INTERVIEW: Disney screenwriter Jared Bush and story artist David Pimental discuss assembling the tale of “Moana”

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV

In the seventh and final part of our in-depth interviews with the creative team behind Walt Disney Animation’s latest animated feature “Moana”, I talk with head of story David Pimental and screenwriter Jared Bush about crafting the movie’s characters and action.

(catch up on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6)

MOANA - (L-R) Jared Bush (Screenwriter) and Dave Pimentel (Head of Story) present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Animation Studios - Tujunga Campus in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Jared Bush (Screenwriter) and David Pimentel (Head of Story) present at the Moana press day. Photo by Alex Kang.

ITM:  How did you both first come aboard ‘Moana’? What appealed to you about the project?

David Pimental:  Three and a half years ago, I got a call from [‘Moana’ directors Ron Clements and John Musker], that is number one. You get a call from Ron and John, you’re like ‘yes, and what’s the story about?’ But also, once I saw the visuals, the culture that we were going to be involved with, and then the musical elements. [They were] the ingredients for an amazing, amazing film. It’s the kind of [story] that I would love to tell, that I like to tell, this adventure story that takes Moana, this great heroine, on a brilliant journey across the South Pacific Ocean. And it’s just one of those gripping ideas that makes me lean forward, so I was extremely quick to say, ‘let’s go. I’m ready.’

Jared Bush:  I think for me, working with Ron and John is a huge part of what makes this movie amazing. This is also a movie where, it has this epic scale. It’s a true adventure movie, which in a way we haven’t really done before with an unabashed hero. Moana is someone who goes in and she never stops, and throughout the movie she’s this badass, and to me that was really exciting, to write a character like that.

But then personally for me, when I was in college I had to make this choice– I was a musician my whole life, but I also loved to write. And there was this key moment where I had to decide, ‘which path am I going to go down? Am I going to be a musician or am I going to be a writer?’ And ultimately I felt like, ‘I think writing is where I want to go.’ And I love music, I still play a lot, but that wasn’t the key part of my life.

And then to have this come all the way around, where there’s this movie that has so much music in it, and to be able to access that part of my brain when we’re talking to [songwriters] Lin-Manuel [Miranda] or Opetaia [Foa’i] or to [original score composer] Mark Mancina– it’s almost like, imagine a language that you know really well that you used to be fluent in at one point and you haven’t been able to use it, but now, ‘Oh wait, I get to use that thing again!’ It’s so exciting to me.

We did this score [recording session] like two months ago, where it’s a ninety-person orchestra, and I’m just watching this thing, watching the movie, as we’ve all been working on this story, and the orchestra playing along with it. It’s like heaven for me.


ITM:  Jared, you were brought onto the movie fairly late in the process. How much of the story of ‘Moana’ has changed in that time period?

Bush:  Well, it’s interesting, Moana was always the main characters of this movie. Maui was always someone she met along the way. There was always this idea that three thousand years ago, voyaging stopped for a thousand years and no one knew why, and then it started up again. That was all part of it. The journey is largely the same, even this concept of identity.

When I came on, it was right after Dwayne [Johnson] had been cast, and so the majority of what I was trying to do was more character work with voicing him. Then [I was] thinking about, ‘you have this larger-than-life guy in Dwayne playing Maui, who’s a larger-than-life character, and you have sixteen-year-old Moana who has to go toe-to-toe with him, and hold the movie on her own, because she’s the main character, the hero of the movie.’ [I was] working on her character, their dynamic.

It’s weird, these movies are always going through constant flux, and so [my job was] really honing down on that thematic, that Moana was going to be learning about herself, this concept of identity and what that means to her, and understanding who she’s meant to be. So the large parts of the story are intact, it [was] mainly just finding ways to tell that story in the best way.


ITM:  So you find out Dwayne Johnson is cast as Maui, and then go back a rework his dialogue to fit what Johnson is bringing to the performance?

Bush:  Exactly. Well, it’s more. It’s not even dialogue, it’s his personality.

Pimental:  It’s charisma, yeah. His personality, his mana, or ‘how would we see him in this role?’ Yeah, it certainly influenced our character development on that character.

Bush:  And the more you do [voice recording sessions], even after we had the first couple records with him, you’re still learning things about him as an actor, and about the character of Maui himself, and trying new things. You go down these roads where there’s this great evolution that happens in these characters where there’s this meld between the actor playing the character and the character as originally conceived. There’s somewhere you meet in the middle, and it becomes this whole other thing that you never could have found unless these elements had all come together.

