featured Interview

Interview: Writer Adele Lim and Producer Osnat Shurer Talk ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

March 1, 2021Ben MK

When you think of the female characters in Disney animated features, you might think of princesses like Snow White, Jasmine or Belle. It's only fairly recently, however, that characters like Merida, Mulan and Moana have become more the norm. And now, that tradition continues with Raya and Last Dragon, in which Kelly Marie Tran voices a young, headstrong woman named Raya, who must team up with a dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) to save the world from certain destruction. In order to do so, however, they must contend with a formidable female warrior named Namaari, played by Gemma Chan.

I caught up with Writer Adele Lim and Producer Osnat Shurer to chat about Raya and the Last Dragon, their favorite scenes, and the importance of authentically portraying Southeast Asian culture on the screen.

First of all, how are you both doing and what was it like working on this film during the pandemic?

Lim: We're so used to being able to being in the same room together. If you've at all seen the inside of Disney Feature Animation, it was a place built for collaboration. That's really how a lot of the story was developed for Raya. And not being able to share in celebrating the movie coming out, after all these years — that sucks. Raya is a story about an imperfect, broken world; so, in a perfect world, we'd all be able to watch this in a movie theater with each other. But it is wonderful that we are able to share this movie on Disney+ as well.

Shurer: We didn't think we could do a movie this way. If you would have asked me before the pandemic I would say, "Absolutely not, we can't do this." And we did it. And that's because of our amazing technology teams and because of our amazing crew and because of everyone's willingness to really go for it. So I could not be more proud of the crew — 460 people who worked from home and made this movie and learned to trust one another in ways we never thought possible. That said, I can't wait to be together in one room again.

The previous features you each worked on were Moana and Crazy Rich Asians. How did each of your experiences with those films influence your work on Raya and the Last Dragon?

Lim: Personally, as someone who grew up in Malaysia and immigrated to the States as an adult, most of my career [was writing] for people who didn't look like me or shared any part of my upbringing. I'm very proud of my culture and where I'm from, but all that was parked in a box in a corner somewhere, because it felt like there wasn't space for that story. And what changed [with] Crazy Rich Asians — and is amplified so much more in Raya and the Last Dragon — is that Southeast Asian culture and its people are the core inspiration for this movie.

There's so much to celebrate — the beauty, the history, the traditions, the art, everything. And not just for myself, for my co-writer Qui Nguyen, the Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn, and so many other people of the culture. Whether it's the Story teams, Visual Development, Animation, we're all able to put in all the parts of the culture that we knew from growing up in those households into the script, into the [story]boards, into the visuals. It was really a very special experience for all of us.

Shurer: On Moana, I learnt about and learnt to love a group of cultures I didn't know that much about and [gained] friendships that last to this day. And part of what helped that was this cultural story trust that we put together — the Oceanic Story Trust on Moana and a Southeast Asia Story Trust here. It's an opportunity to learn from people with expertise, whether it's our cultural anthropologist or our archaeologist, but also to work with them throughout the process so everything is infused with that knowledge and understanding.

Then you add to that what Adele was talking about — you can't replace that with anything. And I got to work with some of the same people [as on Moana] — Don Hall and John Ripa and many others — so our ability to easily communicate some of the things that we'd already worked our way through was really, really helpful as well.

Adele, I also read that your first job in Hollywood was on Xena: Warrior Princess. Did that show in any way influence your writing on Raya and the Last Dragon?

Lim: A lot of the movies I enjoyed growing up were the Hong Kong action and kung fu movies where you had a very strong female protagonist [where] even if they're the pretty girl or the villain they could still whip out a sword and were a force to be reckoned with. And you don't see that a lot in big Western action movies. There are very few major Hollywood movies with a core female friendship at its heart. And so, early on, the filmmakers were excited about the idea of a female dragon and having this buddy cop sort of dynamic between these two women — even with our character of Namaari, who herself is a warrior princess [who's] born to be a leader.

For the most part the strong, female action hero tends to look beautiful but they're very stoic. They don't smile, they don't crack jokes, they're not particularly flawed. They kind of show up perfect. And Xena wasn't that. And similarly with Raya. Raya does not show up perfect. She is an amazing character but she's a character who's been hardened and disillusioned by the world and has to reconnect with that dream to get to where she needs to go.

Of course, talking about the trio of women at the core of the movie and ensuring a high degree of authenticity when it comes to the film's depiction of Southeast Asian culture, the casting is another key element. Can you tell me what the cast — especially Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan — brought to the movie and how they perhaps helped shape the film?

Shurer: Awkwafina [was] actually brought on really early, I'm proud to say. Even before Crazy Rich Asians or Ocean's Eight came out. We met her and we knew she had to be Sisu dragon. So she really helped inform the character right from the beginning. We knew we were looking for the character to also have a sense of humor — to subvert all the expectations that Raya has when she goes to awaken this magnificent dragon — but also the emotional strength. And Awkwafina's connection to the story was immediate. She focused on this film with so much love and so much intention. She's just absolutely amazing, as well as a very disciplined and powerful actor.

When we were exploring the character of Raya, there were moments where we got a little too stoic. She's a character whose trust is broken at a very young age, and we were exploring this idea of her being a truly closed-off character who doesn't give anything. And we realized pretty quickly that it's hard to relate to a main character who doesn't let you in in some way. So, as we were designing and writing for the character, Kelly Marie came in. And Kelly has this beautiful, warm, kind heart, as well as this strength. There's nothing that you can give her to say where you don't feel the warmth come through because of who she is. I remember the first recording session, we literally were all crying because she touched on something so real and so warm and so true.

The character of Namaari was a character that, at first, was sort of a classic villain. And the more we thought about it, the more we realized what we've got the opportunity to do. Raya and Namaari — being the opposites of each other, having a deep history together — could have been friends in a different world. And what Gemma brought to it — she honed in on who Namaari is, so that even though to [Raya] she's the villain, you relate to her. You know that what she is trying to do is just what's best for her people, in her own way.

I’m sure you're both proud of the overall movie, but is there a particular scene that you're most proud of?

Lim: Oh gosh. It's so difficult because we love so much of the movie. But what's special for me is the early scene between young Raya and her father. There was so much to pack into the scene — how Raya sees the rest of the other lands as the enemies, and her father trying to show her that there is a different way. And being able to show this to his daughter by making a meal for her while also infusing it with a worldly wisdom without it being too heavy-handed — personally, having had a close relationship with my father, it's very special for me.

Shurer: For me, there's so many scenes. There's this scene [that] was a tough one for us to crack, because it's a complicated scene, [set] in the land of Talon where Raya encounters this con baby and these three [creatures] who are sort of a cross between a monkey and a catfish. And there's this insane chase scene over the water wharfs between all these characters. There was something about the joy of this crazy action sequence that we pushed it and pushed it and pushed it to see how far we could go. I love, love, love that scene.

Last but not least, what do you want moviegoers to take away from Raya and the Last Dragon?

Shurer: The most important thing is we need to come together. We need to embrace all our differences. There's a reason why every land [in the film] is [named after] a part of the dragon. We have to come together to do what's right for this beautiful planet of ours. And it's not easy. It's not a one-time thing. There ain't no magical creature that's going to come and do it for us. We have to learn how to do that for ourselves and for each other.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be released simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5th.

You May Also Like