Infusing its latest visually dazzling computer-animated family film with such contemporary messages as the importance of overcoming ethnic strife and instead practicing racial tolerance has become Pixar’s signature theme in recent years. It’s latest movie, the romantic comedy-drama Elemental, perfectly continues the production company’s tradition.
The high-concept film reimagines the four elements as identified by various ancient cultures – fire, water, earth and air – as uneasy neighbors in a crowded modern metropolis. While the titular elements don’t initially get along, they eventually learn to embrace everyone’s differences after getting to know who they truly are and what they represent.
Elemental was written by John Hobert, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh. The movie was directed by Peter Sohn, who also helped create the feature’s story with the scribes. The dramedy, which was produced by Denise Ream, features pop-R&B singer-songwriter Lauv’s new original single, Steal the Show.
Elemental follows an immigrant family, which is led by Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife, Cinder (Shila Omni), as they immigrate to Element City from their home country of Fireland. The couple wishes to start a new life for their baby daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis).
Without much money or connections, and as members of the Fire minority, they end up moving into the working-class neighborhood of Fire Town. Once settled in, Bernie opens a grocery store called Fireplace that caters to other Fire people like himself.
The film then shows Ember growing up with loving parents in a community far from the city’s Water-controlled power centers. Her father wants her to take over the family business, but by the time she’s in her 20s, Ember wishes to follow her own dreams, which she expresses through her explosive temper.
Ember’s combativeness towards her parents continues when a city inspector, the water-based, goofy Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), unexpectedly passes through the plumbing of the Lumen family store. The young duo don’t initially get along, especially after he writes up citations that may shut Fireplace down.
Ember and Wade eventually start to grow fond of each other, however, even though they can’t make any physical contact. The two face all sorts of obstacles as they fall in love, due to their differences. As they’re met with her father’s expectation that she’ll take over the Fireplace after he retires, she struggles between living up to her parents’ expectations and fulfilling her own dreams.
Lewis, Athie, Sohn, Ream and Lauv generously took the last week to talk about making Elemental during a press conferences over Zoom. The feature, which debuted out of competition as the closing film at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 27, is now playing in theaters, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Q: Leah, what is Ember like when we meet her, and why is she so confident Fire and Water could never be friends?
LL: Ember’s a very fiery, passionate, young, independent woman. She’s also very, very close to her family and, so much so, that she has this dream of wanting to take over her family’s shop.
In the beginning, you see why Fire and Water don’t really get along. A lot is at stake for them, just even interacting – they could literally extinguish one another or snuff each other out. That’s a pretty big thing. I don’t know if I would want to go near someone if our lives were on the line because of that reason.
But also, just fundamentally because they’re so different, they don’t really socialize in ways that they would with other elements, especially Fire. Fire can burn everything down. [Lewis laughs.]
Q: That’s a funny transition. So, obviously, Wade is a refreshing character. Mamoudou, tell us more about that.
MA: Wade is an eternal optimist. He is also – and let me know what you think of this, Pete – a realist. He has a pragmatic element to him when the going gets tough. He’s like, “Okay, what is the thing that needs to happen? And let’s do that.”
But he chooses to live his life in a very openhearted way. I say “chooses” very specifically because his overall nature is to be emotional.
But I think he looks for the positive in everything, and in everyone. That’s one of my favorite things about him, because he’s just like a person who has chosen to be as positive as he can for not only other people’s benefit, but also his own.
Q: You mentioned Pete, so I want to ask a little bit more from him here. Pete, we’re talking about this fire, water. Did you have any idea early on that these were going be the two characters? Also, how technically challenging was it to bring these characters to life on screen?
PS: They were impossible. [Sohn laughs.] They were so difficult. But I did a lot of doodling. It’s like free writing, but you’re just allowing the pen to create images for you. When I drew Fire right next to Water, there was this wonderful tension that I couldn’t get enough of. So I knew right away that those would be our main characters for this film. But there were no roadmaps at Pixar to make characters like this.
