Byron Howard and Nathan Greno have worked at Disney Animation for 15 years, Greno starting as a clean-up animation artist on Mulan and Howard as a clean-up artist on Pocahontas.
Bryon Howard made his directorial debut with Disney’s Bolt, and Nathan Greno’s, along with Bryon, with the studio’s new animated feature, Tangled.
The film is a new twist on the Rapunzel fairytale. When Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a charming bandit, hides out in a mysterious tower, he’s taken hostage by Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), a beautiful teen with long, golden, magical hair, who has been hidden away from the world by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), since she kidnapped her from the King and Queen when Rapunzel was an infant.
All Rapunzel wants is to be free, even for a short time, and she feels Flynn is her way out.
Why did you change the name of the movie from Rapunzel?
Nathan Greno: That’s a great question. When we were making this film it took us about two years roughly to complete it. We were about halfway through the process and we started looking at what we had and we realized Rapunzel’s a huge part of this movie, the movie doesn’t work without her, but it also doesn’t work without Flynn Rider. It was becoming a duo that was really driving this film.
Take Toy Story, for example, you wouldn’t call that movie Buzz Lightyear, it feels like you’re not representing the movie correctly and the same with this, we needed a title that really suited the tone and reflected what the film was.
How did you come up with Tangled?
Byron Howard: We had a list of 200 different names that we looked through. Some of them were terrible. Independently of each other we were looking through this list and we kept coming back to this one title we had circled. I said, ‘Do you like Tangled?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I really like it.’
What we really liked about it was it said in a very simple way that it doesn’t sound like what you’d expect from a Disney fairytale. We thought it sounded sophisticated and clever. There’s so much complexity in all these relationships in the story, and the web that’s formed throughout the film. We thought that it was great and a very precise way of saying what the film was.
Can you talk about casting the three leads?
Nathan Greno: We did a very extensive search. There are other studios that go after big name celebrities and it’s more of a marketing tool. We at Disney are so concerned just about storytelling and bringing the best possible story up on the screen. And so when it came time to cast the characters we put the word out that we were casting this film.
We had 300 women show up to audition for Rapunzel. It was a very exhaustive effort to try to figure out who was the best voice for the role. When Mandy came in we knew she could sing, we knew she could act as well, but when you act for an animated feature it requires another skill set, because you’re not on a set, you’re not working alongside another actor, you have to be able to envision and put yourself into these moments. Mandy was just brilliant. So right away we were like, ‘Okay, that’s working.’
Zach Levi came in and blew us away, he’s so funny and he’s so great with adlibbing, his funniest adlibs are in the movie, and then it came down to can Zach Levi sing? We’d never heard him sing before.
Byron Howard: We were very nervous, because we loved him and we were sitting in the booth watching his audition and he sat down next to the piano and I thought, ‘Oh please, please, please let this work.’ He starts into this James Taylor song, Sweet Baby James, and he has this beautiful raspy natural voice, which you hear in the movie, and we were like, ‘Okay, we’ve got him.’
With Mother Gothel, Donna Murphy is a two-time Tony Award winner and the power and the charisma that she has in her speaking voice and her performance is like electricity.
I loved Maximus the horse, how did you conceive of that character?
Byron Howard: We loved Max. We didn’t want the typical Prince with is friendly noble horse, so we decided to put them at odds. So if Flynn’s the greatest thief in the kingdom, Max is the greatest super-cop in the kingdom. He’s this very driven character. And as his animation starting coming in, one of the animators did a test, which is actually in the movie, where you see Max sniffing the ground like a dog, and we were like, ‘That’s him.’
More and more he became this standout funny, sympathetic character. We love that Pascal (Rapunzel’s chameleon) and Max don’t talk at all during the movie, it’s all animal acting. We thought that was something that people hadn’t done lately with animal characters.
Nathan Greno: A lot of the decisions that we made during the process of the movie came from the fact that this was Disney’s 50th animated feature, and it was such an honor for us to be part of that. But, at the same time, that becomes a huge challenge, because there are 49 of these movies that have come before, and we love our legacy at Disney, we love our roots.
Byron and I have been at the studio for 15 years now. But for this movie what we wanted to do was something really fresh, really original, to take what the audience is expecting and flip it on its head. So we wanted this big, wild rollercoaster of a movie with a lot of twists and turns, and that’s what drove our decision-making.