There’s magic in movies, but there’s also magic in their making. And right now, magic is being made with Glen Keane’s upcoming new masterpiece, Over The Moon, an exhilarating musical adventure about Fei Fei, a bright young girl who decides to build a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of a legendary Moon Goddess. There she ends up on an unexpected quest, and discovers a whimsical land of fantastical creatures.
We were fortunate to attend an early virtual presentation of that most promising project with Director Glen Keane (Dear Basketball, Duet), Producers Gennie Rim (Dear Basketball, Ratatouille) and Peilin Chou (Abominable) as well as Fei Fei’s voice talent, Cathy Ang.
From the Earth to the Moon: the origins of the project
In 2015, Pearl Studio began hosting an annual Brain Trust summit that invited animation talent and thought leaders from all over the world to gather at its headquarters in Shanghai, China, at the invitation of Producer Peilin Chou, and it was during this inaugural gathering that one of its attendees, Executive Producer Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club, Dark Matter ), pitched the idea of a little girl who builds a rocket to the moon to see if the legendary moon goddess, Chang’e, exists.
The concept — set in modern day, but extrapolated from myth — resonated with Chou immediately. “Every child grows up in China knowing the tale of Chang’e and believing that she lives on the moon. There is even a national holiday centered around it — the Mid-Autumn Festival. Janet came up with the idea to tell a modern-day version of this legend through the eyes of a little girl named Fei Fei. I loved the idea of bringing the tale of Chang’e to a global audience in a contemporary, fresh and unique way. Our film features a Chang’e that you have never seen before,” says Chou.
Pearl Studio continued to develop the idea further, but a writer needed to be brought in to add flesh to bone. Chou had had a prior connection to Screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give, Under The Tuscan Sun ) and knew she possessed the emotional agency and intelligence needed to make this story sing.
Over The Moon had been in development for over a year at Pearl before Wells broke the news to Chou that she was dying of cancer, and she didn’t know how much time she had left. Chou was visiting Los Angeles when Wells shared the devastating news. “She wanted me to know the script meant everything to her. That it was the love letter she’d be leaving behind to her daughter to help her carry forth in the world.” Wells implored Chou to do everything she could to get the film made. And, though Chou had already been in the process of looking for a director, the search suddenly became a mission of utmost determination.
Roughly a month after learning about the state of Wells’ health, Chou attended the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France in June of 2017, the same year that Glen Keane was also in attendance. While Chou hadn’t initially thought to approach Keane — she had been considering female directors at first — it was a masterclass Keane gave that year that compelled her to pursue the legendary animator to direct the film.
After Annecy wrapped, Chou sent Keane the script and made sure to keep the film on his radar with regular updates on artwork and music until he agreed to come on board. Keane recalls the moment that sealed the deal for him: “Walt Disney was always talking about the ‘plausible impossible.’ And I thought, a 13-year-old girl building a rocket to the moon? I don’t know… But as I was reading it, I got to the page where Fei Fei’s rocket launches and then it runs out of power and starts falling back, like they’re going to die. And I thought, Yes! Now I believe it. But you’ve got to save them somehow! I was suddenly invested. It was when that beam of light hit them and the moon lions leapt onto the page that I knew I had to direct this movie.”
A Dreamer and a Doer
For Glen Keane, Fei Fei is another strong female character like Ariel or Pocahontas – definitely his kind of heroine: “I love characters that believe the impossible is possible. I like that in my own life. And I guess I really relate to that, these characters that see beyond the problem. It’s just so inspiring. We all face impossible odds in our life, now more than ever, and nothing can stop a character that sees the goal; Ariel to live out of the sea somehow, is that same kind of spark that is in Fei Fei. For a 12-year-old girl to build a rocket to the moon, this is crazy. This is impossible. How’s this going to happen? But to see that nothing’s going to stop her – I felt like I have to do this movie.”
Under Glen’s pencil, Fei Fei became more than a character – she developed into a genuine person: “I feel like there’s a certain point where you get to know the character. And I feel like Fei Fei is far more than a drawing. She’s real to me. Every character that you animate becomes like one of your children in a way. And this character, I just have to say that there’s something in her that you aspire towards. And when you’re animating a character that has that, I don’t know, that quality inside of them, that you long to be like them. It’s really a powerful thing. I have this strange belief that when you’re designing a character, they exist before you even start drawing them. And that there’s this process of experimentation. You look at a drawing. Somebody says, “Oh, that. So is that Fei Fei?” It’s like, “No, that’s not Fei Fei yet.” And then suddenly, one day the drawing appears and you realize, Fei Fei’s looking at me. That’s her. There she is. Her and her little bunny rabbit, Bungee, who just thinks Fei Fei is the most awesome thing in the world. And she’s going to be able to do anything. That’s the key is creating characters that you believe, that you can live in the skin as you’re animating them. If you believe them, the audience will.”
But it’s not just about her. Fei Fei’s journey tends to the universal: “I think that there is a drive in every one of us to see ourselves accomplish something that maybe we look at ourselves and we don’t believe that that’s possible. And to have role models to look at and say, no, that person did it. Fei Fei is a real blend of her two parents. Her dad sees things in a very scientific, practical way, and Fei Fei is incredibly intelligent. She’s also like her mom, who has this imagination that’s just as strong and clear as the science. And it’s together, both of those, that inspire her to build a rocket to the moon, to meet a goddess that lives on the dark side of the moon. I mean, this is crazy, but it happens. And I think that sometimes our dreams seem crazy, but it can happen.”
