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Strange World director and writer reveal their surprising inspirations

In our interview with the writer and director of Strange World we learn some character backstories and surprising influences for the Disney movie

Strange World interview: The clade family flying The Venture

Strange World is the newest animated movie to come from the powerhouse Disney, and it doesn’t disappoint. Packed with fresh themes around environmental conservation and unique designs, the film is a sight to behold. And to celebrate the Disney movie’s big release, we sat down with its director Don Hall and screenwriter Qui Nguyen to learn what it takes to make a feature for the famous House of Mouse.

Set in the fictional world of Avalonia, Strange World follows the story of the Clade family, who find themselves on a deadly mission to save their civilisation’s power source – a plant called Pando. Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and estranged father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) must move past their differences and work together to uncover the truths of their world and survive in the process.

Hall and Nguyen are no strangers to Disney in general. The two previously collaborated on the 2021 family movie Raya The Last Dragon and were even nominated for an Academy Award for their efforts. In our interview with the two, we break down what making this new film was like following their previous success, what the two’s creative future holds, and discuss how horror movies surprisingly inspired a lot of their new film.

The Digital Fix: You guys previously worked together on Raya, what was it like collaborating again on this? 

Don Hall: We had actually started Strange World before going on to Raya. We had worked on it for about a year. And then I got pulled onto direct Raya. And I said, ‘Qui, you are coming in with me.’ So I bought Qui onto it and it was actually really fun. And, you know, obviously, we worked really hard on it, but we came out of it kind of in like fighting shape. And so when we returned to Strange World, we were ready to go.

Qui Nguyen: I think the lesson learned from it was I think when we started Strange World, we didn’t know each other very well at all. And I think that I felt like my role at that point was just to shepherd Don’s vision. But then, when I came under Raya, it became very much like, ‘oh, well, this is something I can take very personally.’ And so it became a very personal journey to make Raya what it was.

But then when we move back to Strange World, I was like, ‘Oh, wait, that’s actually what makes filmmaking so satisfying, is that it has that personal approach to it.’ And so it wasn’t just me. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s a love letter for both Don and I, to our kids, to our parents.’

And so I was pulling out a lot of personal things from Don to make Strange World to the point where there are actual conversations that Don’s had with his dad that show up in the movie itself.

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So you didn’t want to be an explorer, then, Don? Did you want to be a farmer like Searcher?

DH: [Laughs] No, actually, the opposite. My dad is a farmer. And so I was training to be a farmer as well until I was about Ethan’s age. And we had to have that conversation. It wasn’t as dramatic as what’s in the film. I just wasn’t good at it, you know, and my heart wasn’t in it. And so, we had that conversation. And then, I pursued a career in animation.

You talked about personal influences. But Strange World is also inspired in part by pulp magazines and also Lost World movies like King Kong. I wanted to know, what was it about those sources that made you decide, ‘okay, it’s time to sit down and write Strange World?’

DH: Well, I saw those films as a kid. Raiders of The Lost Ark is my favourite movie of all time. But I also, you know, saw Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I just loved that genre of adventure stories, where a group of explorers find a hidden world, generally populated with dinosaurs. It was just foundational to my youth, and I love those movies today. So I was so grateful to be able to, you know, tackle that genre in animation.

QN: Yeah. And ultimately, I think we’re making movies that you want to share with your family. I think about the movies that I love watching with my dad. If we just wrote a very ‘feely’ movie about fathers and sons, I don’t think my dad would want to sit down with it. But like, he loves Indiana Jones; he loves watching cowboy movies with me. And so, to make a big adventure, there was an easy way to get dad into the theatre with us to enjoy some father-son time.

Strange World interview: The Clade family

Speaking about family now, I loved the character Ethan. It was really refreshing to see how his sexuality was accepted by his family from the get-go. So I wanted to know, as filmmakers, what made you decide against maybe the traditional coming out story that lots of people would have expected with an LGBTQ+ character?

DH: Ethan’s story kind of reflected my own story in terms of a father that is having expectations for his future and then colliding with your desires as you’re growing up. So that was really what Ethan’s part in this whole story was and also to be kind of the vehicle for the environmental message. That deep well of empathy that he has, he is really what kind of unlocks Strange World and, you know, galvanises everybody to help save it.

QN: Yeah, and he showed up in the world of Strange World while we were making it. He kind of showed up fully formed in our brains. All these elements that you see in the movie existed, you know, in 2017, when Don first thought up these details. Like when I walked into the store when he pitched it to me, these characters, they were all sketched out, they were all kind of built.

