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Interview: Tangled Directors Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
"Tangled" directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard introduce three types of bonus features on the film's Blu-ray Disc.

Nathan Greno and Byron Howard began working at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1990s, working on animation and story on films like Pocahontas and Mulan. They have worked their way up, with Howard supervising animation on characters in Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear
and Greno working on the scripts of Brother Bear and Meet the Robinsons. Bolt, a 2008 film originally conceived by Lilo's Chris Sanders, promoted Greno to head of story and Howard to director. From there, the pair would be asked to take the helm on Glen Keane's Rapunzel project that would become Tangled. Co-directing this long in development computer-animated musical comedy adventure fairy tale, Greno and Howard have given Disney's feature animation department (for whom the film is the 50th release) its biggest hit in years, earning acclaim and grosses lately reserved for Pixar Animation Studios' output.

In conjunction with tomorrow's DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D debut of Tangled, Greno and Howard recently participated in a virtual roundtable, answering the questions of journalists from around the globe, including several from yours truly. They discussed their careers, the pre-release title change, the taxing production, the cast and characters, the film's music, Tangled's place in Disney history, and the possibility of a sequel.

Flynn Rider happens upon the tower where Rapunzel spends her every moment in "Tangled."


Can you talk a bit about the genesis and evolution of Tangled?

Nathan Greno: The idea of a Rapunzel story has been around the Disney Animation Studios since the 1930s... it was on one of Walt's early lists. It took a long time to bring this film to the screen. The problem is the original tale is a very small story. It takes place in a tower. A girl is waiting around to be rescued. It's all very passive and small. We needed to blow up the scale of the film... turn it into a big event. We really tried to keep what worked in the original. The original icons of the classic story are all there... it's just been updated for a modern audience.

Are you pleased with the film's title change from Rapunzel to Tangled?

Byron Howard: When Nathan and I figured out that this film was really about two characters, Flynn and Rapunzel, we knew that changing the title would be a good idea. We like that Tangled as a title sounds smart and intriguing, while also relating to the tangle of plot, characters and emotion in the film.

Nathan, how were you, as a storyboard director, considered as another director for Tangled?

Nathan Greno: John Lasseter asked me to direct the Bolt DVD short film (Super Rhino). Byron helped me on that short -- there were departments I never worked in before and Byron showed me the ropes. Lasseter really liked the job I did on the short and asked if I would like to direct a Rapunzel film for the studio. Yes! Of course! He asked if I would like to direct with anyone or by myself. I asked for Byron. Byron said yes... and today we have Tangled!

Byron, on your last two projects, you've had to take over for another director. Was that challenging for you?

Byron Howard: It's very challenging to step in on a project after another director has put his stamp on it. We've learned that the best thing to do is to tear the existing film down to the foundation and start with as much of a clean slate as possible.
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In doing that you can find the core ideas that made the films appealing in the first place.

How early in the production process was it decided to make this a musical instead of a romantic comedy-adventure?

Byron Howard: We knew it could be both. Music can be more effective than the most brilliant dialogue at conveying emotion, so we were very excited to have someone as skilled as Alan Menken writing our songs and score. And just because it had songs didn't mean that the film couldn't be an action-filled roller coaster ride. We like that.

How did you two divide your directing tasks?

Nathan Greno: We mostly didn't! We tried to stick together as much as we could. We are both better in different areas... but we like to be there in the same room to challenge each other. We want to make all of our decisions the best they can be. We work best as a team. It brings us the best results on screen.

Had you two ever worked together on a film before? You two seem to work very well together.

Nathan Greno: We fight all the time when the cameras are off. Nah. We get along really well. It's hard to find someone you can work with everyday. I guess we got lucky.

An old classroom is scene in this "Tangled" promotional teaser made in the style of a vintage educational short.

Greno & Howard

How did each of you get your start in the entertainment industry? Was animation always your passion?

Nathan Greno: I wanted to work for Disney ever since I was a kid. I was always into creating my own comic strips and comic books. I loved to create my own worlds and characters. I loved storytelling. My mom started taking me to see the Disney films when I was a kid and I fell in love with them. Disney created better stories and better characters than anyone. I wanted to go there and learn. I was in first grade when I told my parents I wanted to work for Disney. I guess things do work out in life if you want something bad enough.