We were so used to building toys or metal cars, so trying to create a character that was entirely an effect was all new for the studio. So we just had to bring a lot of construction workers [Sohn laugh] to build this road for us to even get to an image that would come alive and emote. It was the conference of amazing artists, and I’m just so grateful for the amazing talent that everyone gave.
Q: It’s truly an incredible sight to see on the big screen. Denise, can you take us on a mini tour of Element City? Who lives there, and what is this world like?
DR: We have our four classical elements, Earth, Wind, Air and Fire, and each has their own separate little community. It’s a joy to discover. I find something new every single time I watch the movie.
The city hall area is our Garden District. The Fire Shop is in Fire Town. Wade’s family lives in this beautiful water area. We get to go to an air stadium to watch a fantastic sporting event. So there’s just a lot of really great dazzling imagery to explore.
Q: A lot of dazzling imagery, as you say. Also, a new song from the movie, called Steal the Show, has been released Lauv, what did Pete and the Disney team share with you about the film to inspire your efforts? What did you hope to achieve with the song?
Lauv: I saw early storyboards. I also heard a little about Pete’s story and what inspired him in creating this movie. I really related to the story, as I am a huge lover, and I really related to the love aspect to the film.
So i basically, I was seeing early versions of the scenes. So I wanted to create this song that had this feeling of someone coming into your life and totally changing everything for you, like the way you see yourself and the direction you see yourself going in. So that was the goal of the song.
Q: Talking about feeling so connected to this story. Leah, your voice just perfectly embodies the range and the spectrum of you character. What do you have in common with Ember?
LL: Ember kinds of mirrors a bit of a younger part of myself, one I think was a bit more defensive. Even though see her as really guarded, I think that she’s just a bit fearful to step out into the world and see what these other elements have to offer because she’s only known one thing her life.
But she’s beautiful and absolutely radiant. I think the way that she moves, too, is just so elegant and flowy, despite her being fire, which is something that can be so explosive. She has so much range.
But she’s also so loyal to her family and the things that mean the most to her. I think that’s a really admirable quality that I also kind of follow suit with. I would go to the ends of the earth to fight for the things that I really care about, as well.
I also think similarly with her having this intense passion that can double as explosion, which has also happened in my life, too. I’ve had [Lewis laughs] a bit of an edgier side to myself. But I’ve actually, just like Ember, been able to turn that into something good, through the help of people in my life, like my family and friends.
Rather it being something that is treacherous, it’s actually something that’s really beautiful. I relate to her in many, many different ways. Although I don’t get as angry as she does. s[Lewis laug.h] Maybe when I was younger, I used to. But these days, we’ve kind of reeled it in a little bit.
Q: Mamoudou, take us behind the scenes of being the voice of a Pixar character. What’s it like? Is there a favorite moment during the recording process that you have?
MA: Honestly, it really was a dream come true, and it still is. We get to celebrate this movie and talk about it. We get to go to screenings all over the world. So the dream continues.
But getting into the booth is kind of hard to quantify into one moment that was like extra special. I’m old enough now to really appreciate a good thing as it’s happening.
So I really was just able to soak it in every time I got to work with Denise and Pete and John and Kat. I met the animators later and saw their work, and it’s really hard to comprehend what they did. But it’s all just magic to me.
There’s am open heartedness in the movie and character that I just find so moving. So I just couldn’t wait to get to inhabit that world every time I got to go into the into the studio. It’s starting to hit me now.
The movie’s [now] out. People get to enjoy Pete and Denise’s seven years of hard work. It’s really just a dream come true.
I’m so sorry I couldn’t give you one particular example. It’s all been a dream to me, to be honest.
Q: Mamadou mentioned that the film was seven years in the making. After all of that hard work, Denise, what sequence are you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
DR: Well, there are several that I really, really love. I actually do love the sequence with Lauv’s song, which is really fantastic, because they journey around Element City.
