Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry goes right to the source with exclusive comments from Luca writer-director Enrico Casarosa on the movies and filmmakers that served as inspiration for the Pixar animated feature.
Pixar animators have always paid tribute to other movies in their work, and the studio’s twenty-fourth feature, Luca, is no exception. Posters for such Hollywood classics as Roman Holiday (1953) and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) make literal appearances in the background, while another old film, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), is paid homage through an ad for a made-up movie called “Attack of the Sea Monster.” And there are so many more direct references to be found on screen, like little cinephile easter eggs for viewers to hunt while watching.
Many of those eggs were hatched by Luca co-writer and director Enrico Casarosa because they make sense to be there — the animated feature is set on the coast of Italy in the late 1950s (or early 1960s), and most of the real films referenced are from that era and relevant to either Italy or the sea. But they are also favorites of the filmmaker, who seems, even more than is typical of the studio’s creators, to wear his influences on his sleeve. Luca is definitely its own wonderful standalone thing, but the movie also takes inspiration from a variety of works of art and cinema and blends it into a sort of remix echoing back in reverence and reflecting as layers of pastiche.
Unlike most Movie DNA columns, this one has the benefit of hearing about these inspirations and influences right from the man himself. Casarosa has briefly and broadly mentioned some of his influences in other interviews while promoting Luca, but I reached out to the filmmaker for deeper insight into his creative process as it relates to these works that consciously sparked ideas for the story and the style of the movie. Chatting via Zoom, I asked him about both obvious and obscure (but previously acknowledged) films and filmmakers, and the compiled entries below are the result of him “geeking out,” as he said, about these loves of his that he was able to “cross-pollinate” into something fresh and new.
Here are the movies that made Luca:
Breaking Away (1979) and Stand By Me (1986)
Let’s begin with the movie that got us wanting to chat with Enrico Casarosa in the first place after he retweeted one of our articles. Peter Yates’ Breaking Away is an Oscar-winning drama about a group of outsiders (called “cutters”) who clash with the local college kids, particularly one hotshot athlete. If that doesn’t sound enough like it shares elements with Luca, one of the boys is obsessed with Italy and pretends to be someone he isn’t in order to fit in, and the movie climaxes with a bicycle race where the protagonists are the underdogs.
While the main characters are relatively old for a coming-of-age movie, Breaking Away fits into the genre enough that it can be lumped in with Stand By Me — which was more of an inspiration for an earlier incarnation of Luca involving more of a journey — so that’s why that Stephen King adaptation is also discussed in the lead up to Casarosa talking about the focus of this entry.
It always helps when we make our stories to think of other successful movies that have structurally interesting things. And so of course, I mention ‘Stand By Me’ often. I think in one of our first pitches, someone said, ‘Oh yeah, kind of the Italian ‘Stand By Me.’ So that came up pretty quickly. But ‘Breaking Away,’ there’s a lot of love for that movie at Pixar in general. And I’ve always loved it. There’s something so charming about this protagonist, how he’s trying to be someone he’s not with this Italian thing. And then we often look at movies and we try to analyze them, and then I looked up the history of it, and it was so interesting that the screenwriter had put two different scripts into one. Because it did feel a bit like, structurally, there were different things going on.
We had a lot of meat on the fire in the beginning and were trying to figure out, well, is the story more about these two worlds coming together and these two factions of sea folks and humans having to deal with each other, or is it more about the friendship. And that is what made us think about that movie because they really juggled beautifully those two sides of the friends and also the coming-of-age but also this whole other thing with the cutters and the college kids; it had all these wonderfully complex things. So what I loved about it is that it wasn’t going to say no, it’s only this or it’s only that. A movie as simple and as small in scope as it is does juggle those two things. So that was really helpful.
And it also made us think a little bit like there’s something so satisfying about some sort of event as your ending of the movie. It made us go toward this idea of a little bit of the engine of the second and third act could be the race. That is how it kind of influences us that way. And how we wonderfully weave those stories together. It was one of those things of we need a good engine here. For a while, there was a kid adventure, like some movies have them build a house, some movies have a fort of sorts, or there’s some sort of contest. And we really wanted something that could engage them in different ways, and then we wanted something that was Italian — Italian enough.
So we thought, well, actually a triathlon isn’t terribly Italian. We started thinking, oh, there’s three kids, we should just let it be different things. That way it’s not about all of them at once, but then you get this nice mix of things. That’s how we started thinking about it. It’s a little more of a structural thing that is kind of a fun thing that makes you interested in what’s going to happen next. Like ‘Breaking Away’ did, and how can we do it in our way? That’s when you start brainstorming and adding, well, maybe we should make something with the water. We should make it hard on them.
