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Elemental’s co-writers wanted it to be open, honest, and not another Zootopia

Elemental co-writers Kat Likkel and John Hoberg set out to tell a story about romantic and familial love — not just one about watery racism and fiery bigotry.

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A humanoid man made entirely of water sitting next to a humanoid woman made of flames. The pair are seated next to one another in a dark movie theater illuminated only by the light shining from a projector in the distant background and from the light emanating from the woman’s body.
Wade and Ember taking in a movie together.
Image: Pixar

As straightforward as the metaphors in Pixar’s Elemental seem at a glance, the more you think about the movie’s city full of anthropomorphized classical elements, the more questions come to mind about what the film’s creators were trying to say beyond “love conquers all, even creatively imagined racism.” Elemental repeatedly returns to that heartening concept as it tells the tale of how Ember, a headstrong woman made of fire, and Wade, a waterlogged city employee, fall head over heels for one another.

But at the same time that Elemental’s showing you how trusting in one’s heart can lead to true romance, the movie’s conceit — what if the world were made up of four different kinds of people — also frames Ember and Wade as being so different from one another that they actually pose very real dangers to each other’s lives. Much like the elements they’re made of, Elemental’s water and fire people are very capable of extinguishing or boiling one another until there’s nothing left, and the movie tries to explain how that danger is at least part of why there’s racial tension in Element City.

As two of Elemental’s co-writers, it was Kat Likkel and John Hoberg’s job to figure out how to get all of the movie’s character beats and thorny racial metaphors to make sense. When I spoke with the husband / wife creative duo recently, they told me they knew that would be a significant challenge when they first signed onto the project. But as soon as Hoberg and Likkel — who are white — really began breaking into Elemental’s script, they realized that they weren’t just going to be able to pull from their own personal life experiences to tell the kind of story that they wanted the movie to be.

Image: Pixar

We’re at week seven of the writers strike. How’re you both feeling about the state of things?

John Hoberg: Honestly, what’s funny is we’re taking a breather from the strike lines to do this and a few other interviews, and we’re going back this afternoon. I think what we feel doing these interviews while also striking is that it’s really important for writers to be front and center for what we do versus kind of being or going back into the shadows. We’re very supportive of the strike. We’ve been Guild members for 20-plus years —

Kat Likkel: And this isn’t our first strike, you know?

JH: We got to do two of these. It’s interesting, in this day and age of social media, it has a different feel on the strike lines. It feels like morale is very high, and I think writers are really feeling a lot of solidarity and empathy, and we’re united fighting for a fair deal.

KL: During the last strike, a lot of people who were not writers and who were outside of the business were like, “Why are they striking? Don’t they make enough already?” Striking, then, wasn’t just about money; it was about other things, too. This time, though, I think so many more people around the US are feeling similarly that big corporations are taking advantage of people a little bit, and so we’re finding a lot more solidarity all around.

The public does seem way more clued in to how the industry moves and what it actually takes to produce film and television. Do you think the strike and this heightened awareness is going to have an impact on people’s relationships to the media they’re consuming?

JH: Honestly? I have no idea. I just haven’t thought about that. It is interesting how much more people know about how the sausage is made than they did in 2007. I don’t even think people outside of show business knew what a showrunner was, and now, it’s sort of this household thing — just the knowledge of it all. People really do have a better sense, and in a different way, that there are people writing and creating television.

KL: And I think they’re a little more aware of the names of showrunners and writers than they used to be. Particular kinds of shows have a real fandom, and I think that also plays into it because they’re also cheerleaders for the strike, you know? 

JH: Something interesting that I have noticed this time versus 2007 is, in 2007, the business really was: there was a staffing season for television, if you got a job, you got 13–24 or 26 episodes, so you worked steadily for the whole year, and if you didn’t get a job, you didn’t work that year. In 2007, a work stoppage for three months was really shocking to the system of television writers.

Now, it’s almost like the new streaming model has already trained writers to go six months without a paycheck. I’m noticing there’s not really that sort of bottle shock at the thought of this going for a while. In some ways, I think some of the abuses that the writers are trying to fix are actually things that have, you know, given writers —

KL: It’s played into the resilience writers have right now to stick it out. 

JH: Yeah, the sort of “how long will it go” just isn’t as frightening to the people that I’m talking to on the line.

Image: Pixar

Talk to me about the parts of Elemental’s story that really come from you, personally. 

