Home » Jesse Andrews on ‘Luca’ and the Power of Authentic Storytelling

Jesse Andrews on ‘Luca’ and the Power of Authentic Storytelling

by Beatrine Shahzad

Oscar-nominated Luca is nothing short of a delight. Wonderfully atmospheric as it drifts along the Italian Riviera, the story follows the summer friendship between two children who wish to explore the world, but cannot do so without great risk because they are secretly sea monsters. This Pixar film is surprisingly emotionally poignant for its premise, as most are, and that success is attributed to the collaborative efforts of the creatives at the studio helmed by director Enrico Casarosa.

DiscussingFilm had the opportunity to speak with Luca co-writer Jesse Andrews. He is both a novelist and screenwriter, best known for his debut novel and its film adaptation, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He is currently employed by Pixar and working on another project. “It feels a little like working for the NSA or S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he jokes, “You just head off to the mysterious dream factory and you come back and can’t say anything about what you saw or did for a while.” Although he is sworn to secrecy regarding his current work, he was kind enough to discuss the inspirations behind Luca; how the team bottled authenticity, its emotional ending, and the power of stories in general.

The Pixar Process

Alberto stares at Luca, both in their human forms, who looks back awkwardly.

Andrews’ road to Pixar began after watching Toy Story, the studio’s very first project and the world’s first feature-length CG animated film. He remarks that it was a milestone moment– “here’s a new way to make a movie and a new way to tell a story”. Just over two decades later, he would find his foot in the door of the studio. 

After Andrews’ previous project failed to secure funding, a father-son drama-comedy with a costly cruise ship setting, his agent sent out the script as a writing sample or “audition piece” to studios he was interested in working with. It caught the eye of Enrico Casarosa, a director at Pixar who was looking for a writer. Andrews was brought on for Luca, and he moved from Boston to the Bay Area, Pixar’s home, without a backward glance.

Pixar’s reputation is unlike that of any other studio. Not only is it an innovator in 3D animation, but its stories are also as imaginative as they are emotionally resonate. The quality is almost measured on another scale– Pixar’s newest film could be ranked in the middle of the studio’s filmography and yet still be one of the best releases in its calendar year.

“I have a pretty good understanding by now of why movies by Pixar tend to be so consistently good,” Andrews explains. “It is about patience and iteration and spending more time baking it than most other studios.” First, the idea is rigorously developed and tasked with passing multiple gates before writers are brought onboard for scripting. Then, the writer drafts the script, followed by a three to four-year-long process of “sketching your way through the movie.” That entails story artists creating an animatic approximately every three months which is then thoroughly critiqued. The work must then be revisited, with either parts of it or its entirety needing to be “blown up”.

While it may sound tedious, the extremely collaborative iterations “makes you better as a writer”. Since projects at Pixar are director-driven, screenwriters must grow their skills in a way that best assists the director’s vision. “I almost think of screenwriting as midwifing… where it’s not really your kid,” Andrews says, “Of course, you bring some creative DNA to the project, but this is really the director’s baby.” 

By the time Andrews was brought on for Luca, the baby was in its first trimester. There had already been someone who wrote a script, which was “wonderful” but “not the movie the studio and Enrico really wanted to make.” The framework had been laid for a tale consisting of the characters of Luca and Alberto, hidden sea monsters in the small town of Portorosso, “and to some extent, this idea of a friendship between a shy kid and a kid who is more adventurous… a little bit towards troublemaker, the outcast, a kid that society really did not approve of and the ‘good’ kid.”

Crafting Luca into Something Authentic

Luca floats face-up in the sea, the half of his body underneath the water has taken on its sea monster characteristics while the half above is human.

“It was like a shared dream,” Andrews describes developing Luca from a myriad of inspirations. He praises Casarosa’s skill with atmosphere and mood, “almost a dreaminess as a filmmaker”, and attributes it in part to his influences from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. To bottle that “timelessness”, the writers and story artists would revisit what they felt during childhood when they felt stuck.

“This friend of mine was into heavy metal, and that was just not a music form that was of any interest to me before we were friends,” Andrews recalls his personal experience from high school, “I was a pretty shy, shrimpy kid, and this other kid would headbang to stuff he was hearing on his headphones that I didn’t get until he showed it to me. And then I did.” Everyone on the crew had their own similar story, he says, “we threw around a lot of metaphors for that kind of discovery,” similar to how he and his old friend “would talk about the human world as if it were heavy metal– your parents want you to stop playing it, and you refuse.” In that way, the story “speak[s] to a lot of people… but you don’t have to be very heavy-handed with it because the shape feels so familiar.”

The link between Luca and Alberto is something simple– a Vespa. After Luca is coaxed onto land by Alberto’s casual confidence and nonchalant prodding, they quickly discover that the same curiosity that attracted onto land also attracts them to the idea of Vespa ownership, of being free and able to explore the world. Their friendship is built around that curiosity, and the early moments of the movie are the two of them attempting to build a Vespa of their own, among other hijinks.

“I could live in the first act of this movie for an hour,” Andrews reminisces. “Of course, it can’t be that long, but there was so much stuff about Luca and Alberto, in their early days of friendship, finding just the full joy of being together.” One of these joys in earlier drafts, among a slew of silly undertakings, was something dubbed “fire golf”. Andrews remarks that it was “probably a good thing” that it was cut “because if anyone tried to do it, it would be a disaster.” But absurd and ridiculously dangerous ideas are an intrinsic quality of childhood, and the creative team focused the energy of the first act into portraying “the different ways to zip from joy, to fear, to joy again, to disaster, to hilarity in the way that young kids do.” Much of it was cut, but Andrews thinks it is best to keep the omitted ideas and scenes behind, because “the movie is perfect without them.”

