‘Moana’ director Ron Clements on Oscar nominations, song demos, and casting Auli’i Cravalho

by W. Andrew Powell
Moana directors John Musker and Ron Clements

John Musker and Ron Clements have worked together over a span of more than 30 years, starting off co-directing The Great Mouse Detective, which debuted in 1986, before moving on to create two of Disney’s biggest films: The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. From that work, they went on to create Hercules, Treasure Planet, the very charming The Princess and the Frog, and most recently, the Oscar-nominated Moana.

Moana was the result of four years of planning and development that started in 2011 when they researched Polynesian mythology as a way to find a new story, and that’s when they discovered the stories of Maui. It wasn’t long before the idea formed to create a film that would revolve around a village chief’s daughter, and that’s where the story of Moana was born.

Working with Lin-Manuel Miranda and other iconic musicians to create the film’s powerful music, the film was released in theatres in 2016 and earned two Academy Award nominations: Best Animated Film and Best Original Song for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go”.

Ahead of the Oscars this Sunday, I chatted with director Ron Clements about developing Moana, the film’s nominations, and how the cast of Miranda’s Hamilton the musical helped contribute to Moana.

Moana arrived on digital HD this week, and debuts on Blu-ray and DVD on March 7.

Andrew Powell: In terms of you work over the years, do you feel that it prepared you for making Moana? Was there something you feel you learned that helped make this film?

Ron Clements: “That’s a good question. I don’t know. Every film is different. I think that one thing that we’ve learned, even from all the films that we’ve done is that… they’re almost all four to five year projects. You may feel like, ‘Well now we know what we’re doing. We did The Little Mermaid, so now we know what we’re doing.’ And then that we’re doing Aladdin, but it’s a completely new challenge. New experience. It’s like starting over again.”

“At least for me, every film feels a little bit like starting over again. This film maybe even more, because it was a new animation medium for us a little bit. We’ve never done a CG film before. We’ve had CG elements in the other movies, so we had to learn a whole new production process along with other thing.”

“This was a really challenging film I think, even more so than some. Although we were prepared I think a little bit for the challenge as having done Princess and the Frog, which was a complicated film in terms of that she was the first African American Disney princess. And there’s a certain kind of feel–a certain responsibility with something like that that you feel like it’s very important that you want to get it right. I think we felt the same thing with Moana.”

“Particularly having visited the islands and done research and met so many people from the islands and having been affected by that, and really feeling that there are a lot of aspects of this movie that would be more difficult than we realized. Once again, we wanted it to be something that was very respectful to the culture, and was kind of a celebration of the culture. It’s something that people would… we wanted the people in the Pacific islands to really embrace the movie. In a way that made it harder than if we were just trying to make a fun entertaining movie. It felt the stakes were a little higher with this one.”

Andrew: I understand that the film went through a number of changes to the story. A lot of films change like that, especially it sounds like, animation these days. Does that create a harder environment to build the film? Or is it actually easier because you can make those changes, and you can make the story stronger as you go?

Ron: “Animation in designed for that. I do think that’s one of the advantages we have in animation compared with live action, is that in a live action film you write a script, you make the script as strong as you can. And then you shoot the movie. And outside of re-shoots, it is kind of what it is.”

“With an animated film, we write a script and once we get a script that we’re pretty happy with, we put it up on story reels to screen it as a real movie. In the first story reels, we don’t have actors yet, but it’s kind of usually just people who work at the studio doing voices. We do some of the voices and we have temp sound and effects and you can watch it and get some sense of it as a movie. We show it with the staff and we show it to our Story Trust of the other directors and writers and heads of story. Then we tear it apart again and re-make it a little bit.”

“Three month later we screen again. And that becomes the next draft. Every three months it’s screened again and the goal is to make it stronger. So we actually get to watch the movie before we make the movie, and we get to change the movie, and it’s not too expensive to change story reels or re-write. You can do all that before you actually go into production. At the same time, some are easier than others. Although they tend to, I would say, the last few films going at least all the way back to Frozen, there tended to be some major shifts along the way. Sometimes that can make it hard just to try to keep your perspective in terms of the story and the movie that you’re trying to make and what you want to put on the screen.”

“At the same time there’s a lot of help. There’s great input, which is an advantage that we have. Just a lot of talented people with good ideas, and that input can be very helpful. John Lasseter certainly is great in terms of his input. He knows story, he knows direction–he really knows what he’s doing quite a bit. We even take our movies to Pixar–we screened our movie once there at Pixar and that was a helpful screening. And Pixar brings their movies to Disney and screens them. We screen ours for the Pixar Braintrust. They have the Braintrust, we have a Story Trust. They’re essentially the same thing, though.”



Andrew: Could you tell a little bit about finding your Moana, because I love the video that you guys posted of telling her, and having meet her myself, I have to say that she’s just phenomenal. But what was the experience like for you when you found her?

Ron: “Oh it was great. That video’s absolutely true. Everything that’s said in that video is true. There were over 600 young women that auditioned for this role. We didn’t see all 600, but we certainly saw a selection of that–we looked at probably 100 auditions.”

