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“ParaNorman” Screenwriter/Co-Director Chris Butler on Writing the First Gay Character in a Mainstream Animated Film

5:42 PM on 02/01/2013

After Elton

Louis Virtel

January 30, 2013


ParaNorman is a droll animated gem about a misunderstood kid named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see and communicate with the dead, including his own grandmother who makes chitchat from his living room couch. Norman’s classmates and his own father harass him for his supernatural gift, but soon he’s called upon to help defend his town from an ancestral zombie invasion. He eventually gains allies in his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), an eccentric overweight kid named Neil, and Neil’s musclebound “bro” Mitch, who reveals in a touching comic moment that he’s gay. This admission qualifies ParaNorman as an anomaly among mainstream animated films, and much of the credit for that goes to the film’s out screenwriter and co-director Chris Butler.


The movie is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and thus, we talked to Butler about his Oscar chances, the parallel themes of bullying and horror, and the joys of being a gay nerd.


AfterElton: Congrats on the Oscar nomination! I can only project what I believe my reaction to a nomination would be; are you constantly analyzing your chances of winning?

Chris Butler: Honestly, I know it sounds glib and it sounds like it’s nonsense, but I don’t want to think about it too much. If I think about it too much, I start to mess myself. It’s just — you don’t make an animated movie in the hope of winning an award. That’s not why you do it. You do it because you’re passionate. It takes too long! It’s too stressful and too terrifying. You would never do it just for an accolade at the end. But then once you’ve gotten through it and you’re kind of bloodied, bruised, and battered? To have people recognize, it is kind of nice especially after you’ve read every review on Rotten Tomatoes. So to have people acknowledge the work that you did is wonderful, but I try not to weigh my chances. It makes me feel uncomfortable!


AE: While the existence of a Best Animated Feature category is great, do you think the film world still fails to recognize animated films properly?

CB: I know what you’re saying. I wish we lived in a world or industry where animation was regarded in exactly the same way as live action because it’s still filmmaking. In many ways it’s more intensive. Animation is not a genre; it’s a medium. It’s a way of making a story. The story itself could be anything. You could have a war film, a romantic comedy, a western — you could do all of those things in animation. Those are genres. Animation is not. I wish people did not just firmly put animation in this has-to-be-safe, kid-friendly, candy-colored, fart joke [realm]. It can be so much more than that. It’s fine in itself, and I enjoy that stuff, but there are so many stories out there that we could tell in this medium. It would be nice if it was just an accepted part of filmmaking.


AE: Are you an Oscars devotee at all?

CB: I do enjoy the whole thing, but I’m not any kind of Wikipedia on it. It’s such a part of Hollywood, you know? You can’t not have the Oscars. It is fun and exciting, and I love it — I do love it. But please don’t try to test me on it! I won’t know anything!


AE: When did you realize that the themes of horror and bullying could dovetail so nicely? Has it always been apparent to you?

CB: It was pretty early on in this. Honestly, the genesis of this was me thinking, “Wouldn’t a stop-motion zombie movie for kids be cool?” But it very quickly became the bullying thing because — and I’ve said this many times — I think the best zombie movies are the ones that have social commentary. They use zombies as a metaphor. In wanting to do a zombie movie for kids, which I don’t think we’ve seen before, I thought, “What could that social commentary be? What is the most important thing in a kid’s life when you’re 11?” It’s fitting it. It’s “How do I fit into the world? How do I be popular? Why am I bullied?” It very easily became about bullying. It also made it far easier for me to write because there’s many aspects of it that reflect my childhood: hating school and being something of an outcast. It gave meat to the bones, if you like. I always knew it was going to be a zombie movie, but I always thought, “But what is it really about?” Once I knew that, it happened naturally. I just thought about the things growing up that influenced me most, which was horror, but it was also the school stuff. That’s why I always say it’s like John Carpenter meet John Hughes. Those two things actually go quite well together.


AE: I got a Roald Dahl vibe from this movie, and not just because the stop-motion is similar to the James and the Giant Peach movie from the ’90s. Did you grow up on Dahl?

CB: Yeah. Roald Dahl is a big deal for anyone growing up in England. I guess it’s the same here?


AE: For some Americans it is.

CB: That’s very much part of a grand British tradition of children’s fiction that is dark, but humorously dark. It’s actually harder to get that stuff realized in movies than it is in books. There are still a lot more bold, irreverent books for kids than there are movies for some reason. There’s a resistance to do anything that’s slightly challenging in kids’ film. But yeah, absolutely I grew up with a dark, slightly twisted sense of humor. It’s a mistake to think that kids aren’t smart enough to get that stuff. They are! Kids are complex, strange creatures who are capable of so much more than adults give them credit for.


AE: One of the most endearing characters in ParaNorman is a buff jock named Mitch who announces in a last-reel moment that he has a boyfriend. Because he reveals his gayness at the movie’s end, I found myself thinking about it after the credits. Was that the reason you placed his revelation so late in the film?

