Pixar Animation Studios famously obsesses over its story beats, to the point where every one of its movies comes with some interesting stories about early versions that were radically different. Hearing about the false starts, resets, and reconsiderations — like the version of Toy Story 2 where Jessie the cowgirl was replaced with the Prospector Pete sidekick “Senorita Cactus” — is almost as much fun as watching the movies. So when Polygon was offered an interview with Kelsey Mann, the story supervisor for Pixar’s new fantasy-quest movie Onward, we jumped at the chance to hear about the versions of the movie that didn’t happen. Here’s what Mann had to say about the villain who was written and dropped from the picture, the reason Pixar had to reverse the hero’s motivations, how a classic roleplaying quest came out of writers who didn’t know what a manticore was, and more.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
What’s the day-to-day job like for a Pixar story head?
I was on Onward since the very beginning, and I was on it until the very, very end. I think a lot of people think story artists just get the script and draw it. But at Pixar, we really work with the director and writer to help shape the most compelling, moving, entertaining story. My job as story supervisor was to oversee the team of story artists through the storyboarding process. But on this film — Dan Scanlon, our director, and Kori Rae, our producer, we all worked together on Monsters University. We all came back after a nice long break from making that movie and helped shape this movie. I worked on the story right alongside with him and the writers.
This film came out of Dan’s own life — his father’s death, his relationship with his brother. Was the idea always to translate those ideas into a fantasy quest? Or was there a process in getting from his personal experience to the particular shape of this story?
At Pixar, they always want to have the directors tell a personal story that’s really meaningful to them, because it’ll be meaningful to other people, and be something honest and true. So Dan looked at his own life and thought, “What have I gone through that helped shape who I am?” When he was six months old, his dad passed away, so he has no memory of his father. He’s got an older brother named Bill, three years older than him, who doesn’t have any memory of their father either. And he thought, “What if a character like me had an opportunity to spend one day with that person they lost? But how could they? How can I make that happen for a character in a movie?” And he thought “Well, maybe a spell? It’d have to be magic or something.” That’s really where the fantasy part came from.
Because Pixar is so diligent and in-depth about developing stories, your films usually go through a lot of iterations. What are the alternate versions of Onward, the versions you discarded because they didn’t work?
We do multiple screenings at the studio. Every three months, we’ll put the whole movie up. On this movie, we did eight internal screenings. And you’re right — if you watched the first screening of this movie, it’d be so much different from the one released in theaters. A lot was different. But the ending, we always knew how we wanted to end this movie, and what we wanted to say. We had the ending of the movie in screening one, and we haven’t touched it since. I don’t think that’s ever happened at Pixar before.
But everything else changed around it dramatically. Like the character of Ian [played by Tom Holland] was initially really into magic. He was more like Barley [Chris Pratt], a real fantasy expert. He loved magic and wanted to do it, but he was struggling at becoming a wizard. His dad was a master wizard who knew the secret to magic, so Ian really wanted to meet him because he had the answer of how to become a wizard. But we found that really wasn’t emotional. It felt like he was using his dad to get what he wanted. He didn’t want to meet Dad for emotional reasons, he wanted, like, a trade secret. It lacked emotion. We found the movie really worked when we switched things around, so Ian had to learn magic to meet Dad. That ultimately gave us a more satisfying reason why he wanted to talk to his father.
What about the the quest elements? Even with the ending locked, the individual quest steps could have been anything. How did you go about developing those story beats?
It was super-fun. We always knew we were going to go on a classic fantasy quest in a modern world. And we knew we were going to gradually head to a more high-fantasy place. It starts out modern, but it ends really in a fantasy place. That was by design — the further along they get, the more it’s classic fantasy, the more we get into magic, and into Barley’s world. There’s a point in act two where Ian starts to accept and not fight Barley’s suggestions, and starts to lean into the fantasy. He’s kind of a fantasy cynic in the beginning, until he slowly gets won over by magic and fantasy. So it was super-fun to do the combination of modern and fantasy, and then it was really fun to go full fantasy. We had a blast.
What went into developing the Manticore character? The middle-aged monster badass is an unusual character type for Pixar.
