CS Interview: Building Zootopia with Byron Howard and Rich Moore

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Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore chatted with ComingSoon.net about their new film.

Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore on the Zootopia universe, shifting focus to a female protagonist and some very punny world building

If the scenes showcased at Walt Disney Animation‘s recent press day are any indication, moviegoers are in for a real treat with next year’s animated Zootopia. The film, which imagines a contemporary society inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, offers a truly impressive density of storytelling. On the surface a showcase for some really cute and clever animal character designs, Zootopia appears at its heart to exist as a treatise on prejudice, allowing animal stereotypes to stand in as blameless allegory.

ComingSoon.net recently sat down with Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Howard is best known for his work as a director on Bolt and Tangled, while Rich Moore’s career began on the small screen with animated shows like “The Simpsons,” “The Critic” and “Futurama.” He then made his feature film directing debut with 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph. Read on to learn about how they both came to work together on Zootopia and why part of cracking the story meant shifting from a male con artist fox (Nick Wilde, voice by Jason Bateman) to a female police officer bunny (Judy Hopps, voiced by Gennifer Goodwin).

CS: Let me start off with a really nerdy question.

Byron Howard: You’re in the right place!

CS: If I’m in the universe of “Zootopia” and I go back in time, did Disney’s “Robin Hood” actually happen?

Byron Howard: That’s a good question! Was “Robin Hood” in the world of “Zootopia”? You’re the first to propose that, but I like that idea.

Rich Moore: Right. So “Robin Hood” could have taken place in, like, the middle ages. That’s a neat idea and it makes sense.

Byron Howard: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Maybe, Silas. Could there be anything else? “Wind in the Willows”?

Rich Moore: Yeah, that could then be the 1800s.

Byron Howard: Wait, is there a human in “The Wind in the Willows”?

Rich Moore: Yep! The barrister.

Byron Howard: Oh, and the bartender.

Rich Moore: Mr. Winkie!

Byron Howard: But Robin Hood is still good! I actually love that idea. That’s awesome.

Rich Moore: Maybe “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is a crossover world.

Byron Howard: That’s where the wormhole is!

Rich Moore: The nexus point between universes.

CS: One of the things that was so great about seeing the footage today was that the world of the film itself is so funny that you have something that’s already pretty entertaining before you even add the storyline itself. There’s an observational side in the way that the animal world is delivered that makes me want to watch the “Zootopia” universe’s “Seinfeld.”

Rich Moore: What would it be? “Swinefeld”?

Byron Howard: “Swinefeld”!

Rich Moore: There is a lot of world building. The trick is to make it feel organic to the story. We need to go to this part of the world right now and there has to be a reason and it needs to match the tone that we’re trying to convey. That doesn’t happen naturally. It takes a lot of iterations. How do we weave in these cool locations and take the audience on a journey through this whole big place and not make it feel contrived? That it feels like, “Of course this part of the story has to take place here! This is the perfect place to tell this part of the story!” There’s a lot of trial and error.

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CS: How did the two of you wind up working together on this one?

Byron Howard: Rich is really gracious. About a year ago, we did a huge shift in this movie. We used to have Nick as the protagonist. We realized that we needed to have Judy be the protagonist. Rich was gracious enough to put what he was working on aside and come on to team with us to get the movie done. Rich had experience from “Wreck-It Ralph,” which is a huge movie in and of itself when it comes to world building. There are like five worlds in one film. It seemed like a natural fit to have Rich come on. He was involved with “Zootopia.” We had pitched to him and Jim Reardon for many years.

Rich Moore: We’re always kind of supporting each other as part of the story trust. Some people are more familiar with some films than others. This was one that they were nice enough to ask for my thoughts during the pitching process. I was familiar with it. When the movie took that big turn that Byron was talking about, that’s a lot of work for one person to take on on such an abbreviated schedule, which was what was happening in the production line at that time. They asked me, “Would you come on and kind of throw your weight into it, too?” I said, “Of course!” That’s just what we do here. If a movie needs help from another set of hands, we pitch in and help. The movie is the thing. The thing that I was working on, that’s not going to happen for several years. This is coming out next year.

CS: It seems that having a duo at the center of the story, too, kind of lends itself to a directing pair.

Rich Moore: Oh yeah. It’s always great, mostly, just to have someone to gut check with. You’re being asked thousands and thousands of things, literally. Sometimes when someone is asking, “Is this better or is this better?” it’s nice to be able to turn to someone and say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” The schedule was so compressed. It was moving at a very, very fast speed at that point. It was a time where it wasn’t just in development. It was at a point where story and production were overlapping. You can’t slow the train down to take your time with this story now that it’s making a big change. You have to keep moving at the speed that the production is going. So it’s helpful to have two people responding to the people asking those questions. We kind of function like one brain so that we can make decisions quicker and on the fly to keep up with this speeding bullet train that needs to arrive at the station March 4th of 2016.

Byron Howard: It’s also a mystery. There are so many threads to keep track of. It’s a very complex format.

Rich Moore: It’s a lot for one person to hold in their mind. I couldn’t do it. We were trying to do — and what we accomplished I think — was what would normally take two years. We crunched it into about a year’s time.

CS: It was interesting to compare the footage today to even what was shown at D23 earlier this year. There were a few changes between then and now.

Byron Howard: Yes, that’s true! It used to be that it was very clear that Nick was lying and we realized that it made Judy look not so smart. Especially in this new version where she leads you through the story, you have to kind of fall for Nick at the same time she does. We couldn’t play Nick too knowing there. We didn’t want to make it too obvious that he’s scamming her.

Rich Moore: Yeah, then the audience is just kind of waiting for Judy to catch up to what we already know. The D23 version was a bit more geared toward the version of the film where Nick was the protagonist and Judy was more of a supporting character. In that version, that’s fine, having the cop character catch on slow. When it became Judy’s story, we wanted the audience to kind of experience him as she did. She has to go, “Oh, this guy is nothing like I expected a fox to be!” Then we discover with her the machinations of this scam. That’s why it was different. Good catch!

CS: Are there movies in the world of “Zootopia”?

Byron Howard: Yes! There’s an add on a theater for “Star Trunk.”

Rich Moore: Not only do they have movies, they have bootleg movies.

Byron Howard: Oh, right! We have a bootleg movie joke in the movie that’s pretty great.

Rich Moore: Yeah, you’ll get to see some bootleg movies. Not just the ones in theaters, but the versions that make it to the street.

Zootopia hits theaters March 4, 2016. You can watch the “Sloth” trailer below and view more images in the gallery underneath.