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Prince of Egypt director Brenda Chapman: ‘We wanted to do something that reached more adults’

Twenty years after becoming feature animation’s first female director, Chapman tells Polygon about DreamWorks, Pixar and the future

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt arrived in theaters on Dec. 16, 1998, earning praise from both critics and audiences alike, a $218 million worldwide box-office gross by the end of its theatrical run, and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The film also made history: Longtime story artist Brenda Chapman became the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio. It was a role that she initially did not want, but eventually grew to love.

After making waves at DreamWorks, Chapman moved to Pixar in 2003, where she worked on Cars and began development on Brave, set to be the studio’s first female-directed project (and its first film led by a female character). Although she was eventually removed from the project due to “creative differences,” a move that prompted her departure from the studio altogether, Brave would still earn Chapman a directing credit alongside Mark Andrews, and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The fact may soon change, but Brave remains the only Pixar movie helmed by a woman to date.

On the occasion of The Prince of Egypt’s 20th anniversary, Polygon spoke to Brenda Chapman, who dialed in from Los Angeles, where she’s working on her live-action directorial debut with Angelina Jolie, about the career achievement of her animated Biblical epic, her time at Pixar and what her experience in the animation industry has been like over the past two decades.

Polygon: How did you wind up directing The Prince of Egypt with Steve Hickner and Simon Wells (An American Tail: Fievel Goes West)?

Brenda Chapman: We actually worked very closely together. There were three of us all at the same time and that’s how animation worked for many, many years. Occasionally you’ll still see credits with two directors. Very rarely will you see three. I had worked at Disney with Jeffrey Katzenberg — I was Head of Story on The Lion King — and I worked very closely with him and so when he left to go start DreamWorks, he asked me to come with him. And so I did, on the reasoning that I’d like to build my own Story department, the way I think it would work best. That was my niche at Disney.

I went [to Dreamworks] and I was just working with the writers on [The Prince of Egypt] script at the time. [Katzenberg] asked me if I would be a director on it and I had originally said no, because I really just wanted to stay in Story and hadn’t really done much of the other parts of directing, dealing with the effects and all of that kind of thing. But he was persistent and I realized that — he had said that ‘until I find someone else you were directing it.’ So I sort of started taking on the duties and then I realized I didn’t want someone coming in and taking over what I’d done. So, I was the first director on it.

But then DreamWorks absorbed Amblimation through Steven Spielberg. That’s when Simon Wells and Steve Hickner came on and I was worried, believe me, on how that would work, but it turns out we got along quite well and we worked very well together. We worked so closely together. We did have the same vision. We split up departments once we got to know what each other’s strength were, but I kind of insisted that we all stay together in Story so that we would be on the same page and in Animation, which was the acting. We would go to recording sessions together. If we couldn’t all go to the recording session, we would listen in from a distance, but I made suggestions. We stayed together in the important creative part, which was the story and the implementing of the story which was through the acting, the animators and the voice talent.

Was there a specific thing you did in the story department on The Prince of Egypt that made you stand out for the directing or was it the fact that Jeffrey had worked with you in the past on other projects?

Jeffrey had known me for years. I mean, my first film with him was The Little Mermaid as a story person and he got to know me through that, so I’ve known him for years, then as the story supervisor on The Lion King, he just knew that we would work well together that he respected my work and we could bump heads creatively, but still keep going just fine.

So for The Prince of Egypt, he just trusted that I would bring heart to the story — that that was what he always considered my strength. I could bring heart to a story, and a sincerity of emotion. I think his plan initially, which for most executives, especially in animation when they put more than one director on, is to divide and conquer. So they split the directors up and tell them, okay, you’re doing this half of the movie, you’re doing that half of the movie or whatever.

And Simon and Steven and I banded together and we just said, no, we’re playing it differently. We’re going to stick together and we will divvy up departments because — Simon Wells is an incredible cinematographer. He just has this incredible sense of composition and lighting. So that I wholeheartedly give over to Simon. So he took layout and scene-planning and that kind of thing. My secondary was backgrounds — the painting of backgrounds. I did work with the color and that kind of thing.

