A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a press junket for Disney’s newest animated feature, Moana! What an amazing experience to be front-row with some of Disney’s most admired talent – John Musker and Ron Clements, director team of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and now Moana (just to name a few) – and current pop culture stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Is this really my job?!? Somebody pinch me!
For about an hour, this Moana roundtable – which also included Auli’i Cravalho (the voice of “Moana”), Opetaia Foa’i (music), and Osnat Shurer (Producer) – talked about bringing this movie to life and shared some amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. I hope you enjoy reading these interviews!
Watch the trailer for Moana here:
Interviews with the Creators and Cast of Moana
What kind of research went into creating Moana?
RON CLEMENTS: Well, this movie started five years ago, a little over five years ago, actually, which is not that unsual for an animated film. It was John’s idea and he’d go into that a little bit in terms of how he was, he wanted to do a movie based on the world of the Pacific Islands and the mythology. That led to about five years ago we took a trip to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti, which really, it was the basis of the movie in terms of the connection to navigation, to people’s connection to their ancestry, respect for nature, a lot of those ideas came from that first research trip and the movie was heavily inspired by that and people that we met have stayed involved with the movie throughout its production process to try to capture as much as we could of all the wondrous things we learned and the wonderful people that we met.
JOHN MUSKER: We took a second trip to the Pacific with our musical team, so actually Lin and over time we already worked with both of them, but actually right on the front end of working with Lin. I don’t know if you want to talk about that trip at all to the Pacifica Festival.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yeah, sure. I got the job the week before and with my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand where everyone was already there and you know the Pacifica Music Festival is islands and choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific so we sort of immersed ourselves in this world and then Opetaia, Mark, and I jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums and started really trying to find, find the pulse of this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.
OSNAT SHURER: One of the great things that happened when we went on these research trips is we met incredible people, people with knowledge in areas of the navigations of master tattoo artists, weavers, people and anthropologists and archeologists as well and they became kind of what we loosely called “Our Oceanic Story Trust;” we decided that we wanted to make this film together and so we would keep checking in our Trust team, of course, it’s a fictional story. It’s a story from the imaginations of all these incredible people. But we wanted it really to honor and respect the cultures that inspired the movie and so we kept working together. Everything from every tattoo was checked with our master tattoo artist. The dances were all choreographed by one of our consultants and so that kept, something that we kept going throughout the making of the film and I think lifelong friendships have been formed as a result.
How did the voice talent prepare for their roles?
AULI’I CRAVALHO: I’ve grown up in Hawaii all my life. I grew up in a small town on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I literally grew up with pigs and chickens. I am deeply rooted to my culture. I actually go to an all-Hawaiian school where the mythology and the folklore of Maui is in our curriculum and I’ve listened to his stories as bedtime, you know, stories and I’ve grown up with the Aloha spirit just around me and I’m sure Dwayne can second that.
DWAYNE JOHNSON: Yes, you know, what Auli’i just said, she mentioned a term, its called “Aloha Spirit” and it’s something that is very special, it’s very meaningful to us and our Polynesian culture and so, for example, those of you who have had the opportunity to visit Hawaii or any of the Polynesian islands, it’s a very special thing. It’s an intangible, that when you get off the plane and you have your feet on the ground there, energetically it takes you to a different place. That’s Aloha Spirit. And you know, the opportunity that we had, just as Polynesians to be part of a story and to bring to life a story of our Polynesian culture in this capacity with our great partners at Disney, musically with these masters, was just a really, really special opportunity for us.
How did you get The Rock to sing?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I got a lot of questions from reporters this week being like, how did you get The Rock to sing? That’s not what happened here. When Dwayne accepted the role he said, “So what are you giving me to sing?” and he was really excited for this and for me, I went to YouTube – where the answers always lie – and you know, I’m a big fan of his wrestling days and there was a time during your heel-turn era where he would pull out a guitar and taunt whatever town he was in. He’d be like, “Can’t wait to get out of Chicago.” I can’t do the eyebrow. [Everyone laughs] And so I got a really good sense of his vocal range from that 10-minute super cut and then the rest of it was just writing lyrics that embody the spirit of Maui, who is this amazing demi-god, trickster god and once I had the title, “You’re Welcome,” which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.
DWAYNE JOHNSON: Look, man, it was an opportunity to challenge myself and this is, yes, as Lin was saying, he did his research and by the time I got the song, it was in my comfortable range as well and then also parts of the song which pushed me a little bit, which I appreciate because that’s what I needed vocally as well and I had, honestly, I had such a great time, one of the best times I’ve ever had in my career was actually working on this project and certainly working on that song because, also, we all love challenges, and this was a challenge that the bar is set so incredibly high in a Disney film to sing. Like, historically.
RON CLEMENTS: We thought of Dwayne as the new Angela Lansbury.
