“I never do this,” Glen Keane muses as he swivels his laptop around his office at Netflix, filled with stacks of drawings and doodles — half thought-out ideas that the legendary animator had while working on his feature directorial debut Over the Moon.
Through the grainy Zoom video screen I can see reams of sheets that are hung around the room. Some of them storyboards that Keane has drawn for Over the Moon (“I drew more for this movie than I did for The Little Mermaid,” he remarks dryly), others snapshots of people and life in the Chinese water town of Wuzhen, which Keane and his team visited as part of their research into the China-set animated film that reimagines the myth of Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. It was important to Keane that the town where the film’s young protagonist, Fei Fei, lives felt as real as the town that he visited, filled with savory dishes or the bustling sound of a close-knit town.
“Everything you feel, and smell, and taste, and touch, and see — that’s what I want to share,” Keane says.
Keane has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into Over the Moon, his long-awaited feature directorial debut after a storied 47-year career in the animation field, most of it spent as a character designer at Walt Disney Animation, where Keane had a hand in creating some of the studio’s most iconic characters of the past 30 years: Ariel, Aladdin, the Beast, Tarzan. Keane was meant to make his directorial debut a little earlier — conceiving of a Rapunzel film that would eventually become Tangled, before stepping back to stay on as animation supervisor — but “felt this need…to creatively live without walls.” Keane left Disney in 2012. He would dabble in animated short films for several years — directing an animated short for Google, collaborating with the Paris Opera, and winning an Oscar for his Kobe Bryant-centered short Dear Basketball in 2017.
But the prospect of directing a feature film didn’t occur to Keane until it fell into his lap in the form of an offer from Netflix. Keane was intrigued by “this grand experiment of an animation studio,” and set about to research the myth of Chang’e, the moon goddess who yearns for the impossible: the long-dead love of her life, Houyi. The idea of a “character that is all her longing, and longing for something that’s impossible, for Houyi,” struck Keane and the first thing he drew was a scene between the two lovers and their tragic separation — one that would remain in Keane’s signature hand-drawn animated style in the film. Keane’s singular art style is one of the major recognizable elements that the animator brings to Over the Moon. The other is what he “carried with me from Disney.”
“They would tell me — my mentors, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men — don’t animate what the character’s doing, animate with the character’s thinking, feeling,” Keane says.
Keane speaks about bringing sincerity to the story of Over the Moon, his reasons for leaving Disney, and how he and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who passed away in 2018) reworked the story into a musical that takes inspiration from The Wizard of Oz, in our interview below.
You make your feature directorial debut with Over the Moon, after a long and storied career creating iconic characters and supervising animation for Disney. What did you take from your time at Disney, including your almost-directorial debut with Tangled, that you brought to directing Over the Moon?
I’ve always been drawn to characters that really are about that, believing the impossible is possible. At a certain point, I was doing villains and bigger-than-life kind of characters. Then, when I heard Ariel, when I heard Jodi Benson singing Part of Your World, I thought, “wow, that’s even more powerful. I have to animate that fire in somebody’s heart.” And that is what has been leading me forward. And then at a certain point, though at Disney I had a wonderful career, I was feeling this need — the way I put it is — to creatively live without walls. Studios are big, and they’ve got their walls, and they have their house style, and there’s a lot of constraints that come with that. And I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful just to be an artist out there in the world, that animates? And what would that be like?
I remember my wife said, “Well, where would you go? What would you do?” I said, “I don’t know. Google?” She said, “They don’t animate! That doesn’t make sense!” I know but, wouldn’t it be great to take the things that I’ve learned things like: “Glenn, the secret of Disney Animation is sincerity. And that means living in the skin of the characters.” But they would tell me — my mentors, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men — don’t animate what the character’s doing, animate with the character’s thinking, feeling. Take that.
So anyway, I did leave. And the first thing that happens is Google called and asked me to do a little film, which I did, Duet. And then Paris Ballet [with Nephtali] and taking animation to a place like the Garnier Opera House in Paris and working with a ballerina. It was so wonderful to do a little film there. And then Kobe [Bryant] calling. I said, ” Kobe, you got the worst basketball player in the world animating you.” He said, “That’s okay, because everything you learned about basketball is going to be through studying [me].” And it was. And then Netflix came along, as this grand experiment of an animation studio. We were the first ones planted, actually, in this room right here. This is the first time I’ve been back since the pandemic. I mean, we left in a half hour everybody was gone. And coffee cups are still there and coats on chairs. And this wonderful experiment that requires artists to be as authentic as you can be. And so Over The Moon is a product of that.
So your original goal when leaving Disney wasn’t to just be directed another feature film, but just kind of because just kind of came along naturally after experimenting in short films?
