3 things you need for a good feature
A good script, a good script, a good script
Text by David Hury
Before creating beautiful imagery, you need, first and foremost, a good story. And a scary one at that. At LAIKA, storytelling is the cornerstone of each film. It dictates the technique used and often pushes it to its limits. LAIKA’s brainpower is its gold mine.
November 2009. I am on my terrace in Beirut on an autumn evening. The city is buzzing. Suddenly, I hear voices coming from the living room. I rush there to find my two daughters, aged six and nine, barricaded behind the sofa. The eldest is holding the TV remote as if it were an RPG, and through her bloodcurdling screaming I hear: “Will you to turn it off or what! Turn it off!" Twenty minutes earlier, they had both settled in the living room, not feeling reassured by the movie I had put on for them that I’d bought earlier that day. I usually watch them first so they don’t have nightmares. I don’t know why I didn’t stay with them that day. I should have. I had picked up Coraline.
“How could you do this to us" cried out my eldest daughter, describing Coraline's alternative mother the way she appeared first on screen in her kitchen when she briskly turns around. “She has buttons where her eyes should be! You’re out of your mind, it's too horrifying!” The damage was done. I switched off the TV. I did not watch the movie. They both had nightmares that night. That's how I was introduced to LAIKA. Through vicarious fright.
It’s July 2018. Nine years have passed. I live in Paris now. My youngest daughter, who’s now 15, brings up Coraline out of the blue. "Let's watch it!" I said. And right there and then,nine years after that November evening on my terrace and the scare of my two blondies, I realized what a bad father I had been then. How could I have done that? From the opening credits, Coraline was horror, pure and simple. Forsaken children, adults who are out-there, or, at best, lost in their own world. And then there is this parallel world, where everything is out of control. Where the great villain is much darker and terrifying than initially feared. But it's Coraline's story that strikes me.
What follows is the story of LAIKA and how they write the best stories they can. It's through the lens of Chris Butler who is, Mr. Storytelling at LAIKA, screenwriter of ParaNorman and the upcoming Missing Link, among others. Coraline, like ParaNorman, appeals to the primal fear of being alone. Her parents are distracted by their work; they don’t listen to her. She prefers to explore the house and what’s around it, straddling our reality and a parallel world, where you have to strike a deal with a frighful lady and exchange our eyes for stitched buttons on our faces to live "happily".
A GOOD STORY: BETWEEN SCARY FAIRY AND SCOOBY-DOO
For several years, Chris Butler has been the strongman of scary stories. It’s in his blood. He came into the world of animation by creating storyboards for Tarzan 2 (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), The Tale of Despereaux (2008), and Coraline (2009). His work in Burton's Corpse Bride was the spark. That’s when he decided he would do this for the rest of his life. Chris was 31.
He then went on to write ParaNorman (2012), Kubo and the Two Strings (2012), and now Missing Link (2019). Chris knows how to build a story and dip into the fears of children, as he did in ParaNorman, where the characters of all the horror films from our childhoods (the glorious eighties) are gathered under green and pink lighting worthy of a good giallo movie. Butler talks about his predilection for scary stories: “I have always gravitated towards spooky, creepy stuff. I think, historically, stop-motion animation has always danced in the shadows. There’s something grotesque and magical – necromantic, even – about the bringing to life of an inanimate object. Ladislav Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, they all contributed to an allure that was both enchanting but perhaps a little bit forbidden. Tim Burton utilized this mystique in both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.” The first sketches of Coraline clearly draw inspiration from the works of Burton.
Chris wants to scare and to entertain. He wants spectators – or children – to get their money's worth. So you need a cornerstone to this wonderful construction: a good script. And this was the case for the first cathedral erected by LAIKA, Coraline, adapted from British author Neil Gaiman’s novel. “Henry Sellick [director] and Neil Gaiman [novelist, screenwriter] were brave enough to tell a story that did not shy away from the weightier themes of classic fairy tales”, says Chris about Coraline. “When you make an animated movie like that, you’re following the same ‘rules’ that you’d follow if you were making a live action movie. But I think you still have to remember you’re making a film that will be primarily seen by kids. You’re not just trying to scare them. You’re trying to entertain them, and make them think and feel, and scares are just part of the mix.”
In ParaNorman, Chris Butler wore two hats, that of screenwriter and co-director. Throughout the film, he worked with several co-producers, including Arianne Sutner. From the start, Arianne was certain that she had in her hands a solid story. In an interview with AWN.com, Arianne recalled: “I think it had a great script. The pacing was all there. We had a third act that worked, almost from the beginning, which is fairly unusual. We had a great hook, a really fun contemporary film, a nice fit to follow Coraline. I think also it just jived with Travis’ taste, kind of a contemporary Scooby-Doo movie. It could push the animation boundaries a little bit more.
We could make a bigger stop-motion movie. That was something on our list that we really wanted to do. Pushing those boundaries, creating a feeling of real chase scenes.” Chase scenes, adrenaline rush, empathy for the characters, and bingo! ParaNorman’s smalltown folks are the characters that give the story its full weight. Butler took the opportunity to criticize the American society of 2010, like Joe Dante did in the past with Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990) and particularly with Small Soldiers (1998). The real danger is not always what meets the eye. And for a good scare, let’s have double-edged characters.