How is Moana different from The Little Mermaid, also a film about the ocean, and how has technology changed?
JOHN MUSKER: The technology just keeps developing all the time and we knew pretty early on, when we were in the islands people talked about the ocean as if it were alive and they caressed it and they had these personal relationships with the ocean, so we knew we wanted the ocean to be a character in the movie. We knew we wanted to have this lava monster in the movie. We didn’t know how to do it and we talked to a lot of very smart people, in terms, and they didn’t know how to do it either. They were saying that this is like going to be really, really hard, but we think we can figure it out before the movie needs to come out and they did. So it was actually, there was sort of groundbreaking technology in this movie. There are a lot of things in this movie, even including what was done with the hair, Maui’s hair, Moana’s hair, there are things that were really breakthroughs in technology.
How did you seamlessly combine the best of two great worlds – classic Disney movies and powerhouse stage musicals like Hamilton?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Well, ah, I think when I first interviewed for this job I walked into a room with Ron and John, makers of my favorite Disney film of all time and I said, “You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room,” and so, and I think I probably scared them a little bit because I’d quote some obscure section of Little Mermaid they had since forgotten about.
RON CLEMENTS: We couldn’t remember it, yeah …
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: So that’s part of it, is this sort of, you know, I love those movies and you want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions. At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world, and so to answer sort of the musical aspect of your question, I will admit the first time I sat down at my piano to work on something I remember thinking, don’t think about “Let it Go,” don’t think about “Let it Go,” don’t think about “Let it Go.” [LAUGHTER] But you solve that problem by just really, really getting inside the heads of your characters and my way into Moana, in particular was, you know, the way she feels the call of the sea is the way I felt about writing music and making movies and singing songs and I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking, the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large and so I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.
RON CLEMENTS: And very early we, when we visited the islands we heard music wherever we went, like Opetaia said, it’s part of the culture. So when we knew we wanted music to be part of the score and we really wanted to even, the underscore of the movie to feature vocals from another language and actually Osnat, our producer, who really zeroed in on Opetaia and Te Vaka if you want to talk about that a little bit, Osnat.
OSNAT SHURER: Yeah, I first came on the movie and just spent days listening to Pacific Island music and every time I thought, oh my God, that’s good, it was Te Vaka, it was Opetaia and so I shamelessly called Opetaia and his lovely wife Julie and my wife and manager and we invited them to come and visit us and they became family. Yeah.
OPETAIA FOA’I: I gave her a scare, because they put me on the mic and said, “Do something,” and I went, [CHANTING] “Hmm, yum, yum, hmm…” that’s all I knew chants and stuff but …
OSNAT SHURER: … It was perfect. It was exactly what we wanted and Opetaia became family very early on.
RON CLEMENTS: And we wanted both, you know, the island character of the music and a narrative drive, so really we envisioned pairing Opetaia with someone and we met Lin in New York before Hamilton was staged …
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: It was three years ago, almost exactly three years ago.
OSNAT SHURER: This is where we get to boast that we got to Lin before …
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: They discovered me …
OSNAT SHURER: We didn’t discover him. He’d won a Tony for In the Heights, which was a beautiful, beautiful Broadway show for those of you who are not familiar with it, bilingual and did all these incredible opening songs for the Tonys and we just loved everything he did and then he walked in the room and we thought, that’s the guy we want to work with.
RON CLEMENTS: And it was their talents, the music really grows out of their own talent.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: And also, the fun is in how it differs from anything you’ve heard before. You know, the fact that you’re seeing this iconic Disney logo and you’re hearing [begins chanting the opening music of the movie]
RON CLEMENTS: Opetaia’s daughter chanting, that’s his daughter Olivia.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: You know, you’ve never seen that over the Disney logo before, so the fact that we get that level of specificity is … is the joy of making something new.
What was the expiernece like for newcomer Auli’i?
AULI’I CRAVALHO: This is my first job. Pretty good. It’s just been an incredible journey for me. I’m 15 going on 16. I’m working with the best people in the entire world, of whom are making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life and that is something so incredibly special, for the rest of the world to see. But I mean, for me, as someone who is hoping to continue in show business, now that I’m in show biz, which is really exciting, I was wondering, how would I continue in this and still be Polynesian and … it was an interesting concept for me to even think up. But as I continue in this and as I potentially might leave my home, what does that make me? Does that still keep me Polynesian? Am I still grounded and rooted in the way that I want to be and I can honestly say yes, because being surrounded by my family and by the Hawaiian culture every day, it seems as though I would never lose it. But to have a film like this that will inspire me and to have a character that will inspire others as well, to become rooted in who they truly are, that’s something that inspires me and that I hope will inspire others as well. Which is what this incredible team put together, so thank you.
Dwayne, Auli’i, and Opetaia were asked about this movie representing their Polynesian culture.
