Life, Death and Role Playing Games in Onward- An Interview with Dan Scanlon

Dan Scanlon Onward Interview

With the release of Pixar’s newest film Onward just around the corner, we wanted to delve further into the story. Onward is one of the most personal stories that Pixar has released so far. The story was created by Dan Scanlon and was inspired by his relationship with his brother and their connection to their father who passed when they were young. After being given a recording of their father just saying “Hello” and “Goodbye” the idea of the story of what it would be like if they could spend just one day with their dad came to life.

Originally pitched to Pixar over six years ago, the story changed over the production, but the ending always remained the same. With the personal story having the ultimate meaning and goal, the story came to life in this modern suburban fantasy that Scanlon and his team wanted to make relate-able for all audience members – with a story that may resonate with you more than you expect.

We sat down with Dan Scanlon to ask him about some of the more burning questions we had about the movie and some things you may wonder after you watch Onward yourself.

The Michigan Connection to Pixar and Onward

Dan Scanlon Onward Interview

Through the years, we’ve found that several different artists, animators and even writers from both Disney and Pixar have a connection to Michigan. And with the release of Onward, we were thrilled to find that director Dan Scanlon was coming back to Clawson here in metro-Detroit where he grew up. We met with Dan at the Three Cats Cafe that is inside what used to be the old Clawson theater – a place he remembers from his childhood.

I really love this town, but it was very special to me growing up. – Dan Scanlon

When asked about the connection between Detroit and Pixar he shared that even his screenwriting instructor has roots here. “Robert Mckee the screenwriting guru, everybody takes his course. In the middle of his course I was taking he said “I learned about movies by sneaking into a small theater in a small town, and watching all these great foreign films. It was the Clawson theater. It was this theater. ”

Additionally Dan mentioned that during the research phase of Cars, the team came to Clawson to talk to a local man who is a hood ornament expert. They even stopped at some of his favorite local places like the Clawson Steakhouse, which he said brings back family memories. “I’m such a nostalgic guy. I really love this town, but it was very special to me growing up. I love seeing that it’s really becoming something wonderful – that it’s really booming,” Dan said reflecting on the area.

Role Playing Games – How They Influenced the Story and How the Story is Changing Gaming

Pixar Onward

Even if you’re not into role playing games, when you watch Onward, you will notice the movie has a lot of gaming influences. From the gelatinous cube that D&D players all know and will laugh at, to the table top game and figurines that Barley has all over the house.

Since the movie is so personal to Dan and his brother, we were curious if they had a connection to the gaming world as well. “Neither me or my film making partner Kori Rae had played D&D maybe more than once or twice. We did play once as research. But we wanted it in the movie, because only could a Role Playing Game be crucial to make this adventure work. It could be life and death stakes that Barley knew about D&D that could do with a modern fantasy world. A lot of people on our team love role playing, and they’re the ones who helped us keep it real and keep it honest. And to keep us laughing with it and now we’re excited.

The actual Quest of Yore game is coming out. – Dan Scanlon

The actual Quest of Yore game is coming out. It was a little delayed, so it’s going to be a little after the fact. But like everything we were working on it, there is a team working on it. But we’re checking in on it and making sure it’s true to the world and that it’s funny too. We fell in love with the world and we want the world to play. I think, as it was explained to me, that it will be something that young kids can play and pros can make it their own and play. So it has room to grow, ” Scanlon said explaining further that this is not a partnership with D&D but will be a role playing game that stands on its own for all ages.

Onwards Music Origins

Get a First Look at Disney and Pixar’s “Onward”
OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in a van named Guinevere to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world.

Like every movie, the music can make or break the mood in a movie. It is one of the most essential parts to creating the movie and move the story along. And with Onward, this is no different. Scanlon told us that they didn’t bring in Brandi Carlile to create the theme song until the end of the process and she was brought to the project by Kori Rae, the Producer and Tom MacDougall.

“All I care about is if we’re doing this song, it has to be a singer/songwriter and someone who has a voice that comes through as personal and I have to be able understand the lyrics – and understand why this is in the movie. So they brought back Brandi, who I had never heard but Kori is a fan of and I fell in love immediately. Her songs are so clearly written from the heart. We don’t want them to watch the movie and just write about the movie. Just write about someone you love who went above and beyond in your life to support who you are today – just write about them.” And this process seemed to be the key to writing the song that you will fall in love with as well.

The first time I heard it, I’m crying and blown away. – Dan Scanlon

“So then Kori flew to Philadelphia, and pitched almost the whole movie to Brandi herself and to the two brothers who write with her. She pitched it and showed her the scenes of the movie. And they wrote it while on the road. The first time I heard it, I’m crying and blown away. It’s the point of the movie wrapped up and it even takes it a little further which is don’t just thank the person who went above and beyond – be that person. The song sums that up beautifully.”

The rest of the score is brought together with Jeff and Mychael Danna who again, were brought to the project by Tom MacDougall and his team. “We responded to them for two reasons. Every piece they heard from them – they have a very eclectic background of stuff they’ve done and a deep emotion in it. And the other thing is, especially from Good Dino – they can do adventure. We’re going on a big adventure anthem music.” Their score helps put the viewer directly in the adventure and will help you rock along with the main characters.

