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Issue 65 - The New Braveheart

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


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The New Braveheart

Andrew McDiarmid talks to storyteller Brenda Chapman about her latest Disney film

The 2012 Disney/Pixar animated film Brave tells the story of a young princess in 10th century Scotland who upsets the balance in her parents’ kingdom and has to find the bravery to set things right. The idea for Brave came from artist and story teller Brenda Chapman, who shared it with Pixar and was appointed the film’s first director.

Andrew McDiarmid: Your career in animation started with a gig as story trainee on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. What made you decide to pursue animation as a job?

Brenda Chapman: Mainly because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do! In high school, I knew I wanted to be an artist and to make a living at it, not just do it as a hobby. At first I thought I’d end up drawing green beans for can labels – that’s what I thought commercial art was! But then I was watching an animated film in high school and I actually stayed to watch the credits. I thought, wait a minute, people work on those things. It suddenly hit me – that’s what I want to do! I ended up contacting Disney to find out how to get into animation and they told me about CalArts. From there, I got into Disney.

AM: With 1998s The Prince of Egypt, you became the first woman to direct an animated feature film for a major Hollywood studio. That was a great milestone for you! What was it like being at the helm of such a big title?

BC: It was great! What was exciting was starting a new studio! I had gone over to Dreamworks to help start the story department. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and I had built up a relationship at Disney and I think he trusted me. He had struggled to find others who would make that leap from a secure job at Disney to a dicey one at the new Dreamworks, but I was ready for a change so he put me at the helm. I was reluctant because I thought I can figure out the story but I don’t know how to direct the rest of it. But he had faith in me and I really appreciated that. It was a good team effort!

AM: You joined Pixar in 2003 and brought the story of a Scottish fairytale to their attention. What made you decide that a story set in Scotland would make a great animated movie?

BC: It ended up being based on three loves of mine. One, first and foremost, is the love for my daughter, who was driving me crazy with her high spirit and stubbornness; she was just overtaking my life and was basically all I could think about! I wanted to translate that into something that people could watch and enjoy and learn something from. I always loved to watch a fairytale, but it seemed like all the fairytales that made it to film were about romantic love, always the prince to save the princess, and I was really tired of that and wanted to turn that on its head. At first, I was just thinking generic northern Europe, but on all the photographs I would look at, like vacation photos of castles in Scotland, it kept leaning toward Scotland. I went there with my husband back in the 1990s and fell in love with it. It’s part of my ancestry – I’m one of the great American mutts! But for some reason, my Scottish genes seem to cry out louder than all my other ones. So there was a point where we just said, you know what, forget it – it’s Scotland!

AM: The story of Merida is original – it’s not something you’d find in a book of Scottish lore. That was interesting.

BC: I was trying not to go into a lot of stereotypes of an American telling of a Scottish story. I wanted to honour Scotland and pay homage to it without making fun of it or satirising it.

AM: How much of a say did you have in the Scottish cast that was assembled? It really added to the authenticity to have Scottish actors involved with the project.

BC: I got everyone I wanted! I was very pleased when Kelly MacDonald stepped into the role because that was my vision. I remembered Kevin McKidd from Trainspotting, and I wrote the part for Billy Connolly. I don’t know what I would have done if they’d said no. Who else could do that?

AM: The tourism industry prepared such a large campaign for Brave. Since Braveheart, there hasn’t really been a movie with such a large audience base that would pique people’s curiosity about Scotland. Brave did that. Was that one of your goals, to let more people in on the magic of Scotland?

BC: Yes. When we went on our research trips to Scotland, I knew I wanted to share the magic of Scotland that I love so much. Our two guides, Ian Stewart and Bob Costello, were wonderful! They were historians and storytellers and were able to answer a lot of our questions. I remember having a bit of a back and forth with Bob about there being bears in Scotland. I said I know there aren’t any more but there used to be. No, there never were any bears in Scotland, he’d say. Finally, we went to a museum with some of the natural history of Scotland outlined, and there were bears! Small, but there were bears!

AM: As much as Brave captures Scotland’s beauty and mystery, it’s a human story at the heart of it. What do you want the main takeaway for audiences to be?

BC: Kids, your parents are humans and fallible too, and parents, your children are individuals and humans too! Listen to each other. I wanted people to relate to what they’re watching, to the mother and to the child. Not make either one the bad guy but be able to empathise with both. I think we succeeded in that. It seems like the feedback we’re getting shows that people did that. Just try to take the time to listen to each other and get to know each other and maybe you’ll appreciate each other.

AM: You just returned from a trip to Scotland. Was it a chance to take a breath or were you still promoting the film and was it business?

BC: I started off with the premiere in Edinburgh. It was a trip for my daughter and myself. She’d been wanting to go to Scotland with me since I started the film and since she was five years old – she’s 13 now! After the premiere, we got out of Edinburgh and spent two weeks touring – St. Andrews, Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye; a wonderful end to the whole saga of making Brave. My daughter fell in love with it. I was really pleased that she liked it so much and could understand why I loved it. I hope that people will understand what a beautiful country it is.

AM: So, what are you working on next?

BC: Well, I’m actually consulting on a film at Lucasfilm; just giving my two cents on the story they’re working on and helping them figure it out. I’m not at the helm, which is fine. I’m taking it slowly. My daughter is a little worried that I’m going back to work. She’s been enjoying having me home, which is a huge surprise to me, I have to say. I’m also writing a novel, working on a children’s book, and developing a couple of other movie ideas.

AM: On behalf of Scots everywhere, thank you for your work in bringing Braveto the screen!

BC: Oh, thank you!