A Conversation with Pamela Ribon
In this episode, writer and best-selling author Pamela Ribon discusses writing the Disney films Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
writer and bestselling author, Pamela Robin.
- I like to do surprising characters.
I like comedy that has a little bit of heart,
might make you sad at some point.
I like the sound when an audience goes.
Like when they don't want to cry--
I like that.
And then when the laughter gives into tears.
That's our favorite emotion.
Like it's a real thing.
[Narrator] In this episode writer and bestselling author,
Pamela Ribon, discusses writing the Disney Films Moana
and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
- A lot of Disney product is done out of books that had...
IP that existed already, and this was a story
that wasn't a story book.
It wasn't something that we were all familiar with.
- Well the director's, it's a director driven studio.
So they have these areas and ideas of what they'd
like to explore.
And so for Ron and John, it was, it was Polynesian,
specifically these myths.
It is fairy tales and mythology, right?
So it's still...
but it's just of this culture.
They also were very interested in the great migration where,
for about a thousand years, these navigators stopped
looking for new islands.
They found Fiji and then that was it.
And it took a thousand years before Tahiti and it was like...
they still don't know.
Was it a climate change or was it like,
"This place is real pretty"?
I think we're good here in Fiji.
Or was it because of this one girl's dream
and her destiny to reunite the islands?
- So a lot I guess was written about or has been written
or may still be being written about the Disney princess
in Moana who is not a princess at all, but a chief.
And then all of the prior princesses.
But there were a couple before, like Merida and Elsa, right?
Who are not really quite as traditional.
They're not in love with men
as part of the primary role in the film.
She doesn't even have a boyfriend, Moana.
- Well, that was the thing, too.
Moana was, we knew Moana
wasn't going to have a love interest.
Her love is the sea.
And at some point then it was, is she a princess?
This is the...
At the same time, because of the way these work,
these movies work,
we're all jumping on each other's movies
for these screenings.
So every like two or three months, you screen your
film and then you get notes from 450 people and then you
tear it down and you start all over again.
You're like, I don't know what we were thinking.
I'm so sorry.
And you start over again.
And so that was deep in the Moana process when they were
having a conversation about
what the Wreck-It Ralph sequel could be.
And I had gone in, met with them and I just was thinking
like, why isn't Vanellope canon?
She is my kind of princess.
Also there's that coronation that happens at Disneyland
where they determine who's a princess and gets to be
a princess and there was discussion whether or not
Moana would become a princess
or is she a daughter of a chief?
And I would think a lot of then what are the qualities that
go into being a Disney princess?
As we modernize these princesses and we think
of their mythology a little differently,
their responsibility to future generations.
I thought well, who better to ask Vanellope what kind of
princess are you than than all of them?
That they all feel like, are you defined by your destiny?
Are you defined by what happened to you?
And this sort of internet knowledge that-
this internet version of them that we've already made
with hipster Ariel and things like that.
How can we embrace our passion and our love
for these princesses
or even our sometimes not always trusting of
what are you trying to sell me here?
- This one was also different in the sense that...
It felt like this was more of a coming of age Disney princess.
Was that something that you all were working through
as you were developing her character?
How were you trying to show her to the world?
- Yeah, well she started younger.
She started at 14 and that made a whole different dynamic
between her and her dad and also our feelings of her.
What she's doing is terrifying.
And so you do have to know that she has some confidence.
There were versions where she would test,
you know, try to go out against the reef and totally fail
or that she would try to go out and her dad would stop her
before she got too far out and she'd get in trouble.
There were versions when she was really, really little
and got into danger and Grandma would say,
"The ocean's not a toy,"
and so it was really trying to find that place where you're
rooting for her, but she hasn't arced.
She isn't a perfect girl, just always moving forward and
changing the world.
She has to come.
That's how you kept...
We have to have the coming of age moment or you're just
waiting for everyone else to know she's right.
- There's more fish beyond the reef.
There's more beyond the reef.
- [pig grunting, squealing]
- Oooh, oooh, whoa.
Not so bad.
- [pig squeals]
[dramatic suspenseful music]
- [deep breath]
- It seems like most characters when you're overtly stubborn
and you just keep moving forward and moving forward,
especially with youthful characters in movies,
she seemed like this was something that was part of
who she was and she was going to find this and I thought it
was great that she didn't get punished, that she was allowed
to move forward that way.
That there wasn't...
Maybe that was also because it was really her.
I mean, I think it was really interesting choice that
you spend half the movie just with her and Maui
on this open sea.
Whereas most Disney movies too have so many characters.
I mean, it must've been an interesting experience to be
writing a film for Disney where there were just so few
- There are no walls.
There's no props.
