Intervista a Roger Allers, il regista de Il Re Leone

Twenty years ago The Lion King was released in Italy. The movie represents Disney at its best, it’s a masterpiece that remains unsurpassed to this date in the realm of hand-drawn animation. Lion King marked the end of an era: the year after Toy Story hit theatres and shook the dominance of Disney’s tradition.

Articles, essays and documentaries have been written and filmed about Lion King and the fans know every details of the production. So, when we sat down with director Roger Allers we decided to talk about what happened after the Lion King’s release, his career, the legacy of the movie and his ideas about the state of current animation.

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Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (by Kirk Wise)

The Lion King is twenty years old. For you, after all this time, what was the impact of the movie on the world of animation and cinema in general?

Well, for me, it has connected me to a huge group of people around the world. I have received letters from people for whom it helped their children deal with death in their families. Also, simply the good will I have received from people who learn of my connection to that film. It has led to my involvement with the stage musical version (I adapted the script with Irene Mecchi for the stage) which has turned into an amazing experience with casts and audiences around the world.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how did you become passionate about animation? And when did you decide to get serious with it?

I fell in love with it as a small child. The magic of it! I loved “Peter Pan” when I was about five. I wanted to fly, be a pirate; it all was real to me.  I remember from the time I was six wanting to be an animator for Walt Disney. I even sent away for an animation kit from Disneyland. It had a light table, instruction books. I set to work teaching myself.

You worked for many studios, Lisberger Studios, Nelvada and so on. Were you enjoying it or you were just hoping to go on to bigger projects? I’ve read that you also worked on the very troubled production of Little Nemo, the adapation of the famous comic strip, for two years in Tokyo. What was it like to work on such production?

I started with Lisberger Studios in Boston and later moved to Los Angeles with them. I loved every minute of it! It was small things in the beginning; I always wanted to do features complete with full stories and characters. We did a feature which never got much play. And also developed TRON, which Steve Lisberger took to Disney. (I joined Disney much later.) At Nelvana in Toronto worked on a feature which never made it to the big screen (Rock & Rule.) My two and a half years of work on “Little Nemo” mostly did not make it to the screen. The story development of that film was quite troubled. The living experience in Tokyo was interesting, however. Our son was born there.

After Oliver & Co., almost every Disney picture had two directors, how come?

I think because the collaboration of John Musker and Ron Clements was so successful with their first two films – The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid – that the execs thought why change a good thing? It does help divide up the work load and a good partnership can be a very creative challenge/collaboration.

Rob Minkoff, in a recent interview, talked about how he would do Lion King all over in a different way. I guess because artistic works are also a product of the artist that changes from time to time. Do you feel the same? Would you change anything of the movie?

Other than the opportunity to tweak and correct the color balance of scenes that I hadn’t been satisfied with originally when I retimed the whole movie for the 3-D release, and for the scriptwork I did with my writing partner Irene Mecchi for the Broadway musical version for the stage, I have not been interested in re-visiting The Lion King. Quite ready to move on and think about new things. I love it but I can let it be.

One of the most infamous controversy about The Lion King was the resemblance to Kimba, the White Lion. The idea is that Disney was going to do a remake but then fail to obtain the rights. Members of the cast and even Roy Disney mentioned the name of Kimba. Were there any discussions about Kimba or a possible influence on the project?

It’s strange you mention Roy Disney or some of the cast mentioning Kimba the White Lion. The whole time I worked on The Lion King the name of that show never came up. At least I never heard it. I had never seen the show and really only became aware of it as Lion King was being completed, and someone showed me images of it. I worked with George Scribner (the first director) and Linda Woolverton (the first writer) to develop the story in the early days but then left to help out on Aladdin. If one of them were familiar with Kimba they didn’t say. Of course, it’s possible. Then later I teamed up with Rob Minkoff to direct it together and with new writers Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. Many story ideas developed and changed along the way, always just to make our story stronger. I could certainly understand Kimba’s creators feeling angry if they felt we had stolen ideas from them. If I had been inspired by Kimba I would certainly acknowledge my inspiration. All I can offer is my respect to those artists and say that their creation has its loyal admirers and its assured place in animation history.