Easter Eggs Through Onward – and The Importance of Placement

Get a First Look at Disney and Pixar’s “Onward”
BAD DRAGON – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” Ian Lightfoot’s mom has his back—even when his hyperactive pet dragon, Blazey, is misbehaving.

By now, you of course know that inside every Pixar film are a ton of Easter Eggs for fans. But while we were watching Onward, we were so engrossed in the story we had a hard time even finding one. “That’s great. All of these movies come from a personal place for everyone,” Scanlon said, “I’m glad, I think the Easter Eggs are fun, but my hope is that people always get them on the second viewing. If you’re searching around in the background for stuff, chance are we already lost you.”

But the Easter Eggs in Onward go beyond the Pizza Planet truck and A113 hidden somewhere in the movie. There are of course references to the next movie that Pixar will be released, but since the movie is so heavily fantasy based there are even some special Easter Eggs throughout.

If you’re searching around in the background for stuff, chance are we already lost you. – Dan Scanlon

“I put the Easter Eggs to other people. Kelsey Mann took over a lot of it. He’s very thorough, he’s the head of story guy. He would find places and as the movie started to solidify. You never know, things get cut so much, but as scenes started to solidify he’d put them in.

I would say, if I noticed it the first time no – but it’s so buried that no one stands a chance then no. What’s the point? I frankly feel our pizza planet truck is cut off, but you can see the sticker inside the next shot. But other than that I made sure they were not a first view. Other than that we have a lot of fantasy ones. Like I said, I don’t know a lot about fantasy, so we got a group called Fellowship. We just sent an email out to the company, anyone who is a fantasy fan who wanted to be a part of this – and they had meetings. And they went so deep, and I was like wow. I also thought, I don’t need to know what it means as long as someone does. They had fun pitching things.” With the fans in mind, Dan and the teams at Pixar took Onward to another level for both the Easter Eggs and details that you would not expect in other movies.

Onward Tackles Death for Kids – Is That Something Your Kids Should See?

Pixar Onward Review
FATHER & SON — In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” 16-year-old Ian (voice of Tom Holland) yearns for the father he lost back before he was born. When a magical gift allows Ian and his brother Barley to conjure their dad—or half him, anyway—Ian’s dreams of getting the fatherly advice he’s always sought just might come true.

The whole story of Onward is focusing around these two brothers and how they both deal with the loss of their father that neither really knew that well. But a lot of critics have said that it may not be a topic for kids. But is dealing with death something that really should be in a kids movie?

“I think it’s a benefit to making movies at all and why you do a personal movie. Chances are people can touch that in some way. Not in a literally way. People say to me that this reminds me of me and my sister, or my teacher who went above and beyond. I think people will find their way in.

People have asked if it’s appropriate to make movies about death for kids. I say absolutely – it’s crucial. – Dan Scanlon

People have asked if it’s appropriate to make movies about death for kids. I say absolutely – it’s crucial. Just looking away from it doesn’t help anybody. It’s sort of a safer way to talk about it. A movie that’s still fun, shows kids that they’re not alone. I think it also shows kids that do have two parents – it might explain to them why their friend doesn’t. It might show some empathy their way. ” Scanlon told us, bringing a deeper meaning to the movie over all.

The Meaning Behind Onward

Pixar Onward Review
EN ROUTE — In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” brothers Ian and Barley seek an ancient map from the Manticore—once a mighty warrior whose tavern served as a waystation for travelers embarking on epic quests. Part lion, part bat and part scorpion, the Manticore has adapted to changing times—but her adventurous spirit still lurks within.

The story of Onward is one that many people can relate to, especially if you have lost a parent early in your life. But Scanlon said that’s not the only message there. “It’s a story about support, a story about the people who went above and beyond to help you become the adult you are today. It doesn’t have to be a brother, sister, father or mother it can a family member or a friend or teacher. Also being that person to someone else, especially a young person. That is why this movie should exist and the greatest gift of all.

And then it is a fun film, it’s a comedy, that it is an adventure. That kids will have fun at the movie too – that’s what I want out of a movie. I want to laugh and cry and get scared.”

Only once is all we get. Grant me this rebirth. Till tomorrow’s sun is set—one day to walk the Earth.
– Excerpt from an ancient magical spell

The process of making the movie, which was a personal story for Scanlon changed even him. “My brother and I, it changed our relationship. We already got along great. Now we’re talking about all our feelings. That’s another thing – It’s about the people who are here. And you think the movie is asking you what if you could have one more day with someone you lost, what would you say. We don’t get that – so say it to the people who are here now. Now my brother and I are broken and all we talk about are our feelings.

“One fun fact that doesn’t matter, “Dan said before we left, “Jason Headley who is one of the writers, I asked him to write the scene between Barley and his father. And we recorded it separately with this actor and Chris Pratt just in case we needed it at Skywalker – in case something was missing. And now I don’t want anyone to hear it. It will never be on bonus features. I don’t even know if it’s exactly what was really said, but it was fun to do.”

Onward is in theaters everywhere on March 6th.

About Onward:

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there. Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new original feature film is directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae—the team behind “Monsters University.” “Onward” releases in theaters on March 6, 2020. (DISNEY)

This film is rated PG.


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