Interviews with Byron Howard, Rich Moore. Clark Spencer. Jared Bush, and Phil Johnston for Zootopia

Images provided by Disney. All rights reserved. © 2016

Now that you’ve probably read my interviews with Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, it’s time to round out the exclusive interviews Disney provided us with during our Zootopia press junket.

In our first interview, we got the chance to speak with Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore. You might know Byron for his work on Tangled and Bolt, and Rich for his work on The Simpsons, Futurama and Wreck-It Ralph.

In our second interview, we spoke with and laughed with Director Jared Bush, Writer Phil Johnston, and Producer Clark Spencer. Jared, who also worked on the story and screenplay side of the movie as well, has worked with shows and movies like Big Hero 6. Phil Johnston wrote for Wreck-It Ralph. Clark Spencer is known for producing movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, Bolt, and Lilo & Stitch. (Notice the commonalities is some of the movie names?)

And without further ado, the interviews……..

Byron Howard & Rich Moore

ZOOTOPIA - Directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ZOOTOPIA – Directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

When there’s multiple directors on a project, how does that all work out in terms of who does what and- and stepping on each others’ toes?

Byron- Oh well we’re, well we have we have big toes-

Rich- I wear toe shoes.

Byron- No I love it I mean this is the third film I’ve directed with another director, Chris Williams was with me on Bolt and Nathan Greno was with me on Tangled.  And I, you know, what’s great about working with someone, as a directing partner, because I don’t really know, Rich and I knew each other kind of before this, we knew each other from the story trust and we were friendly with each other but I don’t think you really get to know someone until you have this experience, because we really go through absolute hell on these movies together and to people on-

Rich- I’m not that bad.

Byron- No, no-no-no [LAUGHTER] no but Rich makes it better and, you know, but the fact that we were there for each other as a sounding board because they asked us to make literally thousands of decisions every week for a period of about, you know, two years.  And to have someone you trust and someone who is looking out for the welfare of the movie just like you are, and some of the same priorities, it, I honestly think it makes it a much, more pleasant journey.  Because it’s like I have no desire to do these films alone.

We don’t have an auteur situation at the studio at all, it’s really a community of filmmakers that are all about teaming up and bringing everything we have to the table to make the films better So it’s, it’s, it’s a-

Rich- Yeah this was my first time working with another director, everything I had ever done was just by myself and it was kind of out of necessity on this one because it took a big turn as you probably talked with some of the writers that our main character changed very deep into the life of the film.

From the fox to the rabbit. Yeah and really from a practical standpoint and I had been associated with the film as part of the story trust from early on and John Lasseter asked me would you jump on, just for practical matters of like we, you know, this one is really up against it.  Um, and- and it’s a two person job, you know.

And, of course I said it would be my honor, and it’s a great a experience, it was, and we didn’t really have to split up responsibilities as much as you would think. There was a few departments where we would kind of take the lead on, but most of the production, we were in just about every meeting together and it does help to kind of be able to make the decision very quickly and then move onto the next thing, especially in a situation like we’re on in this one.

My Commentary: I love the chemistry between these two. Creating in teams can usually produce a better product, because it incorporates a lot of viewpoints and chisels it down to what works best.

What’s the time frame by the way for the making of this film?

Byron- This was a long one for me because Nathan Greno and I, who directed Tangled, were pitched ideas right after Tangled, which was like five years ago, which is crazy.

My Commentary: I can only imagine the dedication required to create one of these movies. You have to have a long-term vision.

ZOOTOPIA - Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore present some of the research they did at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park in collaboration with Dr. Mark Penning - Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ZOOTOPIA – Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore present some of the research they did at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in collaboration with Dr. Mark Penning – Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

I noticed you’ve changed the name out of everything, Target became Targoat, but DMV stayed. I’m curious, is it because it had to work to that?

Byron- Well no we made it the Department of Mammal Vehicles. and we weren’t sure how it would play overseas, because not everyone has DMV’s overseas.  But what we found out was, we just came back from Europe, we were in Europe for two weeks. And no matter where you play that sequence, red tape is bureaucracy is universal.  Everyone is like, I know that, you know.  We have one of those, yes we do.

My Commentary: I love when movies brand things in a memorable way. Changing well known brands into the Zootopia-fied version, makes you take note.

Have you guys thought about the sequels in the works already?

Byron- People are asking about it.