There’s also a a sequence we call the Hot Air Balloon that I think is really, really beautiful, that I think that people are going to enjoy. There’s another one we call Bubble Date that has a couple of beautiful moments in particular. It’s all beautiful, but there’s two very special moments in that scene that I can’t wait for people to see. I really love those scenes quite a bit. I look forward to them every screening.
Q: Lauv, speaking about your song again, which you collaborated on with (Oscar-nominated composer-conductor) Thomas Newman. How would you describe your working relationship with Thomas?
Lauv: It was really delicate but also so inspiring and moving because he’s such a legend and was so welcoming to me. I was honestly intimidated coming into the studio for the first time.
But I really feel he gave me the space to shine in the way that I needed to. He brought so much, and we went back and forth so much on working on the music and adding more sounds.
I feel like it was a really beautiful collaboration and really amazing process. I feel like creativity was respected all around by everybody, which was really cool…I was tearing up when I went to the premiere.
Q: Leah and Mamoudou, what sort of work did you both do behind the scenes to help find the dynamic between Ember and Wade?
LL: During the behind-the-scenes work, Mamoudou and I actually never even worked together. So I feel like it was Peter doing a lot of behind the scenes work with us separately.
To get into the world of Ember, Peter was just so generous in the way that he was like, “Just be you, but do that like times 10. We’ll figure out what parts of your voice we can use and what parts are brand new” For me though, if we’re really getting technical with it, it was a lot of water, a lot of sleep and a lot of rest.
Peter was also like, “don’t blow yourself out within the first five minutes.” It was definitely like a long haul every time I did a session for four hours.
But I think just being willing to be silly, vulnerable and as sad as possible, all the different range of emotions, kept my heart completely open for where Ember needed to go.
In these four-hour sessions, we’re doing a bunch of different scenes that range from angry to sad to happy to falling in love, and now we’re talking to our family. So I think it was just remaining very open and on my toes. But Ember was already there thanks to Peter, and then him just being so inviting with my own personality.
So it was actually quite easy. I wish I worked more with Mamoudou in the booth though. That would’ve been really cool.
MA: Yes, that would have been cool and fun. But we got to work with Pete, and he’s an amazing voice actor. I also concur with everything Leah just said” water, sleep, all that stuff.
In terms of like building the character, it was so well defined that when I met with Pete for the first time, I was like, I know who this guy is for sure.
PR: Yes, I remember you saying that.
MA: I love him. I enjoyed the investigative nature of working with him. I’d say, “Hold on. I just realized something here.” Getting to do that back and forth with Pete and Denise allowed for a really great conversation, in terms of creating the character and who he was.
Q: Pete, what do you look for when casting voice roles? What are some of the specific traits in each character that you’re looking for?
PR: I always look for empathy and appeal just in the voice and in how I can connect to it. But then of course you’re just looking for what you need or you’re hoping that the character needs. Another electric X-factor layer is knowing they’ll be able to take this character further than we ever could imagine.
For Ember, I had serendipitously discovered Leah in a movie called The Half of It. And in watching it, I wasn’t watching it to find Ember. I was just really curious about the movie. She exploded on the screen with this fierceness in her, understanding her identity and her relationships in the way that this was written. But then there was also a tenderness in her performance when it came to her father that really then started linking me into Ember.
As I finished watching the movie, I started looking her up and I found all these YouTube videos of Leah doing a lot of really fun stuff in her house. And I don’t know what you were doing, Leah, in your hotel room, but, you know, I found it wonderful. You were singing a Patsy Cline song.
LL: Oh, my mom released that. Well, she put that on YouTube without my permission. [Lewis laughs.] It’s amazing.
PR: But you had this smoky voice that reminded me of the element. So it sort of filled those two boxes of connecting to the performance and then finding the elemental side of it.