CB: There are very good reasons why it was left to the end. The main thing being that the most important theme in the movie is about not judging a book by its cover. In fact, it’s a literal plot element in the movie. There is a book that’s judged! I wanted to make every character in the movie guilty of judging someone else, usually misjudging. That’s all of the characters, the good ones, the bad ones. It’s every character. They all look at someone else, think they know who they are without getting into a conversation with them, and judges them. I wanted to make the audience complicit in that. It’s not just Mitch; there are plenty of stereotypes that are presented in this movie. As soon as you see anything, you think, “I know that character. I’ve seen this before.” That was the fun thing for me. It was saying, “Yes, you’re watching this movie where all these people are learning not to judge each other, but hopefully you are too.” This stereotypically macho jock who you’ve seen in every teen slasher movie, you think he’s straight and he’s going to get the girl. But you don’t know him! You don’t know who he is. That was important to leave for the end. Plus, I thought it was a funny joke.


AE: Did this character twist make anyone involved with the film nervous? I’ve known filmmakers who’ve been challenged about including any gay characters in their own movies.

CB: Honestly? I never had any resistance from the studio. That’s what’s really special about Laika [ParaNorman’s animation studio]. I don’t think there’s any kind of agenda going on, but I think that Laika is brave and wants to create movies, tell stories that maybe no one else is doing right now. I think it’s them a really exciting place. That’s not to say — we did Coraline, and while that broke many of the formulaic boundaries of kids’ movies and in some ways it’s more terrifying than ParaNorman — but that’s not to say what we’re all about. What it says is that Laika is bold and willing to go there. There are plenty of things being developed at the studio that are really exciting because the other studios aren’t making them. They’re not the creepy-movie-for-kids studio. We are maybe the studio that is taking more chances creatively and that is exciting.


AE: Norman’s father is pretty horrifying in the movie. He’s intolerant, mean, and stubborn. Was it hard to write such a grim, boorish character?

CB: A few people actually wanted me to change him. They wanted me to take the edge off him a little. But again, the point of it for me was that what he says has so much more weight on Norman if he doesn’t temper it by being nice. You know? It absolutely is why Norman does what he does, why he is who he is, because he’s living in that dynamic. That was important to me as well. If you look at something like E.T., the family dynamic is that is very dysfunctional. It’s not a perfect family, but that to me is more relatable. I think every kid knows what it’s like to hear their parents argue. Everyone does. So when you present flawed parents onscreen, every kid in the audience can relate. If you make them perfect, some pastel-painted apple pie-making [family], it’s not real. You’re automatically creating a barrier that the audience can’t get past. The kids in the audience don’t know what it’s like to live in that house. That’s why it was important to make Perry an assh*le. One of the key scenes is at the end when he tries [to relate to Norman]. Maybe in another version of this movie, Norman would be carried through the streets on people’s shoulders. That wasn’t real to me either. More important was that you have this pig of a man who was so stuck in his ways, but in the end he tries. It’s difficult for him, and you can see he’s having a hard time doing it, but that makes it all the more effective because he loves his son. I actually really like Perry as a character because he doesn’t seem fake.


AE: I like how Norman’s talents are treated as paranormal gifts. There’s something cool about that, like his differences make him truly exceptional. Did you find growing up that your own differences could make you literally “awesome,” so to speak?

CB: I wouldn’t say that, no. It’s funny because certainly the not-fitting-in thing was me, but I actually dealt with it by becoming wallpaper. I didn’t want to stand out. That’s where you got all the attention, and I didn’t want to be a victim about it either. Norman does that too and that’s what I tried to do with him; he’s not angst-ridden, and he gets on with it. So many kids do that. They have to in order to get through school. In order to survive school, you have to keep your head down and keep going. The supernatural side of it came about through the idea that, well — where it originally started was that my grandma said to me when I was a kid, she used to say to me, when she died she was going to stick around to see if I was OK. I loved that idea! It was so not scary. That was a big part of how this kind of grew. I thought, “What if that was real? What if she did stick around?” It would make ghosts not that scary at all. In fact, way scarier to Norman are the living people. So, the superpower thing, I never wanted it to seem like — hmmm…


AE: Like it was a self-conscious difference?

CB: Yes! I wanted to keep it grounded. His way of dealing with it is still pretty real, I think.

AE: You’re a self-described nerd. I think film nerds routinely pick and lionize their favorite films, which can make a good nerd more nostalgic than excited for the future. Like, I have favorite movies and I often think, “We’ll never have THAT again.” Are you more nostalgic than excited?

CB: No. I’m very hopeful. Every year, there is always something that gets me going when I see the trailer. There are still amazing stories to be told. That’s part of it; you can’t avoid looking to the past in order to create something new. Because there are only a handful of stories that exist, ever. This in particular was influenced by a nostalgic idea. It was the ’80s. That’s not to say it’s all I’m interested in, but no, films still excite me. There’s plenty to discover, and unmade stuff that I can’t wait to see.


AE: This movie is rightfully given credit for including the first openly gay character in a mainstream animated film. Does that get your wheels turning about what other types of characters haven’t yet been represented in the medium? Do you like making movies to get those characters on the screen?

CB: I mean, maybe! That’s how you change things. It did seem crazy to me that [homosexuality] is still such a taboo. So yeah, if you’re trying to say something about tolerance and acceptance, then absolutely that was a reason to put Mitch in there. It’s going to take a lot more than this movie to make people change their minds, but maybe this is the beginning. Baby steps. What I love is taking something you think you know, then playing with it. In the future, I’ll probably play around in a world that maybe we’ve seen before and do something different with it.