of the films is what matters.
QUESTION: What is with the name change from Rapunzel to Tangled?
BYRON HOWARD: During the first year of creating the film, it became clear to Nathan and I that the film was about both characters. The film doesn’t work without Rapunzel, certainly, but it also doesn’t work without Flynn Rider. We worked very hard to balance our hero and heroine; sometimes Flynn would steal the show so much that we’d have to go back and re-board some of Rapunzel’s scenes to make her character more dynamic.
It felt weird to us to keep the name of the film as Rapunzel. For example, you wouldn’t rename Toy Story as Buzz Lightyear, because Woody is as much a part of that story as Buzz. Knowing that, we started looking for alternate titles. Tangled really appealed to us as a title because it felt smart, and sophisticated but still made it clear that the film was going to be a fun ride. What we love is that the final film feels balanced and appeals to both the male and female sides of our audience.
NATHAN GRENO: Rapunzel is a princess that doesn’t know she’s a princess. That makes her different. She’s not a girl who sits around waiting to be rescued. She’s a tough, smart person — we wanted this film to be full of ‘girl power’. Even though this film takes place in the past, we wanted the characters to feel modern and relate-able. We wanted Rapunzel to be a role model for people of our generation.
TOONZONE NEWS: How much was Glen Keane involved in Tangled‘s production after you took over as directors?
BYRON HOWARD: Glen Keane has been the heart and soul of Disney Animation for the last three decades. Nathan and I were always hoping that we would get to work on a project with him one day. After Nathan and I stepped in as directors Glen worked with our animation staff to create the most extraordinary human animation ever made. The great thing is that we have these young, energetic animators fresh out of school and Glen knows how to guide and channel that energy into amazing performances, pushing them to top themselves scene after scene. It’s a great mix of youthful energy and experience.
QUESTION: What were the biggest challenges in the development of this film?
NATHAN GRENO: The hair was the biggest challenge. Without a doubt. Long realistic hair had never been done in a CG animated film before. Never. CG hair is usually in a ponytail, or cuts off at the shoulder because anything longer than that is a tech nightmare. Lucky for us, we work with some incredibly smart people! Byron and I were in the story room coming up with this wild stuff, “The hair is going to be used a bullwhip! She’s going to tie people up with it! It’s going to glow! It’s going to get wet!” –all this stuff that hasn’t been done before. Our crew got a little pale when they heard our pitch… but they figured it out. They believed in our story. They wanted to bring that story to the big screen. I can’t thank our crew enough. They made the impossible work.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about some of your casting choices. What was it about Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore that made you think they could be Flynn and Rapunzel?
NATHAN GRENO: Casting was a long process. We went to hundreds of auditions for both Flynn and Rapunzel. When Mandy came in, we knew we had our Rapunzel. Mandy IS Rapunzel. Same with Zac. We wanted our characters to feel real… we wanted them to be relatable. I feel like Zac and Mandy provided that. They were easy and fantastic to work with.
BYRON HOWARD: I confess. It’s me. We needed someone with a naturally low voice to do Vladimir, and so we asked our casting director to see if Richard Kiel would do it. I’m a HUGE Bond fan and working with Richard was a dream come true. I giggled through the whole recording session.
QUESTION: I haven’t always appreciated the comic relief of some Disney characters, but I highly enjoyed Maximus the Horse. From what/whom did you draw inspiration to put together his dynamic personality?
NATHAN GRENO: We just wanted to do something different with Max. We put together a board with photos of all the different animated horses that had been done… we wanted to do something fresh and new. We wanted Max to feel unique. Glad you like the way he turned out.
QUESTION: I saw your film twice in cinema and absolutely loved it! But how could you explain your decision to leave Maximus and Pascal silent? It is pretty unusual for animal-sidekicks in Disney animation films not to talk!
BYRON HOWARD: Great question. Nathan and I are huge fans of silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. We said to each other “What if Charlie Chaplin was in this movie?” That thinking was a massive part of the decision to keep Maximus and Pascal silent, but expressive. It really worked out, no matter where we went all over the world; people could not get enough of that horse.
QUESTION: What’s the secret of Pascal’s success?
BYRON HOWARD: He’s adorable. Just like Nathan and myself.
BYRON HOWARD: I love that people stick around until the end of the credits and see the “Chameleon Babies” credit. Pascal, our chameleon hero in Tangled, is actually based on a real, live chameleon named Pascal. The real lizard is owned and cared for by Kellie Lewis, an animation artist here at the studio. It just so happened that when we were putting together our traditional “Production Babies” credits, Pascal became a father! His chameleon life-partner laid six eggs which hatched into tiny baby chameleons. My favorite is “Nathan Jr.”.