Rich- I think that’s a good sign.  You know I wasn’t on Twitter for Wreck It Ralph, but it’s already open in some markets in Europe and in South Korea and Mexico.  And it’s like people are tweeting me and saying, are we going to have a sequel and it’s just kind of a very unique different way to interact with the fans, with all of them.

Byron- And well, we’re tired [LAUGHTER] we just finished.

Rich- And it’s like, maybe I don’t know.  But it would be awesome.

My Commentary: I would love for them to create a sequel! I think it would take a bit of time though for them to commit to another few years.

Clark Spencer, Jared Bush, & Phil Johnston

ZOOTOPIA - Co-Writer Phil Johnston, Producer Clark Spencer and Co-Director/Co-Writer Jared Bush speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ZOOTOPIA – Co-Writer Phil Johnston, Producer Clark Spencer and Co-Director/Co-Writer Jared Bush speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Someone actually told us that this is the second longest Disney movie. Did you intend for it to be that long, or did you just have so many things you couldn’t cut?

Phil- I mean, I think, like the story changed and evolved a lot in the last six, eight months, and I think we just sort of ran out of time, [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].  We, I mean, honestly, like, we cut fifteen minutes on…

Jared- Yeah, that’s, that’s already fifteen minutes down…

Phil- Within, within a period of weeks just started slashing, and, we went and fought to keep it this length because when we got to where we thought the story was, was firing on all, cyl- cylinders and, and working well, and we couldn’t really see a way around- we didn’t have anymore darlings we wanted to kill, basically.  So Clark went and begged for the runtime.

Clark- What I think it’s, well, there’s the layers in the film which is one of the reasons it necessitated it to be longer- you have the eighty-five to ninety-five minutes to tell a film- tell the story, and you’re gonna have a huge world you’ve gotta set up; you’re gonna have a character- Judy, you’ve gotta set up her in terms of whether- who she is.  You’ve gotta set up Nick; you’re gonna put in the mystery, and then you’re gonna sit there and start laying in the theme; it becomes something that you just inherently know is not gonna get told in eighty-five minutes, but you’ve gotta find that sweet spot, and at what point, have we gone too far?

Is it too long?  And we do get the opportunity to do preview screenings of this to test audiences even before the film is done.  And we did a screening in June in Arizona where we were probably only about thirty-five to thirty-eight percent animated which is a very, very small amount of animation- a lot of storyboards where you assume the audience is gonna get very fidgety, and they didn’t.  And that was one of the things that said to us, okay, the layering of it, and all these ideas that keep coming- I think the mystery comes in later, is if you’re starting to enter a new idea, that keeps the audience very fresh and the theme starts to come in, and it’s a new idea that keeps the audience thinking what’s gonna happen next.

That you realize we had that opportunity to go- we still couldn’t let everything be too long, but we knew inherently that there was something about the way that the pieces were falling together that felt right.

Phil- Yeah.  We were gonna make it like “Hateful Eight” with an intermission [AUDIENCE LAUGHS]… 3 hours, 3 and a half hours long…

My Commentary: I laughed out loud regarding the intermission comment. I was very surprised how my kids sat straight through and glued to the screen, without even a potty break. (And at this point in the post, which is already long, I give you permission to take an intermission right now as well). 

Were there things that you wanted to add to Zootopia that just wouldn’t work?

Jared- Uh, I have a favorite, a favorite that we kept trying to put it in and it never worked was Outback Island where all the Australian animals lived.  We, we tried to go there many times, and every time it was like we can’t make it work exactly right.  We couldn’t find the exact story reason to go there, but it exists in the world somewhere.

Oh, Nocturnal District was another really cool one where, you know, all the nocturnal animals lived.  It was a really neat set.  And we also had this one Cliffside area where rams would run along those little tiny edges of stone, and we had a big sequence that took place there that was really cool, but yeah, the movie- the problem and what makes it great is there’s so many amazing places to visit that at some point you have to just focus and narrow those things down.

Phil- I have several deeply stupid jokes that [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].  There’s a really good butt joke.  One of the best jokes was there was a hole made of ice, and it was gonna be… It was a good joke.  We talked about- we wasted a good, like, six hours talking about that [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].  Oh, well.  Next one.

My Commentary: I’d love to see some this brought back in, in the sequel. I think they have a ton of content they could use and work in.