But yeah, there's nobody can knock on the door and like,
"Hi, who do you need?"
But there was also...
Maui is a powerful character.
He's very charismatic and how do you have someone hang with him
without him just taking over the film?
There were versions where it was as if she would just
hand the film over to him and be like,
this was maybe really your story.
It's compelling, because he does have...
I mean, he is compelling, but when you said she doesn't get
punished, the storyteller brain in me went well,
like, in the third act.
Like, she does do a thing that there are ramifications
and repercussions for her stubbornness.
She doesn't get punished by her dad, right?
And there were versions early on where she was very much
in trouble for the way that she believed.
There were times when it was also just realizing where
she took up space in the frame.
You know, if it looked like dad was talking to her
and you were up here where Dad's point of view is you,
you kinda didn't think that she had the right
to be saying these things.
But when she filled the frame she was the hero of her movie
and then you were rooting for her.
- I will talk to the counsel.
I'm sure we--
- What if we fish beyond the reef.
- No one goes beyond the reef.
- I know, but, if there are no fish in the lagoon--
- And there's a whole ocean--
- We have one rule--
- An old rule when there were fish.
- A rule that keeps us safe... - But Dad, I--
- ...instead of endangering our people so you can
run right back to the water!
- The other really interesting thing I found about
her was that she felt more like a CEO than a kid at times
because Maui was a narcissistic demigod
and she manipulated him.
And so that again wasn't something I was used to
seeing in a Disney film, which that character,
having that kind of strength.
- I think it was a lot of trying to make sure
you weren't telling a familiar version of a...
She was not a damsel in distress,
even if she was a girl with a problem.
And because you've got this big strong guy come in
and like already saying you're welcome, right?
So how do you...
You've got to be a little on...
Like, she's going to be clever here.
And there were versions when she was so excited to meet him.
Like you knew she was going to get hurt.
You just didn't trust this relationship at all.
And so she really had to have a lot of power.
- It's actually Maui, shape shifter,
demigod of the wind and sea,
hero of men.
From the top.
Hero of men.
- I am-
- Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Men and women.
All, not a guy, girl thing.
You know, Maui is a hero to all.
You're doing great.
I'm here to-
- Oh, of course. Of course.
Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Maui always has time for his fans.
When you use a bird to write with,
it's called tweeting.
Not every day you get a chance to meet your hero.
- You are not my hero
and I'm not here so you can sign my oar.
I'm here because you stole the heart of Te Fiti
and you will board my boat
and sail across the sea and put it back.
- You all created this thing called the Oceanic-
- Yeah, the Oceanic Trust.
- Oceanic Trust.
Yeah, what was that?
What was this and how did it play into the development
of this story?
- This was scholars and linguists and academics
who we would consult with all kinds of things.
We wanted to be respectful and that was the
most important thing, that it was authentic and respectful.
We did a lot of research and would talk to them about things.
- So they were involved in the process of development,
like all through.
And you had people from all over the world
that were part of that?
- Yeah, all of the Polynesia.
I'm sure it got more detailed as it got closer
to we're recording this line, you know?
Than where I was more in the, does this feel good to you?
Is this a Maui that is okay?
Because every island has kind of a different take on him,
but he's important.
- How does research fit into either spoiling
or making a better story?
- Well, it can do both.
I'll tell Moana's story.
So, we're in Polynesia.
We're presenting what we're doing and there's a scene
to show her grandmother that she had a really kind of good at
navigating sailing, was going to climb a coconut tree
and bring her the farthest coconut from the island.
And they were like, no, she can't.
She can't climb a coconut tree.
She just wouldn't.
You can't and you wouldn't.
Like a girl wouldn't do that.
And I was like, well what if...
Like I didn't want to lose this moment.
It was like the original,
it was a version of when you knew that Grandma Tala
had passed away.
And so it was like, well, what if it's like an important thing
that her grandmother's asked her to do and it's like her
She was like, she wouldn't do it.
You don't do it.
I said, okay.
What if she's alone on an island
and it's the only food source
and she has to climb the coconut tree to get the coconut
and this woman went, "She would wait."
And you know, you find another way to do this thing that
you can get that same feeling you want,
that you want that feeling of when
the Manta Ray breaches her boat.
How do you get that feeling and does it really matter
whether or not she's holding a coconut
or how can you get to that moment anyway?
- You're a long ways past the reef.
- Guess I chose the right tattoo.
- I tried Grandma.
I couldn't do it.
- Have you had the alternate?
So that's something that you ended up putting into a story
that you weren't even thinking about doing
and it made it, for you, a better experience?
- We went to the Griffith Park Observatory when it was
shut down and they said...