Steve was an incredible organizer of how to make things work, and so he took the more technical departments like cleanup and although I did effects but he was able to bring all the artists together to bring sort of a piece of look to the film and he was great especially in clean up and doing ... also helping them figure out how to put the crowds together — all of the slaves, the big masses. And that was a lot for a traditional animated film. He kept sort of a through-line for the film to keep it consistent and he was amazing at that.

What is something that didn’t make it into the final film?

There were a lot of side characters that didn’t quite make it into the film. The camel was supposed to be this big character, and there was a servant to Moses. There were just things that we just streamlined, but at the same time, it felt very preachy when we got in there. That was all three of our concerns, the concern about making a Bible movie, whether it be the Jewish faith or the Christian faith or the Muslim faith. The story of Moses touches all three of those religions. So what we did is we dug deep and with the help of our Story department, we decided to make it more human: how this huge story and these big events affect the human story of the two brothers. That’s where we really felt like we cracked it, was finding that angle to tell the story.

DreamWorks Animation

What was DreamWorks as a studio trying to do with this film?

At that time we were trying to make films that weren’t feeling like they were just for children. We wanted to make films that everyone would go see. We wanted to say we can make a drama in animation and it not just be where parents drop their kids off at the theater like they used to, or just use them as babysitters. We wanted to do something that reached more adults.

I think we were looking more at the Japanese template where there’s so many different forms of animation over there and it’s considered filmmaking and an art form and it’s not looked down upon as kids’ stuff. Animation in the U.S. has always been the bastard child of the industry. It still is in many ways because it’s still sort of the old Hollywood system where we only have a cartoonist union, but many of the people like directors and editors aren’t covered by unions like the live-action division is because of the animation guidelines.

We were hoping to break out of that and bring to America all the different types. How about an R-rated animated film? How about a PG-13 or an NC-17 or whatever? It’s like just trying to break out of that box. We didn’t quite succeed. I think that’s okay. I am more of a family PG-kind of person anyway, so that didn’t affect me too badly. But I think it put a kink in what Jeffrey was wanting to do at the time.

With The Prince of Egypt, you became the first woman to direct an animated film from a major studio. Did that ever intimidate you?

I didn’t think of it that way. It was only until Jeffrey and other people started saying, hey, let’s talk about this. I was just an artist who loved doing what she did. I didn’t think of myself as a woman doing it. I just thought of myself as a story artist. I didn’t think of myself as a female story artist and I didn’t think of myself as a female director.

It’s only in recent years, I think after Brave, that I just said, OK, I have to own the mantle and go forward and fight for things that I never had to fight for it before. I think I’ve lived in quite a bubble for many years under the Disney and DreamWorks studio system. Ironically, it’s very much because of Jeffrey Katzenberg.

I was hired at Disney because I was a woman. I was filling a quota. That was the only time that I felt that. But then once I got in and started working with all the guys and the men, all my mentors, they were wonderful and I’d never experienced discrimination. I was naive, so maybe there was some and I dismissed it, but I had a great time and I didn’t feel like anyone shunned me or gave me a rough time because I was a woman. I think that was large part to do because Jeffrey was the one who said, “There aren’t any women in your story department at Disney,” when he started there back in the ’80s, and he said, “You need to start hiring some.”

I don’t think I got any special treatment because I was a woman other than getting into Disney, getting my foot in the door. But I did have to prove myself that I could stay there. I think I would’ve been fired just like anyone else if I couldn’t have done my job.

DreamWorks Animation

Can you tell me about leaving DreamWorks? What was that like?

I left DreamWorks not to go to Pixar. I actually took several months off. I had a daughter and I’d taken a maternity leave and when I got back to DreamWorks, it had changed and become much more corporate and I wasn’t crazy about the types of films that Jeffrey was really pushing to make. And so we amicably split ways and I just took some time off to spend with family, but also try to figure out what I wanted to do. I had this tiny stint at Sony. I didn’t care for how that was going on there. So I was getting picky in my late 30s and early 40s.

And then, I got a call from a dear friend of mine, Joe Ranft — the late great Joe Ranft — and he was their story guru up at Pixar. He was working on Cars, and he called me to see if I could come and help them figure out the female characters because they were having trouble. But I got there way too late, I think. I didn’t really have any impact on that.