OPETAIA FOA’I: Well, for me personally, you know, my journey has been from the village to the city. Now, this movie, you know, I said it earlier on, I can vouch for it that our ancestors are happy with this movie, you know, culturally speaking. So there are many other cultures that will see this movie and be interested in the movie. But also there will be Polynesians who were born in the cities who will then start the journey back to the roots. That’s what I’m thrilled about.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: I’m really excited for everyone to see this film. I know my friends are thrilled, my family is thrilled, um, and I think we’re all very proud of this film. I will admit, and I will admit this truthfully, that before I was working on this film I was a bit wary of it, because I think when anyone thinks of someone making a film inspired by their culture, they want it to be done right. I think that’s something that I, I hopefully can say for both of you as well. And Disney has done a wonderful job. The Oceanic Story Trust that has been put together as well as the research trips that Ron and John and Osnat when on as well, all of that has just created such a wonderful, well-rounded film that I’m excited for my people to see and I’m excited for everyone else to see as well, as they’ll be hopefully inspired to research on our culture, because our culture is, like, awesome and also hopefully for them to journey out onto their own missions and to figure out who they are as well.
DWAYNE JOHNSON: I feel like for the, to answer your question directly about our Polynesian culture, what Opetaia said I think is very resonant in the pride that they will have in the film and there were a lot and understandably so, there was some hesitance from a lot of people in our culture about well, what’s going to happen if our culture’s going to be showcased for the very first time on this level, this capacity from Disney? What’s going to happen? I can tell you, as Opetaia said and as Auli’i says, with great confidence and this is my hope, too, as well, that our experience has been we were in such great hands and anyone who knows John Lasseter knows that he has manna in his soul and in his body. This was a very important project to him, which is why he sent the guys, the boys in and Osnat on this mission for the past five years to do all the research. So I feel like the Polynesian people are going to be incredibly proud of the movie. Over all, all cultures, by the way, I think what’s going to touch upon all of us, regardless of where we’re at in the world, where we’re from, cultures, class, religion is the voice. So our world today, so relevant in this moment is so full of noise. There’s so much noise that’s happening in our world, but the little voice that you’ve always got to listen to, your gut, your intuition, you can do things, you can go beyond boundaries and you have to trust that gut and instinct. So those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away and the rest of the world will take away.
How did Lin-Manuel juggle working on Hamilton and Moana simultaneously?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I’ve been working on this film for two years and seven and a half months and I can tell you that with confidence because my son turned two last week and I got this job the same day I found out I was going to be a father. That was about… and he was born two weeks before rehearsal started for Hamilton at the Public off-Broadway. So yes, this, I’ve been working on this since before Hamilton opened, concurrently with Hamilton as we went through previews and then through Hamilton since we opened. How do you do all these things? Um, I ask the same question when I see The Rock’s Instagrams at 5:00 in the morning … [LAUGHTER] What you do is, it actually became my oasis of calm. I prioritized writing this story. I would meet with our creative team every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 p.m. my time, 2:00 p.m. your time and sometimes they’d see me in my 18th century blouse because I had a curtain at 7:00.
RON CLEMENTS: He’d be eating his Chinese food in his Hamilton outfit and be ready to go onstage.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: And then I’d say, “Okay, that’s 5:30, I’ve got to go to the chiropractor …” but you know, it forced me to say no to things, but I could say yes to Moana and during previews it was a great break. If I was sick of the founders rapping I would go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana, so it actually was the opposing muscle group, it was the counterweight to the Hamilton phenomenon and it was also sort of an island of peace when the Hamilton stuff started getting crazy in terms of crowds and in terms of attention, so I, you know, I’m really grateful for Moana, because it kept me grounded and it kept me writing at a time when, you know, the world was really paying attention.
OSNAT SHURER: And we had the most awesome, awesome demos because it was the cast of Hamilton that …
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: That’s true, yeah, so Phillipa Soo was singing my demos, Chris Jackson was singing my demos.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: I had Phillipa as my scratch voice.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yeah, like I had the best singers as my in-house band. I’d say, “Come to my dressing room and sing this.”
RON CLEMENTS: Normally demos are not like that. [LAUGHTER] Although we liked Chris Jackson enough and he matched Tim Morrison enough and so it was just right so that song, the village song, “Where You Are,” that is actually Chris Jackson …
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Chris Jackson’s the voice of, is the singing voice of Chief Tui, yeah.
OSNAT SHURER: Washington is Tui.
What was it like to finally see the finished movie?
