Producer Roy Conli molds creative challenges into brilliance with ‘BORN IN CHINA’

Look at this cuteness featured in BORN IN CHINA. Courtesy of DisneyNature.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

“As a filmmaker, we try to share with the audience something that enhances their life.”

That’s the underlying hope of any filmmaker who puts their art out into the mainstream to face judgement. But in the case of producer Roy Conli, the animated films he’s helped craft have faced many critical and commercial speculation. Now, he turns his eye to the world of documentary filmmaking to help aid in DisneyNature’s absolutely terrific, breathtaking and endearing feature, BORN IN CHINA.

At the film’s recent press day, I got to chance to sit down with the affable producer to discuss everything from their original storylines, to how they chose John Krasinski to narrate the film, to the impact nature films have on humans.

I’m always curious with these DisneyNature documentaries, how the plot evolves during the course of shooting.

It’s interesting. This is the first time I’ve worked within this structure. It was one of the things that drove me. I had been doing animation for a long time. The ability to work with Lu Chuan, the director, who is really an amazing storyteller. It’s really the animals that tell us what the stories are. As opposed to animation, where we start with the script and start boarding and end up with an image, in this particular case, you’re ending up with a final image where you’re getting massive quantities of journaling back from cinematographers and the team out in the field. Chuan would go out into the fields quite often, but you’re never there at the same time. We’ve got multiple teams throughout the country, filming the same season. It’s the cinematographer that is really the unsung hero, which I love about the end of the film, where we’re able to get those guys out there a little bit. It comes back to us and over a period of a year and a half, we start getting rushes back. We start reading the journals and figuring out what’s going on and we start putting those storylines together. Somewhere in the middle, something changes like an animal goes off and we’ve lost an animal. And it’s, ‘Where do we take it from there? What other animal do we bring in to start a new storyline?’

You have this great balance between the animals – the crane and the chiru are woven throughout, but you have the main stories of the monkey, the panda, and the snow leopard. Did you think you’d be more panda-heavy, or monkey-heavy, or whatever, at any given point?

This is the brilliance of Chuan. Working with him, you understand how story is universal. For Chuan, he was parenthesizing the film between the chiru and the crane. The crane being the mythological, spiritual element of China and the Cheeru being that day-to-day rounds and cycle. As we started developing the stories, we knew that each one of those stories would build to whatever our uber-theme would be – that circle of life, the family, the warmth, the intimacy, but also where you fit in the family. Those were all themes that started evolving as we told the story. We were always looking for balance between those stories, but also that those stories led towards something greater. It’s what I’m so proud about with this film. I think it’s able to touch people’s hearts and, at the same time, inspire them and educate them and entertain them.

I’m not gonna mince words, but shit gets real in some of these past DisneyNature documentaries. One of the things I loved about this film here is that you handle death in such a lovely manner. That’s so touching. Was that sort of a challenge to walk that line?

We always knew, as we were structuring the story, that we didn’t want it to be in any way spectacular. We really wanted to capture life – what life is like out there. Particularly for Dawa and her cubs, they’re living in one of most inhospitable places on this planet. We definitely wanted to make sure that what was at the center of those relationships was the familial unit. Initially, as we went out into the field, the monkey story was going to be the sister and the mother. But as the cinematographers were working, we were seeing that the brother was the more interesting character and, in a certain sense, was a great counterpoint. Between Ya Ya and Mei Mei, we had a mother-daughter story. Between the cubs and Dawa, we had a mother-son-daughter trio. But with Tau Tau, we were telling a story about a monkey who was displaced by his little sister. Who hasn’t felt that?! It made such sense in the familial structure.

Yes! I think you’re teaching a lot of kids responsibility and where you fit in within the family unit.

I’m so glad you said that. Everything I’ve worked on in the past, there’s always that element you want. As a filmmaker, we try to share with the audience something that enhances their life. Kids are always a huge component of what we’re thinking about, but also adults. The cool thing is, the adults are so taken with those relationships. Chuan, in the balance, has really made a work of art.

Was John Krasinski narrating always the #1 choice? He brings a whole other fun nuance to this. Hardened press were cracking up at his interpretation of the chiru on ice.

That’s great. John was my idea. I knew that this story had drama, heart and comedy. As we were going through, we were thinking of who could handle drama, heart and comedy, I fell in love with John’s voice. He’s a great actor, but he’s also a great comedian. He’s a guy that has a lot of heart. Most important of all: He’s got great phrasing. The way he presents an idea, people don’t talk about in narration, but narration is really hard. You need to get an idea out that is really cohesive. I had an amazing writer named David Fowler working on this with Brian Leith and Phil Chapman. David has an incredible dry sense of humor and I knew that John would be the perfect guy to support that.

You’ve done everything from animated shorts, to animated features (BIG HERO 6), to this. What were some of the challenges switching these worlds?

The big challenge for me was we were working on three different continents. Chuan is based out of Bejing. I’m in LA, of course. And Brian Leith Productions is located in Bristol, England. Anytime we had to all talk together, I would have to stay up until two o’clock in the morning. Fortunately we live in an age where we can email. A lot of our communication would be… at the beginning of the day, I could speak with London. At the end of the day, I could speak with Bejing. And then follow-up with an email so everybody knows what’s going on. The logistics of having four, or five, crews out shooting at one time is kind of amazing. Fortunately we had a lot of support in terms of negotiating the bureaucracy – and we had a lot of support from the Chinese government. They were very helpful and proud of the film.

What I’m really proud about, having been with Disney for 24 years, is that Disney, on each of these projects, gives a portion of the receipts from that first week to a philanthropic animal protection organization. In this case, they’re giving World Wildlife Fund that support to help snow leopards and pandas.

BORN IN CHINA opens on Earth Day, April 21.

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