Throughout the conversation, British directors Butler (a storyboard artist and animator who also co-wrote the script) and Fell (a veteran of such films as Aardman's "Flushed Away" and Universal's "Tale of Despereaux"), describe "ParaNorman" a number of different ways. At various points they call it "an episode of 'Scooby-Doo' directed by Sam Raimi," "John Carpenter meets John Hughes," and "something completely new." But they say that the history of stop motion lent itself to the project.
There was, of course, another huge influence on the movie. "Then there's the [Ray] Harryhausen thing, which was a big influence on anyone doing anything in stop motion," Butler said, referring to the effects pioneer whose wizardly work on movies like "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" and "Golden Voyage of Sinbad" cemented stop motion's place in the cinematic canon. "Once you've seen those skeletons in 'Jason and the Argonauts,' it's like you can't really think of zombies as anything else."
In terms of reference points, the pair put the emphasis on movies from the late '70s and '80s. "We didn't want to do Universal horror or Hammer horror because it's already been done and that schlocky fifties horror is Tim Burton's game," Fell said. "So we were off looking at more eighties, Mario Bava/Dario Argento stuff." While an early idea to have the different ghosts presented via varying degrees of film stock (ghosts from the seventies would be very lurid-looking, older ghosts would be sepia-toned) was ultimately nixed, the emphasis of the eighties remained (Fell cites "Stand By Me," "The Goonies," and "The Breakfast Club" alongside its more horror influences like "the groovy camerawork of early Raimi"). The eighties thing worked, too, because, as Butler said, "The special effects in those movies was stop-mo, because there was no CGI at that time. It all seems to fit."
Part of what makes "ParaNorman" so special, too, is that it takes its time. It isn't always in the mad dash to get somewhere, and it doesn't strictly hedge to the narrative. This is unconventional for an animated film, something that the directors are quite proud about. "We wanted to take a real naturalistic approach," Butler said. He then went on to describe the process of most of the animation studios. "Part of the process is streamlining – what's the joke, what's the story point? It's a way of working that is sometimes less than cinematic," Butler said, adding that his approach was influenced by one of the greats. "If you look at what Miyazaki does at Studio Ghibli, it'll have shots that have nothing to do with the story but helps create a world."
Part of that world-creation was a joke that some less than tolerant folks will get ruffled by – the admission that one of the main characters is (gasp) gay! It's a moment that's really hilarious but also feels sort of important. You kind of want to cheer at the screen. "I wanted it from the start, absolutely," Butler said. "It seemed like the best bookend to that whole tolerance thing and to do it as a joke, a kind of throwaway thing, but something that has NEVER been done before. I think we're telling a story about intolerance, so you have to be brave about it." For a movie that flirts with horror, "ParaNorman" is nothing if not fearless.
"ParaNorman" opens on Friday, read our review here.