HE IS Pixar’s expert on all things Scottish and has directed the biggest thing to happen to Caledonian cinema since Braveheart. Alistair Harkness talks to Mark Andrews
‘IT’S a huge honour,” says Brave director Mark Andrews. “Here we are over in California making this film, so it’s a good way to bring things to a close.” The Brave director is referring to the imminent closing night gala of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Providing Pixar’s Scottish fairytale with a suitably patriotic locale for its British premiere, the appearance of the film – which revolves around the flame-haired, independently minded Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) – is arguably more of a coup for the revitalised festival than for Pixar. But Andrews – a history nut who’s been Pixar’s dedicated expert on all things Scottish since joining the animation studio in 2000 (“I wear my kilt to every wrap party!”) – refuses to be blasé about the excitement it has generated.
That’s perhaps unsurprising. Until 18 months ago, Andrews wasn’t even the film’s director. Instead he had a “satellite involvement” as an advisor to Brenda Chapman, who came up with the initial concept and the Scottish setting, but was removed as its director when it became apparent the story wasn’t moving in the direction the so-called “Pixar Brain Trust” was happy with.
Which isn’t, actually, all that unusual. Brad Bird famously came in to rework Ratatouille from scratch, although Brave, at least, wasn’t in that kind of trouble. As Andrews explains: “I came on and went, ‘Well the heart of the story is there; we just need to make it more entertaining, more fluid and focus it more on Merida…’”
Andrews insists he and Chapman (who retains a directing and writing credit) remain friends. What’s more, he says, “she wouldn’t have wanted anyone else but me to take over and I’m not changing it from her point of view. I feel like I’ve built on what Brenda got it to, so it’s more of a collaborative effort, like a relay race. I took it round the final corner and did whatever I needed to do to get it to the finish line.”
Indeed, one of the key ideas in Chapman’s initial pitch for Brave remains its most successful element: the film’s ability to subvert the classic fairytale idea of a princess desperate to escape a wicked stepmother. In Brave, not only is Merida’s conflict one with her actual mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), it’s born of a loving, if perhaps over-zealous desire on Elinor’s part to protect her daughter. It’s something that is further complicated in an ingenuous way by having Merida use magic to turn her mother into a grizzly bear, only to realise that – guess what? – she might actually need her after all.
“To me, that’s a classic parent/child dynamic,” says Andrews, who laughs off the suggestion that having a literal grizzly mamma in the film might win him a fan in Sarah Palin. “When the child is in that transition to adulthood from adolescence, you realise it comes down to destiny and who’s in control of your life. The kid wants to be in control of their own life and have you in a supporting role, whereas as parents, we’re telling you what to do and what not to do to help you.”
Of course, such talk of destiny in relation to anything Scottish means that the film is inevitably going to be viewed in the context of the intensifying debate over independence. First Minister Alex Salmond has already given the film his enthusiastic endorsement by attending the world premiere in Los Angeles and penning thinly veiled newspaper op-ed pieces about its value to Scotland (he’s due to attend Saturday’s premiere too). “He’s very passionate,” chuckles Andrews diplomatically.
For all Merida’s easy-to-hijack lines about wanting her freedom, though, the push/pull of the aforementioned parent/child story means that Brave is, somewhat cannily, also a story about the value of forming alliances and remaining together, making it possible for both sides of the political debate to exploit it. How prepared is Andrews for this?
“Is an artist really ever prepared for whatever inspiration someone looking at a painting takes from it? I don’t think so. Does it affect them? I don’t know if it does. I think there are lessons to be learned in the movie about balance and having a conversation and listening. But if people in Scotland want to take it and run with it and use it however they want, then that’s fine by me.”
The important thing, says Andrews, is that the film works as a celebration of Scottish culture. “Culture is important. I state in Merida’s opening dialogue that we’re linked to the land: we are what the land is and the land is what we are, and where we come from reflects that. That’s something that shouldn’t be shied away from.” Having said that, he didn’t want to put “Scotland in a box and represent it as just this”.
That perception may be hard to avoid, though, given the multi-million-pound tourism campaign that’s been attached to the film. Brave is the biggest thing to happen to Scotland cinematically since Braveheart, but it really isn’t striving to be the new Braveheart. The streamlined title – changed from the more esoteric The Bear and the Bow – might make the comparisons harder to deny, but aside from one kilt-mooning incident, it’s mercifully free of lazy references to Mel Gibson’s cheesy Oscar-winner. “We looked at Braveheart,” reveals Andrews, “but we weren’t looking at it to see what they did that was Scottish.”
In truth, pop culture gags – a staple of Pixar films since Toy Story – are largely absent from Brave, although Andrews and his team did have some fun with the Scottish surnames of the rival Clan Lords fruitlessly trying to marry off their sons to the disinterested Merida. Lord MacGuffin (voiced by Kevin McKidd) is a reference to the term Alfred Hitchcock coined to explain the plot device in his adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), meanwhile, was named in tribute to Pixar’s co-founder, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. As for the derivation of the surname of the goofier Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) – well, that was somewhat less noble. “We wanted to give him a name that made him sound like an idiot,” says Andrews, “Ding-wall. It just sounds funny to say.”
It was only afterwards that the creative team realised it was also the name of a town in the Highlands. “Then we were like, oh my gosh, everybody in Dingwall is going to be so insulted!” He lets out a long laugh. “But the Scots have a great sense of humour, so I’m not too worried.”
• Brave closes the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 30 June, with an 8.15pm screening at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.