Interviews · Movies

Chris Butler Explores Identity and the Pleasures of Evolution in ‘Missing Link’

We chat with the artist and director about his most personal work yet and bringing classic blockbuster adventure to Laika Studios.
Missing Link Set Visit
Brad Gullickson / Laika Studios
By  · Published on April 11th, 2019

The quest for self-discovery is populated with many characters. You cannot do it alone. Every encounter stacks atop another, and each confrontation carves the path that leads to identity. Laika Studios is never satisfied with telling a simple adventure story. Each one of their films travels in the tradition of informative folktale offering its audience a guide to the toils we battle along our way to enlightenment.

Missing Link may leave the child protagonists behind in favor of tryhard explorers and sasquatches, but in exposing the turbulent transition at the end of the Victorian era, writer/director Chris Butler concocts a rewardingly relevant exploit. As we saw in our set-visit last month, no stop-motion affair is the product of one man, but Butler has been processing this particular story for at least fifteen years. The film began as sketches in his notebook, and from one hairy avocado drawing came Laika’s largest production so far.

Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is desperate for the admiration of his peers despite their total disgust and disbelief of the cryptozoological wonders that he seeks in his expedition. When he receives word of a Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, Frost leaves immediately to prove his worth to England’s noblemen. He does indeed find Bigfoot (Zach Galifianakis) traipsing about the woods, but the one discovery leads to a globe-trotting saga spanning North America, the Atlantic, and the Himalayas. With a rival’s widow (Zoe Saldana) as their escort, the two bumbling travelers find acceptance of each other as well as themselves.

I spoke to Butler over the phone on the week of the film’s release. Our conversation begins with his desire to branch out from the usual Laika experience and embrace the blockbuster characters of his youth. Missing Link was his opportunity to cram everything he loved into one movie, but he quickly realized that such overstuffing was impossible, and through his small team of artists, they whittled his passions into a singular experience. We also discuss the technological and emotional change that was occurring during the last days of the Victorian era and how it relates to the world around us today.

Fifteen years is an exceptionally long time for a story to rattle around in your noggin, and there is a terror involved in finally placing Missing Link in front of an audience. Butler, of course, wants you to love it. He wants his friends to become your friends, and he hopes this departure from the Laika mold allows the studio to venture down various new avenues.

Here is our conversation in full:

When you place Missing Link next to other Laika films, the one element that stands out is the point of view. This is the first one without children. Was that something you were eager to change or was Laika the one pushing to break free from kid-centric adventures?

The thing is I had three first acts of three different scripts, and they’re all very different, and I gave them to Laika and said, “Do you like any of these?” And, fortunately, they chose the one that I wanted to do the most, which was Missing Link, and I think we both kind of gravitated towards that because it did feel different. I think part of that was that it was an adult protagonist. It was a different tone. It felt like it could be potentially very colorful. So I think, yes, it was both Laika and me wanting something different.

I know Missing Link found its early inspirations from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sherlock Holmes. Those are huge cultural influences, and bring their own baggage with them. What’s that imaginative filter process look like in the early stages of production?

Well, it was a starting point, really. I’d always wanted to do something that felt like a big action adventure comedy. To be honest, I don’t think we could’ve made this movie before now. From the scale of it, I don’t think it would’ve been possible to make this ten years ago, or even when I was doing ParaNorman. It’s too big, but I think what we’ve learned from the last four movies, and the innovations that we’ve made technically at the studio, it felt like this was the right time to do a movie of this scope and scale.

So as ambitious as it was to try and do a stop-motion Indiana Jones movie, I thought, “If I’m going to do it, now is the time to do it.” And then, of course, it kind of evolves. It becomes its own thing. I don’t want to just copy someone else. I want it to have its own life, its own vitality, and so it became very quickly an odd couple. I’ve described it in the past as Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes meets Planes Trains and Automobiles. So, you cherry pick from your favorite movies, and you can be inspired by them, but ultimately, you have to have your own story to tell.

When I went to Laika Studios last month to visit your sets, I was blown away by how extreme the designs were, and to your point, how you could not have built these puppet sculpts five years ago let alone ten years ago. The advances in 3D printing have been astronomical.

Yes, that is true.

What was your inspiration behind the design of the characters?