But then I started developing Brave, and that’s where I hit a lot of the issues with being a woman and also trying to put forward a female-led story. Then Joe was killed in the middle of it in a car accident. I think he was the Jiminy Cricket. He was the Frank Wells. He was the person who kept everyone ... He was the soul of that place, and when he left, I think things changed very drastically and it definitely changed for me. Not in a good way.

There was an article circulating this summer about the so-called boys’ club culture at Pixar, written by a former employee in the art department. Can you speak a bit about that?

Cassandra, I think was her name. It was devastating, but I have no doubt in my mind that she experienced all of that. That’s about all I can say about that.

How did Pixar and Brave affect your career decisions going forward?

[The movie] opened many doors for me because my colleagues really rallied around me. I had every studio call me almost the week after I was taken off Brave to offer me a job. I was kind of blown away by that. I didn’t know that people were paying attention or that that would happen. But I was obligated to remain with Pixar until Brave was released. So I had a couple of years to ... well, not a couple of years, had 16 months, I think it was, to sort of reassess everything.

I got to work with Kathleen Kennedy [on the Lucasfilm movie Strange Magic] right after my time was up. And I went back to DreamWorks. Jeffrey was determined to get me back to pen. He was starting to make plans to sell DreamWorks, unbeknownst to everyone, so that didn’t quite work out like I had hoped. I have been developing several projects and I’m currently directing my first live action film. So I feel like it didn’t hurt my career, even though it was a very devastating moment in my career. And it’s still very bittersweet.

I’m very, very proud of Brave. Much of my work that they had initially tried to take out once I left, they ended up putting much of it back in because there was really nothing wrong with the movie and there was no reason creatively to take me off the film. I think it was just ... bumping heads with John Lasseter was my downfall. I can’t say that it was all bad. If anything, it probably opened more doors for me to have that happen.

Brenda Chapman winning Oscar for Brave
Brenda Chapman, backstage at the 2013 Academy Awards after winning her Oscar for Brave.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

What was something they tried to change but ended up putting your work back in?

They tried to make it more about the father-daughter story opposed to the mother-daughter story. It was ... interesting — and it didn’t work!

Would you say the completed project still feels like your film?

I feel like it got a little more surface-level, but overall, yes, the message I wanted to get across about mothers and daughters and having to listen and have a little patience with each other and just, you know, the mother and the daughter ... it’s the greatest love story in a woman’s life, you know? That’s what I think. I feel very strongly [that it is] still in the film. It very much is my story.

How did you feel about seeing Merida in Ralph Breaks the Internet?

I cracked up! I thought it was hysterical. I haven’t seen it yet, I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve seen that particular scene on YouTube. It’s hysterical. I love it when she’s included. Also being different. I love that. All the pretty princesses are looking at her like, what the hell? I love that, actually.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming live-action project?

It’s called Come Away. It stars David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie. And it is a “what if?” story. What if Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were brother and sister before their stories started? It’s a family tragedy, really. It’s the story about how the family is coping with the death of Alice and Peter’s older brother.

What’s the biggest transition about moving away from animation to live-action?

I’m not moving away from [animation]. I love animation and I will probably go back to it. I just loved the script and wanted to give it a try. It’s different. In animation, we pre-edit our film. We get to work on this story over and over and hone it in. Where with live-action, it is a little more flying by the seat of your pants when you’re shooting the film, which took a little getting used to, but I love learning experiences. This is definitely one.

Have you noticed any changes in the animation industry in light of the #MeToo movement?

I think the industry is scrambling to make sure they have [women]. I know after I left and they were starting to get bad press, Pixar was scrambling like crazy, trying to get more females in [the] story [department] and trying to get a female director. I hope the effort continues.

I’ve definitely noticed more women directing, not necessarily [just] in animation, but in general. But my hope is that it just continues until it’s the norm and it’s no longer part of #MeToo, but just the norm. My fear is that if things cooled down at all, they’ll just go back to the way it was and I really hope it doesn’t do that. And I think there are enough of us out there working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. But sometimes it’s hard. It just can be hard.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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