At D23 this past summer, Walt Disney Animation Studios shared its first extended look at the world of Frozen with its biggest fans. Among the previews and early scenes was a musical performance of Let it Go by star Idina Menzel, who plays Elsa in the film. At the time, co-director Jennifer Lee compared the feeling to holding a present that she was finally able to give to the audience. Today, as Frozen opens in movie theatres across the country, that gift is fully unwrapped, just in time for the holiday season.
We recently spoke to both Jennifer and her co-director Chris Buck about their experience on the project, which has already drawn comparisons to such modern Disney classics as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. We were struck not only by the sense of adventure and fun in Frozen, as well as the breathtaking visuals used to tell the story, but also by the incredible power of the film’s music. Written by the Tony Award-winning duo of Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songs are woven into the structure of the film and sung by the actors themselves, including Idina Menzel as Elsa, Kristen Bell as Anna, and Josh Gad as the snowman Olaf.
“Bobby and Kristen brought so much to this movie,” Chris told us. “We worked with them every day for about the last couple years. They were in New York and we’d work with them via video conferencing. We would push each other back and forth.” It was that close collaboration that helped drive the script of Frozen, according to Chris. “They wanted to know more about each of the characters and to be very clear on what those characters wants are before they could go off and write a song. You have to have a very clear idea of a song so that you can play with it. And if we weren’t clear on our characters, if we were still muddy, they would get very frustrated because they couldn’t start. So they would push us and we’d push them, back and forth.”
Jennifer, who is not only a director on the film but also the credited screenwriter, elaborated on the process, telling us, “It was interesting from a screenwriting perspective because I hadn’t worked on a musical or anything with music before. But I quickly worked with [executive music producer] Chris Montan to really understand the certain things you need for a character in your script to sing. We knew we wanted it to be an integral part of the plot and to have characters go in and out of it naturally, not to stop and have songs. Tonally we wanted to be able to have both whimsy, but also get real emotion. Everything to me is cinematic and that’s the language I knew, so I was always pushing from that angle, and Bobby and Kristen were always pushing from a music angle.” That wasn’t a hindrance to their collaboration, but an enhancement. Animated filmmaking, especially in the Disney tradition, has always been a collaborative art. “Sometimes we would clash, and from that we would discover something great. What I like about that is that I think it’s what will make Frozen a different experience from what has come before. There’s some sense of what you’ve seen in classic films that are recognizable, but then they add up to something different and you feel something different after it. And I think we’re excited because [Bobby and Kristen] also want to push the medium to something different and very contemporary. There was no formula, just hard work.”
Over the course of their two year collaboration, Chris and Jennifer often found their collaboration with Bobby and Kristen paying off in unsuspecting ways. While they were being pushed to give the songwriters more detail about the characters, they found that the songs they got in return actually revealed things they themselves hadn’t yet connected with. “When we heard Let it Go,” said Jennifer, “I was so inspired by it that I completely rewrote Elsa. It was an extraordinary experience.”
As Bobby and Kristen continued to refine the songs and worked with the actors on their performances, Chris and Jen were able to focus on the narrative portion on the film. Here, again, they put an emphasis on letting Frozen be a collaborative experience. Chris told us how they let the actors take part in shaping their characters throughout the making of the film. “When we did the dialogue, we would be in the [recording] room with the actors and I always loved that, that there were three of us–the actor and both directors–working on these characters, creating these characters together and playing. Never feeling like we were behind the glass dictating. It’s always about keeping them safe and comfortable, and letting them try things.”
“And we would rewrite in the room,” Jennifer revealed to us. “We’d say, ‘You’re going somewhere great,’ and we’d throw them lines to respond to, and then they would throw something back. Being able to do that, I think, was key to making it feel genuine and specific.”
While Chris has directed a Disney film before, 1999’s Tarzan, this is Jennifer’s directorial debut. When we asked the pair what Disney characters most resonated with them, however, it was Jennifer who digged deeper into Disney’s animation legacy. “As a kid it was Cinderella, always,” she told us. “I was that wallflower, standing there. I started with her so young that she was the first character I ever saw, and there was just something about understanding that life can be challenging and unfair and yet you can fight to find your way through. It was certainly a different generation, and my version of that today is much feistier, but Cinderella is someone who I carried with me a lot.”
With his answer, Chris excellently illustrated what makes collaboration on a project like Frozen such a blessing, and how Walt Disney Animation Studios can produce films that are so heartwarming and beautiful while also being fun and even just a little bit mischievous. “As a kid I responded to Mogli from Jungle Book,” he countered. “Being surrounded by all these really cool animals that can talk to you, and you can talk back to, and can have all of these adventures with. I remember, actually, when the movie came out, getting the record and walking around–whatever Mogli was doing, I was doing it in the living room while I was listening. Maybe that’s why I did Tarzan!”