Dan Scanlon and his co-writers on Pixar’s magical ride

March 19, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this interview with Onward co-writer/director Dan Scanlon and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin from the latest issue of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

SPOILER WARNING: The following features an in-depth discussion of the plot points and ending of Onward so tread lightly if you haven’t seen.

Pixar films connect with audiences around the world because of how personal they are to their filmmakers. That is especially true of Onward, director Dan Scanlon’s profound take on his relationship with his parents and brother that just happens to star two elves living in a world of magic. After helming 2013’s blockbuster Monsters University, Scanlon—one of Pixar’s central creative figures, with the animation giant since 2001—began ruminating on ideas for his next project. “A lot of the time was spent thinking about my own life and who I was,” he recalls. “I made a list of the things I am—meaning a husband, a son, a brother—and then I asked questions about what my fears were regarding those things. What have I learned? What have I done wrong?” He kept returning to the fact that he never really knew his father, who passed away when Scanlon was only a year old. Though he knew that type of emotional territory would make for a good film, he didn’t have anything concrete until a lunch he had at Pixar with his friend Meg LeFauve, who was concurrently working on scripts for both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur at the studio. “She would give up her lunches to meet with me and talk about my life. She was the one who looked at a lot of what I had and said, ‘You know, the reason you don’t inherently miss your dad is because your brother was like a dad to you.’ My brain exploded. I knew that was the movie I wanted to tell because I had a feeling other people have had people in their lives who have gone above and beyond to be parental to them and helped them become the person they are today. I highly recommend every writer meet with Meg and have story and therapy sessions.”

Throughout Onward’s planning stages, Scanlon’s core idea—two brothers trying to spend one final day with their deceased father—never wavered. The rest of the film, though, was still very much up in the air. “My first idea was their dad was a scientist who was building a machine that allowed you to either bring back the dead or communicate with the dead,” Scanlon says. “So the brothers would also be scientists, out to prove their dad wasn’t a joke so they tried to finish his work. But it felt a little cold and clinical.” After some initial attempts, Scanlon and producer Kori Rae – a key part of the story process from start to finish, among her other many duties – brought in another screenwriter to work with them on the story, a common practice at Pixar. Enter Keith Bunin, a longtime playwright and screenwriter who entered Pixar’s radar in part because of his 2011 Black List script, Ezekiel Moss. “Dan pitched me a very early story about the two brothers,” Bunin says of Scanlon. “It wasn’t entirely clear what world the story was going to take place in, but it was clear that the story was incredibly personal to Dan and was a movie only he could make.” The writer-director notes that Bunin felt the scientist idea was too episodic and didn’t give the brothers enough to do. “That led to other ideas and someone saying, ‘Another way you can bring the dad back is through magic,’” Scanlon says. “That made us laugh, so I thought, What if this was a fantasy film? But I didn’t want to set it in a period long ago. I didn’t want this to be two brothers in wizard robes with a dad in a long beard. The story was too personal and too modern to take place in that era so that led us down the path of a modern fantasy world. There was something inherently awkward and goofy about it that felt like more fun, more like a Pixar movie.”

Onward follows elves Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) after they’re given a gift by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), on Ian’s 16th birthday—a wizard’s staff and a magical gem, with an accompanying note from their father, Wilden Lightfoot (Kyle Bornheimer), who died when they were young. Their dad had created a spell so the boys could bring him back to life for one more day and allow him to see the kind of people they have become. But Ian mis-wields the staff with Barley’s assistance, and the spell goes wrong, winding up bringing back only their dad’s bottom half. Determined to meet him before the magic’s 24-hour period is up, the boys—and Wilden’s legs—embark on a quest to find a gem that would properly finish the spell.