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About the writing: in an animated picture you don’t have a fully fleshed script, you kind of built it with the story department. But Lion King had three screenwriters (Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton). What were their contribution?

As I said before, Linda Woolverton was the writer who worked with George in the early days of development. The rough idea of the story was put down, even though the later team made many crucial story and character changes. Indeed the whole tone of the movie changed significantly. When Rob Minkoff and I were partnered we enlisted Irene Mecchi and Jonathon Roberts as writers. I have to say that last group was such a happy, creative partnership. We spent many story/script sessions solving problems and making each other laugh.

After Lion King, you stayed at Disney but then you were fired from your pet-project King of the Sun. I had the chance to watch The Sweatbox and you seemed pretty calm, the overall atmosphere seemed chaotic but quiet. How did you lived that period? What were the executives’ main concerns about the story? And do you think it would have worked out having had more time?

The Kingdom of the Sun was such a heart-breaking experience for me. I put four years of my heart and energy into that one.  Though I may have seemed calm for the camera (as I always tried to be for my crew) inside it was a chaotic struggle resulting in annihilation.  I was creating an “epic” picture mixing elements of adventure, comedy, romance and mysticism. The head of Disney Features at the time was afraid that we were doing, in his opinion, too many films in the same vein. He was also uncomfortable with the spiritual and cultural (Inca) aspects of it. Hence, he decided to make it a simple slapstick comedy. They kept just enough of my elements (characters and such) that I can never produce my original vision or story elsewhere. Would it have worked out if we had had more time? I would hope so, but one can never know these things.

Why do you think The Sweatbox was held back from distribution? It’s a very compelling piece and Disney had agreed to Waking Sleeping Beauty, which didn’t shine a happy light on the company.

I think The Sweatbox did not present the executives in the greatest light and was therefore shunned. Waking Sleeping Beauty was made in later years under a new regime.

After Lion King were you developing anything else that was not greenlighted?

After Kingdom, I developed an Irish fairy tale based on the Scottish legend of Tam Lin (a fairy abduction story). I did it for Roy Disney who was eager for an Irish tale (as was I) but Michael Eisner, the head of the company was in conflict with Roy on many matters at the time and when I pitched it to him, he rejected it because of its Irish-ness (knowing that it was Roy’s baby).

You went on directing The Little Matchgirl, which is a truly wonderful short, and Open Season. Some of your peers, after the ending of the Disney Renaissance, went to Pixar of Dreamworks. Weren’t you interested in those two companies?

When I finished Open Season at Sony, I was weary of big studio politics and was ready to develop something on my own outside of the context of a big studio. That has led to writing a little musical with puppets for the Heifer Foundation, a charity to end world hunger, the independent animated feature “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” (just completed), and a musical for the stage that I am working on.

What kind of “big studio politics” were bothering you?

The years in the late 90s got hard for me to get anything produced at Disney. The heads of the animation department were getting restless after their success on Broadway and were often dissatisfied with what was being developed at the studio. Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Disney company and Roy Disney a leading member of the Board of Directors and an animation champion were engaged in a struggle of whose vision for the company would prevail, with the result that some pictures (My Tam Lin story was one) became casualties if that struggle. At Sony, the execs who had invited me to do that story for them, could not seem to agree on an approach after two years of development work. After so much aborted work, I was pleased that a little short like The Little Matchgirl that I had managed to do with producer Don Hahn made it to completion (it was practically made in secret, which was the only way to get it done). It was nominated for an Oscar, which shows sometimes what can be accomplished if executives are taken out of the mix.

You worked at Disney in a highly creative period of time that was ruled by powerful personalities that clashed with each others (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, Eisner; Waking Sleeping Beauty chronicles very well that period). Do you think that these conflicts have in any way encouraged and channeled the best ideas in the movies?

