Nov 14, 2012

A New Kind of Heroine

The protaganist of Disney/Pixar’s newest feature film "Brave" is an unlikely heroine. The Scottish princess confronts and overcomes what she views as a constricted future for her life, but she also learns that her own unfettered dreams can be both limiting and dangerous. The film's producer Katherine Sarafian identifies with the character and says working on "Brave" taught her to more fully integrate the diverse components of her own life. Sarafian has been with Pixar since 1994 and has done production work on blockbusters from "Toy Story" and "A Bug’s Life" to "Monsters, Inc." and "The Incredibles." She has also served as director of marketing for the studio. The High Calling talked to Sarafian about what it's like to work for a company that is notorious for its habit of changing course mid-project, how "Brave's" protaganist Merida inspired her, and how her faith informs her work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 

The High Calling: In an interview with The  Christian Post, you said you used to identify more with your mother as a businesswoman than with your late father, who was an Armenian priest, but eventually you came to see how much like him you are as a leader. Did you see those spheres as separate and come to a place of seeing them as more integrated?

Katherine Sarafian: Yes. Actually almost all of that realization clicked for me on "Brave." I saw pieces of it through "The Incredibles" and as I was growing up in leadership at Pixar, but when I was young I saw them as separate spheres. I saw my parents as completely different. I think they found each other because they complemented each other. It wasn’t until "Brave" that it clicked for me that this is what creative leadership is. Compassionate leadership means keeping things organized and buttoned up and keeping your eyes on the bottom line, but doing it in a compassionate and loving way, where you really hear people and give them what they need emotionally. This is a combination of talents that I ended up pulling from both parents. I realized that you need both sides of yourself.  

How does your Christian faith inform your work?

There are different parts of faith. There’s the moral component. There’s a way of doing things and a way of treating people that transcends faith, and sometimes it’s just about how you conduct yourself. Fortunately, Pixar is a place that attracts people who want to treat each other kindly and with respect. I love that it’s a community of film makers who are all like-minded about collaboration and having each other’s backs.

Beyond that, faith has to do with really believing that everything happens for a reason and that there is a purpose to things. Over the course of a difficult production, you’re going to have really good days and really bad days. I’ve always believed that there’s a reason for the hard times and there will be growth from them, and never more so than on "Brave" when I could actually see very, very difficult times in front of me and behind me. And yet, my colleagues and I kept showing up.

Telling a great, meaningful story is hard work. It’s easier to just stay home. It’s easier to just say, “Forget it.” But we do the hard thing because we believe in it. We know that if we’re at a creative block point, there’s going to be a light that shines; soon after that will be the breakthrough idea. I do think the hard times on "Brave" were part of what made it the great movie that it is. 

In an interview with CinemaBlend.com, you and the interviewer talked about the idea of killing our creative darlings. It seemed to me like there were parallels there with Merida, who starts out with a very ambitious and individualistic perspective, but learns to value her heritage and to embrace her responsibility as a member of a community. Likewise, in your Pixar career, you’ve had to make a lot of transitions. How did you learn to do that? You said it wasn’t initially by choice.

It was definitely not by choice initially. Like my mother, I want everything exactly as it appears on my to-do list, but I learned halfway through my first day of work that the whole plan was going to be changing constantly. It’s adapt or you’re not going to make it at Pixar. It’s a fluid process. By the time I started "Brave," I had learned to let go of this idea that things are going to be the way you predict and to embrace the uncertainty of the process, to actually to find the miracles in it. Uncertainty can lead to happy accidents creatively or literally. It can mean friendships with people you would never have thought you had anything in common with, a great story point, or a humorous moment in the movie you discover because you let go of a scene that was holding you back. I came to appreciate the good part of letting go of all that structure. What helped get this movie done was the way we as filmmakers were able to shed our expectations about the way things should go—and instead to embrace the way things were going to go.  

How would you advise a young person or someone making a mid-career transition to learn to be more adaptable?

That’s a hard one because, at least for me, it was learning by doing. It was the repetitive nature of constant change. It was not like there was change one day and then there was no change. It kept happening, and it became clear to me that if I wanted to work at this place I so loved, I had to find a way of letting in uncertainty. My advice would be that if you put your faith in the larger plan, with all the ups and downs, you can handle anything. Stick to your principles and become open to possibilities. Also, take quiet time to center yourself. Let new ideas come into your head, and listen to people. You can’t stay rigid in your point of view when somebody is reaching you. If you’re really hearing them, you can’t help but see what they see.

It sounds like that requires developing humility as well.

Yes, I would say humility and understanding that your projects are greater than you are. We’re constantly reminded that what we're working on is going to be a 90-minute, wide-release, Disney-distributed Pixar movie. That’s a big deal, and we have a responsibility to do the best we can with it. It's not about me. It is not about thinking a meeting is going to end at 10:15 and it ends at 10:30. You let go of that stuff as you start remembering the larger framework.

As a curly-haired woman, I identified with the wild-maned Merida and loved seeing that look featured on screen. She breaks stereotypes in a number of ways. For example, these days professional women with curly hair are often advised to straighten their hair. More importantly, Mirada is a female protaganist whose greatest accomplishment is not being rescued by a prince. Were these things that attracted you to this story?

Definitely. From the beginning, it was clear that we were going to be making a different kind of folk tale with a different kind of heroine. I’d grown up in the wonderful Disney tradition of “happily ever after” with Prince Charming, but that was not something that was going to be relatable to me or to kids—boys and girls—today. And so, it was very compelling to be part of a film that was going to carve out a new kind of heroine who was trying to determine her own path in life, someone who is not defined by who she ran off and married, but by her family love. So it is a love story, but it’s family love, not romantic love. That’s a really important point.

It’s also a story about family reconciliation. I read that Merida was inspired by co-director Brenda Chapman’s precocious six-year-old daughter.

It’s very much based on a real relationship, but at the time Brenda was thinking not of who her daughter was, but of who she might become as a teenager. As filmmakers, we tried to realize our vision of how the most feisty, fiery teenager in an ancient time period might clash with expectations of a royal upbringing, and how that conflict could make for interesting drama in an adventurous setting and within a loving family unit. We didn’t kill off one of the parents, which would have been an easy way to have sympathy for the teenager. We gave her an intact family and she made some naughty decisions, so you have to really find ways to root for this character. One of the things we worked on quite a bit was making her likable even though she was making mistakes.

That’s very redemptive. It seems that Pixar films elevate the good. Did that attract you to the studio? Are there films that you wouldn’t make because of your own values and films that you would prefer to make?

Yes, there are definitely films that I wouldn’t make and films that I would prefer to make. It’s important to me to make films that are going to be meaningful, that put something positive into the world. I do like optimistic storytelling, but when I started as a Pixar filmmaker, I didn’t know the potential of what Pixar could do. I really didn’t even know the plot of "Toy Story." I came right out of film school knowing I wanted to work in an artistic, scientific community and that I wanted to make movies with computer animation, but I didn’t know what those stories were going to be. So that was not initially something that drew me there...but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t imagine being anywhere else, because after "Toy Story," it became hugely important to me.

 

Note: "Brave" opened in theaters in June 2012, but released on DVD November 13.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. Interview by Christine A. Scheller.

 

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