MAUI visual development. Artist: Bill Schwab, MOANA Art Director, Characters.
Artist: Bill Schwab..

ITM:  David, how much are the story team and the individual storyboard artists in touch with Jared during the development and writing process? How do you help each other shape the movie?

Pimental:  We’re in constant communication with Jared. Once we get his script pages, we’ll start to divide them up into different artists. Each artist has a strength– like somebody’s really great at action, somebody’s really great at emotion, somebody’s really great at comedy, or any of those sorts of things. So we kind of specifically divide up stuff to the people’s strengths. And then everyone’s in constant contact with Jared, and asking him for advice or more description of something that maybe he wants specific.

Bush:  But sometimes, also, they’ll find things that aren’t even in the pages. They’ll say, ‘you know what? I actually think this would be great.’ One of my favorite jokes in the movie, Dave came in, and he had this idea for this great button that Gramma [Tala] says, and I never thought about this moment having anything comedic in it, and he put it in, and it plays great. It made a huge difference, so it is this back-and-forth that happens.

Pimental:  Yeah, it’s a back-and-forth kind of thing. It’s an ebb-and-flow kind of thing. We’re always in contact with Jared. We’ll be in the room together, too, once we pitch these ideas. Jared’s here and the whole team is here, and everybody from the youngest to the oldest, the newest newbie in animation has the chance to hammer in on it. And sometimes we’ll change it on the spot, sometimes we’ll just say, ‘this is great. Let’s send it to editorial!’ But we go through tons of changes. Tons of changes. We’re never done.

The MOANA story team was charged with saving the character "Heihei" from being cut from the film. These story boards illustrate an action sequence from the film in which the Kakamora are trying to steal the Heart of Te Fiti from Moana and Maui. In the initial version (top row), the Kakamora steal the heart and are pursued by Moana who captures it back. In the new versoin (bottom row), rooster Heihei first swallows the Heart of Te Fiti, and the chase ensues between the Kakamora and Moana, only this time they're fighting to maintain posession of Heihei. Artist: Sunmee Joh, Story Artist.
“Moana” storyboards. Artist: Sunmee Joh.

ITM:  Making an animated feature at Disney seems like a much more collaborative process than within the ‘auteur theory’ of writer/directors in live-action film. Which of those processes is easier to approach or adjust to, and which is more appealing?

Bush:  I love the process here. When I first came on, on ‘Zootopia’, I was a contract writer. And very quickly, I think it was like week two, I [was] like, ‘I love this. I want to be here forever.’ And so, I was lucky enough that I was brought in [later] as Disney employee, and I don’t want to leave because I love the process so much.

That said, it’s a filmmaker-driven studio. So yes, there’s a lot of us collaborating, but it typically starts from the directors of the movie, who have a vision for what that movie is. And there’s a very specific tone, there’s a theme that they think is important that they want to bring audiences along that ride for.

And so yes, while we’re all colaborating, there is a central theme, and a flavor to each of the movies. We don’t want all of these movies to feel like the same movie, even though there’s a lot of collaboration. We want them to be nuanced and feel different. That’s why, tonally, you look at ‘Big Hero 6’, ‘Zootopia’, and now ‘Moana’, these are all very different types of [movies] all built by the same people, pretty much. The difference is the leadership team at the top really putting forth the flavor of the movie that they want to [make].

Pimental:  That’s true. There is always that leadership that does guide us. They’re our navigator on our boat, if you will. But I see it as a huge luxury. You have access to all these great directors, all these great writers and heads of story, who are on other shows, who are there to only help you, who are there to give ideas all day long.

On top of all that is John Lasseter himself. He’s there to just get his hands dirty and be involved, and he’s not there to just mandate. He’s not that type of person. He’s there to be a creative filmmaker alongside you. And I would take that anyday. It’s pretty exciting.

Bush:  Yeah, to me, I think the collaborative nature, like you said, is a massive luxury. I love that process. It’s something that I think is very special and unique, in the feature world especially. At times it’s similar to a TV writer’s room, but on a much more grand scale, where you have six hundred people all working really hard, adding bits of themselves into the movie to make something great. So I think it’s the most special place I can imagine.


“Moana” opens in theaters nationwide today, November 23rd.

All images Copyright Disney.

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