Roy Conli has had an amazing career – he started out working in theatre before making the move to Disney in the 90s, kicking things off with co-producer work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame before graduating to producer on Treasure Planet, Tangled and now Big Hero 6.
That’s an impressive legacy of films so we were really looking forward to having a chat with him during a recent press tour to Dublin. The resulting interview is long and sprawling, covering his career and breaking down his role as producer before diving into the specifics of what it took to bring a character like Baymax to life and his ideas for a new project.
Here’s the very gentlemanly Roy Conli.
[This interview was conducted in person in Dublin on the 20th of January 2015]
CLICK: I wanted to start by talking about your career at Disney, what were the main projects you worked on?
My first project was Hunchback of Notre Dame, I co-produced that. And then I went off to the Paris studio for three years which was one of the highlights of my life! I absolutely adored living there. Then I came back and produced Treasure Planet. And from that I went into Tangled which was my last film and came out in 2010 and now I have this beautiful film Big Hero 6 that I’m so proud of.
CLICK: And the four years in between, were you on Big Hero 6 for that whole period?
I came onto this film about a year and a half ago. Don [Hall] was developing it… this film came about very quickly actually. About a three and a half years from concept to actually being on the screen. It meant that this last year and a half has been incredibly busy but I’m really proud because the storytelling in this is so extremely strong and the thematic content is so strong. And then it’s wrapped up in this wonderful, entertaining comedic package. I think people are always surprised when they see it.
CLICK: It seems to me that Disney has been moving towards sort of unconventional love stories in recent years and Big Hero 6is the same – not a princess and princess but a boy and his dog almost?
Yea that’s accurate.
CLICK: Is that something you would have seen at a decision-making level in Disney?
It’s interesting because I think that’s been part of our legacy in a certain sense. If you take a look at 101 Dalmatians it isn’t quite the same as Cinderella. If you look at Jungle Book it isn’t quite the norm. I know Hunchback of Notre Dame was kind of a variation from where we would generally go. So my career has always been kind of involved with those – even Treasure Planet was not quite the film that most people would expect from Disney.
CLICK: And do you enjoy that different take?
CLICK: Does that have some bearing on the projects you work on? Do you get to choose?
Well it really is about a marriage if anything. You find one another and you fall in love and then you start working together. What’s really great since John Lasseter came to the studio in 2006, he’s really a believer that the directors need to own the story, and it’s got to be their idea. So he makes sure that each of the directors pitch three ideas and then the story trust – which is essentially all the other directors – once they accept it’s a great idea for a film then the directors go away and let it gestate for a little while. And when it’s ready to actually become a film, that’s when they’ll bring a producer on. It’s really important that the director and producer have a great relationship – it’s all about honesty and communication.
CLICK: You’ve said that if there’s something you don’t agree with you’ll be very open about it?
CLICK: Do you think that’s your role as a producer?
Oh yes. I think you’re there to get the vision of the director on the screen. And it’s really important to sometimes remind the director of what they’ve said in the past. And just say ‘hey, are you sure this is where you want to go?’ I would never try to impose an idea that I had, I would always bring it up, question and challenge and then let the director come back and clearly identify where he’s going.
CLICK: Can you remember anything you fought for in that way on Big Hero 6?
It’s so interesting, this project was so delightful in the sense that both Don and Chris [Williams] are really excellent storytellers and it’s hard to say if there was one moment. I never insisted on anything in this but there were many times when I said ‘wait, wait guys – you’re going down that alleyway, is that going to lead you to where you want to get to?’ And that’s essentially what the job is.
CLICK: I did read there was some deleted material?
Quite a bit.
CLICK: There were extra villains and things like that?
We do multiple screenings of these in storyboard form essentially, with a story reel and draw out the whole film, shoot it in the computer and edit it like a movie, but you’re looking at static pictures. I can tell you that the very first version of Big Hero 6 has very little to do with what’s on screen right now. However it is interesting that the very first version of the film there was a robot fight at the very start of the film – then it went away for a long period and literally I would say four months before we were finished we thought that robot fight might have been a good idea and we brought it back into the film!
CLICK: It’s a very funny film and that’s one of its many aspects but you must see the film dozens?
CLICK: Hundreds of times! Do those jokes stay funny? Because they have to be very good to stay entertaining!
Yea hopefully the joke will make you laugh multiple times. But it’s really important as filmmakers when you are working with material for an extended period of time that you remember these things were funny so let’s not touch it just yet.
CLICK: You must forget what it’s like to see itfresh. Do you do a lot of test screenings?
Yea we always screen it to the studio. Every three months we put it up and the story trust comes and we will invite a segment of the studio. We have about 800 people at Disney Animation and our theatre holds about 140 and we usually do two screenings. So we’ll get around 280 people in there each screening. We try to keep a fresh audience for each screening. One of the things that you develop in these positions is how to remember what’s working. It’s funny because I came from the theatre originally and I used to run a new play program in Los Angeles and I did 20-25 productions a year. It’s crazy! And now I do one production every four years! You have to fall in love with the production and then there’s a certain mind-set that you develop where it does stay fresh in your mind.
CLICK: Because, as you say, you have to fall in love and it’s a marriage, is it very hard to move on? Could you even conceive of a new project?
