Inspired By Her Daughter: An Interview with the Co-Director of “Brave”

Brave, which came out on June 22nd, features a princess, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), who defies traditional gender roles and refuses to marry her potential suitors. The film features Pixar’s first woman protagonist and was Pixar’s first feature directed by a woman director, Brenda Chapman. Such a woman-centric film in an industry dominated by men grabbed our attention, so we sought out co-director Chapman to learn about her experiences with the film and in the wider animation community.

Ms.Blog: What was your inspiration for the film?

Brenda Chapman: My love of Scotland, the old Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, but mostly my relationship with my daughter. She has been quite a challenge to my “authority” since she was five years old. I love that she is so strong, but it sure doesn’t make my job easy! She is my Merida … and I adore her.

This is Pixar’s first film with a woman protagonist. Did you have difficulty pitching such a woman-centric film?

Surprisingly, no. [Pixar and Disney Animation head John] Lasseter seemed to be interested in going out of the box for Pixar. Some of his colleagues did have reservations, so I had to work hard to prove this wasn’t going to be a typical princess movie.

Were there concerns or discussions about not including a love interest, as with other princess stories and fairytales?

No. That was one of the things I had going for me to sell it to them. This was a love story between mother and daughter—never was there a prince or other love interest. We had a friendship that overcame class in earlier versions, but it was never a love interest.

I’ve read some articles where the writer insists that Merida must be a lesbian because of her resistance to marriage and her fondness for archery. How do you react to that?

I was surprised at first. Then I wasn’t. I’m happy that people can get what they want out of the character in a positive light. I think that is fantastic. But I do have to admit that wasn’t my initial intention. I just wanted Merida’s character to be strong, know who she was and what she wanted out of life.

With Merida trying to win her own hand in marriage, the film definitely feels pro girl power. Do you consider the film feminist?

Absolutely! We need to give young girls role models with real messages about what they are capable of. There are so many films made by men that seem to put them in boxes, rarely ever giving women characters the freedom to express themselves in a genuine way. Girls and women can be strong in so many ways. Little girls are getting cheated out of seeing and believing that in our current media.

And do you, yourself, identify as a feminist?

Yes. I never thought I was very militant, but maybe I’m getting more like that in my old age.

In many animated films, there tends to be a strong bond between the father and daughter, or the mother has equal weight compared to the father. Can you discuss your choice to focus on the close relationship that develops between Merida and her mother, Elinor?

I’m a mom. There are hardly any films out there that show a positive relationship between mother and daughter, or one that works through the common mother/daughter issues and finds a positive solution. Mothers and stepmothers are portrayed as the bad guys in television and movies all the time. I wanted to tell a story in which mothers and daughters could enjoy sharing it, seeing each other and themselves in it. I wanted a real take on that deepest of relationships—mother and child—which gets even more complex when it’s mother and daughter. Most animated films that we all know and love have been directed by men. They made movies that they were comfortable with—fathers and daughters or fathers and sons—and there is nothing wrong with that. Some of them are great movies. We just need a balance here. That’s what I wanted to do—start aiming for that balance. I made a movie that I [am comfortable] with, since I’m a mom … and I had a mom … I am grateful that it got made in the end!

I know there was a significant transition during the film’s long process. You were the original director and screenplay writer for the majority of the production. Later, Mark Andrews was brought on as director. The final product has you and Mark sharing the co-director title and you sharing the writer title with Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi. Can you explain how this came to pass?

It truly was “creative differences”—mainly about Merida’s character. Despite replacing me, Pixar kept the film mostly the same as what I had tried to do. With a few tweaks here and there, what you see up on screen is essentially my film. Of course there are things I would have handled differently, but Mark’s changes were minor and nuanced.

Do you think that industry or generic sexism play a role? Do you think the animation industry could be described as sexist?

I think it depends on who you are working with. I’ve worked with many men in the past and often felt I had an equal voice … but not always. I suppose some men are more evolved than others.

You, Vicky Jenson (co-director of Shrek) and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (director of Kung Fu Panda 2) are pioneering women in the industry. But why do you think women directors are so underrepresented in the animation industry?

I think that is about to change. When I was at school (CalArts) studying animation, I was one of five women in a class of 30. The ratio didn’t really change when the classes got larger. But I just introduced Brave to the supporters of CalArts and was told that women now make up over 50 percent of the animation student body. Now we will know if it’s true that it was always lack of interest in the field. It looks like there’s a much bigger interest. We’ll see!

Have you seen an increase in the numbers of women getting involved in animation?

With the increase in interest in studying animation, I have also noticed an increase in the work force. I worked with a lot of women at DreamWorks. So I was a bit surprised when I started at Pixar and there were so few in creative positions. I’m thinking that will change, too. They were hiring more before I left.

Do you have any insight about women directing animated films?

My insight would be, “Do it!” We give a different perspective. It’s not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. It gives the world a bigger variety of sensibilities. And the ridiculous current Hollywood studio mantra that girls will go see boy movies but boys won’t go see girl movies is a socially learned thing, not a natural sexual difference. When I was a kid, boys went to see Snow White, Sleeping Beauty  and Cinderella, along with Dumbo and all the other wonderful old Disney movies. The current mantra is just shortsighted and stupid. Give them good movies—fun movies, scary movies, whatever kind of movie—don’t market it “just for girls,” don’t tell them that they are less of a “man” for going to them—and they’ll come back around and find that boys will enjoy a good movie just as much as any girl.

Any advice about entering an industry that is traditionally dominated by men?

Be strong. Listen and be professional. Don’t be defensive. Be tenacious. Stand back up when you get knocked down. It’s not easy, but you’ll eventually get there!

Are there any other women directors currently working at Pixar?

Not that I am aware of.

What does your daughter think of the film?

She loved it and is incredibly proud of being the inspiration behind it.

And what’s your next project?

I am writing a book and working on a children’s book at the moment. I am looking into consulting on a couple of projects and talking to a couple of studios. I’m taking my time. If I bring an idea to the table again, it will be on my terms next time.

Comments

  1. Great questions! Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Thanks for this great interview! I saw Brave last week in theatres with friends and was pleasantly surprised…I had heard good things but didn’t know at all what to expect. The story was original and entertaining, and I LOVED the characters of Elinor and Merida. I really enjoyed Brenda Chapman’s responses in this interview and her point of view on feminism. My one criticism would be that in the movie the father’s character was very much the bumbling patriarch stereotype we’ve seen many times in the past (Papa Bear in the Berenstein Bears is one of my favourite examples). Positive representations of females in movies and other media are GREAT, but I like to think they don’t have to come at the expense of their male counterparts.

  3. Frances in California says:

    I too was pleasantly surprised by “Brave”; I only went because my favorite Shaman recommended it. Elinor – especially as the bear! – was priceless and beautifully animated. I disagree; the dad was everything we value in men: big-hearted, family focused, indulgent and/or respectful of the four-footed among us; that he was a bit of a heavy drinker is not something exclusively male, then or now; plus he’s a good example to his (gasp!) triplet-sons!

  4. lady lou says:

    As a woman working in the animation and games industry – Ms. Chapman’s responses were spot on. There are a lot of sexist folks (men and women) working dilligently to keep stupid stereotypes. But – there are a lot of normal people advancing thought and breaking barriers and assumptions. I loved Brave. I loved that it was about women and girls. I’d agree – let’s break all stereotypes (bumbling male patriarch) and move forward together!

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