Yeah. Again, when I first started, I wanted to do something very different. On ParaNorman, I worked with character designer called Heidi Smith, who came up with the beautifully idiosyncratic asymmetrical designs. So for me, it was like I want to go polar opposite on this one. I want something that’s very stylized but very symmetrical, almost graphic. Simple shapes. That was inspired partly by the way I draw, I suppose.

Initially, I didn’t intend to be a character designer on the movie. In fact, I was looking around for someone else who could come around and make it their own, but the interesting thing was, apart from my writing process, is that I’m always sketching in my notebooks. It helps me write, so I had drawings of these characters that date back maybe 15 years. The first drawing that I ever did of Link is just this very rough, scratchy drawing, and people have since described it as a hairy avocado. There is just something about that drawing, and people kept saying that they thought it was really charming and lovable. I think it was just the simple shape.

So, ultimately, I was like, “I’ve got to start this. There is something in this drawing that I need to pursue.” And then I worked. It was really a small team. It was me, Julian Wells, and Warwick Johnson Cadwell, who himself is a very prolific and highly regarded illustrator and comic artist. And between the three of us, we figured out this whole world, but it was based on the simplest of rough sketches that I did in a notebook 15 years ago.

And the world and the sets all build out from the designs of the characters.

Yes. I mean, that’s the way Nelson Lowry, our production designer, approaches it. When he gets involved, there’s always early discussions about where do we think we can go with this, and I like to start very early days creating my own “look book,” where I pull together references of stuff that interests me, and I’ll show that to Nelson, and we’ll talk it through.

Nelson was very taken, I think, by those initial character designs because they were so stylized, almost absurdly stylized, and I think immediately he was tantalized by the fact that we are traveling half the globe in this movie, and that has to feel like recognizably the world we live in, but it also has to fit with these weird looking stylized people. And I think that challenge immediately tickled his creative taste buds. But he always says, “You start with the character, and you build out around it.”

What is in this “look book” of yours? What are you putting in there? 

Initially, there was a lot of photography from National Geographic. Portraiture by Steve McCurry. Illustrations from a guy called Errol Le Cain. He was a production designer on an animated movie that we never finished called The Thief and the Cobbler, and he did these amazing graphic, heavily patterned designs, and I was very much influenced by his storybook illustrations as well. I had screen grabs from movies that I like, Raiders. I had screen grabs from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. A whole bunch of different influences. A bunch of comic artists in there.

There’s too much initially, but it does start the conversation, and it really starts figuring out which bits of this are going to inform our movie, and what are we going to push to the side. I think a big part for me was it’s set in Victorian times, and people often spoke of Victorian times of black, and brown, and gray, and drab. Like London fog, and Jack the Ripper kind of stuff. But the truth was that it was a really vibrant time. There was a lot of colors, and the Victorians were obsessed with patterns. They had heavily, densely patterned wallpaper. The clothing, it was nuts. That became a big influence on this, too. Creating patterns out of the natural world, the replication of trees in a way that gave it a very stylized quality but still felt like a real place.

Well, you talk about how technology aids how this film could look now today versus what it could’ve looked like ten years ago. The Victorian era was also an era of tremendous technological advances, and I think we tend to forget about that aspect of the period.

Absolutely, and that was important to the story as well because it’s about stepping out into a bigger world, and it’s about explorers. In a contemporary movie, it just wouldn’t work the same because when you have access to knowledge everywhere, every hour of the day, we know everything. We see everything. There was something about that era when people were really spreading out, and delving into the densest forests. It’s that age of exploration felt exactly right, where the world was opening up.

What I responded to in the film is this idea of confrontation. With change comes confrontation. You have the older noblemen who want to stick to the ways of their exploration, what their idea of man is, and you have Sir Lionel Frost, who is breaking out, and exploring, and discovering something that contradicts what they believe.

Yes. Definitely. I think when you start writing, you just have a feeling in mind. To me, the feeling was fellowship. I think in the past at Laika, we’ve looked at family, and that’s fairly typical for animated movies because it’s particularly resonant for families and kids, but to me, it was the idea of not just family but friendship. The people that you pick to be around you. And so empathy was a big part of it.

It is also about identity, and how your identity is what you give yourself. It’s not what other people put upon you. That was part of the fun of writing it. Having these characters who are very driven, but they’re kind of driven in the wrong direction, and it’s only through their interaction with each other that they realize that maybe these ambitions that they have need to change, and they can find a place that.