RON CLEMENTS: Well, it’s interesting. This was our first CG film and not going into too much detail, but one of the differences in the process is that compared to a hand drawn film, is that things develop much slower. Everything, along with the story, which goes through a lot of changes, everything has to be built. The characters, they have to be designed, they have to be modeled, they have to be rigged. Every element of the environments have to be built. There are so many testing and research going on that you don’t see a lot at first, in terms of what it’s going to, you have to be patient, you have to wait a long time. And then at the end there’s a very, a more compressed schedule, I would say on this film, certainly had a compressed schedule. Some of this movie was made before last January, but the bulk of this film was actually made with like the last, since last January and at a fairly rapid rate, so when we saw it actually start to come together, it actually wasn’t that long ago and we were kind of blown away by a lot of the stuff that we were seeing when the animation and effects and lighting and textures and tech animation, and it all just looks so cool. And so it took a long time, but it’s very fun to see it all come together.
JOHN MUSKER: Yeah, as we were working I’d say, when we hear the score on any of the movies, that’s when it becomes the most real, in a way. So when we’re on the orchestra stage and they have a full 90-piece orchestra there and in this case, Opetaia had a group of about a dozen singers who were singing choral stuff and when you see that against the images, the sort of final versions of those things, that’s where the emotion really sort of kicks in and it really is powerful to see it that way and we actually haven’t seen it too much with audiences yet so we’re hoping to do that in the future.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yeah, I saw a close to finished version of the film the day after I hosted Saturday Night Live, with 300 of my closest friends, because we were moving to London and so it was a screenings/goodbye party and I, it was so overwhelming. I mean, I made my wife cry, which, you know, she didn’t cry at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. So you know, we got her, I was like, we’re going to be okay. But I also, I was very moved in, and in the closing credits which we saw at the screening yesterday, Disney has a tradition of listing the names of all the children born over the course of making a movie and seeing my son’s name at the top of that list. Yeah, so that was sort of the really crazy full circle moment for me.
DWAYNE JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, in life we get an opportunity to do some cool things, we hope, and things that are fun and that we like doing, but with something like this, as Lin had said, he was so moved. I was so moved when I saw the movie, for a variety of reasons, not only you work on it, you pour your heart and soul into it, it’s culture. The grandmother in the movie, Gramma Tala is like my grandmother, like so many of our grandmothers … and I think that, when I saw it in a theater, in a very little theater, with a group of people, what I noticed and I’ve used this term earlier, is, there was just, they were floating when they walked out of the theater and it was such a cool thing to be a part of and to watch them come out and energetically they’re floating and also, too, I, in my entire career, I’ve never cried consistently through a movie. [LAUGHTER] Ever! And anyway, it was a very, very special thing, so yeah, I guess probably the biggest thing for me was just to watch everybody walk out floating. That was cool.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: I also got to watch the film for the first time and that was incredible for me. I’ve been voicing this character for just about a year, a little bit over a year now and I’ve known how incredible she was. But that was me in a booth, and to see her on screen, I mean, she kind of has some characteristics of me in her face, she’s a little bit like me to have my voice in there, it’s a little uncanny, I’ll say that. But also to hear, I think, how the characters play off of each other; that was really incredible for me and especially Gramma Tala, that was, it was difficult for me to record. It was a challenge for me to record because I like being happy and having to, having to challenge myself and go into that, that deeper place was challenging but so rewarding. I didn’t get to really connect to my grandmother before she passed, unfortunately, but I have the best mom in the world, so I … whenever I thought of someone who pushed me a hundred percent and loved me unconditionally and still does and still will for the rest of my life, that’s my mom. So to see that character relationship play out the way I felt it in the booth and to see my mom’s reaction to the entire film and to hear my mom’s line in the film, too. Did you know that she has a line?
RON CLEMENTS: Yeah, her mother plays the woman with the coconut who comes up and says there’s a problem on the island, but she says, “She’s doing great,” that’s her mom.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: So I loved that. It was just an amazing experience seeing the finished film.
OSNAT SHURER: Well for me, I’ve had the great, good fortune of seeing the film with audiences; and particularly what moved me the most was the chance to watch the film with people from the Pacific Island communities. We did screenings here and was fortunate enough to go to Tahiti and show it there. In Figi, in the village that inspired us to make the ocean a character and seeing the responses to the film has been so moving. It’s so important to us to capture the spirit the Moana. That’s been very, very moving.
OPETAIA FOA’I: Well, my job in this movie basically is look after the cultural side of the movie and you know, I’d like to thank John, Ron and Osnat for gambling on including me in this movie and it’s just been an amazing, amazing … I’ve been in heaven for three years. And then having Auli’i, I love your voice in this, it’s just incredible. She is the Moana voice that I always wanted and then having Dwayne in there, I mean, it just sealed the whole thing. So from a cultural side of things, I’ll give it a big tick, it’s good. And then having Lin, yes, I knew Lin before he became famous. So you know, we’re on that level … it’s just been a joy working with him. He’s just, yeah, he’s all right, you know. [LAUGHTER]
Be sure to see Moana in theaters Wednesday November 23, 2016, and check back later this week for my movie review!