A love letter to China
For producers Gennie Rim and Peilin Chou, being Asian-American women, the film resonates in a very special way for them.
As Gennie puts it, “It’s truly the biggest gift to me. I talk about this all the time – of how, when Peilin pitched the film to us and I got to read the script, 20 pages in I was just floored, crying, saying, “I have to make sure this film gets out into the world.” From day one, to resonate with a character like Fei Fei, to tell the story, which is about healing and just to represent the Asian American or Asian families, and that we’re blended. We can be all different types of families that come together and just learn about love and giving love and sharing love in our own way, within our culture, and to be able to present that to the world was just such a gift.”
“I think for me, growing up here in the US, I definitely grew up at a time where I never saw anyone that looked like myself in film or on television,” adds Peilin, “and so it’s so meaningful to me to be able to bring this type of story and the culture also, which very much is a part of who I am and how I grew up. I grew up knowing the legend of Chang’e, believing in her and celebrating every year, the holiday, I would be out on the lawn with my family. We’d look up at the moon and look for her and Jade Rabbit, and every year I was so certain I could see them – up until a certain age, of course. To me, the notion that the world is going to now know Chang’e – it’s kind of mind blowing because you can imagine if you’re a kid and in China she’s more famous than Santa Claus.
I think that what’s wonderful about this film is the specificity to China, which is wholly authentic, but also just how universal and globally relatable it is. And to see that Chinese family as real people, real characters with depth and the same longings and desires and hopes for their children and themselves, that all around the world, it’s really the same, right? We’re all just people and connected in that same way. So, I hope people will see that and feel connected to that. And perhaps have a different viewpoint. In a way, it’s kind of like being able to visit China through an animated film and really experience the people and the culture.
And that was also a discovery for Glen Keane, when he visited the country: “Well, I think there’s something wonderful about telling a story from the point of discovery where you are learning something new. There is an energy – like you cannot wait to tell somebody about it. Peilin took us on a little tour in China, and we visited this wonderful little water town that became the town for Fei Fei. And it was incredible. People would invite us into their homes and we got to have dinner with a Chinese family in their home. I had never known what it was really like in China, and the people were so warm and friendly. And what was, I guess, the most inspiring to me, was how everything happens around food and the dinner table. And it became the tent poles for our film from the beginning to the end, that family dinner was such an important storytelling point.”
The “bright” side of the moon
Music was very important in the development of the film, and not only for the notes themselves. The album cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon was among the first sources of inspiration for the overall look of Lunaria, the kingdom Chang’e presides over.
The soundtrack for the movie is a unique association between classic musical, such as the song “Rocket To The Moon”, and pop style, as the songwriters took cues from K-pop, Queen, Tina Turner, Eminem, Lady Gaga, John Williams, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry, among numerous other influences. “Rocket To The Moon” was the first song written for the film. Chris Curtis and Marjorie Duffield started writing it while they were in Shanghai for an Artists in Residence program that Pearl Studio hosted in July 2017. Duffield recalls being inspired by an early sketch that producer Peilin Chou shared of a little girl looking out her window at a full moon. They finished it in January 2018 with Helen Park, after the trio was officially hired to pen the songs for the film. As Cathy Ang, Fei Fei’s voice, puts it, “That song comes out of a moment when Fei Fei’s father tells her that he wants to remarry. And to her, that feels like losing her mom again, you know? And so, she is desperate to connect with this goddess who to her has always represented eternal love and has always been a source of connection and joy with her mom. And so, there’s just a sense of desperation at the beginning and so much like love that she doesn’t know where to put right now because she’s still grieving. And as she gets the song, she realizes, like, ‘Okay, I have to do this for my mom, and for myself, for my family.’ She gets so inspired by singing this song to go to the moon. It’s a beautiful piece.”
As Peilin Chou explains it, the choice of the songwriters was pretty unusual: “The music is so wonderful, really the crown jewel of our film, I believe. Choosing the songwriters was a very collaborative process. We knew that we wanted the music to go to very different, varying places and that it was going to be a full-blown musical, so it was a tall task. Glen and Gennie came to New York with Audrey as well, and I set up a number of days of meetings with different songwriters and we spoke to each of them about their thoughts on the film, how they connected to the film, how they would approach music for the film. And at the end of that long process, I said, “Okay, now you guys, we’ve got to sit down and pick one.
There was one team and one single song writer that floated to the top of the batch, and so we really talked about it, and I said, “So, Glen, what do you think? What really resonates the most with you?” And he said, “Well, I think we should just hire them both.” And I said, “What? You can’t do that! Nobody does that. You can’t hire both of them, ask people that have never written together to just come together and write songs.” But Glen was very determined to make that happen and really thought they would both bring different things to it. And so the more I listened to him, the more I thought, okay, maybe we can hire them both. Let’s try it. And I think that’s really emblematic of the spirit of this film and the way it was made, which is it’s never about how it should be done or how it’s been done in the past, but just what is best for this movie and what can we do to really bring a fresh and creative perspective and voice to the film.”
Needless to say, that preview teased us terribly and we can’t wait until next Fall to discover Over The Moon in its entirety on Netflix!
Be sure to watch the trailer of the film here.
More information on www.netflix.com/OverTheMoon
With very special thanks to Lyn Cowan and Olivier Mouroux at Netflix