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Kung Fu Panda – John Stevenson and Mark Osborne interview

Kung Fu Panda

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Stevenson and Mark Osborne talk about the making of Kung Fu Panda, pushing the martial arts to the limit and why they didn’t want to patronise children…

Q. You guys are famed for your meticulous approach to films. Can you tell us about the research you did?
John Stevenson: The truth is you get nothing for free on an animated movie. Everything you see in the frame, from a huge vista of Mongolian mountains, to a teaspoon… everything has to be carefully researched and designed and is subject to intense scrutiny in many meetings. Everything then has to be built, surfaced and painted and very often we end up throwing it out of focus in the background where no one else notices it anyway! But it’s a huge amount of work. We can’t just go to a prop store and pull out a bunch of props, we have to design and build every single thing… from the tiniest thing in the frame. So, we had a crew of about 350 people working on the movie for about four years. It’s a serious commitment.

Q. Was it always a given that the central figure was always going to be a panda?
Mark Osborne: Yeah, pandas are cute and I think the idea of a panda doing kung fu was quite comical. So, the origin of the idea is actually in the title… the high concept of a panda that must do kung fu is going to make everyone smile. Even my grandfather, who doesn’t know much about kung fu, laughs when I say the title to him. So, we wanted to basically find the best way to make good on that image that pops into people’s head but also to make the most of the potential in the story of a panda being the unlikeliest candidate to be a king fu master and tell that story. The hero’s journey is not a brand new story to tell but we wanted to tell the story of the most unlikeliest hero.

Q. How did you make the kung fu look authentic without risking a higher certificate?
John Stevenson: We wanted to go right to the very crispy edge of PG. But seriously, we didn’t want to hold back. We wanted to make sure that our kung fu was real kung fu, albeit done by animals, and we wanted it to have consequences because otherwise there’s no emotional investment in the film. It was a balancing act to see how intense we could be without stepping over the line. There’s no blood or broken teeth, but we pushed the action to be as intense as possible and we wanted it to appear to be as terrifying as possible. We didn’t want to compromise.

I think you do children a disservice when we sort of blunt the teeth of fairytales. I think fairytales have a very important function, and Kung Fu Panda is a fairytale, and that’s to prepare kids in some ways for the bad things in the world. If you extract that from a fairytale, you’re sort of patronising children. So, I think they can take it so long as it’s put together in the right context, particularly if there’s a parent they can talk about things with afterwards, and so long as good triumphs over evil, which in all the fairytales it does.

Mark Osborne: We wanted to make the action as intense as possible so that it would make the comedy as funny in contrast. So, it was a balancing act throughout. We wanted the action to be as cool as the kung fu movies that inspired us, but we always had to consider our audience. We kept pushing and pushing, though, and we actually expected… we felt we were going a little tougher than we were expecting to get away with and we thought in our test screening that we’d get some complaints and have to pull back a little, but we never did. And I think that was because of the balance of the comedy. Our most intense emotional sequence and our most hardcore kung fu sequence between Shifu and Tai Lung actually comes right before our funniest sequence as Po arrives. So, there’s a balance that made it all OK. I think parents realised that it was fine to have a really scary villain and some intense action so long as it’s in service of a good story.

John Stevenson: Walt Disney made a pact with his audience, which was that “I’m going to scare you, but it’s going to be OK”. And that was a pact we adopted.

Q. Was the first appearance of Ian McShane’s character a nod to Hannibal Lecter?
John Stevenson: Yes indeed. That was a specific story idea that our head of story came up with. That whole first scene with the Tai Lung character is exactly the same as the introduction of Hannibal Lecter. It’s all about Ian’s character… the size of the prison, the number of guards it takes to restrain him, the darkness of the room and the ominous music. It’s all setting up Tai Lung before we even meet him.

Q. What cartoons were you brought up on as kids?
John Stevenson: I think Snow White was the first film I ever saw. But it was Ray Harryhausen films like The Seven Voyages of Sinbad or Jason & The Argonauts that kind of blew my mind and sent me on this path.

Mark Osborne: The first animated film I ever saw was Disney’s Robin Hood and I wanted to be Robin Hood for a little while. But it wasn’t until I saw Star Wars that I realised I wanted to make movies. It really blew my mind.

Read our review of Kung Fu Panda

  1. I think you have made an excellent movie and I bet you will get lots of awards for it.

    fahma    Jul 15    #