QUESTION: When selecting the type of music for this movie, were you inspired by other Disney films? Because there are some songs that sound very much a like in style to some of the ones in Enchanted or The Little Mermaid.
NATHAN GRENO: We wanted the film to relate to the classic films of the Disney legacy, but we wanted to also do something fresh, new and different. Alan Menken was a perfect choice for the music. He has written some of the best Disney music of all time and he was on board for doing something fresh and different. We love that our songs have the same great feeling of The Little Mermaid or Aladdin… but are very different than anything you have heard before. It’s exactly the mix we were going for!
QUESTION: What was the hardest sequence to deal with in this movie and why?
NATHAN GRENO: I’ll be honest — EVERYTHING was a challenge in this film. Rule of thumb: If it comes easy, it could probably be better! We pushed ourselves hard to make every sequence as great as it could be.
QUESTION: In the trailer you used several sequences that didn’t end up in the movie. Why leave them in if they weren’t part of the finished product?
BYRON HOWARD: Very observant! That’s very true: in the initial teaser trailer we created an “alternate reality” version of how Flynn and Rapunzel first meet. This was because many of those scenes were experimental scenes to test the hair and animation technology that we were developing. We liked the tone of the pieces and thought they would be a great first look for the public.
BYRON HOWARD: The way Nathan and I work is that initially, we will have favorite sequences and characters in the film. At that point, we say “Great, these are working; now how can we bring everything else around it up to the same level?” That way, by the end of production, the entire film is rock solid, which makes it very hard to pick a favorite. That said, the lantern sequence is a real milestone for sheer breathtaking beauty here at Disney. I’m also very, very proud of the incredibly subtle emotional acting in the final sequences of the film.
QUESTION: What was your reaction when Tangled got a PG rating instead of the G rating most Disney princess films get?
NATHAN GRENO: We feel like the film sits on the shelf next to Beauty and the Beast. We aren’t sure why it got the PG rating — but we went with it. We didn’t feel like there was anything to “fix”.
QUESTION: Given how hard you and Glen Keane worked on Tangled, were you disappointed when it didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film?
NATHAN GRENO: The ENTIRE crew worked hard on the film. People worked seven day weeks and skipped holidays — everyone wanted to make Tangled great. We are all so proud of the work we’ve done. Would we have liked an Oscar nod? Sure. But I have to say, the true reward is working on a film people love. The audience loves this film. I didn’t get into animation to win awards, I wanted to entertain people. We’re all very proud of the work we’ve done.
QUESTION: Every animation movie, today, has a 3D version. Is this something that changes the way of imagining and directing a cartoon?
BYRON HOWARD: You have to be very careful with 3D. It’s very easy to distract from the story by throwing too many eye-popping effects at the audience. The trick is to balance the amazing depth that 3D gives you with the emotion and clarity of the story. Every 3D effect you produce should help the story, not hurt it.
QUESTION: Given that so many studios are making CGI animated films these days, what is Disney doing to stand out in an increasingly crowded market?
NATHAN GRENO: Our goal is to tell great stories. Our goal is to create believable worlds and fantastic characters. We want our audience to laugh and cry. We want them to be entertained. We can’t worry about all the other films out there — we just focus on making our films work. We believe if you make a great film, the audience will show up to see it. That’s our focus.
QUESTION: What are your personal Disney-favorites?
BYRON HOWARD: The film that got me into animation in the first place was The Little Mermaid. I was in college studying live action film when I saw that film, and I just said “Wow.” This is something I have to be a part of. Ariel herself was a revelation to me because she was the first Disney heroine who felt real and alive to me, there was a soul behind those eyes. A great part of that appeal that I saw in her came from Glen Keane, who we partnered with on Tangled.
NATHAN GRENO: For me it’s Dumbo. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. It works EVERY time you watch it. It makes you laugh and cry EVERY time you watch it. I saw Dumbo when I was a kid and I knew I had to work for Disney. I was in first grade. I didn’t understand how animation was made – but I knew I wanted to work for Disney.
BYRON HOWARD: It’s the best feeling in the world when audiences really love your work. We make these films to entertain, and to move people emotionally, so when your film becomes a hit, you know that you’ve done your job right. Tangled‘s massive success was very welcome news, and we know that Disney Animation’s future will be full of strong films like this.
QUESTION: What’s your favorite aspect of the Blu-ray?
BYRON HOWARD: Blu-Ray allows you to see Tangled as Nathan and I saw it during its creation. The colors are perfect, the resolution is unbelievable, and the sound is as rich and full as when we mixed it on our recording stage. I love digital media because it preserves the beauty of these films so accurately. Not to mention extensive extras that take you behind the scenes of Tangled.
