Skewed Naturalism: An Exclusive Interview With ParaNorman Director Chris Butler

We Got This Covered: I want to talk for a little bit about how you play with horror iconography in the movie. What works were most influential to this project?

Chris Butler: I would say – I mean, we talk about it as ‘John Carpenter meets John Hughes,’ and it started out as a sort of love letter to older horror movies I watched – as a kid, incidentally, and loved – but it very rapidly spread into something else. It became this mix of all these other influences I had growing up. Movies and TV Shows. It became The Goonies, Ghostbusters, early Spielberg movies, and Scooby Doo, obviously. Certainly, I think it was an era of moviemaking that was a little braver, a little smarter, and more irreverent. It was a place that I wanted to go back to.

I talked about Spielberg; if you look at the family units in most early Spielberg movies, like E.T. specifically because it’s a family movie, the family units are imperfect, and that’s what I wanted here as well. I wanted to – you know, a lot of this movie was about embracing a kind of naturalism, even though it is animated, and I think every kid knows what it’s like to hear their parents argue, and by including that in a movie, it’s instantly relatable, and a child in the audience knows what it feels like to be Norman. I didn’t want this to be this perfectly, whimsical world that is removed from reality. Yes, it’s stylized visually, but it needed to be observational, it needed to be of our world.

We Got This Covered: Yeah. When you’re talking about how much you have to relate to Norman, I actually want to talk about what Kodi Smit-McPhee did as Norman. Such vulnerable, powerful work. What was it like working with him? 

Chris Butler: He’s just a joy, to be honest. We knew it had to be him, because it’s a complex character. He has to carry the movie. We knew – it’s dangerous, it’s always dangerous in family movies or kids’ movies, when the protagonist is a child, particularly a smart child, because they become precocious, or in this case we didn’t want him to become ‘whiny,’ because Norman has a lot of problems. I wanted him to feel like he was, again, a real kid.

We’d seen Kodi’s work in The Road, and he’d managed to hold his own with Viggo Mortensen at the age of 9, so we knew he had the acting chops, and yes, Norman has to be smart, and troubled, and brave, vulnerable like you said, but also funny. That was the cool thing with Kodi. He also brought a very light, comedic touch to a lot of it that felt very real. I think in the end, that was the most important thing hat he brought, because we wanted the two main kids to be played by the appropriate age group, and you’re limited, you know, you’re really limited in finding kid actors who can go there in a very restrained, nuanced way, and Kodi can, he can just do it. Everything about him is restrained, he never overdoes it, he doesn’t ‘ham.’ It was a gift, really. I think Norman is the trickiest character in the movie to get right, and Kodi just nailed it for us.

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