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Pixar’s Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Vital Thrills recently got a chance to attend the press conference for Disney and Pixar’s Elemental and talked to stars Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, as well as director Peter Sohn, producer Denise Ream, and singer/songwriter Ari Leff (Lauv).

Now playing in theaters, Pixar’s Elemental is set in Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in.

Pixar's Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Leah Lewis plays Ember Lumen, the Fire woman in the story. She was asked about why fire and water can’t be friends. Lewis said, “Ember does burn very bright, sometimes a little too bright, but there’s never a such thing. You know, she’s a very fiery, passionate, young, independent woman who is very, very close to her family and, so much so, that she has this dream of wanting to take over her family’s shop.

“And in the beginning, you see why Fire and Water don’t really get along. I mean, a lot is at stake for them, just even interacting. They could literally extinguish one another or snuff each other out. And that’s a pretty big thing. I don’t know if I would want to go near someone if our lives were on the line ’cause of that reason. But also, just fundamentally because they’re so different, they don’t really socialize in ways that they would, I guess, with other elements, and especially Fire, because Fire can kind of burn everything down.”

Pixar's Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Mamoudou Athie plays the Water man Wade Ripple in Pixar’s Elemental. He said of his character, “Wade, Wade, Wade.  Wade is an eternal optimist. He is also — and let me know what you think of this, Pete. I think he’s also a realist. He has like a pragmatic element to him when the going gets tough. He’s like, ‘Okay, what is the thing that needs to happen? And let’s do that.’

But he chooses to live his life in a very open-hearted way. And I say ‘chooses’ very specifically because it’s not — sure, his overall nature is like to be emotional. But I think he looks for the positive. He looks to see the positive in everything, and in everyone. That’s one of my favorite things about him, ’cause he’s just like a person who’s chosen — a person — a Water Guy [laugh] who has chosen to be as positive as he can for not only other people’s benefit, but his own.”

Pixar's Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Director Peter Sohn spoke about bringing these characters to life and the technical challenges involved. He said, “They were impossible. They were so difficult, but I did a lot of doodling. It’s like free writing, but you’re just allowing the pen to make images for you.  And when I drew Fire right next to Water, there was this wonderful tension that I couldn’t get enough of. So I knew right away that those would be sort of our main characters for this film. But there was no roads at Pixar to make characters like this.

“We were so used to building toys or metal cars, and trying to create a character that was entirely an effect was all new for the studio. We just had to bring a lot of construction workers to build this road for us to even get to an image that would come alive and emote, and before we were even talking about moving it. And, yeah, it was the conference of amazing artists, and I’m just so grateful for the amazing talent that everyone gave.”

Pixar's Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Producer Denise Ream described the world of Element City where Pixar’s Elemental is set. “We have our four classical elements, Earth, Wind, Air, and Fire, and each kind of has their own separate little community.  And really, it’s a joy to discover. I mean, honestly, I find something new every single time I watch the movie, kind of the richness.

“The city hall area is our Garden District. The Fire Shop is in Fire Town. And Wade’s family lives in this kind of beautiful water area. And we get to go to an air stadium to watch a fantastic sporting event. So there’s just a lot of really great dazzling imagery to kind of explore. “

Singer and songwriter Ari Leff (Lauv) said of his collaboration with Disney/Pixar: “I saw like early storyboards and just heard a little about Pete’s story and what inspired him in creating this. And I really related, I am a huge lover and I really related to like, you know, the love aspect to the film.

“I basically, like, you know, was seeing early versions of the scene and kind of wanted to create this song that had this feeling of someone coming into your life and totally changing everything for you, like totally changing the way you see yourself, the direction you see yourself going in, and yeah, that was the goal of the song.”

Sohn spoke about how the song came together. “I’ve always been a huge fan, and it’s because of his ability to capture these really raw feelings of love,” he said. “Like there was a song that I could not get out of our household. Our whole family just — ‘I Like Me Better.’ And there were this energy of being in a city and falling in love for the first time. There was this real energy of newness to it that just really excited all of us when we first started bringing Lauv into our world.  

“And then getting to show him those early storyboards, I remember Lauv, you connected to so many pieces of the movie, especially around this relationship between Fire and Water. And it moved me to no end that you had connected to it. Like, after our last meeting, I remember walking away from it, like kicking my heels like, ‘Wow, that was so great.’ You know, to just connect with Lauv on this. And then you went on tour, and then during that time you wrote this song.

“And I remember getting this thing back and then feeling the film in the DNA, meaning the story of Ember and Wade in the DNA of the song. And I was blown away.  I couldn’t believe that you captured the totality of this expression of these two impossible things coming together for the first time in a way that kept it moving and kept feeling like this is raw love. This is so new. It was just super exciting, and it was a tremendous gift that Lauv had given us. And, you know, forever grateful, Lauv. Seriously, thank you so much.”

Lauv answered, “No, I mean, it has everything to do with just, yeah, you and the story that you shared and that you’re sharing here and just inspiring. So thank you.”