My daughter had one question to ask, and that is, can I please have a Gazelle app, and when can I have it?

Clark- And you can make your daughter very happy and tell her that within probably the next five to seven days, that’s going to exist online.

Exactly what you want.  She can put your face on top of the tiger character and have that character dance…

Phil- But, but that scene- that bit, anyways, is sort of indicative of our process in that the whole reason that exists is because Nate Torrance who voiced Clawhauser adlibbed a thing about, oh, I’ve got this app, and look, he just, I think the director was something like talk about how much you love Gazelle, and he went into this whole thing, and suddenly, it became a bit, and then we animated it.

And then actually another production assistant, I think, said, oh, why don’t you have Bogo looking at it later, so like it became this runner that none of us professional writers had anything [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].

Jared- You can’t take credit for it.

Phil- Nope.  But it speaks to the way process works and that is very collaborative and you have a lot of voices throwing ideas at you, and it’s the beauty of it when it works.

Clark- And I think it’s one of the things the actors really enjoy is we usually say to them, or actually, to be honest, they usually for the first couple times read the line as-is because they sort of feel they need to that, and we’re very quick to say to them, okay, we have versions of that.  Now just play with it.  Have fun, and see what you do with it and, and if you had another twenty minutes of the film, you could add another twenty minutes to all of these scenes just in terms of what the actors brought.  And it’s so funny, so incredibly funny, but at the end of the day, we have to also stay on point and not lose the focus, and it’s one of the hardest things about picking the lines that you’re ultimately gonna put in film is in editorial, when you get very caught up, and then you realize, you know, actually we’ve gotta stay on…

Jared- Yeah, but I will say having that many actors that are amazing improvisers was- I’d never experienced that in my life.  You knew everyday walking into the recording room, you were going to laugh your ass off, like, five hours straight.  Literally, I would walk out of those Jason records and my face would hurt every single time.

Clark- One things and one of the keys and these guys always talk about it, hire people who come from comedy; who either were standup comedians themselves or just come from comedy because they are gonna be the best at improving, and they’re going to be the best in trying to figure out how do I deliver this line in a funny way.  And watching Jason Bateman is fascinating because he actually will take the exact line and switch just one or two words, and in a way that makes it become exactly the way Jason Bateman would say it.

And you can just see him doing it automatically.  I don’t think he even realizes that he is just taking- maybe taking the word “the” out, or something as simple as that, and suddenly, it’s like, oh, that’s exactly the way it needs to be read by Jason Bateman.  It’s just, it’s brilliant.

My Commentary: My kids totally wanted this app too! I’m not sure if it’s up yet, but you can search the app stores because this interview was conducted over 7 days ago.

ZOOTOPIA - Producer Clark Spencer, Co-Writer Phil Johnston and Co-Director/Co-Writer Jared Bush speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ZOOTOPIA – Producer Clark Spencer, Co-Writer Phil Johnston and Co-Director/Co-Writer Jared Bush speak to press at the ZOOTOPIA Press Junket at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fl. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016. Disney. All Rights Reserved.

I had a question about Duke Weaselton.  Was that very specific that you knew Alan was gonna come back and do that because of what they called him in Frozen?

Jared- Yes, absolutely.  Early on when, when we knew we were gonna have a weasel that- actually originally, Judy chased Nick through Little Rodentia in a different version of the movie.  And then once we knew that she couldn’t meet him yet at that stage.  Oh, it’s gotta be someone else; a weasel made sense that he’d be stealing something.  And we’re like, and we have a weasel.  Oh, well, we should call him, uh, Weasel.  His last name is Weaselton, and then Jim Reardon’s like, it should be Duke Weaselton.  It’s gonna be Duke Weaselton.  And then we’d always been looking for what role could Alan play, and there was like, I think this- these things are all coming together.  Let’s make that happen.  And so it was kind of perfect.

Phil- Alan is contractually obligated to be in every Disney movie. [AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

My Commentary: I love how Disney throws in these Easter eggs. There were a bunch more, but I leave you to discover them for yourselves when you watch this movie on the 4th. (That’s part of the fun of watching!) 

So who added the breaking bad line?

Jared- So that was one of our, one of our storyboard artists, Jason Hand who boarded that sequence, um, when it first came in, we knew it was gonna be in a lab.  There were gonna be sheep there and, [LAUGHS], he drew it with those giant suits on, and we were not expecting it.  It was a surprise when we saw it for the first time.

