'Onward' director Dan Scanlon on how 'surprise gift' of fans made up for cinemas closing (exclusive)

Tom Beasley
Dan Scanlon during a photocall for the presentation of the Pixar movie 'Onward' in Rome on February 25th, 2020. (Photo by Marilla Sicilia/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Onward director Dan Scanlon says it’s “a shame” his movie didn’t get chance to spend much time on the big screen before the coronavirus hit, but that he has been moved by messages from fans watching it at home.

The movie was released into cinemas in March, just weeks before the pandemic forced multiplexes all over the world to shut their doors.

Scanlon’s touching story, about troll siblings who take to the road to complete a magic spell that could revive their dead father, was swiftly pulled from cinemas.

Read more: Chris Pratt on Onward as a guy-cry movie

In the States, fans have been able to watch the film via Disney+ and it’s now arriving on home entertainment in Britain as well.

“To be honest, by the time that the theatres closed, it was the least of my or anybody else’s concerns,” Scanlon tells Yahoo Movies UK.

He adds: “When you make one of these movies, most of all you just want people to see it, and this was a way that people could see it.

Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the lead characters in 'Onward'. (Credit: Pixar)

“Then the real surprise gift was seeing all of these families on social media writing about how much they enjoyed the film and how much it gave them a moment of distraction with their family.

“The film is really about appreciating what you have versus what you want, which is where I think all of our brains are at right now.”

Read more: All the Pixar movies on Disney+

The film, starring Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, was a personal story for Scanlon, who lost his own father at a young age.

It’s set in a rich fantasy world that has sparked discussion of a potential sequel, following the characters and exploring the wider universe.

“I don’t know that there will be anything,” says Scanlon. “But I certainly will always have love for this world and would be open to doing anything.”

Read the full interview with Dan Scanlon, in which he discusses some of the movie’s mixed reviews, the response to the movie’s landmark LGBT+ character and what he’s watching in lockdown...

Yahoo Movies UK: I wanted to start by asking what your life is like during lockdown?

Dan Scanlon: We’re getting by. We’re spending a lot of time together, my wife and I, which is nice. We certainly miss people and places like everybody else, but we’re getting by.

And what’s Pixar like? I assume that, to a degree, you can carry on working?

Like everyone else, we’re doing meetings via the computer. It sounds like it has been pretty productive. A lot of the projects are moving ahead as best they can and they’re finding creative ways to keep moving. Things are moving.

Read more: Best Pixar shorts on Disney+

Is there a Pixar Braintrust Zoom call? I’d kill for the password to that.

'Onward'. (Credit: Pixar)

Yeah! We’ve looked at screenings, which is not as much fun. Obviously it’s great to see a screening in a room full of people laughing, so I feel for the filmmakers who are showing their films to us on our computers alone, sitting around watching them in our underwear and then meeting and talking about the movies. It has been really cool to see how people are moving forward with their films.

Onward was obviously just starting its theatrical journey when this all hit. How did you find out that you were going to be pulled out of cinemas kicking and screaming?

Well, I think it became obvious as the news came in that things were closing down. To be honest, by the time that the theatres closed, it was the least of my or anybody else’s concerns.

And then, a few weeks in, when the decision came through to put the film out online, Kori [Rae, the producer] and I felt really good about it. When you make one of these movies, most of all you just want people to see it, and this was a way that people could see it. Then the real surprise gift was seeing all of these families on social media writing about how much they enjoyed the film and how much it gave them a moment of distraction with their family.

The film is really about appreciating what you have versus what you want, which is where I think all of our brains are at right now. I think everyone is very appreciative of the family and the things they do have going right now.

Is there any sadness on your part that the rich visual world you created might be watched on smartphones or iPads?

In Disney and Pixar's Onward two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in a van named Guinevere (©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.)

Obviously it would have been nice to have more time in theatres and have people have that experience, but what can you do? Luckily, as far as the look of the film goes, it is available on streaming and Blu-ray and it looks beautiful on people’s TVs these days. Obviously it’s a shame, but I’m glad people are seeing it together.

And one of the joys of family films is that they grow with repetition and kids wanting to watch it over and over again. Are you getting reactions like that and how gratifying is it?

I can’t believe how many people have been sending me messages saying they’ve watched it over and over again. The coolest thing is seeing how something that started off as my personal story is now connecting to people’s own personal stories.

Read more: New movies heading to Disney+ during lockdown

So many people write about how this was their experience with their brother or their sister. Very long and personal messages about people’s families are sent my way and I love it. I shared a very personal thing and the fact that it would inspire people to do the same, or that it would inspire people to call their family members who have supported them and weep on the phone and thank them, is so cool. It’s why you make any kind of art.

You mentioned how personal the story is for you. Was there any reticence on your part about making it that personal?

Luckily, Kori and I — we did Monsters University together — we both wanted to do something that was personal. We love those kinds of films and there’s something about a movie when you know there’s an honesty buried deep inside of it. She really supported me to be as honest as I could.