Lewis spoke about what she had in common with Ember. She said, “I mean, just like Ember, I think she kind of mirrors a bit of a younger part of myself, too, one I think in the past was a bit more defensive.  And even though we kind of see her as really guarded, I think that she’s just a bit fearful to kind of like, step out into the world and see what these other elements have to offer ’cause she’s kind of only known one thing her life.

“But she’s beautiful. You know, she’s absolutely radiant. And I think the way that she moves, too, is just so elegant and so flowy, despite her being fire, which is something that can be so explosive. I mean, she has so much range. But she’s so loyal to her family and the things that mean the most to her. And I think that’s like a really admirable quality that I also kind of follow suit with. The things that I really care about, I would go to the ends of the Earth to fight for that as well.

“I think similarly with her having this intense passion that can kind of double as explosion, has also happened in my life, too. I’ve had a bit of an edgier side to myself, but I’ve actually, just like Ember, been able to kind of turn that into something good, but through the help of people in my life, like my family and my friends and the many different Wades that have come into my life and helped me actually see the light inside of me. 

“Rather it being something that is treacherous, it’s actually something that’s really beautiful. I relate to her in many, many different ways. Although I don’t get as angry as she does. Maybe when I was younger, I used to, but these days we’ve kind of reeled it in a little bit.”

Athie talked about the recording process and what it was like. “Honestly, it really was a dream come true. I mean, it still is. Like, we get to celebrate this movie. Now we get to talk about it. We get to go to screenings, and we’re gonna go to London after this. Well, I guess Denise is already there. So, I mean, the dream continues. But getting into the booth, it’s kind of hard to quantify into one moment that was like extra special, because it was all like just – I’m old enough now to really appreciate, like a good thing as it’s happening.

“So I really was just able to, like, soak it in every time I got to work with Denise and Pete and John and Kat. And I mean, met the animators later and you know, you see their work and you don’t — it’s hard.  It’s really hard to comprehend what they did. Because, I mean, I have no — I’m a Luddite completely. So it’s all like just magic to me. But one thing, as everyone was talking, as Lauv was talking, and as everyone else was talking, I cannot believe I haven’t been talking about this quote, because it used to be the background of my phone, because it meant so much to me.

“But there was an installation in New York City. I think it was back in the ’90s or early aughts. Yeah, it was early 2000s. And there were these quotes on these movie marquees, like in Times Square. And one of them, my teacher put it on a program of a play he directed. And it said, ‘It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.’ And that is one of the like, struck like the through lines of not only this character that I got to play, but this movie.

“Like, there’s a open heartedness that really, I just find so moving. I just couldn’t wait to like, get to inhabit that world every time I got to go into the into the studio. And I’m really like, you know, it’s starting to hit me now. I’m like, man, wait, hold on, we won’t — that’s it? It’s kind of bumming me out a little bit. But I still have stay in the moment. The movie gets to come out. People get to enjoy it, enjoy, like, Pete and Denise’s seven years of hard work, all these animators. It’s really just a dream come true. But that line has really been like a through line for this character and this project.”

Sohn gave the audience a look at where the characters came from. He said, “It was a very layered process. They started off as these really primitive little ideas of like, what you think about Fire as like Leah was talking about. Yeah, they’re passionate, they have a creative spark. They’re luminous. And for Water, they’re transparent. They go with the flow. So it just started off as these simple ideas. But as we started developing them, you just started putting these personal pieces of yourselves. And it wasn’t just me. It was an entire crew. And in that openhearted way that Mamoudou’s talking about, it really was that experience. It wasn’t a cynical journey whatsoever.  Everyone was connecting to this fully open.

“And so from that sort of like primitive start, all of a sudden, she became this second-generation daughter of immigrants, and that started layering on top of her passions, on top of her temper, on top of her creative spark. What did all that mean? So then what did that burden mean? How does that connect to the temper? And so it just kept evolving for her and the same with Wade. It was really like understanding these two characters were missing something and then trying to find out what they would begin to fill in each other. It started to layer on top of this go with the flow attitude.  

“The fact that the character was transparent really pointed to like, oh, yeah, he can’t hide his emotions.  You see right through him. He just wears everything on his sleeve. And then what does that mean, though, in terms of filling this puzzle piece of this relationship, and then this idea of loss for Wade, this idea of privilege for Wade, this idea of his high EQ and the way he connects to the world all started evolving through the story process. And it was a beautiful thing, because the way the writers and the story artists were doing that was a very, very heartfelt gift that they just kept giving these characters.

“And it wasn’t like, oh, it just turned on like that. This was, you know, a process of trial and error, finding them. But anytime there was a leap forward, it was all done through feeling.  It was like, oh, and she feels right now, and that was the gain.”

Pixar's Elemental Cast and Crew Interview

Ream talked about what fans should look forward to in Pixar’s Elemental. She said: “Well, there are several that I really, really love.  I mean, I actually do love the sequence with Lauv’s song is really fantastic, because they journey around Element City. But it’s just you get to hear that amazing song.

“There’s a sequence we call the Hot Air Balloon that I think is really, really beautiful, that I think that people are going to enjoy. And then there’s another one we call Bubble Date that has a couple of beautiful moments in particular.  It’s all beautiful, but there’s two very special moments in that scene that I can’t wait for people to see.”