No, I don’t think that conflicts between highly placed executives ever lead to better ideas. It always leads to wasted efforts on the part of all the talented artists and writers who suffer the damage caused by the “battling titans”. Projects are cancelled. Conflicting notes are given. It’s just chaos. Dysfunctional.

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Roger Allers and Sting (from “The Sweatbox”)

Frozen, a movie that was nevertheless an atypical picture for Disney, was compared to Lion King, structure-wise. So, we’re going back to the same model 20 years after; I’m not speaking about the hero’s journey or the other narrative structures – which, to me, in Frozen are too visible and give to the movie a sense of being very strictly control, not natural or spontaneous – but Frozen has a Lion King tone or vibe that is palpable). Do you think that this is seen as a necessity, a sort of “play it safe” by studios?

To give credit to the creators of Frozen, without adding my own personal views of that movie, everyone involved in the creation of a story tries everything they can muster to make it work. Good story is one of the hardest challenges. Many different ideas are tried and discarded in the search for the “right path”.  I don’t think the creators ever want to imitate something else. That being said, often studio executives get nervous and insist upon “over-explanation” or structures that are all too obvious to the creators (and sometimes, as you make clear, the audience).

As a viewer, did you like it?

I appreciated its design and its beautiful animation of snow. I’m happy for its success for its filmmakers.

You directed some CGI stuff. As a director, what are the pros and cons of that technique? And what technique of animation is closer to your personal idea of Animation?

In the cases where I have directed CGI animation, the struggle is always creating good shapes (with good silhouettes) that will enhance the flow of action. It is much harder work to create good stretch and squash, whereas in hand-drawn it is quick, intuitive. With CG you are always struggling against the limitations. With hand-drawn it feels more free. That being said, CGI offers wonderful surface textures and the opportunity to move with the camera through “3-D space.” Just personally, because of my background as a traditional artist and from the films that I grew up with, I tend to favor traditional animation. I love the personal signature that comes from the hand of the artist.

Do you feel that animation lacks of something nowadays? Because I feel that there’s almost a sense of overwhelming-ness, in the sense that in the live-action environment there the blockbusters, the comedy, the thriller, the science fiction flick, the indie movie, but in animation it’s like one big flavor.

I think there are several “flavors” as you say in animation today, the contrast between the grand atmospheric How To Train Your Dragons and the quirky intimate quality of Boxtrolls. Add to that Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises or Chomet’s The Illusionist, and I’d say there are animated films expressing different moods and techniques. I do wish that more indie pictures were seen by the public as well as shorts from all the artists working around the world!

Speaking of indie movies, The Prophet is your new movie. How did you come to the movie?

Yes, speaking about indie projects! We have several international artists contributing pieces in their own inimitable styles to illustrating the poems in The Prophet. The producers came to me because they had decided the movie needed a story upon which to hang the poems, to give it a strong narrative (the book barely has a narrative at all) to help the audience in their journey through Gibran’s philosophy. So that was my job. I jumped at the chance because the book had been very meaningful to me in my youth. Profound, really. It was an interesting challenge to come up with a story that could be entertaining for the audience, of all ages, and lead them gently in and out of different poems, and to find a way to make the transitions as seamless as I could. It was a fantastic experience working with everyone and I’m so pleased with how it’s turned out and can’t wait to share it with the public!

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Salma Hayek gave a really  insight interview where she talks about budget’s problems and the use of a different technique to animate the main story. Could you elaborate on that topic? Was The Prophet a hard production? 

The Prophet was a very challenging project from the start because of its short time frame and small budget, not to mention starting over with animation in a new technique halfway through production. In order to match our original design concept (as well as to match all of our watercolor style backgrounds) we translated our new CG character animation through a process called ToonShading which flattened out the characters, assigning exterior and interior lines to the forms to make it look traditionally animated. Then a team of very talented animators worked on top of the flattened characters to put back anything that had been lost in the process as well as embellish and enrich the animation making it fuller and more expressive. All this in the remaining half of our allotted production time!