All while in my career, there was always a character that I couldn’t say no to. I just had to be the Beast. I had to be Ariel. I had to be Aladdin. Tarzan. I mean, I couldn’t say no, they felt like they were calling to me. And then I hit this point where like, nothing was calling to me, and I had an idea, for this character, Rapunzel, and really believing that fairy tales needed to be at the heart of Disney, and it’s been a while. So I proposed that. If nobody was going to be asking me to animate something I wanted, then I would direct a film with a character that I believe needed to come to life. And that’s why I pursued Rapunzel. And so from that point on, I realized, well, it’s probably a good thing to direct, because then I can create the kind of characters that — why wait for somebody else to ask me to do to do that? So that’s where I started to pursue, but as it’s turned out, those wonderful invitations have been happening like with Kobe and now with Over the Moon, somebody asked me to do what I believe I’m born to do.
On that topic, how would you compare working with Disney to working with Pearl Studio and Sony Picture Imageworks, which animated Over the Moon? And was that a different process because you were given more creative control?
Well, there’s so many different things. But one of the things I was looking for was creatively living without walls, what does that look like? And it actually means you connect to the world. There are no walls. You there are only artists and animators. And I see everybody as potentially somebody that you could work with. On my wall is that monitor up there, I call it the window to the world for me. And on this little roundtable sitting there, that was my family’s round table in our living room, and after my folks passed away, I inherited it. I thought, someday I’m going to make a movie around that table. This was that movie.
So it was a unique experience doing Over the Moon because it was primarily about not an American telling this Chinese story, but from China telling their story, that I was invited in to their fold, and to be surrounded by wonderful Asian talent from the voices to the artists. And that was the main experience for me. The things that I carried with me from like, say Disney were really the things that I was taught as an animator by the Nine Old Men, they called themselves directing animators where they would develop character designs in the story. And that’s the same thing that I learned and I approached in my story. So this one was going to be like that. Though, instead of sitting in a room, face to face, I was going to be working in Vancouver with Sony and in Holland with the set designer, and our modeler was in Spain, and [production designer] Celine Desrumaux is in Canada, and in New York are the songwriters. It just became a global experience.
So you spoke before about how Rapunzel called to you as a character and that idea of bringing that fairytale to life. What was it about Over the Moon and its myth of the moon goddess that called you? Was there a particular character or element of the story that particularly spoke to you?
Well, gosh, there’s many things that really spoke to me. First of all, it was about Fei Fei. Fei Fei is the vehicle that you’re going to take the audience, just like you hop into a ride at Disneyland you happen to move on a boat takes you on the Pirates of the Caribbean. In this case, you hop into the skin of a Fei Fei, you are her, and you go through the story of this experience. And I was hit with her intelligence. This girl is like a genius in science, and math, and physics, and technology, and mixed with that was this part of her mom, which was faith and seeing what others don’t see, believing the impossible is possible. And to animate both of those that’s what really drew me into this story. It’s interesting that the previous film I just did, Dear Basketball, I saw the same thing with Kobe. I mean, he was great not because he was a great athlete, he was great because he was so hungry to learn. He was so thirsty to keep drawing ideas from everybody around him, whether it was music and putting it into basketball, or speaking another language. Kobe was that intelligence mixed with that same desire that the impossible is possible. These last two films I’ve worked on have had that same character experience for me.
There are the themes of grief in the film too, and the idea that Fei Fei is running from her grief and her inability to get over her mother’s passing. And I think that speaks to what you also learned from Disney, in pursuing the sincerity in a story.
This story was not a theoretical story. It was written from such a sincere point of view from Audrey Wells, who knew that she would not be here to see this movie. And it was so important that it be a lesson that you can grasp that is true, and that you want to take in, not an intellectual thing. So the beauty of her script was the joy that she brought to it at the same time. Tears of sorrow, tears of joy are two sides of the same coin. And as much of that weight and gravitas that’s in the roots of the story, there’s also whimsy and fantasy that is beyond anything I imagined while making this film. One of the great challenges in this film was: how do you describe the world that she’s invented, Lunaria? Even the name “Lunaria,” feels like it’s a glowing moonlight of some sort. And I remembered the Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon poster with the prism and the white light going into a rainbow, [and thought], “It’s gotta be like that!” In Wizard of Oz, they had black and white going to technicolor. Ours was going to be reflective light in this beautiful little Chinese town of Wuzhen, where everything you feel, and smell, and taste, and touch, and see — that’s what I want to share. And on the moon, in Lunaria, it’s light coming from the inside out, glowing from Chang’e’s tears creating these buildings. That was that was all seeds planted in a script. But we needed people to be able to bring it out like Celine Desrumaux, my production designer who’s a genius with color. And I’ll never forget the day that she showed me Fei Fei standing in front of the Lunarian buildings. We had talked about and when finally you see it, all I could do was laugh and cry at the same time. It was the most ludicrously wonderful, dazzling color that I’ve ever seen.
Were you very familiar with the Chinese myth of the moon goddess before going into this film, and how much research did you put into it before putting your own spin on things?