And then but it’s Italy. Let’s find some really fun way to — how do we make it Italian? Which is actually kind of a paradox because in Italy, eating contests where you eat a lot of food and kind of get sick is not really culturally right. But I knew that if we didn’t lean too much into it’s going to be a humongous amount of pasta or something, that could work. But food eating contests, not really from Italy. I felt like, hey, let’s put some pasta, let’s have some fun with that.
I think what I got out of ‘Breaking Away’ is that I loved that they were able to do a coming-of-age story with a friendship story with a whole story about being outsiders with the cool kids. That’s what I really appreciated the most, overall.
The Films of Hayao Miyazaki
Normally I wouldn’t include an entire filmmaker’s oeuvre in a Movie DNA list, but there’s not a single work by Hayao Miyazaki — whom Enrico Casarosa calls “a huge part of me” — that most influenced Luca. Maybe Future Boy Conan, since that’s at the beginning of Miyazaki’s career as a director, but it’s a TV series, and I won’t cheat by going with the 1979 theatrical film release compiled from episodes of the anime because Miyazaki disapproved of that version and took his name off it. Unfortunately, no version has ever been officially available in the US anyway as it’s legally barred from being distributed here.
I’ll admit I was further torn about having this entry be so broad in scope because Luca definitely seems to align more with the cuter, simpler films of Miyazaki, such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), in a way I see analogous to Pixar’s more abstract conceptual features (Inside Out, Soul) lining up with Miyazaki’s darker, trippier fantasies (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). But Casarosa loves Miyazaki enough that the films collectively are felt in Luca, whether atmospherically or more blatantly, a la the town of Portorosso being a reference to Porco Rosso (1992) and some of the plot being reminiscent of Ponyo (2008) — though ironically the latter was apparently never on Casarosa’s mind while making his movie. See his comments below.
I love ‘Ponyo,’ but I just think it falls apart. I feel when you talk about ‘Totoro,’ what I got out of Miyazaki was less a specific movie that I could tell you. I just love the visual style that he embraces, so that’s a huge influence, for me. The way he works, the way he watercolors. I just love that, and I took through the years so many cues from his work. I’m the kind of guy who’s like, ooh, the pencil, I’m going to get that pencil, I’m going to try that pencil. I was pretty nerdy about following what he does.
What I think influenced me the most is that I like lyrical moments. For instance, when I made ‘La Luna,’ I was able for six minutes and fifty seconds to just make an all-lyrical moment. So the challenge for me was I could only carve some of that tone in a movie, which is kind of harder to do. How do we stay a little bit simpler in the world of kids? Because that is, for example, when I think of ‘Totoro,’ that’s what I love about that movie, it is beautifully of that world, and the logic of it stays within the kid logic. I think his sense of the world with the kids, the sense of wonder towards nature — those are the things I absolutely love.
I really wanted this kind of protagonist who experiences things for the first time. You can lean into the little lyrical moments. We called them “reveries” when we were making it. It’s a little reverie into hearing the sounds, seeing the details. He’s never done that. But that enables us to shine a light on the little things that maybe we don’t notice anymore. I love that, and that is certainly something I got in my DNA from his movies that are so beautiful that way.
And also the attention to detail. I just love to get the beautiful specifics. It’s been so wonderful to get a lot of people from my area in Italy to be like, “Oh my gosh, you got the sound of the pebbles on the wave going down back into the sea.” Because it’s not a sandy beach. I really did care about getting the specifics down to the sounds. So I think that’s a lot of what his inspiration is, this magical crazy thing he does that I don’t think anyone else has been able to do. I don’t know that I’ve seen other directors take you into that world of kids where he’s able to see the world through those eyes. That’s what I really got out of it.
‘Ponyo’ has so many wonderful details, but I guess I didn’t think about it as much. Because, you know, you think about the influences a bit in the front. You say, oh, it could be a bit like ‘Stand By Me,’ but then when you’re on the way, every once in a while you say, oh no, you can’t do that because that’s too close to the movie. So it becomes like: ‘The Little Mermaid’ was one of those things where sometimes we forget, oh no, we can’t do that because then it will make us think too much of that. For me, it was making sure that we stayed away from the ones that were a little bit close. And leaning into the fact that we had enough other things that were different, hopefully.
And then I think I just can’t help put little homages. There’s this old TV series from Miyazaki where the protagonist had this little tank top, and Alberto has a pretty similar tank top that’s a little homage to that. It’s from ‘Future Boy Conan.’ What’s fascinating about Miyazaki is that he’s idiosyncratic himself, so he has these slightly darker movies, and I find it pretty fascinating. Like ‘Princess Mononoke’ is so complex and wonderful and dark in a different way.
I’ll say one last thing: there is also what inspired your inspirations? We had this wonderful realization. We were looking at woodblock prints of boats and the reflections in the water, and we realized that beautiful old woodblock prints were simplifying the reflection of the water like Ghibi movies do. So I was like, I wouldn’t be surprised if Miyazaki’s been inspired by that tradition. So it was really cool to look at that.