QUESTION: What makes a perfect fairy tale for you guys?
BYRON HOWARD: Ingredients like emotion, action, adventure, and comedy. Nathan and I want all of these things in every story we tell, whether it’s a classic tale or a modern action movie.
QUESTION: One of John Hughes’ characters said the famous words “when you grow up, your heart dies.” I consider Tangled a proof that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. How did you manage to create such a magical tale, combining both Disney’s and Pixar’s best features?
BYRON HOWARD: I love this question because I love John Hughes. His writing was a great blend of pure entertainment with deep, truthful emotion. As we become adults, I think it’s very easy to become numb and distracted by the thousands of details that we have to process each day to live our lives and make ends meet. Films like Tangled are so wonderful because they sweep away all of that for a few hours and remind you of what’s really important: love, compassion, trust and hope. That’s why Nathan and I focus so much on the emotional core of our movies; if we entertain you but don’t move you emotionally, we haven’t fully done our job.
QUESTION: Walt Disney always said “for every laugh there should be a tear.” Do you believe this movie Tangled captured that essence?
BYRON HOWARD: We love that quote from Walt Disney. It’s a guide for every film this studio makes. We definitely want those tears, every time. We’re in the story room trying to make ourselves laugh, and cry, to feel something genuine and real. It’s the highest priority for us, and we LOVE when people come up to us and say “I cried three times.” That’s a great reward.
QUESTION: Almost every Disney story has a second message. What do you think is the underlying message in this film?
NATHAN GRENO: There are a number of messages in this film. “Live Your Dream” is one of the messages we hope will really hit home with people. I grew up in a factory town in Wisconsin. I remember some people from my hometown thought my dream of working for Disney was nuts. I believed in my dream. I worked hard to make it happen. Our studio is filled with people who have stories like mine. Rapunzel believes in her dream. She won’t let anything stand in her way to achieve it. We hope Tangled inspires our audience to live out their dreams too!
QUESTION: If you could develop an already existing fairytale, which would it be, and why?
NATHAN GRENO: I think Rapunzel was it! Byron and I love these classic stories — and Disney brings them to life better than anyone else. Being asked to direct Tangled was a real honor. When people hear Snow White, they think of the Disney version. When people hear Beauty and the Beast, they think of the Disney version. We hope that Disney’s Rapunzel will now be the version of the character that stands the test of time.
TOONZONE NEWS: What’s the one thing that the other person does that drives you crazy, and what’s the one thing they do that you really admire or wish you could improve on yourself?
BYRON HOWARD: Nathan keeps telling me how handsome I am, which drives me crazy. Although I really admire what a good judge of handsomeness he is.
BYRON HOWARD: Do what you love, and do it with passion. Passion and dedication will carry you far in any occupation, and especially in the creative arts. When John Lasseter chooses you as a director, it’s because he’s seen that you have a fire in your belly, so to speak, a burning need to tell these stories and tell them well. Also, write to your heroes. I wrote to Chuck Jones years ago, and he wrote me back! Amazing.
QUESTION: When Toy Story was released, did you think that this new animation technology will be such a blast?
NATHAN GRENO: I was very excited to see the original Toy Story. I’m a big fan of that film. I think I was still in college at the time. Little did I know, one day I would be directing a CG animated film! I’m glad animation has continued to grow and change over the years. It makes the industry more exciting to work in — and the films more exciting to watch.
QUESTION: You have Bolt, which is an action movie, and Tangled, which is a fairy tale. What would you like for your next movie?
BYRON HOWARD: Nathan and I started work on our next project about six months before we finished Tangled. It’s got action movie elements, definitely, but most importantly it’s got a strong emotional core. That’s really the first thing we go after when creating these stories. The actual subject of the film is top secret, but believe me when I tell you that if you liked what you saw in Tangled, you will love our next film.
QUESTION: Any final thoughts on Tangled?
NATHAN GRENO: I just wanted to say thanks for all the great questions! I just wish I could type faster. This has been a lot of fun for me. Also: a BIG thanks to all who support the film — Tangled has been a true labor of love for us!
BYRON HOWARD: We’re delighted that Tangled has made such a big splash in the world. Wait till you see what we have in store next! Thanks everyone.
Toonzone would like to thank Nathan Greno and Byron Howard for taking the time to talk with us, and to the fine folks at Walt Disney PR and Click Communications for setting it up. Tangled is available on DVD and Blu-ray disc now; read Toonzone News’ review of the Blu-ray combo pack here, and our virtual roundtable coverage with Animation Supervisor Glen Keane.