The film is, scene for scene, Pixar’s funniest film. Some of that is surely owed to the chemistry between Holland and Pratt as the two leads—including special kudos to Pratt’s impeccable comic instincts—but much can simply be attributed to Scanlon’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. “I put emotion first when I do stories. I want to put something out in the world that is emotional and honest and true, but I love movies that are like that and also very funny,” he says. “I want comedy. I want people to go in expecting something funny and then hopefully get surprised by the emotional feeling.” For Scanlon, the two goals go hand in hand. “You want the movie to be emotional, but I think you get emotion from being funny. “If you create a character that makes you laugh, you’ll fall in love with them even more, and if you put that character in danger, you’ll feel the weight he’s burdened with. So it was always fun to play with the tone and say, ‘Let’s go really broad here. Let’s be a little ridiculous, and then a few minutes later let’s bring the tone back to something real.’ I love that in a movie.”

Scanlon, Bunin and the rest of the creative team, including head of story Kelsey Mann and Pixar’s stellar story artists, struggled early on to find the individual voices and characters behind Ian and Barley. At first, Ian wasn’t the lovably nice but unconfident character they eventually settled on, and it was unclear which of the brothers would be obsessed with magic. In the end, Barley is the expert but Ian is the one who has the talent to wield magic and cast spells with their dad’s staff. More than anything, Scanlon says he wanted them to hone in on what Ian actually wanted out of the brothers’ journey: “He obviously wants to meet his dad—everyone wants to see someone they’ve lost again. But it was too obvious a drive. From a screenwriting point of view, we needed him to have an external want, too.” They toyed with the idea of their dad having some piece of knowledge that would save their family from some unknown challenge, but Scanlon felt that cheapened Ian’s desire to see his father. “Finally it boiled down to Ian being shy and not confident, and when he hears that his father was bold, he wants to ask his father how to grow up and be an adult. That one specific question helped take it further than just, ‘I want to meet my dad because it would be great,’ but it’s something that really plagued us forever.”

Scanlon and Bunin actually used a unique—and decidedly un-Disney—tool to help nail the brothers’ dynamic in pitching their vision to both the artists working on the film and the Pixar brass who needed to sign off on the movie’s concept and various drafts. They gave a very specific prompt to both themselves and the story artists: How can Ian and Barley try and buy beer at the local gas station as underage elves that use magic? “Obviously that’s not something that’s going to be in the movie,” Bunin laughs, “but it was fun to write a sequence to show how they would interact. It made us think about what’s entertaining about these characters. How would they use magic to complete the task? It was so incredibly clarifying and helpful. The thing about the Pixar experience that I’ve never had before was working with the story artists, [where you are] able to workshop your movie on the fly. It’s a gift you don’t get in live action.”

As often goes on Pixar films, writer Bunin left the project after three years, and in came another—Jason Headley, a writer-director whose 2017 film A Bad Idea Gone Wrong won the Special Jury Prize at South by Southwest. While it was Headley’s job to pick up where Bunin left off in collaborating with Scanlon, of particular interest to him was the film’s ending. “The thing I mentioned in my interview with Dan was really trying to earn that ending they had,” Headley says. “We tried to make sure every piece of that was earned and get to that place where it was both satisfying and surprising.” Scanlon and the creative team always knew where they wanted the story to end up: with Ian realizing Barley had always been the father figure in his life. And yet it’s not uncommon for work on a Pixar film to begin without necessarily knowing the exact ending. In this case, it was the concrete ending Scanlon had in his mind that informed the entirety of the creative process: “I was really lucky to have the ending, and it helped us a lot, especially on the days when the movie wasn’t working. We always felt that we knew why we wanted the movie to exist in the world. We knew the point we were trying to make, and so the six years of hell writing and struggling were all about trying to earn our ending. It wasn’t that it was easy to get there, but it meant every day we knew why we were getting up in the morning and battling to tell the story.”