You have both worked on several films prior to Tangled. Please explain the process of transitioning into the role of Director.

Nathan Greno: I came from the story department. I was drawing storyboards for over a decade before I started directing. I was always at the start of the process, but now I get to follow the ideas all the way through to the finished frame. It's an incredible process. I feel like I've become a much better artist. And I still get to storyboard... so I'm happy.

Byron Howard: Being an animation director is an amazing job. We are surrounded by the most skilled artists, composers and craftsmen in the film business. Nathan and I start at the very beginning of a film when there's only an idea and thousands of blank storyboards,
through to the end when the film premieres in theaters all over the world. In working with so many brilliant people along the way, we both become better filmmakers ourselves. I love my job.

What was it like to become a director after having run the storyboards?

Nathan Greno: In the past I would pitch my storyboards and ideas and sometimes they would change by the time they hit the big screen. I didn't always understand why. Now I can follow ideas through start to finish. They still change... but at least I now understand why they are changing!

How has the animation process changed through the years you have been working on Disney films?

Byron Howard: When I first started at Disney, CG animation was really just a tiny blip on the radar. Lion King had just come out to huge success, and Disney had a long slate of traditionally animated films in production. I actually remember seeing some of the first scenes from Toy Story, when the Army Men leave Andy's room to spy on the birthday party, and I was like "Wow. This is going to change things from now on." Now CG is the expected route for animated films, and the scope of the stories get bigger and bigger with each release.

Having worked in both mediums, what do you prefer about computer animation and what do you miss about traditional 2D animation?

Nathan Greno: I really love both 2D and 3D animation. 2D is really graphic and classic. 3D has amazing textures and cameras to play with. It all comes down to your story... some tales work best in 2D, some in 3D!

What advice do you have for kids who dream of one day directing?

Nathan Greno: Go for it! I grew up in a small factory town in Wisconsin. It took a long time to get where I am, but I worked very hard and my dream came true. It's possible to do whatever you want in life if you work hard enough.

Byron Howard: Do what you love and do it with passion. Passionate people really push every industry ahead, including animation.

Voice Cast

Did you always have Zachary [Levi] and Mandy [Moore] in mind for the roles of Flynn and Rapunzel?

Nathan Greno: In the very beginning, we try to create very appealing characters. We have friends around the studio do the temp voices for our early screenings. At some point (before animation begins), we begin the casting process. We saw hundreds of people for the role of Flynn and Rapunzel. Hundreds! It was crazy. It seemed that all of Hollywood wanted these parts. There were a lot of amazing auditions, but in the end Mandy and Zac totally nailed it. They were incredible. People are always surprised to hear they didn't record together because their characters are so charming on screen. Mandy and Zac were the perfect fit.

Byron Howard: Our audition process for Tangled was unbelievably huge. Nathan and I saw over three hundred actresses for the Rapunzel role alone. The benefit to doing that thorough of a search is that when you finally find the right actress, as we did in Mandy Moore, you really know that she's the one.

Were there any traits in Rapunzel that were directly from Mandy Moore such as her being barefoot constantly, or the short brown hair at the end of the film?

Byron Howard: Mandy and Rapunzel definitely have similarities. They're both incredibly smart, funny, artistic young women, and unbeknownst to us, Mandy jumps out of airplanes! Just like Rapunzel leaps off cliffs and swings from the rafters. Adventurous young women as well.

Where did you folks find Donna Murphy? She stole the show.

Nathan Greno: New York City. She lives there.

How long did you need to prep for the roles of Thugs #1 and #2 and Guards #1 and #2?

Byron Howard: I feel like I've been preparing for the role of Thug #2 for my entire professional life. It's really the role of a lifetime.

Nathan Greno: It takes YEARS of practice to pull off roles like "Thug #1" and "Guard #1". Kids, please don't try that at home.

Rapunzel's closest companion in the tower is her pet chameleon Pascal.


What prompted you to include Pascal, Rapunzel's chameleon side kick, in the cast?

Byron Howard: Pascal came from the need to have someone for Rapunzel to talk to in that tower. We knew we needed that character, but we didn't want to do the typical squirrel, chipmunk or bird that you see so often in these tales. We thought a lizard sounded like a quirky pet for a quirky young woman.

I loved the characters of Pascal and Maximus. Was there ever any discussion about giving them voices? (I'm glad you didn't.)