That’s a great question! My last film was Tangled, which I loved. I felt that we had achieved a level of storytelling... and essentially redefined a princess story. And I thought boy, I’ve just hit the pinnacle of my Disney career, it’s been a successful film, I loved it, I could watch it over and over and over. And I thought I would never have that experience again. And I’m happy to say that on this film I have fallen in love with it and I have seen it over and over and over and I am so proud of the thematic content and so proud of Disney in a sense. When you think about it – Don was working on Winnie the Pooh, and now he’s doing this interesting superhero movie. I did a kind of reconceived fairy-tale and now doing this superhero story. The fact of the matter is, you tell stories. So I’m kind of excited… the film has been going around the world. February 28th it opens in China, that’s our last release. Don, Chris and I are all going to take a couple of months off and then I’ll be ready to get back to it. I can’t wait to tell another story!
CLICK: The movies you’ve worked on – Tangled, Big Hero 6, Treasure Planet – have all broken new ground in terms of art style and technology use. And they’ve been quite gorgeous as well, Tangled was especially noted for its painterly look. Is that something you feel you help to bring to a production or is it just a confluence of many elements?
It’s funny because when I was doing Tangled a young man in France came up to me and said [with an accent]: ‘Oh monsieur Conli, your films are so beautiful!’ And I was like – ‘you know, they are!’ I am very fortunate to work with the greatest team in animation I think in the world right now. I have worked with several art directors and production designers who are just magnificent. Dave Getz, Paul Felix, Ian Gooding… just amazing artists and I would say if I had anything to do with it I just pick good artists!
CLICK: Baymax is the heart of this film, was that the case from the start? Because the character is very different in the source material.
Well that’s the wonderful thing. When we went to Marvel and said we were interested in this obscure comic that they made, they said ‘did we do that?!’ they gave us complete control – they didn’t want it in the Marvel universe, do with it what you will. And by having that freedom we were really able to create a story unencumbered by having to ensure that Spiderman or Captain American would show up some way down the line. And really be able to tell a story that was always focussed around the basic concept. Why essentially this was made in three and a half years, was because everyone always loved that it was about a boy who had a loss and was repaired by his brother’s invention, this amazing robot. So Baymax has always been at the centre of this story.
CLICK: I was wondering after watching the film if Baymax might have responded to the emotional distress of any person in the same way he does with Hiro? What's your take on that?
I would say one of the things that I love about Baymax is that he’s actually a sentient creature. So I think he learns during the course of the film how to treat Hiro. So I look at it as Hiro has a huge arc in the film but so does Baymax. And I think that’s why people fall in love with the character because initially Baymax becomes a surrogate bother. I think he starts out more like a little brother and ends up being a big brother. And I think that’s kind of beautiful within the arc of the story.
CLICK: What’s it like to know that you’ve helped to create an enduring cinematic character? Because he’ll no doubt stand in that pantheon of Disney characters.
Thank you. I’m terribly honoured. I know these films last much longer than we do. My favourite Disney film is Pinocchio – which was made long before I was born [released in 1940]! And I know that this will probably last long after I’m gone. And there’s a responsibility…
CLICK: Well you’re up for an Oscar with Big Hero 6 – congratulations on that!
Thank you, thank you!
CLICK: Have you seen the rest in the category and were there any you particularly liked?
I haven’t seen all of them and I’m sure you’re going to ask me about Song of the Sea!
CLICK: Not necessarily!
But I have to say I’m so honoured to have been chosen, to be one of the five finalists. I’m so proud of the animation field because I think the films that I have seen are pretty spectacular. I think that animation continues to get strong. I’m excited for Thom because I met him back when I was doing Tangled because that’s when his first film [The Secret of Kells] was coming out. Now I’m just proud to be with them and I just look forward to the event. It’s always good; there are always lots of free drinks [laughs]!
CLICK: Looking at that category you can see the breadth of technology - from stop motion to CG and traditional animation. Would you consider ever moving back to your style on Hunchback, for example?
Yea it’s interesting. I think that the technology or the medium that you use when making a film just has to be right with the material that you’re bringing to the screen. I love hand drawn animation but I have to say I have fallen in love with CG animation. What you can do in terms of visuals is pretty stunning and I think if I did go back and do a hand drawn animation I would want to make sure that from a stylistic standpoint it would be as beautiful as Hunchback of Notre Dame at least! I think this is where Thom is really phenomenol because I think he has found a style that works so well and I’m proud to know him.
CLICK: And finally, I’m sure people are asking you but I wondered if after all this and your break is there a dream project you’d like to work on of any scale or a genre?
For a while I started thinking that I was the guy who adapted things – because I did Hunchback and Treasure Planet was Treasure Island and Rapunzel then started moving into more of the kind of storytelling from Grimm Fairy Tales. I just like working with great directors and essentially it is the director’s vision that gets on screen. And it makes my life really easy when I have a great director because then it’s me totally focussing my energy and talent into making them look good! And when they look good, I look good.
CLICK: So you just have to find your next great director?!
Yea but I would work with Chris and Don in a flash. I loved working with and I’ve worked with some great directors – Nathan Greno and Byron Howard on Tangled, they’re terrific. The key issue is getting their vision in screen.
Thanks to Roy for talking to us!
Big Hero 6 is in cinemas from the 30th of January.
Read our review.
Watch our interview with director Don Hall.