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The Princess & The Frog – John Musker and Ron Clements interview

The Princess & The Frog

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Musker and Ron Clements talk about directing new Disney film The Princess & The Frog, working with John Lasseter and re-embracing classic Disney values such as hand-drawn animation and music…

Q. John, the idea for developing one of the most famous stories from the Brothers Grimm has been floating around for some time. Why has it taken so long?
John Musker: At the Disney studio, the story of The Frog Princess has been in development for about 18 years. There have been different versions of it going back to the time of Beauty & The Beast. Eric Goldberg developed a version of it… sort of a Shrek-like version. Rob Minkoff, the director of The Lion King, worked on a version of it. These versions may have all gotten to the point of just being little treatments or a few drawings, they never really quite got off the ground.

Coincidentally, Pixar also developed ideas based on The Frog Prince for a CG animated film and the first one that was really pitched there was set in gangland Chicago in the 1930s. I think John Lasseter, once he’d seen that, saw an opportunity to set the story in New Orleans, rather than Chicago, because it’s one of his favourite cities in the world. I think he thought the proximity of the bayou was natural… with frogs. So, the Pixar version then moved to New Orleans.

But neither the Pixar version or the Disney version ever quite got off the ground for whatever reasons, and when Ron [Clements] and I came back to the studio about three and a half years ago, John Lasseter – who was newly instituted as the head of Disney animation (Disney having bought Pixar about four years ago) – said: “Can you take a look at this idea and see what you think.” So, we read all those Disney versions and the Pixar versions and came up with our own variation, which had an African-American lead to tell the story. We also liked the idea of it being hand-drawn and it being a musical. We suggested to John Lasseter that Randy Newman do the music for it and he consented to all those ideas.

Q. Ron, when it comes to the music, no one could have predicted that Disney would couple with Dr John! Is he a friend?
Ron Clements: Well, after we pitched the idea to John Lasseter, he really liked all the ideas. But he said before you do anything else, you need to go down and visit New Orleans and really get a sense of it. So, we went to the jazz fest, which was in May 2006, and we did other research. But the jazz fest was a great experience – they have a gospel tent and Dixieland. We really got a sense of all the different kinds of music. We knew Randy Newman right away. We’d pitched for him to do it because he’d actually spent his boyhood in New Orleans and actually, in terms of Dr John… they have worked together previously.

They performed together. The first song Randy wrote for the movie was a track called Down In New Orleans, which is all about the city and bringing you into the world of the movie, and we actually thought it would be great for Dr John to sing that song. One of the big thrills of the movie was that the song was recorded in New Orleans and just being down there in the city with Dr John and Randy Newman together, as well as a lot of musicians from New Orleans, was a very special day to be a part of.

Q. Can you talk to us about the differences of working with a hands-on filmmaker like John Lasseter as opposed to a hugely experienced executive like Jeffrey [Katzenberg, former Disney chief]?
John Musker: John is a filmmaker. He’s a director, he animates, he draws. We spoke very much the same language. It wasn’t like you had to explain things to him. We talked in short-hand almost. So, creatively it was really thrilling, partly because we were so much in sync. Our experiences are so similar… I went to school with John Lasseter and I’ve known him since that time. We have very similar sort of tastes in films and filmmaking. Jeffrey is a brilliant guy but came to animation not knowing anything about animation – he didn’t even really grow up with animation. I don’t think he even saw the films that much as a kid. But he was a very quick study and tried to play catch up. So, John is a very collaborative filmmaker and I’d say Jeffrey is a little more Darwinian. He’d always challenge our ideas and make you resist back. John was more supportive, I would say. He has great instincts, particularly with stories. So, he found ways to tell the story more effectively and more powerfully.

Ron Clements: Jeffrey had a tendency when you presented things to him to either love it… and if he loved something, it was the greatest thing that had ever been done in the history of cinema. Otherwise, he hated it and it was absolute crap. There was nothing in between. You never had to question whether he liked something or not. He was very, very clear on that. But working for John was the best of all possible worlds, I would say, because he’s very respectful of filmmakers, he’s respectful of your vision, he’s so supportive and he has great ideas. He also knows animation inside and out, so it was a really, really terrific working relationship.

Q. Do you consider this film to be an ode to New Orleans?
John Musker: The whole film is sort of a valentine to New Orleans. We first visited New Orleans about seven months after Hurricane Katrina. Our story, of course, is set in the 1920s and doesn’t involve the devastation but we really thought of the movie as a valentine. Since that time, New Orleans has made a lot of progress and it’s gone a long way towards getting back to where it was. It’s still not all the way there but we thought if our film could help in any way, whether through bringing tourism back and helping people to rediscover what a great city it is, then that would be a good thing.

Q. And Ron?
Ron Clements: Certainly, when we visited areas like the French Quarter, which weren’t terribly affected by the flooding… although the bulk of the city was and probably the 9th Ward was hit the hardest. We visited there and saw the incredible devastation, which you never forget once you’ve seen. But we did specifically show the 9th Ward in the movie as it was in the 1920s, so that was a conscious thing.

Q. As well as recalling a lot of the earlier Disney animation, there’s also a lot of Warner Bros/Tex Avery nods. Is that deliberate?
John Musker: Well, speaking for myself I’m certainly a big fan of the Warner Bros directors Chuck Jones and Tex Avery and that sort of thing. There’s the sequence involving the frog hunters that recalls The Three Stooges. So, it was definitely a nod to Chuck Jones and The 3 Bears cartoons. Tex Avery, again, is somebody we admire who had really gone to extremes in animations. So, it isn’t so conscious; I’d say it was a little bit below that in terms of being an overt homage to them.

Ron Clements: We started as animators, both John and I… we haven’t done it for a while but we still kind of think as animators, even in terms of developing stories. We like to give the animators some things they can have fun with and really enjoy and take advantage of the cartoon medium. We feel like if it’s all something you could do just as easily in live action, there isn’t maybe as much a reason to do it. So, I think a lot of the film we tailored as much as possible – certainly when you have talking frogs and fireflies and alligators. You can do that in live action but it maybe doesn’t have quite the same effect, so we like to take advantage of the medium.

Read our review of The Princess & The Frog

Read our interview with Anika Noni Rose