My favorite moment in the movie is when Link chooses his name. Susan.

Oh, good.

When I saw that moment in the trailers, I was trying to figure out your point of view at that moment. Was this Susan name just a gag, but in the context of the film, you realize it is about finding yourself, identifying yourself. Pulling this name from a person who inspired him, who saw him for who he was and loved him for who he was. Of course, he chooses Susan as his name.

Yeah, that was really important to me. As I said, I wanted the message to be about choosing one’s own identity. That’s the unfortunate thing, I think, in trailers. I want it to play out as a playful moment because I think it makes some bigger things way more palatable, and it’s a heartwarming moment, I think.

Yes, for sure.

But when you take it out of context, it does just become a joke, and so I, personally, just so you know, I didn’t want that in the trailer.

Oh, really?

I felt it robbed it of its importance. You know, but I’m glad that you picked up on it because when you’re writing something like that, you don’t know whether people are going to get it, and I didn’t want it to just come across as a joke at Link’s expense. It’s trying to say much more than that.

Yeah, and the characters end up accepting him with that name, and it doesn’t become a plot point. That just ends up being his name.

Exactly. It was important for Lionel’s character, too, because you can see him struggling with it, but the fact is he’s trying to be a better person. You’ve got this character who is pretty flawed, he’s pretty self-obsessed, but you see him working through it, and trying to improve himself. And I think that’s wonderful to watch.

Yeah, and at the end of the day, it really feels like Missing Link is about Lionel. His growth as an accepting person, an empathetic person.

Yeah, definitely. And you said it. It’s about Lionel finding some empathy.

What I love about stop-motion and animation, in general, is that you have to voice cast so early on in the production before you really even get to work on the puppetry. I guess you have the designs, and then you cast voices to those designs, but in grabbing Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, and Hugh Jackman you’re setting the course for the animation process.

Yeah. You do have designs, but they’re not all been finalized at that point because it is so early in the process. When these guys come into record, all they have is themselves in a booth with a script in front of them. There’s not much else. It is important to record the voices at the start because there’s a reason that you get good actors for these things. It’s not just for a celebrity name. You’re hiring them because they are really good actors, and they bring so much more to a part. To me, what’s thrilling is when a character who has existed in my head for years suddenly starts evolving into something else. You’ve got Hugh Jackman or Zoe Saldana in the booth, and they’re adding a perspective to it that’s their own, and suddenly this character starts to change and starts to become more complex. And, actually, oftentimes when I’m recording them, I’m rewriting the characters because they might try something from a slightly different point of view that is better.

That’s very rewarding when we see this character become real, just starts to live and breathe in front of you. It could’ve been very easy to make Link just like a buffoon, just like a butt of a joke. He’s this big apeman in a suit, and I knew it had to be more than that, and I think what drew me to Zach is that his humor has a certain vulnerability to it. An awkwardness that comes from a sense of displacement and that was perfect for Link. He’s this character who steps out into the wide world that he’s never encountered before. He is a little awkward, and that was so great that Zach could do. It gave the characters such warmth. I defy anyone not to want Link as their friend.

I certainly want action figures of Link. I’m desperate for those.

Oh, me, too.

So get on that. Get those guys making those.

Okay. Will do. [Laughter]

Now, this was a five-year production process, right?

Yeah. That’s right. I mean, maybe a year in development, another year in pre-production, two years for shooting, and then you’ve got a little bit of post-production at the end, so we’re looking at pretty much five years.

This is obviously not your first film, but that’s a hell of a lot of time to devote to one artistic endeavor, and now here you are bringing it out into the world, and it’s screening in front of people, and you’re going to have to let it go. What is that experience like?

It’s terrifying. I think when you start on these things, you don’t really think about the ending. You just think, “I want to tell this story,” and along the way, you’re asking for the trust and the hard work of all these artists, 460 of them. We were putting everything into telling this story. What we want at the end of it is to have an entertaining movie with compelling characters that people can fall in love with, but suddenly, you find yourself at this place where … I mean, it’s an unusual feeling because I love the movie and I want people to love it as much as I do, but it is kind of like standing in front of a crowd and dropping your pants. It’s like you’re exposing yourself to the world, and you just hope that they see something they like. [Laughter] Maybe don’t use the dropping the pants line.

[Laughter] No promises.

[Laughter] Okay.

Missing Link opens in theaters everywhere on April 12th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)