I never heard of Chang’e. Growing up for me, I’d heard about the man and the moon. I could never see the man in the moon, I still can’t see the man in the moon. But when I went [to China] they were talking about Jade Rabbit on the moon. And I was like, “Oh, I could see Jade Rabbit with the mortar and pestle, I could see his ears!” I can imagine Chang’e on the dark side of the moon. And it was wonderful to think of this story of a character that is all her longing, and longing for something that’s impossible, for [her dead lover] Houyi. I knew that what we would do with this story is take that legend and take it with reverence. And we hold it carefully and w turn it on its head, and we present a goddess that’s more like a nuclear version of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry [Laughs]. And Phillipa Soo is like a goddess, her singing. Our music team’s creation of the songs was so wonderful and entertaining. But I knew what we were doing was playing with something, I guess sacred would have to be the word. And how important it was to return her right side up — not just the same but even better —because that would be worth doing the story for the Chinese people and for me. And we do, we return a Chang’e who no longer is just longing and pining away for something she can’t have. Instead, she faces grief and is open to love in new way. And that’s that is really the message that Audrey was putting forward that was so palpable at the beginning. And I took it with such responsibility to communicate that with sincerity.
So I’m actually Vietnamese, and our myth about the moon is much less…elegant. We have a man on the moon. And the story goes along the lines that his wife, um, pees on a tree that has mystical powers, which then ends up flying up to the moon, and her husband grabs the root of the tree and gets pulled up to the moon.
Yeah, it’s a bit silly, a bit rude, actually!
Well, that would have been fun to animate that. [Laughs]
But going back to Audrey and the beautiful script that she wrote. Did you have a chance to work closely with her before she passed?
Well, it was not written so musical. When I was reading it, I immediately sensed these moments would be served really well with music. The wonderful thing I learned from Howard Ashman was how a song can propel the movie forward if you put those important moments of discovery within the song. That they aren’t just needle drop moments and story doesn’t stand still, it actually jumps forward. And so “Making the Mooncakes,” a moment in the movie where Fei Fei’s mom is going to die, these are these are within the song. “Rocket to the Moon” that Fei Fei sings starts with a longing a yearning and this moment where Fei Fei then, in that song, realizes she’s got to build a rocket to the moon. And you animate that moment. These are the things that Audrey had written in there that I felt like they needed to be in music. One of the first conversations I had with her, was, “Audrey, I really think this should be a musical and I was hoping that we actually rework a lot to put those songs in there. Will you help me do that?” She was like, “Yes! Please. That’s so great. I wanted it to be a musical, but it wasn’t written that way.” So we started to work on weaving that together.
I did not know that she had cancer at that point. And then probably about a year later, maybe nine months later, she invited my wife and I over for dinner and shared that. And it was as if she’s handing a baton to you, saying, “Take this to the end, make it as real and wonderful for my family. And I’m trusting you with that.”
The last conversation I had with her was actually sitting on this couch right here. She was sitting at the end near the window, I don’t know if you can see the Hollywood sign out there. But she’s sitting there and I’m sitting on the other end, and we were talking about the dreamlike world of going to Lunaria. And I said, “Yeah, I mean, Fei Fei comes back from a dream.” And she said, “No, she doesn’t. It’s not a dream. You really see, it really happened.” I said, “So, okay, so when Dorothy comes back from Oz, that’s a dream.” She said, “No it isn’t…you think it was!? No, this really happened!” And there’s this wonderful childlike sparkle in her eyes. She was just months away from passing away, but there was this energy and joy in making it so real because this is message with weight, and it’s not a fantasy. There’s truth and roots to this that we have to communicate. So I determined, okay, I will make sure, in directing this movie — and we both agreed — that I would not favor one side over the other, but keep it very much razor’s edge. You can choose. And there’s little hints either way that you can pick up and go with your own belief.
It’s like the crane that appears at the end of the film and is a sign that everything did happen.
Yeah, that was a very, very important moment. It was also a very important moment, when I first storyboarded that, Fei Fei was talking to her mom. And then we took all of that dialogue out and it played so much better. And her mother makes our appearance there, in that crane in a sense. And Audrey had written a dialogue kind of thing with the crane. But we kept it silent. Because by that point we didn’t need the dialogue. What we needed was reflection. We needed a moment for the audience to be with Fei Fei and just be like, “Wow, what just happened?” Fei Fei’s hair is still in this wild cut fashion, which represented the chaos, the pain that she went through. And we talked about how she’s healed now, shouldn’t it go back to straight hair? No, no — we go forward in life and the pain that we experience becomes part of us, becomes part of our beauty. And it was a very important moment that the reason that the crane flies over her is so that the wings can touch Fei Fei’s hair, as if to say, “You’re beautiful. You’re wonderful,” like the song that Gobi sings. There’s so much symbolism throughout this movie.
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