“It was difficult to find exactly what we were looking for. We knew it was going to be difficult going in. We wanted a young girl, hopefully around the right age, who was a really good actress and could play humor and fun and that she was hopefully of Polynesian descent. That was kind of our goal–that we could find someone from that world. And she had to be a great singer along with that. So we knew it would be kind of hard to find all that in one person, and we were getting a little discouraged and Auli’i [Cravalho] was the very last person to audition. And she did not put herself up for the role–it was a casting agent in Hawaii that was helping with the movie who had seen her in a promotional thing that she had done with some other students.”

“She’s a high school student, and her experience of acting is just in high school plays and singing in glee club. Yet she was a phenomenal talent and we sort of realized that right away, that this girl was something really, really special and there was something kind of extraordinary about her. She was fearless and willing to take on anything and totally could hold her own with Dwayne Johnson, which is not an easy thing to do. She so much embodied the character. On top of that, she looks like the character, which she didn’t need to. And the way it works in CG animation, that character of Moana had been completely designed and modeled and that was totally set before we found Auli’i.”

Andrew: That’s awesome. So what was it like then working with her? Did you have any notes you were giving her or did she just take to the part easily?

Ron: “She embodied the character, and that’s great. She didn’t really have to play something that was totally foreign to her. It was a natural thing. But she just took to it very naturally. And Jared Bush is a really good writer. He was the last writer that worked on the movie Zootopia, and he spent some time with Auli’i, and with Dwayne Johnson, and really wrote things that just were right for them. That made it really easy and fun.”

“Recording animation can be very fun. Not everyone realizes, but the voice is recorded first, and then the animation is all done to that voice. The recording sessions are pretty loose and playful and you try sometimes different interpretations and try this or try that.”

“Even Auli’i is good at improv. We like improv. We try improv [because] it just kind of loosens things up. It’s not exactly like theater acting, where you have to repeat a performance over and over again. Unless something technical goes wrong with the recording, you just need to get it once. She took to that very, very naturally.”

Andrew: In terms of the Oscars coming up, how do you feel about your film? It seems very well positioned, particularly with the music. What are your thoughts?

Ron: “It’s fun. It’s really fun to be nominated. We were in Stokholm, sort of promoting the movie when we heard that we got the nomination. Very early in the morning in the U.S., but in Stokholm it was like about three o’clock in the afternoon. We were in the middle of an interview. That’s really exciting and certainly we didn’t take anything for granted because this is kind of a very extraordinary year for animated features. There are so many really good animated features this year.”

“There were 26 features that were eligible for Oscar nomination. I don’t think there’s ever been that many before, so we’re excited and I think it’s a great honor to the film. We’re competing, among other things, with Zootopia, which is a great film. I love that film and obviously know the directors of that movie very well. A lot of the people who worked on that movie, the animators and layout artists, and everyone. A lot of the people worked on both movies. So, it’s a good year for Disney, that’s for sure.”

Andrew: I personally have to say, the film for me is easily one of my favorites of the whole year. My daughter, who’s only three and a half, has seen it a few times and she’s a very big fan. She’s going to be cheering the film on.

Ron: “Okay, well that’s great. I hope we come through for her.”

Andrew: There’s always the idea in film that you need to “kill your darlings” to keep the storytelling tight. Was there anything that ended up making it quite a way through the production stage that you ended up then having to take out because it just didn’t fit for time or some other reason?

Ron: “Yeah, there were a few things. Even there were darlings that left momentarily and then came back. I know that toddler sequence in the movie where Moana meets the ocean for the first time, there was a period where–we were not supporting this–that sequence was not in the movie. That was a darling that we really didn’t want to lose, and it came back. We were happy that that’s made it in. But there were other things that went. Certainly there were even songs that Lin-Manuel [Miranda] wrote that didn’t make it into the movie for various reasons.”

Andrew: Will we ever hear them at some other point? Is that possible?

Ron: “The DVD and Blu-Ray actually has deleted songs, deleted scenes, a number of deleted songs and scenes as the story progressed. One of the songs is a duet between Moana and Maui called “Warrior Face”. It’s where Maui is trying to sort of pump her up to a certain degree and get her mana going. Kind of almost teaching her haka and it’s in the demo. One of the fun things in this movie is that we have the best demos because Lin was doing Hamilton every day while he was writing the songs of Moana. He would just get the cast of Hamilton to sing the songs. So the “Warrior Face” song, it never was sung by Dwayne or Auli’i, but it’s performed by Chris Jackson of Hamilton. We would get the Hamilton cast singing the demo. It wasn’t animated, but it wa story boarded. You can see that on the Blu-ray.”

Andrew: That’s great. The last thing is, are you working on a sequel? It seems like it has to be made.

Ron: “Not right now. We were still promoting the movie. We just got back from Japan, which is the last release. It hasn’t been released in Japan yet. It will be early March. That was the last market. Now we’re on the verge of actually taking a vacation.”

Andrew: That’s probably worth while.

Ron: “When we finished the movie, we went sort of right directly into promoting the movie. We talked a little bit about the future, but we want to take a little rest and then come back refreshed and then we’ll see what happens.”

Andrew: Great. Well thank you very much for the time. I really appreciate it.

Ron: “Thanks, Andrew.”

Moana and Maui

Moana and Maui

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