Yeah, she’s a great character. A manticore is actually a real fantasy creature, which I hadn’t heard about. We didn’t make that up. It’s like a combination of a scorpion and a bat and a lion. It’s comical how many things they jammed together into one creature. Dan thought that was funny at first, to have a character like that. Then we had the idea, “Well, all fantasy quests begin in a tavern. What’s the modern equivalent of a tavern? It would be funny if it’s sort of a family restaurant, like the traditional tavern has become an Applebee’s or a TGI Fridays. We storyboarded that version early on, but that was the only time we saw the Manticore, in the tavern.
And we fell in love with the Manticore, so we looked for a way for her to continue the adventure. We especially got excited when we cast Octavia Spencer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We thought, “It’ll be really great if we could put the two of them together in a car.” We just liked the idea of those two really talented actresses working together to try and help the boys.
If you and Dan weren’t fantasy or gaming experts, how did you bone up on the genre? How did you get from never having heard of manticores to producing a film full of Dungeons & Dragons tropes and references?
So I’m involved with casting the story department. And I wanted to make sure I had a well-balanced team. That included people who could care less about fantasy, because if I could win them over with a story, that’d be a great sign that what we were doing was working. But I also wanted people on the team who were really into fantasy, because I wanted them to love it too. And we had a couple people, Austin Madison and Louise Smythe, two story artists on the team who are hardcore into fantasy and roleplaying games. Austin runs his own games. The two of them were always super-helpful about establishing the authenticity of the way gaming actually works. Dan’s not into — he doesn’t know a lot about fantasy and roleplaying games, so we wanted to surround ourselves with people who are.
I actually helped organize a group of fantasy experts as consultants on the movie. We affectionately referred to them as the Fellowship. It was a group of people from not just the story department, but all the departments on the movie, a collection of like, 10 people who had different expertise. Some people really knew fantasy novels, some really knew movies, some really knew games. It was a really great resource. Every once in a while, Dan would have a question about fantasy, and he’d need a name or a fact, and he’d always say, “Take that to the Fellowship and see what they can come up with.”
There’s no real villain in this movie, no defeating the Dark Lord or whatever. Was there any iteration of this movie where you felt like you needed an antagonist?
We initially had some more antagonistic forces. In our first couple screenings, we always knew the characters were going to go on a quest to get an item to finish Dad. And something was always guarding it. For the longest time, that was a character. But it never really made sense as to why. What was their motivation for holding this thing back? It had to have a point of view on magic, and it ended up feeling like this character was stopping magic from being out in the world. It just complicated things. And we realized we didn’t really need it. We didn’t want to hear a new point of view on magic. So we nailed down what we have in the film, where something is protecting their ultimate goal, but it’s kind of a mindless machine. And that works a lot better.
You’re getting a lot of attention around the film’s gay character, and how casually and normally you introduce her. How did you discuss handling that story element?
It’s interesting how the world has taken to that. We didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Initially, both those police officers were male. But we wanted the film to be as diverse and balanced as possible. So at some point, we were like, “There’s no reason they couldn’t be female.” And then we’re reflecting a real, modern world, our world the way it is. So that came later in the process, and it wasn’t a huge discussion or anything. It was just like, “This would be a great way to represent the diverse, modern world that we live in.”
Speaking of which, several years back, there were some big stories circulating about Pixar’s sexist culture, and how difficult it was for women to escape harassment or be heard. Have there been process changes around those issues in the wake of John Lasseter’s departure?
We definitely went through a big change with John leaving the studio, and having Pete Docter step in as our chief creative officer. We’ve been making sure that our teams — not only that people are heard, but that the teams are balanced. When I first started at Pixar, there was only one woman in the entire story department, Valerie LaPointe. Now, there are lot more women there. I wish I knew the number. But in story at least, I was responsible for helping cast the team, and I wanted to make sure it was as balanced as possible. It was more like 50/50 on this team. And I always need support as a story supervisor, so I had a role called the story lead, kind of my second in command, to help run the team, and help Dan with the script. Maddie Sharafian was one of our story leads, alongside Adam Campbell. So Maddie was able to step up and make sure that her voice could be heard. And Dan and Kori, they’re always open to hearing everyone’s thoughts. That was a big priority to us on this film.