“Around The World In 94 Minutes” Chris Butler Talks ‘Missing Link’
Chris Butler, writer, director, storyboard artist and animator is somewhat of a fixture at LAIKA Animation Studios in Portland, Oregon. LAIKA is known for both its technologically advanced stop motion animation including Kuba and The Two Strings (2016), Paranorman (2012), and Coraline (2009). Butler shares a screenwriting credit an all three of these films although his main craft is as a storyboard artist. This year, the screenwriter followed his love of big adventure stories that audiences want to watch over and over again and wrote the Oscar contender Missing Link for Best Animated Feature.
The writer-director used Raiders Of The Lost Ark (his favorite movie of all time) as his North Star. “It’s probably the best action-adventure film ever made. EVER! I’ve always had this want and need to make an Indiana Jones movie in stop motion.” He blended his love of Indiana Jones with his love of Sherlock homes and all things from the Victorian era and Missing Link was born. “Being British and living in London, it’s very easy to still see that Victoria world all around you.” He is attracted to the pure escapism and entertainment value of Raiders and wanted to make such a film of his own.
This Victorian-action hybrid doesn’t easily lend itself to the stop motion animation platform. In order to combine the two elements, Butler added a cryptic and mysterious monster, a Sasquatch (affectionately referred to as the Hairy Avocado) named Mr. Link/ Susan into the story, a “Ray Harryhausen” (an American stop motion pioneer) sensibility to make it more amenable to the animation form. “I always wanted to play in one of those larger than life, rollicking, ripping yarn worlds.”
His other great genre love is horror depicted in his storyboard artist work on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) and Paranorman – his zombie movie for kids. It was time for him to turn to something new. The time for globetrotting action had come.
Missing Link can’t solely rely on escapist fun to carry its story. It explores deeper themes of loneliness, connectivity, and fellowship.”The best family animation movies need a strong emotional weight.” His initial pitch to LAIKA was “What would happen if Big Foot was lonely, read about Yetis and had to find them?” Butler felt a movie that was too heavily focused on loneliness might not resonate well with audiences. He subsequently brought out the buddy movie elements with two characters who were the yin and yang versions of each other. “Both Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) and Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) are lonely characters searching for a place to belong.”
The irony lies in Lionel not realizing how similar he is to Mr. Link at the beginning of their journey. Lionel also learns empathy toward someone very different than him.
“There’s an undercurrent in everything I write about my longing to belong in a community. More specifically, Missing Link is about identity that you give yourself if it is not put upon you by other people.” Chris Butler believes there is something “playfully subversive” about the theme of identity and why Missing Link later decides to call himself “Susan.”
At the end of the film, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) advises both Lionel and Link to stop trying to belong in places that aren’t destined for them.
Needless to say, Sir Lionel and Mr. Link face their fair share of conflicts despite both have the same internal yearning. But their differences create great conflict. “Sir Lionel represents civilization and Missing Link represents the opposite.” Their “Laurel and Hardy” dynamic was used to comedic effect. Link is rather naive and takes everything literally while Lionel knows all about nuance, language and how high society behaves. Lionel is a showboat while Link is content with his simplicity.
Butler took the step to make Sir Lionel’s character similar to Sherlock Holmes. “Holmes is such a compelling character. He was borderline sociopathic, he had so many issues that make every situation he’s in dynamic because he doesn’t react to a given situation in a way you might expect.” However, Missing Link is a family film, so Lionel needed to have an element of likeability. The screenwriter achieved this by giving Lionel “a giddy passion for the world” and the desire to be the world’s best adventurer. Lionel is great in his vocation, but lacks empathy and is not so good with people.
Lionel’s passion is the intersection where he and Mr. Link can share a kind of brotherhood. Link has a wide-eyed innocence as he’s seeing the world with Lionel and bonding with him. “There’s a schoolboy enthusiasm for adventure they both share.” Both are naïve and simple in vastly different ways.
Coming from a character design and drawing background, Chris Butler balances telling a good story with how it might be technically achieved. “I’m very aware of how difficult most of the things I write can be achieved in stop motion animation. That said, the storytelling still takes up the lion’s share of my time.” Starting his career as a storyboard artist doesn’t always present limitations to his screenwriting. “Even though drawing is part of the technical process, it’s also part of the dreaming process when you draw whatever comes to mind. Someone might come along further down the line to figure out the technical steps to realize it.”
There some omitted scenes in earlier drafts of Missing Link that were unmakable for practical reasons. For instance, Butler wrote a chase sequence on an elephant’s back through the jungle. Deleting scenes that are too big to achieve technically isn’t always a problem if the story still works. Chris writes primarily for himself and knows that he is also in charge of creating the characters and the production of the film. Despite deleting much-loved scenes, he still experienced the joy of writing them in the first place.
Butler wasn’t overly concerned about the “Britishness” of his film alienating non-British audiences. Characters from the Victorian era come with their own set of recognizable stereotypes. “Everyone knows this idea of an upper-crust British explorer.” He didn’t want to set Missing Link in a contemporary world, although he did explore contemporary themes. There’s a beauty to playing in the Victorian world where exploration truly leads to the discovery of new things both internally and externally.
Drawing And Writing
“I’ll write an action sequence beat by beat and do a preliminary visualization to assess its technical feasibility. I imagine every screenwriter has a little movie playing in their heads on what their screenplay might look like on screen. As a storyboard artist, I used to draw that movie. Now I write it.”
Many screenwriters play music in the background as they write. Chris Butler draws as he writes to help shape his narrative. He starts with an idea, no matter how basic. In this case, it was Big Foot being lonely, so he hires an explorer to help him find his last remaining relative – the Yeti. “Then I start doodling in my notebook. My notebooks are an equal share of writing and drawings. Once I get the physicality of a character in my head, I find it easier to write them.”
“I don’t always know where the drawings come from. I often put pen to paper and see what comes out. This helps contour the story. Drawing also gives me a sense of comfort. If I like a character drawing I’m more confident in who they are.”
“When I write action scenes I do some choreography. I create a flow chart that looks like a football coach’s diagram with arrows and dots.”
Butler’s sketches are often influenced by actors he wants to play them. In Sir Lionel’s case, his influence was Hugh Jackman who voiced the part. He really enjoyed the read of Butler’s screenplay and wanted to play Sir Lionel Frost.
Stephen Fry (who voiced Lord Piggot-Dunceby) was familiar with the Victorian world Missing Link was set in and could enjoy the playground.
Zoe Saldana liked the final scenes where she could leave Lionel and Link behind and embark on her own adventure.
Timothy Olyphant known for handsome looks was overjoyed to play the voice of supervillain Willard Stenk because it was such a departure from the nice-guy roles he typically plays.
Butler has come a long way in his screenwriting during his career. Looking back to his technique, he recalled his earlier screenplay of Paranorman where “I overexplained a narrative as he was putting words to a visual. I learned to be more succinct. Tempering my verbosity has improved my writing and I enjoy that challenge of writing that rich picture in my head in the most minimal and elegant way as possible.”
Butler is never short of ideas and is a stranger to writers’ block. He has a grab bag of around a dozen ideas that he keeps coming back to over the years. “I dip in and out of them. I was working on Missing Link for about 15 years on and off.”
During his downtime, he works on unrelated screenplays as a “palate cleanser.” This was certainly the case on his one day off per week during the production of Missing Link. “I’m done with horror but I’m not done with the Victorian world yet.” Time will tell what animated masterpiece Chris Butler will draw next.
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