Here, in a conversation with Awards Daily, Enrico Casarosa talks about directing his first feature film, Disney/Pixar’s Luca. Set in the gorgeously rendered Italian Mediterranean, the film tells the story of a blossoming friendship between Luca and Alberto: two sea monsters who become human when not in water. The film premiered on Disney+ in June and has remained a buzzy title with many calling it “top tier Pixar.”
What audiences may not recognize is that Luca is, in fact, a very personal story. Here, Casarosa talks to Awards Daily about the many aspects of the main characters he drew from his childhood friendship with his own Alberto. He also dives into the inspiration for several character designs and the emotions they are able to convey in quick moments. Plus, we talk about what it was like directing a feature for the first time during a pandemic!
Awards Daily: The two leads are based on you and your childhood friend Alberto Surace who also did a voice in the Italian version of the film. What was it like working with him on this, and what did he think of the film?
Enrico Casarosa: Actually how that happened is I have the same line in the English language version. It is the line of the fisherman swearing at the passing boat, ‘What’s wrong with you, stupido?’ Because I had that line, I have to give credit to the Disney dubbing lead Amenia from Rome, who we collaborated with quite a bit because a lot of the kids in the background are recorded from kids in Rome. So when she was dubbing she emailed and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to give a little cameo to your best friend?’ I was like, ‘Yes, that is a great idea!’ Then it came down to that line. I thought it was really funny that we have the same line.
To answer your second part, what you normally would wish is that you could sit with him and watch it. But we couldn’t do that because when we visited Italy in June we did have a whole press day planned with him and we were going to go around Genoa and we were going to have a premiere there later that evening. Then we realized that he hadn’t seen the movie yet so we knew he would see it before the evening. So he watched a few days before. The thing that he told me that was really wonderful and happy to hear was at the end he started sobbing and felt very very touched, and his wife had to console him and pat him on the back. It hit him hard and I thought it was very, very sweet that he got emotional.
AD: That is lovely to hear. Were any of the other characters based on people you knew as kids?
Enrico Casarosa: Not as much. For example, Giulia was more of our own invention. You could argue Ercole had a little bit of a couple of bullies I knew but nothing terribly specific, we went very broad and goofy with him. Really the place and the feeling of the town is the closest thing to my experience of spending summers in small little towns on the coast. The usual suspects around the piazza, that’s where I took a lot from my memories.
AD: The humorous tone of the movie for me is set with the goatfish that Luca is herding. Where did the idea and design of them come from?
Enrico Casarosa: I think as a team and my own preferences, we like these preposterous and weird ideas and there’s a lot of the movie that goes that way. We knew we wanted Luca to be busy so we thought, let’s have him herd sheep or herd goats. Then we started talking about goatfish. We thought, that’s kind of bizarre. What do you even do with a goatfish? We honestly don’t know and we always thought it was just a silly fun question. I think that it was important in creating humor but also showing the needs of the character. These fish are not Luca’s friends. He wishes maybe they were; he is imbuing them with more intelligence than they have. Because you need to feel his loneliness. I think that’s a lot of what we talked about in those scenes, and they were actually difficult scenes to storyboard. Meeting your protagonist in general in Pixar movies is something we board and board and tweak. I feel like this idea of naughty, silly, non-responsive fish was needed to show this kid’s loneliness, but also that he’s inventive, he’s giving them all individual names. Then we started drawing them. We were, like, okay, what’s the silliest wool eyed look we could do? The sound of a goat was something we actually added late to the process but it made us laugh a little harder so we went for it!
AD: So much of what worked about the movie was the emotion between the characters. Which was captured in these quick facial movements for just a few seconds at times. What was your process to link those shots together and space those out?
Enrico Casarosa: I’m glad you feel that way! I feel like our medium has this wonderful ability to say a lot with less dialogue, just with the visuals. I come from a love of visual storytelling, even making a short like Luna, which was the first thing I directed. It was so liberating to let it be very, very minimal. There was just some gibberish and then it’s no words at all. A lot of our shorts do that, and I think we talk deeply about our characters so you know the arc to each of them pretty intimately by the time we start animating. Then you have these great animators that will bring this amazing level of finesse in these little emotional shifts. The important part as I direct it is making certain they’re on the arc.