JH: Part of our job as writers on every Pixar movie is to come in, and we kind of think of it as like grabbing an oar in a boat, that we’re helping to row in the direction that the director is hoping to go. For us, what’s great about this is how there’s so much openness to hearing ideas, and then, if the director wants to try it, we’ll try it. But then, ultimately, at the end of the day, your job is to help this person find their vision.

KL: But within that also, there is a kind of writers room: there’s us two as the writers, but there’s also the story artists working on storyboards. It felt like working with a room full of writers who were just doing their writing in a different way, but they had that same sensibility — that same storytelling sensibility. It was amazing to have these open and free-ranging discussions, and I could suggest something, and someone from the storyboard team would suddenly sketch it up. Or you’d be talking about something, and they would sketch something completely different and hold it up, and you’re like, “Oh, in one beautiful drawing, you just said what has taken me 15 minutes to bore people with.” 

JH: One of the things that [director Peter Sohn] does really well as a creative is the way he takes stock of what’s in the room and then makes sure to bring in other people’s ideas. There’s no, “it has to come from me” in Pete, and we’ve worked with creative people who have that kind of attitude. I think there’s a little bit of everybody in the movie, and I think everybody feels some ownership over parts of it. The relationship between Wade and Ember is definitely related to Pete and his wife, but Kat and I are also in there. 

I’m not saying that I’m a blubbering, emotional “my family hugs the first time you meet them and says ‘I love you’ all the time” guy, but that is the background I’ve come from. And then Kat has more of a like —

KL: “Hello! We will shake hands from a distance when I see you” background.

JH: [laughing] Right. Wade and Ember, those two characters were already in place, but I really do feel like we brought a lot of ourselves to that. We really responded to that love story. I mean, we’re married. But it’s kind of funny, we had a conversation at one point early in our relationship where we very logically explained to each other why we should probably break up and all the reasons that it shouldn’t work. We got through that discussion, and then there was this moment of like, “But I don’t want to break up, and I don’t know why we would break up.”

KL: Right, we asked ourselves, “Why did we make this list?”

JH: We were telling that story, and one of the story artists — Anna Benedict — she was like, “Wait, what if we use that for when Wade shows up at that retirement party?” So that — Wade and Ember’s romantic dynamic — was a big part of it for us.

Image: Pixar

Looking back, how did the movie’s script evolve and change during your writing process?

JH: The whole story is in a constant state of changing during production, and what’s interesting is that when it starts, it’s always in kind of bigger, sloppier blocks. The early versions before we got there, the DNA was in there. Ember was angry and fiery, but she didn’t have this vulnerability that she was hiding. Wade was sloppy and crying but didn’t have his own issues that he was kind of wrestling with. And that’s what starts to get worked out — more nuance.

KL: With Pixar’s iterative process, you get so many different shots at a script to try something new. You get a chance to show it on a screen to the entire team. You get everybody’s thoughts on it. You hear the feedback, and then you go back and do it again.

JH: So we first showed up around the third version of the movie, where it seemed from talking to other people like the script kind of needed a defibrillator in a way or some kind of shock to the system to try to mix things up. We sat down with Pete, and he basically said, “You know what I really want to do? You’re fresh blood. Let’s talk. Let’s just get to the heart of what I fell in love with to begin with this project.” And we spent five weeks just talking, and really getting into Pete’s emotional story, our emotional stories, and the story artists’.

And what came from those talks?

JH: The movie didn’t really have an ending before, but through that process of talking, Pete told a story about how, when his father was getting on the airplane to leave Korea, he turned around to give his father — Pete’s grandfather — this Korean ceremonial bow, which is the highest form of respect. Traditionally, this bow isn’t returned by the parent with a bow in kind but can be received. Pete’s father got down on that tarmac right before he got in the plane and gave that bow, and I believe Pete’s grandfather turned his back on his son, just rejecting his son’s choice to leave for a better life in America.

When Pete told that story, everyone agreed that it felt like the end. It had such a sense of something that needed resolution in someone’s life even as they moved on, and that became the foundation of having a movie that didn’t have an antagonist necessarily. Instead, we thought, what if we had a man who — in trying to make up for his own trauma — accidentally ended up caging his own daughter with the same sort of burden that she would then break free from?

KL: We didn’t want any traditional bad guys, and we really didn’t want Bernie to be a villain. We all wanted to understand exactly where he was coming from and that everything that he was doing was coming from a place of love and from his own sense of burden from the baggage he himself was trying to carry.