The greatest reward of it has been my own brother and his reaction to the film and how much it has changed our relationship for the better. Like I said, the other great reward is hearing other people tell their stories. I love that in art. I love watching or reading anything that I know has come from a truthful place. Even if it’s not a true story, that it comes from something the filmmakers or authors truly believe in.

You’ve spoken in some interviews about the original conceit for this film and how it wasn’t set in a fantasy world. Tell me about what drove your final decision?

Ian Lightfoot's mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has his back even when his hyperactive pet dragon, Blazey, is misbehaving. (©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.)

Originally I think the boys were scientists and their father had been a scientist and they built a machine to bring him back. That felt a little cold as we worked on it. Magic just felt more exciting and romanticised.

Then, to be honest, it was just comedy. When we realised that, if we made it a fantasy world, it would still have to be a modern one because of the nature of the story, that led us just to laughing about the idea of all of these fantasy creatures living in our world.

It’s an animated film and a Pixar movie, so we wanted it to be a comedy too. We’re always looking for a unique, fun and funny world that has a fun game to it to play. That’s how we got there.

When this film came out and then got its streaming debut, were the stakes higher for you because of how personal it was?

Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae arriving at the UK premiere of 'Onward' at the Curzon Mayfair in London. (Photo by Lauren Hurley/PA Images via Getty Images)

I guess, in a way. But seeing other people share their personal emotions about the film almost made me more comfortable about having shared mine. If you’re going to risk something like making a movie, it should be a big risk. But to be honest, once my family had seen it and were cool with it, I was not really that nervous any more.

And how did you feel about the reaction to it, generally? Obviously some people really loved it, but there were some lukewarm reviews too. Did they smart at all?

Oh, totally. We spend six years making these movies, so we wouldn’t put anything out we didn’t love and think was great. That’s just making art, you know? You scratch your head and say “wow, I guess it didn’t connect with these folks”.

Being an artist, you tend to read those reviews more than you should sometimes, but I always went back to the people who loved it and thought: “well, this makes it worth it”. I can’t and wouldn’t want to make a movie that’s just aiming to please everybody.

I guess one of the key things that might’ve made you nervous beforehand was the inclusion of Pixar’s first openly LGBT+ character. How did you feel about the way people reacted to that, from people saying you maybe didn’t go far enough through to censorship in some countries?

Lena Waithe voices Pixar's first openly LGBT+ character in 'Onward'. (Credit: Pixar)

We just wanted to represent the world that we live in. That was a big part of including all types of characters in the film. I can’t control what people’s reactions are going to be. In a way, I don’t really care what people’s negative reactions are. We represent the world as it is and there’s not much more I can do about that.

It’s such a rich fantasy world. Sequels? Prequels? Spin-offs? Can we be hoping for those things?

A couple of weeks ago, we released a comic book that was a prequel to the Manticore story, written by Mariko Tamaki and myself. I’m super excited about that. Sadly, much like the movie, I think it was released into a world that has no idea it’s out there. But if you have an opportunity to seek it out and support your local comic book store to get it, I highly recommend it. It’s a lot of fun if you liked the movie.

Then we’re doing a Quests of Yore game right now, which is really fun working on that. It allows the whole team to dig deeper into the world and I do love the world. The game will be fun for people who’ve played role-playing games before and also designed to be for people who’ve never played.

So again, for people who like the movie and want to go deeper into the world, those are the things I would check out.

I actually had written as my next question “spin-off for the Manticore?”. I just loved that character, and I’d love the chance to see more of her.

Octavia Spencer voiced the Manticore in 'Onward'. (Credit: Pixar)

I love her character too and I love Octavia Spencer playing that role. That’s why it was fun to write the comic and really explore the old days of the movie and her character as this great warrior.

I don’t know that there will be anything. But I certainly will always have love for this world and would be open to doing anything. But who knows?

As an outsider, you get this impression with Pixar that there are so many projects bubbling at any given time.

These days, there really are. There is so much going on between the features and a lot of brand new directors with unique voices. There’s the SparkShorts, which are really doing personal stuff, and Disney+ series going on.

Read more: New trailer for Pixar’s Soul

There’s just a lot happening. It’s a really exciting time and it’s cool to see a lot more opportunities for other creative directors at Pixar. I think you’re going to start seeing a lot of unique stuff coming out.

Brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) are given a special gift from their late father on Ian's 16th birthday. (©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.)

Is there anything else you’re working on, or are you kicking back and relaxing in lockdown?

Vacation was the plan, but that’s not really happening. I’m starting to think about life again and just generalisations of human truths, thinking of all of those big questions and seeing what bubbles up.

I look forward to seeing that. What have you been watching while we’ve all been stuck at home?

I’ve been watching the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, which I absolutely love. My wife and I are obsessed with it. I’ve been reading comic books like crazy. Again, supporting my local comic book store. I’m going through all of the back catalogue of graphic novels I should have read years ago, which has been so great. We haven’t really been watching a lot of movies. We watched the Beastie Boys documentary by Spike Jonze [Beastie Boys Story], which is just beautiful.

It has really just felt great to be able to read and that type of thing again. I’ve been putting out and I haven’t been putting in.

Onward is available on digital download now and on DVD and Blu-ray from 1 June.