The Part When You Cry

Alberto and Luca stare at Portorosso at sundown, its lights illuminating the dark and reflecting off the sea in front of it.

Part of the perfection of Luca is how it is streamlined against a strong thematic and emotional core. “We wanted to tell a very universal story about a friendship between two different kids who need each other, and change each other, and send each other off towards their respective destinies that they never would have been able to chase without having that impact on each other. But those destinies are in two different places, and so there’s a goodbye contained in that as well… It just felt like a great subject for a summer friendship story.”

Luca and Alberto eventually venture off of their isolated island and risk the danger of the nearby human town when they hear of an opportunity to win a Vespa. Together, they diligently train to win a triathlon competition whose reward is the motor vehicle of their dreams. After an introduction to a new friend, Giulia, they begin to realize that perhaps their aspirations for the future are not as closely aligned as they had hoped.

This culminates in a beautifully sentimental climax revolving around accepting internal otherness and journeying into the unknown at the cost of leaving behind the familiar. After being exposed as sea monsters, Luca and Alberto find acceptance among the humans they have befriended and grown to love. Luca’s curiosity inspires him to go away to school while Alberto decides to stay behind with his new makeshift family, and they must say goodbye. It’s a tear-jerker ending, a trademark of a Pixar film. But it’s a good cry.

“When I hear that someone else cried, I feel this reminder of how universal it is to be a person, so that’s a really nice feeling,” Andrews admits, “A lot of storytelling is just exploring where feelings come from… and when you can find it and bottle it up and give it to someone else, and they open the bottle and feel the same thing. Yeah, that’s a kind of magic to me. It’s a big part of the reason to do this.”

Luca was written with that last moving goodbye, the emotional climax, in mind. It’s an otherwise breezy summer romp, but packs an emotional wallop at the last moment. Although the film follows children who joke around and explore the joy of life together, it focuses on that experience eventually coming to its end. To achieve that balance between the silly and the serious, Andrews describes, “[the end] is the foundation of the whole movie, knowing we’re aiming for that moment, and whatever comes before that is going to have to support it and can’t undermine it. That rules out certain kinds of comedy.” Luca and Alberto must come across as age-appropriate because if they’re written as any older “they’re too knowing, ahead of the game, emotionally speaking. They already know what they’re supposed to feel and they know what’s going to happen.”

Andrews wrote many jokes that fell into this unfortunate category. “That was one of the great things I learned from this movie,” he explains, “When you keep things a little simpler and pure, yeah, the sense of humor probably becomes a little less witty and becomes goofy. There’s even some silliness to it. But that allows big, emotional moves that feel authentic to childhood. I don’t know if the goodbye at the end of our movie would have the same impact if Luca had been wisecracking the whole time and making cerebral referential humor, the kind I’m often putting in the script because I’m feeling insecure as a writer… This is a thing that Enrico was very patient about and really helped me with… He taught me how to return authentically to childhood, and we ended up making something that feels more true as a result.”

Ultimately, that truth drives a genuine emotional reaction. Authenticity is something impossible to create a formula for, “there’s no way to engineer it in a foolproof way beforehand, you have to cross your fingers and hope that it feels real.” For Luca, Andrews defines authenticity as “this marriage of art, voice, and text.” Specifically, much of making the characters feel like realized people fell on the shoulders of the actors. Jacob Tremblay as Luca, Jack Dylan Grazer as Alberto, and Emma Berman as Giulia all breathe life into the film and round out the characters into people who could exist offscreen.

The Responsibility of the “Keepers of the Machine”

Giulia, Luca, and Alberto sit around the kitchen table with plates of pasta in front of them.

Andrews believes that it is possible to connect to people broadly through specificity, an underrated strength of storytelling. The fear that specificity will disconnect the average viewer is “a pitfall of the makers of big commercial movies.” Because actually, “the more specific you are, the more realized the world will feel and the more, as a viewer, you’ll disappear into it. When we watch movies, we become the character on the screen, and the more real that character is, the more completely we become the character. We lose ourselves for a little while, and it’s this magical feeling of transmutation.”

Many specific stories, primarily those of minority experiences, never have the chance to be told due to the profit-driven structure of Hollywood. Citing its box office success as a “watershed” moment for diverse stories on the big screen, Andrews mentions Black Panther. “I wish it wasn’t about [the money] as much as it is,” he says. “But as long as it is, let’s recognize that these kinds of inclusive stories do get people to theaters and enter the culture in really big and wonderful  and yes, profitable ways.”

The movie-making “machine” is gradually expanding its storytelling scope, and Andrews is optimistic about the increasing and unrelenting pressure the world is placing on “the keepers of the machine to use it more responsibly, more ethically.” All artists have a responsibility to depict the world as it authentically is, but “the responsibility of bringing the full variety of stories to the world, pragmatically speaking, rests very heavily on the most powerful story-making companies.

Storytelling is deeply commercial in this capitalistic society, and the structure of that society is probably not going to change any time soon.” And when it comes to telling underrepresented stories, “there is no shortage of artists who are the right ones to tell them… and sure, those of us who already have access, we need to make our stories as inclusive as possible. But there’s no substitute for finding and empowering the storytellers who do not yet have the megaphone.”

Andrews points out that when it comes to the importance of stories, “we live in a world that is so shaped by storytelling. Most of politics, for example, is storytelling. And those stories are often irresponsible and self-serving.”This is why he believes movies are so important—they are “actually the substance of our understanding of the world.”

“That’s what draws me to them,” he shares, “Probably what draws you to them, too.”

‘Luca’ Now Streaming on Disney+

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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