INTERVIEW Part 1: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ – Head of Story, Producer & Director
As equally an adventure as reuniting the pieces of the Dragon Gem in Raya and the Last Dragon was the making of said adventure. For the upcoming home media release of Walt Disney Animation’s latest, its first production with the Southeast Asia region as a setting, key crew members share with JumpCut Online their thoughts on the unique (and COVID-impacted) production, the film’s reception, and what new directions characters like Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), Sisu (Awkwafina) and company have unveiled for the studio.
In Part 1, we have producer Osnat Shurer, head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn and of the two main directors Carlos López Estrada. For Part 2, director Don Hall and writers Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim take centre stage.
JumpCut: Hello everyone! Sawasdee krub, Fawn!
Fawn Veerasunthorn: Sawasdee ka!
JumpCut: And of course — [Kumandran greeting]
[Everyone does the same]
JumpCut: Let’s start! How was it realising COVID would affect the film on all fronts?
Osnat Shurer: That’s a really good question. There are so many layers to it! On the story level, we found that the story we’re working to tell is becoming more and more relevant everyday — a story about trust, about isolation, about a force that doesn’t care who you are or what you think. There are so many things that we’ve been working on for years that we didn’t expect to become so timely, this conversation about coming together to fight a greater force.
And then there was how COVID affected us in making the film, spending the last year working from home from 400 homes and learning how to work together in different and new ways. I think we’ve all been changed by it.
Carlos López Estrada: For us, it was just completely unexpected. And it was difficult! Last year was very, very difficult. The silver lining is that it brought our crew together in a way that was really powerful. It forces us to have to really have to trust each other, to work together. I think it made us stronger. We’re gonna go back to the studio— [dog barks]
OS: That was part of the filmmaking process.
CLE: There was a lot of that. [dog barks] And we’re gonna go back to the studio with such a stronger bond because, you know, we went through the hardest imaginable thing a team of animators can go through to have a film that I’m very proud of. Just incredible.
FV: We definitely— [dog barks] We definitely draw inspiration from being in isolation from each other, and feel the need to come together. We have never been more intensive in researching the story than this one, I would say!
JumpCut: I did notice that in the credits there was a thank-you for everyone for all of their efforts and a stable internet connection. I bet it felt like being back in school and you had to submit your work online, hopefully in time, before 11:59 p.m.?
OS: We were thinking of going home just for two weeks. It was the very beginning of production. We think… maybe three weeks. It was over a year ago, and we’re all still at home. We learn quickly how to do things we never thought we could do — if you ask me before I’d have said, “No, we can’t do this.”
We dealt with the internet. And dogs. Fawn’s daughter was part of giving notes on animation. You know, we’re all in this with our families and our homes. Don Hall, the other director with Carlos, his internet always went down, or he would still be on mute…
OS: …We all had things that we did, right?
CLE: That little note in the credits you brought up was very specifically directed to Don. Before there was some version of it that actually had his name, but then we decided, “Maybe not.”
[Writer’s note: A notable sentence in the note — “…The filmmakers would like to thank them for their tireless hard work, good humor, and most of all with patience… with our inability to properly use the internet. (Dude, you’re still on mute.)”]
JumpCut: Hopefully I’ll be able to talk with him and I can confirm this story.
CLE: Ask him about his internet connection. [laughs]
OS: Yeah, ask him how bad his internet connection was. [laughs]
To be fair, people’s entire families were online — the kids going to school, spouses teaching or working on their jobs, so we had to deal with individual bandwidths as well as everything else. These are all new things to us. There’s something magical that happened where our trust in each other grew, and our ability to articulate clearly what we’re looking for so people know exactly what to do. We’re not in the same building to go “Hey Fawn, what do you think about…?” which we would do all the time. Or “Let’s go to lunch and talk about what’s the deeper meaning of this scene?” Or whatever it is. Everything has to be very intentional.
FV: That’s right.
OS: Every conversation.
JumpCut: Yet, despite all these challenges, toi — the film is a blast! And seeing the reactions to the film, how did we all feel about it?
CLE: We had an experience that we tell often to people that I think really encapsulates what we thought was going to happen versus what actually happened: For almost a year, we reviewed all the shots, animation, lighting, textures and everything on laptops and iPads, which you know have very small screens. We were very anxious whenever we sat in a movie theater and got to see these shots blown up — in their full glory — we were going to realise a lot of inconsistencies or mistakes, or just details that you wouldn’t realise by seeing them on a laptop. We were terrified the moment we got to see the film up on the screen for the first time.
And the day came, I think it was around October that we first went to the studio to see it. We had the opposite experience! Yes, we got to see a lot of details blown up, so many things we hadn’t seen, but there were always positive surprises, always for the better. In scenes that we thought we had seen and approved so many times, we started to see nuances in the animation, in the environments, backgrounds, colours and lights. Not once did we run into the problem of mistakes that we hadn’t seen before popping up. We got to appreciate the movie on such a more profound level from seeing it on the big screen.
I think that’s a testament to the quality of work people in the studio do, the artists, the technicians. It was just flawless.
Do you all think the world is ready for more Southeast Asian stories? Or stories from underrepresented regions of Asia? Alternatively, what must happen for us to reach that readiness?
OS: I got to do Moana and now Raya, and I think… Yes! We are 100%, 1000% ready for more diverse stories…
[CLE and FV laugh]
OS: …all over the world, wherever you go. I grew up all over the world — I’m from Israel but I spent some of my childhood in Africa, in Turkey, in strange places that being immersed in another culture just opened my eyes to something else, something more. This success of some of the stories breaking out of the regular kind of Western-European fairy tales that a lot of our kind of storytelling was based on is a testament to that.
It’s also ready for more stories with strong females at their heart. It’s also ready for stories of every kind! I think what needs to happen is that there [should be] more and more of us at the table and that there’s an appreciation. This is recent. It’s working. It’s good. You can’t tell me, “Whatever, a female-led movie is not going to speak to boys as well.”
FV: Yeah, and for Moana, I think when I saw it I got this feeling, “There’s this new direction, seeing diverse female protagonists from anywhere in the world.” And Osnat was producing it so I was like, “I need to be a part of this!” [laughs] Hopefully, younger creatives — creators and filmmakers — can see this as a door has been opened, and more opportunities have come for their voices to shine.
CLE: I feel like this shouldn’t be seen as, like, the one chance that we have to explore these cultures. This should feel like the beginning of something — that hopefully people in 30 years will look back and say, “Oh, that was the first of many!”
CLE: And hopefully we’ll just continue and continue to celebrate the peoples of the world. Specifically Disney, which gets to travel around the world. I feel like all the people who could see these movies deserve a chance to see themselves in them. We’ll get there.
JC: Thank you, everyone. [Kumandra greeting] And Fawn, khob khun krub!
CLE: Thank you, Nguyen. It was so nice to meet you!
OS: [Kumandra greeting]
FV: Khob khun ka!
Raya and the Last Dragon will be on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K disc May 18. It is currently available to rent and stream on Disney+ & Prime Video. It will be free for Disney+ subscribers June 4.