Being hired by Pixar is like "being recruited by the Royal Spy Service," says screenwriter Kat Likkel. Husband and wife writing team John Hoberg and Likkel are behind the studio's newest big screen release — Elemental, which they co-wrote with Brenda Hsueh — but their recruitment began more than a decade ago.
In 2012, Pixar asked Cars scribe Dan Fogelman to recommend some of his writer friends, and Hoberg and Likkel were at the top of his list. The couple wouldn't hear from Pixar until 2019, when they were summoned for a meeting. "Maybe we're a little cynical, but a lot of times, you'll have a meeting and that'll be it. And you'll never hear from them again," says Hoberg.
This time, they heard back. Only weeks later, they got the call to return to Pixar's NorCal campus to meet with The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn. "But they said, 'We can't tell you anything about the movie,'" recalls Hoberg.
The movie is Elemental. It's set in Element City, a metropolis where beings made of water, land, air and fire have immigrated in hopes of a better life. Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is a first-generation fire girl torn between the expectations of her parents and following her own dreams. It is only further complicated when a water guy, Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) bursts into her life — literally, through a bursting pipe — leading to a romantic comedy of clashing cultures.
"We were not allowed to know what the movie was about even in that meeting!" Hoberg says. "Looking back, Pete was questioning us about our families, but really about our relationship. At their core, Wade and Ember come from Pete and his wife and their relationship, but we share a lot of similarities. I'm not going to say I'm a blubbering water guy and Kat's a fire girl, but it's not not that."
A.frame: When did you finally find out what movie you would be writing?
LIKKEL: We had no idea till after they offered us the job. They sent us a couple of reels of where they were at up to that point, and you could tell it was going to be gorgeous. They were inventing a whole new process just for this film, which was very exciting. What we saw were little pieces of stuff that they were discarding, basically. Little bits stayed, but boy, this movie went through a lot of permutations — as all Pixar movies do. They start off as one thing, and can end up very different by the end. The emotional core is the same, but the story changed a lot.
Peter has talked about how personal this story is for him. What were your early conversations like?
HOBERG: When we got there, they had three versions [of the movie] that they had tried. In those early versions, you've got to try things and see what sticks. And Pete was like, 'Look, I want to get back to the core of what I loved most when I pitched this.' We just started talking about family and, at one point, he was talking about his father leaving Korea. There is a ceremonial bow, and on the tarmac, as he was getting into the airplane to leave Korea, Pete's father got down and gave this ceremonial bow to his own father. His father turned his back on it. He didn't accept it. When he was talking about him, Pete got really emotional, because that really stuck with his father for a long time. The story team, we were like, 'That's got to be part of this movie.' We started digging into that, and started going deeper and deeper. I feel like that was when we found the ending. There were lots of stories being told in that room. The first five weeks, I would say, was that — just talking.
LIKKEL: They do these rough drafts at Pixar, basically animatics with filmed storyboards and really rough animation put together to show the entire studio — everybody from the people who work at the cafeteria all the way to Pete Docter — and everybody gets to give feedback on it. That first one we did, the thing that stuck out most for everybody was the bow. People felt it was so emotional, so we knew early on that was going to stick. And then, you're working out all the beats before that.
HOBERG: It's so funny, because even in the story artists' drawings, when it was temporary dialogue and all that, the ending was moving even then. People were crying at that and were like, 'What's going on...?!' It's posed with temporary dialogue and still there's something so resonant. It just really felt real.
One of the most moving parts of the movie is this surprisingly nuanced look at the immigrant experience and what it means to be first-generation. What goes into balancing those themes with the fun and the gags of a children's movie?
HOBERG: Do you know what's interesting? We never heard someone in the room say, 'Would kids like this?' There was never that question, and maybe this is part of Pixar's secret sauce. I think there's this belief that the visuals are going to be fun and it's going to be wacky, but when you get to the core truth, it should be a truth that even a child can feel. That, to me, is what was so interesting about the process. I expected a lot of talk about, 'What would kids like in this moment?' And we just didn't hear that.
LIKKEL: Never once. I do also think children are more emotionally sophisticated than we think they are. I watch movies that I watched as a kid and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm seeing a whole new layer now,' but that first layer I saw when I was 12 was amazing. Now, I just get a more nuanced view of it. And that's been my experience with Pixar movies since I saw my very first one. I think Pixar is really good at just speaking to an audience, and not trying to speak up or speak down, but just talking to you. That's it.
In terms of the capturing the truth of the immigrant experience, I know you had Pete, but was there specific research you did to make sure that remained as authentic as it feels? Or was it largely based out of the conversations you had?
LIKKEL: I think it's based out of the conversations, and so many of the story artists come from different backgrounds also. You have people from all over the world in that room. There were people from Korea, from China, from South America, from France — everywhere. And everybody had their own experience that they could share. My family is second-generation American, and so I had my grandparents' stories.
Where are your grandparents from?
LIKKEL: It's not very glamorous. My family's Dutch. We came from the land of wooden shoes and cheese. But I still remember the stories about my grandfather, when he first came to this country and couldn't speak English. Everybody was very, very open and sometimes very vulnerable telling their stories. More than once, there would be a story that ended up in either sad tears or happy tears. It was a very open room.
HOBERG: It was very personal, every bit of it. And that was so important. So many people who work at Pixar are from somewhere else, and it was great because that's where the honesty came from. There was never a point where there wasn't feedback about how to make it more truthful.
