Awards Daily talks to Elemental director Peter Sohn about turning a liquid character like Wade into a solid one.
When we first meet watery Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in director Peter Sohn’s Elemental, he’s a blubbering mess. For an animation studio like Pixar, that brought us Toy Story‘s Woody and Buzz—who both would rather self-sabotage each other than share their emotions—it’s a refreshing choice to introduce your male lead weeping.
“What’s so funny about Water [in the film] is that it’s transparent,” says Sohn. “The emotions are on the sleeve; they aren’t hiding anything. That triggered something in me. I’m very much a sap in that way. It was a challenge because there were a lot of people who didn’t care for him because he was so emotional and so open in a way that some folks deemed him a weak character.”
As someone who identifies as a Wade type, Sohn finds value in this character, especially in how Wade interacts with his romantic foil, Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis). Sohn likens their rapport to Moonstruck: “There were holes in each other’s lives that they fill.”
And just like any romantic comedy, Wade and Ember have a memorable meet-cute. Theirs takes place in the basement of Ember’s father’s store called Fireplace, where Wade appears when he’s sucked through the leaky pipes. Not surprisingly, Sohn says this visually stunning scene was one of the most complicated ones to direct.
“It was the last one that got finished because Wade is the most difficult character [to work on] in the film. The way he’s lit, he disappears. The light is so bright that he blows out the lens. Trying to make him fit in a dark basement was tough, but then having him sit in water, as non-realistic water sitting in the realistic basement water, was a big challenge. On top of that, the type of crying he was doing was so caricature that it took many, many passes to balance it out. One little shift of the bubbles and the speed, he’d turn into Jello. The other way, he’d turn into Casper, the ghost.”
While the film is called Elemental, its fire lead, Ember, isn’t actually an element—but a change agent with the ability to alter other elements like Wade, who learns that not everyone lives like he does.
“The flaw he struggled with was his privilege. He tried to listen, but there were things that he just couldn’t understand because he didn’t experience it. We did many versions of Wade, but that helped fuel what Ember was going through.”
A refreshing aspect of the film is how the voices seamlessly integrate into the characters. As an audience, you’re not distracted by cameos. These voices are Ember and Wade.
“For me, I just wanted voices that also had the ingredient of the element as well as the personalities. I found both of these performers on my own. Leah Lewis was in this movie called The Half of It, and her character had this fiery personality and love for her father. Underneath all that, she had this smoky quality that brought the element in. For Mamoudou, he was in the series Oh, Jerome, No, where he cries hilariously. Mamoudou has a huge spectrum of different types of crying. Angry crying, giggle crying, inhale crying. That was a big factor.”
Elemental marks the second film in a row from Pixar that deals with an angry young woman, something Sohn sees as a coincidence.
“Maybe it’s just zeitgeist,” says Sohn with a laugh. “For me, I was trying to find a way to see the character objectively. Having a father who’s an immigrant, if I had made Ember a male character, I wouldn’t be able to see the character as a character; I’d be seeing myself which I didn’t want. That formed a lot of other things. Yes, the idea of anger is interesting, with comments about Wade being weak with emotions and Ember too tough with the anger. It exposed weird biases. Ultimately, the writers and I kept pushing for what we thought was the best versions of themselves.”
Sohn worked with a very diverse group of story artists and storywriters who brought their own lives—from their interracial and first-gen/second-gen culture clash to emotional issues—into the film.
“Something I’m very proud of is that while it was a burden to try to pull these stories to make the characters so specific, looking back now, I see the writers and artists in all these moments.”
Elemental is streaming on Disney+.