They just put us in the room, the story team,
and they said, "When did Moana set sail?"
And I had been working on like what time of year it would be
with the currents and stuff, because at the time, it was a...
That was the thing.
She had to go because of a certain current.
So I knew the time.
They went to their computer and they were like...
stars filled the whole planetarium.
They said, "So that's what the sky looked like
"the night she set sail.
So pick her star."
I was like, oh...
Look at-- every time I tell this story
because it's like, come on.
That's crazy to have this kind of access
but also to just when science and research and an expert
really gets to impress you with what they know.
It's like getting to be in the movie for a second.
- You have become the person certainly in the animated
world to create strong female characters, right?
- Odd, odd.
- Also different, strong female.
- I think I started with odd,
and then they were like odd lady.
Oh, she's an odd lady who's funny.
That's what I'll give you.
But yes, I like to do surprising characters.
I like comedy that has a little bit of heart,
might make you sad at some point.
I like the sound when an audience goes.
When they don't want to cry.
- Is there a name for that emotion?
- Hmmm, end of Act 2.
- So Vanellope.
You really doubled down on Vanellope, for sure,
because she was tough, you know.
And so can you talk about, in the people that you added
to that, because there were so many characters in that
first Wreck-It Ralph .
There were so many characters in that film,
and then you've got all them plus a whole new cast of
characters in Breaks the Internet .
So how did you approach that and how they fit into her story
of growth there?
- Rich Moore and Phil Johnston had already known they
wanted to take Ralph to the internet.
Why do a sequel?
Why bring these people out again?
And they had always thought of when you and your best friend
from a small town go to the big city,
you think nothing could ever tear you apart.
And then you go there and one of you falls in love
with the place.
And the other one is like, I can't wait to go home
and can we do that to these two
and really talk about how friendships change
and what insecurity can do,
the kind of lies you tell yourself and your friend
and to try to protect them.
And then Vanellope, much like Maui,
she's so smart and competent.
I'm not saying that Maui is, I'm saying that your secondary
character, when she is already kind of her own woman,
but she's not, she's a young girl.
So how do you give her a coming-of-age story?
And we started to think about,
well if the first Ralph ends with him saying,
"If that kid loves me, how bad can I be?"
If you really dive into that,
that's kind of a codependent statement.
You know, he can't revolve around her.
What's going to happen if she grows up and,
and wants something else?
And not from the beginning,
but had no idea this was a future she could dream.
And then how does that feel to know I think I want...
Female protagonists are often given, like I want more, right?
How many songs was I about to sing?
But I think that definitive feeling of it's not
because I can get more at the end of act one.
What is that thing in act three that I couldn't,
I could not have known the world I've unlocked for myself
because of the journey I went on.
And then how can you verbalize that?
So for Vanellope, it was, my game broke
and I don't know how to feel like I'm a racer ever again.
I don't know how to feel that moment when I don't know
what's going to happen and it's exciting.
We kind of leaned into she doesn't even know
how to say more.
And then that is a great place for Ralph to be like,
well, I'm great though.
Like, you've got me, that's all you need.
And so then once you're on the internet,
you've got to have a lot of characters.
- What am I gonna do all day?
- Wha- come on, are you kidding?!
You sleep in, you do no work.
Then you go to taverns with me every night.
I've literally just described Paradise.
- But I loved my game.
- Oh come on, you were just belly-aching
about the tracks being too easy.
- Well, that doesn't mean I didn't love it.
Ya, sure, it was kind of predictable but...
still, I never really knew what might happen in a race.
And, it's sad... it's that feeling,
that not knowing what's coming next feeling.
That's the stuff that,
that feels like life to me, and...
if I'm not a racer, Ralph...
what am I?
- Well, you're my best friend.
- That's not enough.
- I didn't really look at it as Ralph's movie.
I looked at it as Vanellope's movie
and I didn't think of her as a secondary character
in that film.
- Well they're a partnership. - Yeah.
- But there was a thing.
Is it going to be, the early on,
is it time for Vanellope to have her movie?
But you know, it's Wreck-It Ralph 2 .
It is Ralph.
It is through his opinion of what's going to happen
and for him to learn, oh, I'm the antagonist
and I am actually the problem here
and I have a choice to make of whether or not to
keep this girl from her potential
or to be a better friend and it's going to really hurt.
That was not an easy thing...
you know, that's a weird needle to thread.
Before he would sometimes do things that made him unlikable
and to be the antagonist ish,
but to also be the hero,
but not her hero all the way through.
We were, we wanted her to be her own hero too.
- So you took them to the dark net.
- Some parts. - Some parts [laughs].
- Was there ever a debate...
And it gets dark.
I mean, the film gets very dark in that space.
