Writing the world of Moana

Disney's Jared Bush & Dave Pimentel on the concepts and ideas that make their newest film an experience to behold
Screenwriter Jared Bush and Head of Story Dave Pimentel. Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

Head of Story Dave Pimentel and Screenwriter Jared Bush have a lot of experience in their respective fields. Pimentel began with the 90’s Disney Renaissance, where he worked in animation on such films as Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Damn. Bush is most known for writing the hit Zootopia, where he also ended up co-directing. Together, they join the rest of the team of Moana in creating a film based on emotion, heroism and heritage of the Pacific Islands. The following is a Q&A with them about creating the film and working with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and legendary Disney duo of animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog).

Thank you for the interview guys. Could you give us a background on how you ended up in the positions you are now in with the film Moana?

DP: I’ve been in the industry over 20 years, in animation, I started here (Disney) a long time ago, recently been back for almost 5 years now. I came to work on Big Hero 6, directed here by Don Hall and Chris Williams. At the halfway point of working on the film, Ron and Jon, who are old friends of mine from the old days of working here said ‘hey we want you to work on this film (Moana)’ so I was like, ‘but I’m busy!’.

They said ‘well we want you to work on it, and we want you to be the head of story,’ which means it’s a higher title so to speak, more responsibility, and I found that extremely, extremely fascinating. This project was prime for the kind of movie I want to make, which is a great character, leading, finding her way, coming of age, and traveling across the South Pacific Ocean. And also the demigod Maui, I thought this was going to be huge. And so I asked the blessing of my previous crew to allow me to go and they said ‘go for it’.

JB: So i’ve been a writer for about 15 years, and mainly I was in live action before this, about 5 years ago I got hired to write Zootopia and that was the first real entry into animation for me and I loved it. About 2 years into that, usually writers are contracted, and they come in and finish their project and leave but I loved it so much and I bugged the hell out of them and I said ‘really wanted to stay kind of forever’ and so they allowed me to do that and I became a co-director on Zootopia. As it was ramping down they had changed some of the Moana story and they needed to move pretty quickly. Zootopia was such a scramble my brain was in a scramble so they thought that it would be a good match for me since I was so used to writing with my hair on fire so for me, I was really excited for the setting and the culture probably most of all. It was a part of the world I was really intrigued by and seeing the visuals and being blown away.

Coming from Zootopia you had a strong female lead heroic character, non romantic story. That was also I was really excited about, I like telling stories like that. To come in when Moana is being pushed into this hero’s journey direction felt really great. Also for me it having a lot of music in it. I was always in bands growing up and was a trombone player and in jazz bands, classical as well, loved musicals. And when I was in college I had to make this choice, am I going to try and be a writer or am I going to be a musician. There was sort of this crossroads and I went with writing. But then when Moana came around with all the music in it I got to kinda do both which I thought was something I’d never be able to do. And to work with Ron and Jon who are legends in musicals and Lin Manuel, to have that opportunity right as Hamilton is blowing up, everything is hitting at exactly the right time.

Okay, there’s a lot of research and emphasis on the culture and it’s music. Can you touch on the music aspect of the film?

DP: It’s one of those films, that has the flavor and culture similar to The Lion King. That was another thing. A) Ron and Jon are legends of Disney heritage, and you gotta work with them if they ask you, and B) the music was so intense, Opetaia Foa‘i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the show as a trio was like, it’s heaven, it’s wonderful. And he came on way before Hamilton released. So, we had him before!

JB: I know that the big voyaging song, that song was sort of the celebration of the culture and it came less from writing out those specific events as far as I’m aware. As the story progressed songs had a lot of character and story content. That was something where we here had to really know what the story needed to be and what we wanted the characters head space and psychology to be and once we had that down. Typically Lin and I would bat back and forth, I would actually write a version of the scene as if it was going to be spoken dialogue and then give that to Lin. who would then interpret it however he wished. At least we knew we wanted to get this amount of plot across, how Moana was feeling. Typically in this movie we want the songs to progress the plot as well so you’re not just hitting the pause button, and the song is over now the movie can continue it’s always better for those songs to push the story along.

DP: If it allowed us screen time to do a musical moment we wouldn’t have to spend that time in dialogue or just watching the characters go through story points where we can fit it in economically with some beautiful music, we’d be in better shape. “We Know the Way”, the ancestor song was at the beginning of the movie for years. So Lin and Opetaia had written it as a celebration song, it was just a really true culmination of their first meeting, they were really celebrating the culture.

What were some of the challenges you faced while brining the story of Moana to life?

DP: To me it’s just honing in on a smart, energetic character and really getting Moana to be the best that she can be, it just takes time. We have the luxury of 9-12 screenings to really find her heart, her want and her journey and really making it as powerful as we can. That to me has been one of those very specific things in the movie that we needed to find. Jared was really huge for that when he came on, everything really started to click and lock into place and really get us where we needed to go, that’s how I feel about it.

JB: I’d say to me one of the biggest challenges is that this movie is really simple, it’s really two characters (Moana and The demigod Maui) on a boat together for a majority of the movie. Just from a writing standpoint, Zootopia had hundreds of animals in this big city, gags everywhere. In this movie there’s two characters and their relationship and their personalities have to be engaging enough that we the audience will want to watch 90 minutes of these two. That’s a huge challenge but when we as a group find those gems, none of those come for free, those are all hard fought bits of entertainment, bits of emotion, and when we find them and it is compelling then you know you’ve found something special.

DP: This is an oral culture, they had no books, no written word, there’s no signs, no iPhones to tell the story. It’s just really getting down to the heart and root of characters and their emotions and how they feel and what they’re going through and what their journey is about set in the time it’s set.