The flip side of the coin is building out this fantastical world and figuring out the rules of how it works. I assume there was some framework in place when you came in, but how complicated were those discussions?
HOBERG: There was a learning curve when we first got there, and sometimes we would all fall in love with something that broke the rules. Like, earth people are earth; they're not plants. But we had some talking plants in there, and we thought it was the funniest thing in the world. There were a couple screenings where Pete and Kat and I kept putting them in there, and everyone's like, 'It doesn't make sense.' The further down the line you get, the stricter you have to be, because you're getting closer and closer to what's going to be the final movie. But Pete had a really good sense of the world by the time we got there, for sure. Then, every now and then, we would just push the boundaries as a group.
What changed the most from when you came on to the film to what we see now?
HOBERG: There was always the love story between Ember and Wade. I think the biggest change is the love story happened right away in the early versions. When we came on, we talked a lot with Pete about, 'What if we shift when they touch to closer to the end?' That really started to open it up more.
LIKKEL: Yeah, there was one early version of the movie where Wade and Ember got married at the very beginning, and then it was dealing with the family after that. The story went so many different places that there's not even a resemblance to what there is now. I think everyone felt like it happened too early in the movie, and you need that tension. In a way, that tension is the balloon that holds the movie up. What's going to happen with this relationship? And once you pop that balloon, it's like the story — to continue the metaphor — deflates.
And now you've got material ready for a sequel. I would love to know what a fire-water baby looks like.
HOBERG: Some story artist actually drew it up as a steam baby, like them holding a little steam baby!
You mentioned talking flowers. Was there anything else that got cut along the way that was particularly heartbreaking for you?
HOBERG: Our first version was number four, and I think there were nine versions. We did find the ending of the movie early on, but the middle was more like Chinatown, where Wade's mother was evil.
LIKKEL: "It's Water Town, Jake."
HOBERG: She was going to build a culvert through Fire Town, and then she made a deal with Ember, 'You have to break up with my son.' There was a sequence in that that we all loved, where Wade takes Ember to a dance club. It was almost like a Busby Berkeley thing that the story artists had come up with, where Ember is dancing and spinning high above all these other elements in a choreographed dance. It was incredible, but it had to go. And yeah, it's heartbreaking, but it just didn't fit anymore.
Even that shows how much the movie changed and evolved, because what you're describing is basically the opposite of the character Catherine O'Hara plays. It's a great Catherine O'Hara performance, but I also wouldn't have minded hearing her voice as an evil water woman.
HOBERG: It was fun, although it took so much explanation. There was this long explanation where she explained the whole thing to Ember, and I remember [Finding Nemo and Wall-E director] Andrew Stanton had seen it and written notes. He just wrote, 'So much talking.'
LIKKEL: You're like, 'All right! Well, that's got to go.'
HOBERG: And he was right. We all felt it.
How much of the voice cast was in place when you joined?
How close were these voices to what you were imagining when you were writing?
LIKKEL: I think they're pretty much what I heard in my head. Catherine O'Hara, that was so exciting. That was such a perfect choice for that beautiful watery mom. And Ronnie Del Carmen, who did Bernie, was a story artist at Pixar. He did the temp voice, and when it came time to hire actors for the real voice, there really was no one who did the voice as well as he did. So, he ended up staying in it.
HOBERG: Their process, which is fascinating, is until you're close to the end, you don't have that cast yet at all. It's all Pixar employees doing temporary voices. We were lucky — the guy who did Wade was fantastic. I think he is an animator. So, we were able to play around a lot with them. And then, obviously we got Leah, who just blew our minds with her depth and emotion. So, then we get in there and we adjust for those specific actors, because they have their own things. Mamoudou's hilarious, but he's also got this empathy. And Leah has this strength, but then, when she's vulnerable, it's just incredible.
LIKKEL: They're two of the loveliest people, Leah and Mamoudou. Wonderful people and very talented!
We've seen through Disney+ there are so many ways for these movies to continue on through shorts or as a series, beyond the traditional sequel. Now that the world of Elemental exists, how would you like to see it continue?
HOBERG: I think seeing Ember and Wade's lives would be so fascinating. Maybe they have a kid, or what it's like just being a couple in this new world that they're trying to figure out. I personally would love to see that. I'd also love to see a little more earth and air people.
LIKKEL: I'd love see the series starring Fern [voiced by Joe Pera] working in that office. Who knows what Pixar will do, but I think you could do a little series or a couple of fun shorts in that world. There's so many funny characters that never made it to the final movie, and there's a great world there to explore. So, if Pixar's listening, if I were you, I would do a TV series.
HOBERG: I think that the TV writers and us are like, I'm more or less pitching Friends with Ember and Wade and Kat's pitching The Office.
And I would watch either of those! Next, we need to get you recruited by Disney Animation, since I know how into musicals you both are.
LIKKEL: Oh, we would love to!
HOBERG: We got bit by the musical bug on Galavant. We were lucky enough to work with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who did Tangled together. We're developing a stage musical now. Once it gets in your system, it's hard! That was the joke with Pete Sohn the whole time, we kept being like, 'Ember could sing this moment...' He's like, 'We're not doing a musical!'
LIKKEL: 'This is the perfect place for a song. And we know somebody who writes them!'
By John Boone