Skewed Naturalism: An Exclusive Interview With ParaNorman Director Chris Butler

ParaNorman, the second stop-motion animated feature from Laika, arrives in theatres today. If you’ve read my review, you know I really admire the film, and feel it’s a confident, impressive step forward for the company that hit it out of the park their first time around with Coraline.

Last week, I had the chance to speak with Chris Butler, writer and co-director of ParaNorman. It was a fantastic interview. Butler is an extremely thoughtful man, and has tremendous passion for his work. In fifteen minutes, we covered the themes of the film, how the story plays with horror iconography, the animation style employed, why stop-motion suits dark material so well, and more. The interview is spoiler-free, but we do touch upon specifics about the tone and characters that readers might not understand until they see the film in full.

In any case, this is a very in-depth, spirited discussion, one that should prove very enlightening for those interested in ParaNorman.


We Got This Covered: What impressed me most about the film was the really mature way the subject matter was handled. I’m wondering, as a writer, what are the major themes and ideas you wanted to deal with in this project? 

Chris Butler: Well, definitely, just the fact that having a real theme, having a real issue to address in the first place, was fundamental to the story. The original idea that I had, many years ago, was ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do a stop-motion zombie movie for kids?’ And where there was initially just this knee-jerk reaction of yes, that would be cool, in truth I wanted to do a bit more than that, because I think the best Zombie movies have some sort of social commentary. I thought, how cool would it be to kind of adopt that methodology, but for a kids movie? It was all about juxtaposing the real horror of being eleven years old, in middle school, when you don’t fit in, with the fictional horror of monsters. I thought it was a really fun way of exploring that.

So a lot of the messages in it were there right from the start. But I think honestly, part of the reason for me writing this first place is because I’ve worked in animation a long time, in story departments, and I think it’s almost a response, over the years, to the kind of stuff that I don’t want to see in kid’s entertainment. I think children are incredibly complex and sophisticated creatures – I know I was – and there is a rich tradition of smart, challenging fiction for children that stretches all the way back to fairy tales …

I don’t like the idea of sanitizing, dumbing stuff down purely because it’s just for kids. Sure, you want to entertain, absolutely that’s the main reason for making animation in the first place I think, but you can entertain and have something to say as well and I think that’s the stuff that’s more resonant, that’s the stuff that’s going to stick with people. That’s the stuff that’s going to make an eleven year old in the audience want to get into animation and make movies in twenty years’ time.

We Got This Covered: That’s what really impressed me about the film. I honestly believe that this is a movie kids are going to find uplifting, because it speaks to the outcasts, and the disenfranchised, in ways movies are afraid of doing today.

Chris Butler: Yes, yes. 

We Got This Covered: Was that the intent of the project?

Chris Butler: Yeah. And I think that has a lot to do with me. It’s a very personal project in that I was definitely an outsider. I was something of a Norman, though not exactly. I think what I found interesting when I started getting into it was – when you’re eleven, and I don’t care who you are, you know what it feels like to not know where you fit in the world. I think that’s a universal and relatable concept. I think everyone, when they cast off the years of maturity, they can go back to a place when they weren’t exactly sure who they were, or how they fit in, or whether they would ever fit in, and I think yes, it’s about outsiders, but it’s also about how we’re all outsiders at some point.

We Got This Covered: Absolutely. One of the main themes I saw was about fear, and that the fear isn’t just about how the bullies view Norman and how Norman views bullies, but how the adults view the children. Fear creates a communication barrier. Where do you think that communication barrier comes from?

Chris Butler: I think it comes naturally from having children. I think when an adult has a child, they immediately become protective, and I think most adults want to – the world is a very imperfect place, and I think the truth of it is that there are monsters out there, and I think what’s cool to do in kids movies is to say ‘yes there are monsters out there, but yes they can be defeated.’ And I think unfortunately, there are a lot of adults who want to say ‘no, there are no such thing as monsters.’ Which is disingenuous, in a way. We know that terrible things exist in the world, and when trying to hide kids from them, you’re not doing them any favors, because they’re going to encounter them at some point.

That might sound all a little, you know, precious, if you like, but like you say, it’s supposed to be an empowering thing. I think it’s a very hopeful story, it suggests that you have the ability, despite any differences you think might hold you back, you have the ability to overcome any obstacle.

Continue Reading on the Next Page…