INTERVIEW Part 2: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Writers & Director
JumpCut’s chat with the creators of Raya and the Last Dragon on its upcoming home-media release continues, now with director Don Hall and writers Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim. Previously we had producer Osnat Shurer, head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn and the other main director Carlos López Estrada.
JumpCut: Hello, everyone! Xin chào, Qui! [Kumandran greeting] So, how was it seeing the reactions from viewers in the Asian, and even more specifically Southeast Asian, community?
Don Hall: It has been overwhelming. And probably the most gratifying aspect of making this film is just… friends who text you videos of their kids watching and being enthralled. That kind of personal response has been really incredibly gratifying. We couldn’t be happier!
Qui Nguyen: I think one of the small things that has been super gratifying was seeing Southeast Asian audiences [liking it], specifically the one I’ll be pointing out, the one most satisfying for me, is a very small segment — my Mom. Because for the first time in my whole entire life, she acknowledged that what I’m doing isn’t a complete waste of time.
[Adele Lim laughs]
QN: I’ve been writing many plays, TV shows in the past…
DH: We’ve done nothing else!
QN: She was finally, like, “God…” She watched this movie and was like, “Oh, so you’re not going to be a bum!”
QN: She was like, “But this is good! People that look like us like this, too!” Really, thank you Mom. So when it comes to the Asian Pacific/Southeast Asian appreciation — my Mom really appreciated this film. You know, I can pay my mortgage.
AL: Yes, definitely our moms! I’ll say, too, I grew up in Malaysia and my first Disney film was Snow White. You always think of Disney princesses looking a certain way, being a certain way. Now that this movie’s come out, my cousins in Malaysia would send me a video of her little girl — she doesn’t have any of the Raya stuff, like the sword, over there, but she found a ruler and she told her mom, “You are Sisu and I am Raya, and I am going to fight and protect you!”
JC: Oh, nice!
AL: I want to use my experience [to show], particularly Southeast Asian kids who don’t always see themselves reflected in major Hollywood movies, that you get to be the hero. Other kids will want to be the cool hero like you. On top of that the message to young girls in that region, “You can be the ones fighting for what’s right, you can be the ones taking care of your family,” is incredibly empowering. And I’m so proud of that.
Yes, I do understand that thing about mums thinking about whether what I do is worth it. I’ve been there!
JC: Much has been talked about the designs, the cultural elements and food, not so for language. I’ve watched Raya three times, and every time I’d be shocked hearing Raya calling her father “Ba,” which is the same way I’d call mine. Whose brilliant idea was it? I need to know!
AL: Qui! It was 1000% Qui! [laughs]
QN: No, I wasn’t! I thought it was you and Fawn [Veerasunthorn, head of story]!
QN: I… It, weirdly, came from us creating basically different languages, a basic Kumandran language. Anytime there were sounds that kind of cross multiple Southeast Asian countries we would be, “Oh, let’s lean into that.” Even the name Raya itself has meanings in both Malaysia and Thailand.
For us, there’s something about the sound “ba” that kind of fits several people, but of course I was like, “That sounds a lot like the way I would say it, I’m gonna not going to lean away from it because I know it will mean something to some people.” It was one of the cultural Easter eggs throughout the whole film where the was a piece of food, a word that sounded familiar, to a certain language, the way someone dresses, the weapon they picked up… All of this, I know everyone likes to geek out on Disney’s Easter eggs, like “Hey, there’s a character hidden in Talon that looks like someone from Moana.”
But for me, the thing I was excited about was the little cultural Easter eggs that will get you like, “Oh, yes, this is a made-up Southeast Asia, but no, that’s my Southeast Asia!” When you get to see those moments, you get to really claim them. They’re like a knowing wink from the filmmakers. Look, we get it, we understand, this is important to you. It was nice to be able to bury those things in there for everyone to uncover.
AL: Just to add a quick thing to that. It was one of those moments where “ba” meant something in Vietnamese, how you call your father, and in Malay it’s “abah.” It’s that same feeling, and we got that feeling again and again and again. Qui’s family is Vietnamese, mine’s Malaysian — there are some things that are new, these are all new processes of discovery even for us that there is so much of our culture we thought was so different but, really, is very shared.
JC: Don, I appreciate you and Carlos [López Estrada, director] for making these emphases feel organic. It’s just the same with Big Hero 6 so I wholly appreciated that.
DH: Thank you!
JC: I’ve asked Fawn, Carlos and Osnat [Shurer, producer] this, but I also want to hear it from you all. From your perspectives, Don as director, Adele and Qui as writers, can we expect more Asian-centric stories down the line? Or stories from underrepresented regions of Asia?
DH: Without getting into specifics, because obviously we can’t… and we probably don’t even know the extent of all the things that are being developed. But I can say that is a definite focus in our studio and in multiple places. Telling stories from underrepresented cultures or communities is kind of our mission statement.
We’ve gotten a few examples like Moana and Raya in how to do it the correct way, in its approach, and how we build it in terms of intense research and collaboration with cultural crew like our Southeast Asian Story Trust. And then behind the camera as well, in terms of making sure we have representation. Moana and Raya have given us roadmaps in how to approach this in the future. I’d say yes to question.
AL: I will say what Disney has done is that it’s put a story inspired by Southeast Asia on the global stage and shown how amazing, beautiful and joyful it can be. It just reinforces the whole climate of the entertainment industry — that this is not just the right thing to do but what we should do. And we should because of all these rich troves of stories, cultures and peoples that the world hasn’t even seen yet! This is only a tiny little taste of it.
It’s showing that it can be done and done so well. It’s getting everyone excited and energized about going out and finding those stories and finding a way to celebrate them.
QN: I’d just add the joy of being the first of anything is that you’re the first of many. You don’t want to be the first and only. That’d always give you the opposite feeling, right? I have a good feeling that there’ll be more stories to come. For everyone in this room, I don’t think any of us will stop working. Adele, myself and Don are here and we’ll always tell stories from more marginalized groups.
It’ll always be a mission for us to be able to advance how we see heroes, the DNA of a hero, how we can push-and-pull and evolve the images of a hero out there.
JC: I can’t wait to see what you all will do next. Qui, whatever you do, I’m there. Adele, same thing, and I know for your next project I will see a durian basket somewhere and I’ll scream in joy!
[QN and AL laugh]
JC: Also, Don, are we going back to San Fransokyo any time soon?
DH: We are! We’re going to be doing a Baymax series on Disney+, we’re working on that right now.
JC: I could hug you now.
QN: I took a sneak peek, it is amazing. And that’s just as a fan. It is amazing and so heartwarming to be back in that world. I can’t wait.
DH: And you’ll get to meet some new folks in San Fransokyo.
JC: Thank you, y’all have a great day!
DH: We really appreciate it.
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.