Image: Pixar

Elemental’s a story about elemental beings trying to coexist with one another, but it’s also pretty transparently a story about race, interracial dating, and intercultural tensions. What sorts of conversations did the two of you have about tackling this kind of subject matter — which is sensitive for a lot of people — in such a direct but, at the same time, very fantastical kind of way?

KL: When we were working with the story team, everybody was really, really open, and it was made a safe space where anybody could talk about things they’d experienced or things they felt. There were a lot of really honest conversations about discrimination that people experienced or the difficulties they’d felt with assimilating or the experience of being pressured to assimilate. All of those open discussions and vulnerable stories really fed into our creative process and helped us make some really important breakthroughs.

Do any in particular come to mind?

JH: There was a version of the movie where Wade’s mother was a villain, actually.

A villain? In what way?

JH: It was like Chinatown. She was an evil developer, and her family, for generations, had run the water systems, and they wanted to put a canal through Firetown. You can kind of feel the direction that story might have gone, but again, we all really felt that we didn’t want an outright bad guy. It would have pointed to overt racism and division within the community.

It definitely would have, yeah.

JH: But something we landed on in discussion that everybody felt to some degree was this idea that, a lot of the time, some of the worst things that happen are just the consequences of a new place not even thinking about how it might affect you. We talked to some disabled people who told us that the line where Ember says, “Element City isn’t made with fire people in mind” really spoke to them because, while it’s not intentional, that kind of discrimination can be as harmful as if it was intentional, and people may just not know that. 

There are some people who shout out just borderline racist things in a couple of places about fire people, but a lot of the prejudice against them here is really a reflection of how the other elements haven’t thought about how to include them in Element City. That kind of exclusion is very real, and that’s one of the things we wanted to explore.

Was there ever any concern about oversimplification with the people-as-different-elements metaphor? Especially given Elemental coming out post-Zootopia.

JH: There was also a real sensitivity about Zootopia, and we all understood that we didn’t want to make another Zootopia

What elements of that movie did you know you wanted to avoid? 

JH: You know, I’ve never… actually seen it.


KL: I’ve deliberately made a point not to see it.

JH: [laughing] No, but at one point, Kat and I came in with a pitch, and I just remember somebody being like, “No, that’s… Zootopia.” It’s not like it was a major discussion, to be honest with you. But I think that any time you’re dealing with an animated movie where you have different groups that are separated, you’re tapping into some ideas at the core of that movie.

Image: Pixar

There’s a certain kind of obviousness to the elements-as-different-people metaphor. What were some of the more subtle ideas you wanted to weave into Elemental’s story?

JH: Our team did so much interesting research, like the story artists would just go off and be like, “Okay, we’re looking into Central Park,” and then they’ll come back with ideas. This happened and they told us that, in their research into the design of Central Park, they discovered that the bridges were made low enough so buses couldn’t get through because that would keep the “wrong type of people” from being able to access the Upper West Side. We explored that a little bit in the version with Wade’s mom being an evil developer, but we ultimately decided that we wanted Elemental’s story to be about love and about a woman wanting to be a good daughter.

KL: One thing that does still kind of hearken back to that idea of this is accidental or, in some cases, intentional racism is the train that runs on water. You see multiple times that water comes gushing over the side of the train, and Ember just sort of picks up her umbrella. But it’s deeper than that — she feels like she could never get on that train. Number one, it would take her out of her neighborhood, but number two, it’s a water train, you know? A water train where everyone’s there, and that’s dangerous for her. 

I’m glad you mentioned that, Kat. I wanted to ask — how did you go about determining when water would just be naturally occurring water rather than a liquid person? Or a storm being a storm, rather than a bunch of cloud people?

JH: There were versions of this movie where the distinction wasn’t as clear. You would watch it, and you would be like, “Wait a minute. Are those people?” There was a tsunami at one point that hit Firetown, and there was this question of like, “Oh, is that a tsunami of water people?” What we all bought into was the idea that the people themselves aren’t necessarily even allegory for there being certain types of people, and they’re all part of something grander. We thought that these elements exist in the world, but then the people are also just made up of them.

KL: I justify that by saying we’re all made up of all these elements when we dig into ourselves. We’re water, we are metal, we are all these other things. You can look at the two of us or any couple and wonder “how did that come to be?” And a lot of people have a lot of explanations, some of them contradictory from each other. But love happens, and it is real, and it’s messy, and we wanted to make those characters as real and as messy as we could in the same way.