In addition to the revelation that Barley has always served as de facto father figure, the ending also contains the twist that though the magic eventually does bring their father back for a few brief moments, only Barley ends up speaking to him. Scanlon chooses to show us the scene from Ian’s perspective so the audience—and Ian—can’t hear what Barley and their father are discussing before Dad disappears. Ian never meets Dad in any version the writers had of the ending, and for a while neither son does. “My original thought for the ending was that neither would meet him and the magic would just run out of time,” Scanlon says. “The reason I was leaning that way is because unfortunately you can’t spend a day with a person you lost, and I didn’t want to make this a wish- fulfillment thing and for an audience member to see it and say, ‘That was nice for them, but what am I supposed to do with that?’ ” One day, Scanlon found himself in a conversation about the ending with Coco co-writer and co-director Adrian Molina and Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley. Molina suggested that Ian cede the chance to Barley to talk to his dad and it all comes down to him having to make that choice. Scanlon immediately loved that, so he and Headley devised reasons why Barley would need to have the conversation more than Ian did. “We came up with the idea that Barley maybe had a bad goodbye with Dad. At first we thought it might have been a fight, but since he died when Barley was so young that wouldn’t work, so that led us to what if he was too scared to go in and see him while he was dying? That solved it. Ian really sees how much his brother needs that closure.”

Though the climactic scene plays out with the audience hearing no dialogue, Scanlon still tasked Headley with writing the conversation between Barley and Dad. “I wanted it just to cover us in the sound mix,” he says. “I was worried that if there was no sound at all, I wanted to have some faint dialogue just in case.” Scanlon had Pratt and Bornheimer record the words Headley wrote, but as soon as he saw the scene roll with no talking, he realized they didn’t need it. “I didn’t even want the animators to hear it. I asked them to be careful with how much Dad and Barley are moving there. I wanted people to read into what they’re saying themselves, and if [the animators] had heard the dialogue, the animation would have been geared toward certain acting choices. Jason did a phenomenal job writing it.” Headley, who had penned the scene quickly and was never asked to do a second draft, says, “It was fun to write, and everyone seemed to like what I came up with. “It was very emotional when the actors were reading it.” Both echo that while they love what Headley wrote, the dialogue won’t see the light of day even as a deleted scene on the Onward Blu-ray release.

Headley also took the first real crack at one of the film’s more personal scenes. Early on, we find Ian alone in his room as he digs up an old cassette tape. Realizing it’s a recording of his father, we watch as Ian listens then starts it over again, only this time he begins talking to the recording and having a pretend conversation with his dad. Because of how perfect the interplay is, we understand this is something Ian has done often. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really sets the stage for the rest of the film. Even more special, it’s completely taken from Scanlon’s real life. He has a cassette recording of his father saying two words— “hello” and “goodbye.” Headley, who recalls that one note they kept getting after turning in each draft of the story was, ‘Why does he want to see his dad?’ says, “So we thought, What’s the best way we can show the longing and show what he wants? Using Dan’s own tape as the basis, we came up with that scene knowing it would be heartbreaking when the tape and conversation just end.”

Onward was a film who’s cinematic success was somewhat in limbo because of the current coronavirus crisis. Disney solved that problem by announcing that the film is currently available via on demand and will hit their Disney+ streaming platform on April 3. In the meantime, Scanlon has been flooded with messages on social media from those who have seen the film and connected with the personal aspect of the story. And indeed, it has had an impact on his own family as well. He initially felt obligated to make a personal film because that’s who he is as an artist and he felt he owed it to those who came before him to really go deep. But putting your family onscreen, even in this abstract way, is a whole different level of personal. “Before I started this, I talked to my mom a lot about it because it’s very personal to her,” Scanlon says. “For my brother and me, it’s this idea of a father we never knew, but for my mom, it’s her husband that she lost when she was 30 years old. I did say to her I feel kind of guilty that I’m exploiting my life for art, and she said it’s the other way around. It’s so true: We exploit our art for our lives, and my mom and brother’s reaction to the movie has been so positive. We already got along really well, but now we’re telling each other we love each other all the time. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken this risk. It could have gone south, but I feel so enriched in my own relationships because of putting this movie forth and digging into all this personal stuff.”

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.