Meg LeFauve and Kelsey Mann were not the first team tasked with writing and creating the story of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s latest feelsfest. But the duo found the film’s heart in the characters that evolved out of those early drafts. Through a writer’s room-style set up with the animators, Kelsey and Meg nailed down a story told mostly through movement and atmosphere rather than dialogue, and the resulting nuance takes a very subversive storyflip—a boy and his dog gone dinosaur and his pet human—and reflects impressive levels of adolescent coming-of-age. No easy task!
So while at Pixar (yup, we’re the luckiest alright), we sat down with the duo to talk logistics, purpose, and why Spot is not your Obi-Wan Kenobi (because who doesn’t love all of the Star Wars references, amirite?).
Nerdist: This movie feels slightly different than some of the other Pixar that we’ve seen so far. What was it like crafting this story compared to others?
Kelsey Mann: It always comes from the source—which is our director. You can take the same story and the same script and if you give it to different directors, they’re going to give you different types of films. It’s always about “What do you want to do? What’s the type of film that you want to do?” I remember, very early on, he had us watch Black Stallion, it was one of his touchstone films.
Meg LeFauve: Especially with the boy-dog feeling of it—to really watch how that boy and dog relationship formed. It was so quiet and beautiful when we all watched in that big theater together because we wanted to have the full, immersive experience and from that we watched Never Cry Wolf, which is also an immersive, quiet movie and we just started to realize that we could do that with this movie.
Kelsey Mann: Yeah, do something different. Not only something that Pixar hasn’t really done as much, but family films, usually they’re an assault of your senses. I think people think, “Well, it’s for kids, fill it with jokes, fill it with color, fill it with activity and have it be non-stop because they fidget.” I think if you tell a good, compelling story with characters that they can identify with, that you don’t have to overload them with stuff.
Meg LeFauve: It also felt true to the characters. They’re two boys in the woods; they’re not talking a lot, they’re up to mischief and goofing around. They’re very physical people, little boys—having two of them myself. It feels true to who they are and what kind of adventure they would have out there together.
Nerdist: Was it purposeful to do such a 180 after something like Inside Out, which is much more in line with that sort of oversaturated sensory assault? Don’t get me wrong, I loved Inside Out, but—
Kelsey Mann: It’s perfect for that movie—it’s perfect for that style, yeah. Movies shift around and you kind of plan things and this wasn’t the original plan, but my goodness it gets to the perfect plan. I’m so excited for this pairing. To have Pixar have two movies in the same year and have it be these two movies, you couldn’t have planned it more perfect, because they’re so different from one another.
Meg LeFauve: It was such a relief to come off of Inside Out, which was amazing and fun to be on, but now to come over and write this movie where it’s all behavior, all action.
Nerdist: What were the challenges of that for you?
Meg LeFauve: What happens is you do write a lot—you write way too much—and then you start paring back and paring back and looking at, really, what’s essential. Because it’s so physical, every word has to hold more so that every action can’t just be for a joke. It can be funny, but it also has to do with character and has to do with the relationship. It’s having to really hold all of those things so it’s challenging but it’s a great challenge to exercise your righter brain, having to do that and to really think about how people behave.
Like I said, I have two boys, one’s twelve, one’s nine so they’re right in the zone so I have a lot of inspiration. One is like Spot and never stops moving. The other one, when Arlo says “I’m no good at jobs”—that’s my other son. I’m a parent, so you just start drawing on your own life and really being a deep observer of your life, of behavior. Then you just have to forget it all and just say, “Okay, Arlo is here, what would he do?” So I’m writing all that down and then, of course, these guys are taking the storyboards and taking a whole other level of that physicality. The animators are truly taking the last, ultimate step. They are truly, in this movie, the gold standard. They got to bring it.
Kelsey Mann: We can only take it so far in each one of our steps. Meg can take it to a certain point and then we would take it and put it in visual form. She may have something that has to read in an expression [for you to] understand what’s going on in your head versus them saying it. It’s up to us to draw the right expression … but then the way that they move—little twitches of a slight little sigh versus a really big sigh—can mean a lot.
Meg LeFauve: There was a lot of dialogue we could put [but ultimately] this is what emotionally is going on right now inside of him.
Kelsey Mann: We’d [say], “I think we cut that line” and then we’d cut it and see if we missed it. We would fill it in with an expression or something.
Meg LeFauve: Or a gesture. Lots of gestures! I don’t know if you were in the room when we were talking about presentation, but in the script it’d say, “During the overhang of this the boys are talking together through sticks.” It would say “Spot comforts Arlo.” So then J.P. [Jayson Price] draws the little boy with his head on the big dinosaur leg, patting it, and I was like “Oh my God, that is unbelievable.”
Kelsey Mann: It’s two drawings. It’s just two drawings. It’s a hill drawn with a hand down, hand up. Pat, pat.
Meg LeFauve: It’s so good.
Nerdist: I was surprised by that sort of subtleness. But concurrently in my mind I’m like, “Oh my God, It must’ve been eighteen drafts to get to that.”
Meg LeFauve: All great art looks easy.
Nerdist: I really enjoyed the subversion of making the human the animal. It just shows way more humanity, which I think is so fascinating because it kind of tears us all down to the basest level.
Meg LeFauve: The base level of just being a human, right? I feel very lucky because the people who came before us on this movie really found Spot, I would say. We calibrated him and moved him for our story, but Spot was so viscerally a character—Spot is Spot. He was so fun to write as that boy-dog-kid with that wonderful vulnerability of, “yes he really knows this world, he is the guide, he is fearless and he will take on anybody,” but he’s also lonely. That wonderful dynamic in him was so much fun to write.
Kelsey Mann: He was one of my favorite characters to draw. You know you have a good character when you can put him in any situation and you’re like “What’s he going to do?” You have no idea, but you kind of knew who he was and you knew “Oh, he’d probably do that.” That’s really hilarious and charming or surprising.
Meg LeFauve: This isn’t Obi-Wan-Kenobi who is like “I am your mentor.” There’s no consciousness to it. He’s just being who he is.
Kelsey Mann: Arlo’s being healed by the relationship—not by Spot teaching him. It’s really just having a friend and having someone to lean on. That’s what’s changing him.
Listen, I am as big of a fan of Pixar as anybody outside these walls. I feel so fortunate that I am within these walls and I get to see what everyone is doing. You think like “Oh you’re in the walls. Why are you surprised by stuff?” I get so blown away by everyone else’s work and the effects work on this have been daunting and they have met that challenge and exceeded any expectations. It’s amazing what they’ve done. … Usually the effects are there to kind of support the story and what’s going on, right? What I love about this film, I was telling [effects supervisor] Jon Reisch, I’m like “I’m so excited for you guys because you are the story. When we do a shot of the rain dripping on the leaves, that’s the point of the shot. Your work is in the forefront and you deserve to be noticed.” I’m so proud that their work is at the forefront because look at it, it’s gorgeous.
The Good Dinosaur is in theaters now. Have you seen it yet? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: Pixar
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of The Nerdist. Find her on Twitter tweetin’ ’bout dinos ‘cuz they’re they best (@alicialutes).