And we were, oh my god, that’s hilarious, [AUDIENCE LAUGHS], and we’re like, can we do this?  Oh, we’re definitely doing this, [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].  And then, and then we changed the names to, uh, Jessie and Woolter; it’s not Walter, it’s Woolter.

Yeah, but yeah, it was one of those things where again, where you have everyone just trying to add, and plus all the scenes are- he just came in and it was immediately, like, yeah, we have to do it.

My Commentary: This was one of the funniest scenes & Easter eggs for me, as a Breaking Bad fan. Note: I am typing this on my laptop that has a Los Pollos Hermanos sticker adorning it.

I’m really curious about the positive messages because there were quite a few in this, and like really strong; really well told, and I’m curious where they come in, in the storytelling process.  Is it organic, or do you fit them in?

Jared- Well, it’s funny.  Early on you are trying to find what your themes are gonna be and what those messages are, so for this movie, and I think for most of the ones at Disney, you don’t start with the theme and then build a story around it.  For us, we did months and months of research, and we knew we had a fox and a rabbit, and a predator and prey, and that was interesting.  And early on it was gonna be a movie about instincts and can predators overcome their base instincts, but then as we started looking at these groups and how would a predator feel about that label, that sort of becoming very interesting, and started telling us actually what the movie should probably be about.

And the more we started pushing that, some of the other things, the themes came into view, and the whole idea of your preconceived notions of somebody else really started coming to the surface.  And once we started to see that, and people, as you’re screening and telling the story to people, and it started to resonate with people, we pushed more and more in that direction.  A lot of the time, you find those things over the course of trying to figure out what your story is and who your characters are.

Clark- I think one of the things we really held on to and it’s true, it wasn’t the original piece of it- five years to take the movie; the concept of all that research, getting the predator and prey, really started to give us this theme, but then as not only people within animation but also other people; you know, we showed the film to Bob Iger and to Alan Horn, and they started saying, that’s a really great idea for talking about that theme within an animal world.  They just really loved that, so even as the story started to evolve, and there were lots of conversations as we switched it from Nick’s point of view to Hopps’ point of view, do we need to switch what the theme is about.

People kept saying no; as you can, try and hold onto that because we have this unique opportunity in this world to talk about something that could be great.  And so it became a challenge, and it almost became something these guys had to figure out.  Like you’re gonna have to figure out, what do we do next, but we’ve still gotta stay.

Phil- Yeah, and it’s a thing, frankly I’m most proud of with the movie is the theme and the fact that important ideas can be buried within a highly entertaining movie that your kids are gonna like to watch, and hopefully you’re gonna like to watch, too- I hope.  And it’s the beauty of animation, I think, in that you can create fables that resonate on multiple levels, and in the case of this one, I think we’re gonna have families talking and thinking about the world in a slightly different way or I hope so, anyway, after seeing the movie.  And that’s really gratifying when that happens.

Jared- Yep.  Actually one of the things early on that Johnston- when Byron said, I wanna do a movie with talking animals, that the charge was, how do you do this movie in a way that’s never been done before?  And we really started to think about that, and the answer was so obvious right in front of our faces.  Pretty much every movie I can think of with, with animal characters walking upright, they all get along.  There’s never a problem.  You see a pig standing next to a lion and they’re just talking.  You never for a second wonder, like, that guy used to eat that guy.  How does that translate?  How does that feel today?  And the fact that it was just sitting there and no one had done it before felt like such a great launching pad for us.

Phil- And not shying away from those ideas in the tone; I mean, we’re not making a preachy message movie, but we didn’t hesitate to push it as far as we thought we could, and sometimes it went too far, and we had to pull it back.  But the tone, I think, both it has sophisticated comedy, I think, and the themes as we’ve talked about are unique for an animated film, and something we’re all really psyched about.

My Commentary: This was something that really spoke to me. I will tell you more about it in my review, but I believe they did a great job!

 It’s so awesome to get the chance to speak with the creative minds behinds these movies as they bring insight into the behind the scenes happenings and motivations behind the various scenes.

Check out Zootopia’s Official Sloth Trailer:

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ZOOTOPIA opens in theatres everywhere on March 4th!
Disclosure: I was invited to attend this exclusive Zootopia press junket by Disney in exchange for this post. All opinions expressed are my own.