The same was true with Mamoudou. I found interesting movies to watch and I found this film called Uncorked. Again, just watching it, because I was curious about the film and I saw Mamoudou play with this character, who’s a wine salesman. He went from selling wine to this young customer to then flirting and then moving back and forth effortlessly through this. That just brought me to that fluid sort of go with the flow guy.
Q: Leah and Mamoudou, how do you maintain the balance between staying true to the established character traits and bringing your own unique interpretation to your roles?
LL: I think this is such a privilege to have, but I was very similar to the character already. I do think there were certain times where I disagreed with how explosive she was, but I was also like, she’s on a journey here. She has to start somewhere then go somewhere else. But for me, I think it was very interesting because a lot of the stuff in the film mirrors a lot of real-life emotions or things that I have gone through. There were times when Ember was getting very vulnerable and Peter would be like, just take a second.
I also think he understood when you’re bringing your real-life experience into something, it can be very, very tender work. But to also do it in the way that fits the character. So as Leah, I was sitting there thinking of my parents and all their sacrifices, just like with Ember and her parents.
Even though I did feel so similar to Ember, there were also moments where I was like, I’m getting a little weighty right now. I’m not acting like Ember, who was a bit more guarded and shut down until she opens up more throughout the film.
It was definitely a fine line to ride, but it was also really cool getting to step out of my own element as Leah and be so explosive and vulnerable and just so dynamic the way that she was. I don’t really get to go through all those dynamics in my regular life, so it was a thrill to try and do that for the film.
MA: I feel similarly. I spoke with Pete and I was like, “I know who this guy is so well.” It just felt like I had to play this part.
I didn’t want to complicate it too much because I think Wade is very intentionally simple, and thought, I’m going to live my life like this. I also try to find simplicity in my life.
I think we share the same kind of same motto of thinking, what makes me happy? What makes me comfortable? How do I want to live my life? What is the best version of me? I think Wade is better at it. But like I certainly try.
But also when something is very well written and very clear and defined, all you have to do is follow the blueprint in front of you and fill it. That was the gift of playing this part because it wasn’t like I had to figure this out or that.
Q: Elemental can teach us that we may have more in common with those around us than we previously thought. So what do you all hope audiences take away from the movie?
MA: In every frame of this movie, the love is so palpable. I was telling Pete, there’s no cut corners on this movie. There’s never anything that isn’t done to 100 and thousand 10 percent. It’s like fully committed to being as fully realized as possible. It starts with love, and you can also count on Pixar to make you laugh, while also infusing the sory with heart.
Lauv: I think one of the things that like I found the most beautiful was the balance between the ability to honor and respect tradition while also going and following your dreams personally.
I think that was so cool, as well as the message of the two being able coexisting in a way because I think there’s a lot of all or nothing kind of ideas being put out there. You either have to do this or you have to do that, and I think that was really cool.
I agree, the movie was extremely funny. So I’m really excited for people to experience that because it’s also a very emotional movie.
It’s one of those movies that I want to watch multiple times many times because seeing it for the first time at the premiere, I was so blown away. I was like thinking about it and talking about it at dinner afterwards for a couple of hours. I also feel like there’s more to learn each time.
DR: I AGREE WITH what everyone said with such eloquence. I want people to go with their family and friends and connect to the people they love. I want people to keep their hearts open to someone or people that may be different, and maybe also show a little appreciation for parents or anyone that’s helped them along the way.
LL: I don’t know how I can even top those beautiful explanations. I agree with everything of what they said.
I also hope that people walk away with that missing piece of themselves that they weren’t quite sure was there. You know, the part that we keep quiet, the part that maybe we’re afraid of. I hope people get to let that part of yourself really, really shine.
At the end of the day, we are composed of all the different people that we’ve come across and that have affected us in our life. I think that definitely shows that all these characters are definitely different by the end as a result of mingling with each other, whether they liked it or not. [Lewis laugh.]
PR: this whole film’s been about connection. If an audience member comes out of this film inspired by the world and the characters to connect with somebody, that would mean the world.
Here’s the trailer of the film.