Byron Howard: Nathan and I are huge, HUGE fans of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and we thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have someone like that as a character in Tangled?"
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Time and time again, people who have seen the film have said that they liked the fact that we kept them silent. Pantomime acting is a great challenge for our animators.

Is it me or did some of the animals seem smarter than Flynn?

Nathan Greno: Max and Pascal would agree with that.

Rapunzel's "mother" was a very interesting and rather scary character. Did you draw on past witches and femme fatales from Disney movies for inspiration?

Nathan Greno: Disney does villains better than anyone and we needed to live up to the classic villains of our past films. We think Gothel is mostly scary because she isn't a witch. She doesn't have "powers", but she has a very evil mind. Evil minds actually exist in the real world -- I think that's why she freaks people out!

I've noticed that you bear a slight resemblance to Flynn Rider, Byron. Is this simply coincidence or directorial influence perhaps...? In all seriousness though, having been a huge part of films like Tangled and Bolt means that your influence in these films will carry on to future generations of viewers. Does this knowledge play a part in the choices you make during the production of these films?

Byron Howard: We like to say that Flynn has my hair and Nathan's strong chin and goatee. Flynn's a handsome guy, so if anyone thinks we look like him, we'll take it. The fact that these films can endure for generations is one of the reasons we work at Disney. Last Halloween, a little girl showed up on Nathan's doorstep dressed as Snow White. That film is over seventy years old; can you think of any other films that have that kind of longevity? It's amazing. We really hope this version of the Rapunzel story becomes the definitive version for generations of movie fans.

Nathan Greno: It was in my contract... one of the Tangled characters had to have my facial hair.

Who thought up Flynn's "smolder" face? Was it based on anyone in particular?

Byron Howard: The smolder is based on my directing buddy, Nathan. He has a way with the ladies.

Mother Gothel insists that "Mother Knows Best" in a song to Rapunzel.

The Story

How important was for you to make sure that the lead in this movie were a strong woman, which goes a little bit against the stereotype of a fairy tale princess...

Byron Howard: We knew Rapunzel had to have a lot of girl power. She and Flynn are the engine that drives this story, and making her too prissy or passive would have been cheating our audience. We love that Rapunzel's not perfect, she's quirky, funny and real. She has a very bohemian quality about her, painting her walls and running around the forest with bare feet through the mud. Above all, she's much more like a real person, strong, smart interesting and flawed.

Family plays a very strong role in this film. What prompted you to explore the mother/daughter dynamic through the character of Rapunzel?

Byron Howard: Nathan and I were fascinated by this bizarre relationship that Gothel had created between herself and this kidnapped girl. To try to find out more about mother/daughter relationships, we asked a bunch of women from our studio to stay after one evening to have a chat about their relationships with their mothers. It turned into a therapy session!
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We were amazed at how brutal some of the things that their mothers would say to these women, but it was always coming from a place of "I know what's best for you" or "I'm trying to keep you safe". This push/pull that happens between parents and children is a rich, rich area to explore with classic tales like this.

The scene in the gondolas is a showstopper. Where did the idea of the lanterns come from?

Byron Howard: The idea for the lantern scene came from John Ripa, one of our story artists. We needed something that Rapunzel could see from miles away, locked up in her tower, that would draw her out to the kingdom. We thought "Fireworks?" But that didn't seem quite right. Then John mentioned this lantern ceremony that they do in Indonesia. We brought it up on YouTube and that was it, we knew that had to be in the movie. It's perfect for CG as well, because we can actually create thirty to forty thousand of these beautiful things for the audience to marvel at.

Who came up with the idea of the Rapunzel emotional whipsaw scene, where she's jubilant to be out of her tower one moment and in tears because she's betraying her mother's trust the next. As any parent of a daughter will tell you, that moment in the movie such Rapunzel such a real. relatable character. So who came up with that story concept?

Byron Howard: That scene was storyboarded by story artist Marc Smith. That was one of the earliest scene we boarded in the film and it held fast as one of the key moments for the audience to connect with this young woman. Many people have commented on how true to life that scene is.

Continue >>
to read about production, Rapunzel's hair, Tangled's place in Disney history, discarded ideas, the film's reception, future plans, and sequel thoughts

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Published March 28, 2011. Interview conducted March 16, 2011.