And so it was really like, what is the story? What is the main kind of drive for Ethan, that’s going to drive this movie? And it is his empathy, his relationship and his understanding of his family and the world that is ultimately going to drive the narrative of the environment through to the end. So that was kind of why Ethan is Ethan. He just existed the way he’s been since day one.

Strange World interview: Ethan looking out into the distance

You know, at the ending of the movie Strange World, it seems like Ethan’s story is just beginning.

QN: Yeah

So, I have to ask this. Is there going to be a Strange World 2? Are we going to get an Ethan follow-up story at some point?

DH: Ah, man. We know. And I’m not kidding when I say this, like, we literally just finished this movie. [laughs] So we’ve really not had any time to put much of an effort into thinking beyond it. I will say that the world I think we’ve created in Strange World is big enough to contain more stories, and we will see. But we love these characters, too, you know?

QN: Yeah, I was going to say anytime you’re making these movies, like, especially your story team, they’re always playing fantasy football. [Both laugh] Like, they find where the other stories are within the worlds. So they’ve pitched like crazy ideas. And obviously, like even..

DH: Even Dupel! [continues] Dupel is a pilot that gets, you know, ripped out of the ship, The Venture, and is presumably dead. And now that character has a whole horror movie take to him.

QN: [laughs] So again, there’s a lot of fantasy football happening. So we do our own fanfiction around movies all the time.

DH: Oh, yes. Yes, we do.

Strange World interview: Legend and Searcher

[laughs] That actually brings me to my next question. I want to know, is there a story behind the three-legged dog Legend? How did he lose his leg? Did you ever come up with a backstory for that?

DH: Oh yeah! He was born that way.

QN: Kinda boring, sorry [laughs]. It wasn’t a huge tractor incident or anything.

You mentioned horror. Obviously, that genre is not really in the film, but at the same time, it kind of is. The monsters they meet in the world, Reapers, are terrifying. They’re really like Lovecraftian kind of monsters. What made you settle on that design?

DH: There are some things that we discover about Strange World’s history. There’s a mystery that gets solved by the end of the film, but I’ll try and speak around it. So we knew sort of the true nature of Strange World from the get-go, and that was reflected in a lot of the creatures based on real versions of themselves.

QN: When it comes to the actual just look of it all, a lot of us on the team are horror fans. And so there were moments when we were trying to make it scary intentionally. To the point where sometimes we had to pull back like having to say, ‘Oh, actually, I think that’s a little disgusting.’ [laughs] We don’t need to go into gore let’s stick to like just scaring people.

DH: That’s one of the aspects of the film that I actually love because I love monster movies. And you know, a lot of times in monster movies it’s, man versus nature. This movie is man versus nature for a while, and then it flips towards the end.

And one of my favourite shots is at the end of the movie when our heroes are aligned and trying to solve the problem. And there’s a shot of all the monsters like jumping into the fray, and in that moment, it kind of flips from being a monster movie to now the monsters are a part of the good guys, too.

Strange World interview: The Clades fighting monster Reapers

Yeah, well, it makes sense. King Kong is also a monster movie.

Both: Exactly!

QN: Yeah, that was a huge influence, actually.

So your influences for Strange World is King Kong, pulp magazines, but also there are a lot of board games in the film too. In the movie, the board game that Ethan plays feels reminiscent of things like Civilisation, for instance. I want to know, are you guys big game players, too?

QN: My family and I bonded through them. Especially during the pandemic, we played a lot of tabletop games. And obviously, you know, there’s influences of  Magic the Gathering, Pokemon cards, and Settlers of Catan that kind of made Primal Outpost (the game that’s in the film) possible.

But actually, it was our vis dev artist, Cory Loftis, who built the game, and it’s actually a playable game, which is kind of incredible. Because he was like, it has to have rules that we all understand. And it’s like, ‘oh, cool.’

And so because he built that, it was really easy to write because I was just like, ‘well, I’ll just copy the rule book that you just made up and just say that out loud. And that will confuse old people.’ [both laugh]

Strange World interview: Ethan and Splat

So when is the public going to be able to play the game Primal Outpost?

DH: [laughs] Well, I mean, look, if the movie is a hit, who knows? Ahead who knows? But we’re ready because, like we said, it’s a playable game, thanks to Cory.

Strange World is out in cinemas now. For more quality picks, here is our list of the best Pixar movies.