“They were brutal!”
That’s how director Byron Howard remembers his research subjects when he asked them to define a “hot” man — the research subjects being female colleagues at Disney.
“The walls of the large story room rapidly filled with collages as the ladies tore up magazines,” he says. “As guys, it was hard because they’re using us for examples of what not to be.”
Still, Howard and fellow director Nathan Greno learned enough from that process to create Flynn Ryder, the scoundrel heartthrob in Disney’s 50th animated feature film, Tangled. They also learned what modern women want.
“There’s been 49 movies that Walt Disney Animation Studios did before this one, and we can’t go back to the same wells,” Greno says. “We love those wells, but we need to do something new.”
Working on Tangled, which puts a fresh twist on Rapunzel, was a lifelong dream for Howard and Greno. Both broke in at Disney during the mid-1990s, Howard as an animator and Greno as a storyboard artist. They eventually rose through the ranks, with Howard co-directing 2008’s Bolt, on which Greno served as head of story.
As Bolt neared completion in October 2008, Disney animation chief John Lasseter asked the pair to find a direction for Tangled.
“The story had been around since the 1940s,” says Roy Conli, the film’s producer. “Walt and the guys during that period were trying to figure out a way in.”
One way in was technical: “They tell you, ‘With these CG-animated films, the thing not to do is long hair,’ ” Howard says. “Even this last January, we weren’t sure that it was going to work.”
Above and beyond that was figuring out a story. The key was getting Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) out of the tower and into an adventure. “That was the thing everyone had wrestled with,” Howard says. “How do you tell a story about a girl in a room? Well, you get her out of the room.”
To find the right relationship between Rapunzel and her captor, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), the helmers again invited women who worked at the studio to come in and talk, this time about their moms.
“We had some really brutal stories, and we’d say, ‘Wow, that sounds pretty intense,’ ” Greno says. “And they’d say, ‘No, I love my mother!’ ” That meeting directly led to moments like Mother Gothel telling Rapunzel she is “getting kind of chubby.”
Howard credits screenwriter Dan Fogelman for much of the humor in the film, especially the Billy Wilder-esque back-and-forth between Rapunzel and Flynn (Zachary Levi). “Also, we got to do what makes us laugh,” he says. “We’re sitting here day after day after day kind of pounding on these things and pounding on these jokes and asking what’s going to make us like this movie and what’s going to entertain us.”
The filmmakers agreed, however, that going modern like this did not mean sacrificing the sweetness of classic Disney.
“People expected cynicism,” Howard says. “We always go back to that Walt saying: ‘For every laugh there should be a tear.’ That’s very difficult to do if you’re being too tongue-in-cheek.”