Specifically with Luca, we wanted to make certain there was a sense of slowly empowering him. His body language showing his timid self slowly being shed a little bit. Even standing up a little more upright later in the movie. It’s truly one of the pleasures of making animated movies. Once you’ve figured out through storyboarding all the pieces of your character arc then you can really finesse the moments with your animators. They always kick it up a notch and it’s amazing how much Pixar movies take off when you see the emotion in the character’s eyes and see the subtlety of that. It speaks a lot to doing all the homework upfront of writing and really figuring out the character change and then the talent of our animators.
AD: I read you used a lot of sketches from your own sketchbook. Did you always plan on using those sketches for a film?
Enrico Casarosa: I think what happened was being a storyboard artist I started to storyboard kind of leading by showing. (We had an amazing storyboard artist, don’t get me wrong.) I had lived in Italy so just some of the flavor of that was important. Plus it was really fun to take a couple of the scenes; for example, I did the scene where Alberto wipes out when they are trying out their ride for the first time. When we looked at some of the weird drawings I did in my sketchbook, it was like there’s something in these drawings. Then when we put them in our reels they just made us laugh so we wanted to capture that in animation. Another example is we tried multiple lines because I did a sketch with five feet to show that he was running very fast. So part of taking the sketches was comedy but another part was the kind of characters I like to draw that gave us the peanut shape. That design-wise was something we worked really hard with character designer Deanna Marsigliese and production designer Daniela Strijleva, who embraced my sketches and pushed it even further in that direction. There was a sense of playfulness with it, taking this silly watercolor autobiographical comic and bringing some of that vibe of goofiness and expressiveness in the imperfection. Which felt right in a story about kids who are running around and having these adventures. We wanted that playfulness because the story wanted that as well.
AD: This is your first feature-length film as a director, it’s such a personal story, and you did it during a pandemic. What was that like?
Enrico Casarosa: It’s a journey. I remember asking myself, are you sure you want this? You really feel like you’re heading out on a ship and you know there’s going to be storms out. But what made me really say yes is because you don’t know you’re going to grow, you’re going to change, and that’s what really attracted me to taking on this journey. And then you have all these amazing people around you. I feel like it is an incredibly collaborative medium. I learned early on that if you’re in a room full of storyboard artists and you bounce around ideas for an hour you’re going to have something that never existed had the players been different. It will be so much better than what any one person could come up with. So I just love that I embrace that because being a new director you know you’re only going to have so much expertise. I think that was the key to coming out of it. You can come out with a story that’s like a tattered sail but we just would mend it back together and keep on going and make it better.
Then when the pandemic hit we were close to production. We were somewhat lucky, there were still obstacles, but I think it would have been harder doing it during the early part because that’s when you really need to be in a room together figuring out problems and rewriting. My experience was that, as hard as we had to work, the collaboration was amazing and there were even some silver linings from working at home. You get to see kids in the background and you get to know a bit more about your team even though you were far away. There were pluses and minuses in it.
AD: I saw there is going to be a short called Ciao Alberto on Disney+ and there’s already talk online about there being a sequel. Is there another story you’d like to do with these characters, or is there something new you would like to work on?
Enrico Casarosa: I’m not really thinking about a sequel at the moment. I’m going back into development and there’s a lot of other ideas I’d like to explore. I do think it’s a fun world and I can’t wait for people to see Ciao Alberto. One of our lead story artists directed it and I executive produced it. I can’t wait for people to experience it. It really delves into Alberto and Massimo living together after the film. We have a lot of wonderful possibilities out there. It isn’t something I’m developing but I know we like to talk about it. We love making original movies and I would like to make another original, but I would not rule out the possibility of going back to this world. A lot of people are asking us for an Uncle Ugo series and there are so many little characters that were basically cameos that we would have loved to have fit more into the movie that would be fun to spend more time with.
Luca is now streaming on Disney+.