You know, the many Ralphs and just the psychological issues
that Ralph has that's created this virus that's
really a horrible virus.
Was there ever a question about how dark that was getting?
- Well, we also were like you can't make a movie about
the internet and pretend it's all rainbows and unicorns.
That's a little irresponsible, I think, particularly when
it's a story about a girl going out on her own on the internet.
There are dangers and there are ways that the movie
can introduce conversations on the ride home with the family,
But we also, yeah.
We knew we can't not talk about it or it's like pretending.
It wouldn't feel like the internet.
It has its good things and its bad.
And that's what the internet does.
It brings out the best and the worst in you, right?
Whether or not you're feeling anonymous or emboldened
with the crowd, but it takes the two movies for Ralph
to become a better person.
For him to really evolve.
And for this, when you meet Vanellope,
at the end of the first movie,
she's broken out of the place she was in,
but it takes that second movie for her to truly be free.
And then you were asking, when you were saying,
oh I don't think of it as a secondary character.
I guess it's because for us, you're right.
It is a two-hander as much as possible, but it is like
the story of Ralph ultimately over the two films.
- We're going to talk about the Disney princess scene
that showed up in Ralph Breaks the Internet .
It was a very odd place to have all these Disney princesses.
Surprising, very surprising.
- Surprising, yeah.
- And more surprising that you are Snow White.
I just did a little...
bust a little Calhoun, but because of our improv nature
and how we work, we do a lot of the scratch,
like four of us in the room
so that we can rewrite and then also an edit.
And so I'm most of the female characters when we're
just doing all these screenings.
When I first brought in the princess scene,
we were like, "Don't tell anyone."
Let's just do it because I think it's too easy
to say no to the concept.
When I wrote that scene after the first draft,
I genuinely had a small panic attack
and laid on the ground and texted a friend
and I said, I think I might get fired.
Like, I don't know what to do.
And I was texting her some of the lines and she was like...
just like emojis.
Like, I love everything about this.
And I was like, you have to tell me if...
because she's a true Disney, like in her soul.
She's my Mickey Pedia as I called her.
But I was like, you have to tell me if this is not okay.
And she was like, I think this is okay.
And I brought it in and they were like,
we're just going to board it and we'll see what happens.
So because of that, I was all of the princesses
for quite some time before we started
talking all the actresses into coming back.
Once they were like...
The whole thing got crazy when they like, and we're going
to get all the original Disney princesses.
And I'm like, what?
Like I'm turning into a Kristen Wiig character.
Like, "Oh my God, you got Ariel?"
So the original Snow White is no longer with us.
And so at that point, they had been animating because we were
going to D23 with this.
We were like, well let's test it out in front of every Super Fan.
- I'm a princess too.
- Wait, what?!
- Yeah, Princess Vanellope von Schweetz of the
Sugar Rush von Schweetzes?
I'm sure you've heard of us.
It'd be embarrassing for you if you haven't.
- What kind of a princess are you?
- What kind?
- Do you have magic hair? - No.
- Magic hands? - No.
- Do animals talk to you? - No.
- Were you poisoned? - No!
- Cursed? - No!
- Kidnapped or enslaved?
- No! Are you guys okay?
Should I call the police?
- Then I have to assume you made a deal with an
underwater sea witch, where she took your voice
in exchange for a pair of human legs?
- No! Good Lord!
Who would do that?!
- Have you ever had true love's kiss?
- Eww! Barf!
- Do you have daddy issues?
- I don't even have a mom!
- Neither do we!
- And now for the million dollar question:
Do people assume all your problems got solved
because a big strong man showed up?
What is up with that?
- She is a Princess!
- ♪ Ah, ah, ha, ah, ahhhh! ♪
- It was a huge hit for a scene though, right?
- It broke the internet, as they say.
Yes, it went well.
That the thing, like I had gone...
I've written things that have gone viral.
I'm a little like...
You can tell, when something's going to catch on.
- How much deep diving did you have to do going into
the concept of the internet, of taking these characters
inside the internet?
- You mean for, you're not talking about just the
princess scene now?
Because that was its own thing, right?
You have all these tropes and then I called my friend,
I was like, which ones were captured and she's like, what?
What are you doing?
Just, which ones have daddy issues?
And so then I had the right people saying the right things,
but that's the same thing with the internet.
Once we were sort of, I don't know.
Once we had kind of a layout of how the internet should feel
and we were able to find comps of like, okay,
well Ebay might feel like a big auctioneer house.
Then it's like I said, like you don't have walls.
Now suddenly you have some walls and you can start to picture
what kinds of conversations they can have in there,
where the fun can be.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation
with Pamela Ribon on On Story.
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