Interview: Onward Director Dan Scanlon on World-Building, D&D, and Brotherly Love

Onward might just be the most unique film ever released by the iconic Pixar Animation Studios. Not only is it a deeply personal story of love, loss, and the bond between brothers set in a modern world of high fantasy, but it has also experienced the most challenging and unorthodox life in our reality. After just a couple of weeks on the big screen, theaters around the country closed indefinitely in the wake of a global pandemic. Disney then released Onward on-demand, with a debut on the Disney+ streaming service just two days later. It's been a one-of-a-kind journey for a one-of-a-kind film, which feels more like a Dungeons & Dragons session than a traditional Pixar film.

Now that Onward is streaming on Disney+ for all to enjoy, we caught up with director Dan Scanlon about his personal journey with this film, turning his relationship with his brother Bill into a fantastical quest. He also dove a bit into the casting of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, the roots of D&D as an inspiration, and what's still to come for the vast world of Onward.

[] Barley and Ian, are obviously based on you and your brother, where did the rest of this fantasy world come from? Talk us through that process.

[Dan Scanlon] Yeah. Initially we thought, "Well, we want to have a story about these two brothers who get an opportunity to bring their dad back to life." And my early version of the story was in our world and they were humans. Their father was a scientist who had invented a machine that could he hoped communicate with the dead in some way, but it didn't work. And so after dad died, the boys were scientists too and they were trying to prove that their father's machine would work. And in doing so they inadvertently brought parts of him back. And we could have gone that way. It started to feel a little episodic because they were bringing back pieces of dad, like his feet first, then his legs, then his torso. And it also just felt a little cold and clinical. And then the idea of magic as a way to bring him back felt way more romanticized and just special.

That led to the thought of, "Well, we don't want to set this in some era long ago, like a lot of fantasy films are set," and because this was such a personal modern story. And then again, that led to the idea of what about a modern fantasy world, which got us laughing because it's ridiculous and would lead to really funny scenes. So it's kind of a long way to get there. But I think one of the things I like is the world matches Ian in some ways. The world is a place that's lost a little bit of its potential and Ian's a kid who's not living up to his potential and so you get to see them both grow and live up to their potential together.

It made it feel different than what we've seen before, to explore this brand new kind of world.

Yeah, and I think part of it is its animation. And so to be quite honest, we wanted that too. Some sort of fun, some sort of world to have fun with.

Were you or your brother really into D&D or was that something that someone else brought to the table when you were developing this?

We weren't. For whatever reason, we weren't into it. But the idea of doing a modern fantasy, part of the fun was "What's the stuff we can only do in this?" And that quickly led to, "Oh man, wouldn't it be cool if the way they're learning about magic or the way they're an authority of magic was from games?" And in this world it'd all be real. It'd be like being a Civil War re-enactor. And so it was really just the humor of that. But thankfully there's tons of folks at Pixar who really know their stuff as far as role-playing games go. And most of them were on our team and they really helped teach [producer] Kori Rae and I about role-playing and they really were the authorities of how to do it right and how to incorporate it into the film.

The thing that we were so impressed by, Kori and I, was just the storytelling of it. If you're a dungeon master, it's improv and storytelling. It's hardly a game that you pick up and just learn the directions. It's crazy the ability of creativity behind it. And I wasn't a big fantasy fan to be quite honest at all, but it was probably through comic books actually that I started to see like, "Oh, okay, I can get into this genre." Everyone has their way in.

You've talked before about how the loss of your dad and how you and your brother bonded over that. Did you tell your brother about this story while you were writing it, or was it something you revealed to him when it came out?

Yeah. I didn't tell my brother much about it at all. And part of that is when you're making something that takes six years to make, I usually recommend to people to make it for someone in particular. Pick someone whose opinion you value, preferably someone who's going to like it no matter what. Like a surprise party. Because as you can imagine, jokes get old after six years, you start to lose your excitement behind the idea. But if there's one person that you can picture, a tangible person who's going to see this movie, you make it for them and you keep your enthusiasm. And obviously this was the perfect movie to make for Bill. I told my mom a lot about it because obviously it's her story too. And she lost her husband and in this, so it's a lot more personal to her.

And she was very helpful, but then I showed it to Bill a month ago or so, and he loved it. He's my big brother and so he's incredibly supportive. He saw it seven times in the theater before the theaters closed down. And God knows how many times he's watched it online. He was very moved by it. It's changed our relationship for the better. We already had a good relationship, but now we're so open about our feelings.

One of the messages of the movie is to tell the people you love that you love them now. Don't hide it. Why not say it? Gush. Appreciate the people who are still around, and do it while you can. And I've been so moved by people who told me that they saw the movie and then called their brother right away.

Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have a great chemistry as Ian and Barley. What went into casting those two, and which one got the part first?

We knew we had to choose Ian first because he's the lead and that was really important to us. So Tom came first and then Chris came shortly after. And I'll be honest, when we thought of them, we didn't even put together the Marvel connection right away. It wasn't until maybe an hour later that we thought, "Oh, well these guys know each other probably." And luckily we then heard from them that they were friends and that they had a relationship and it was great to have that in a movie where they're supposed to be brothers because they have a brotherly relationship. Tom does look up to Chris and Chris is very supportive of Tom.

Onward didn't get a full theatrical run due to the theaters across the country shutting down. Were you disappointed to see it on Disney+ so soon, or more excited that so many folks were going to get the chance to watch it together at home?

It's such an unprecedented moment in history and I think we're just happy that people are going to get to see it, that people can watch it at home with their families, that it can be a distraction and hopefully a little bit of joy during uncertain times. And the biggest gift for me has just been going on social media and hearing people talk about how they watched the movie today and how they enjoyed it and it made them happy and they connected with it. And yeah, we're really happy about that.

There's so much more of Onward's world left to play with. Have you had any conversations with the rest of your team about what's next?

Well, it's funny, I initially, the thing I cared most about was the story of the brothers, but I did fall in love with the world and I did start to fall in love with the potential of the world. And we're going to have a game. We're going have Quest of Yore. The actual game is being developed right now. And that's going to be super fun for people to actually play role-playing versions of the game. And we'll include... It will certainly take place in the days of old and that.


And then the other thing I'm super excited about is we made a comic book, a graphic novel that's coming out, I believe in May. And being a big comic fan, I was so overjoyed to get to co-write it with Mariko Tamaki who's one of the greatest comic writers around right now. And it's a a prequel that takes place 800 years before Onward. And it's the story of the Manticore during the days of old.

So it's a lot like that prologue you mentioned and it's really just a story about her and what's fun about it is it gets to be a little bit more of a classic adventure, but it still has the humor of the Onward world, even if it's not in the modern world. And so that was really fun. I had a blast doing that, and I'm hoping people who dug the movie will go read the comic.