Interview with Chris Butler, the Out Creator of "ParaNorman"

ParaNorman is the first animated feature film to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for its portrayal of Mitch, a broad-shouldered, flat-headed lunk of a teenager who loves cars and sports -- and who just happens to be gay.  The PG-rated film also received an Academy Award nomination this year for Best Animated Feature Film alongside blockbusters like Wreck-It Ralph and Brave.

GLAAD had the opportunity to ask Chris Butler, the out writer and co-director of the film, some questions about the inclusion of Mitch in this film.

Mitch is the first character in a major animated film geared toward a PG audience to feature an openly gay character.  What was the inspiration behind including a gay character?

The inspiration is there in the fabric of the story. This is a story about tolerance. It is very much concerned with how people who differ from the accepted norm can be punished for it, and how this can have tragic consequences. We see this around us every day, and it has received renewed attention in the news over the last few years with internet bullying, and even bullying-related suicides. Tackling narrow-mindedness is the heart of our movie, and it seemed if we were truly going to say something about tolerance, if we were going to champion the idea of accepting people for who they are, then we should really have the strength of our convictions, and that meant breaking a few taboos. Mitch being gay was one of them.

How did the public respond to Mitch, especially the film’s younger audience?

It depends which part of the public you're talking about. I witnessed theaters full of people at early screenings who whooped and hollered and even cheered at Mitch's revelation. I've heard a lot of delighted laughter. I've also read (on the internet), that in some places the whooping and hollering was possibly more of a baying-for-blood kind of deal than applauded equality. Some adults were outraged, but they were also the kind of adults who just sat through an hour and a half of story explaining why intolerance can be so damaging and cruel and apparently didn't understand any of it!

I think the younger audience, left to their own devices, would happily embrace it without question. There's nothing quite so refreshing as seeing a kid accept something wholeheartedly because they don't share the baggage and accumulated bias of their parents! I've been to many screenings which have included a lot of kids, and they like Mitch because he is a big thick-headed goofball. He looks out for his little brother and says dumb, but funny, things. That's all a kid needs to know, and that's the important truth… We should like (or dislike) Mitch because he's Mitch, not because of his sexuality.

The film has a strong message about accepting people who are different, and against bullying.  Yet at the same time the film is not preachy or overly-didactic.  Did you set out to write a film that explicitly dealt with the issue of bullying?  Or did that theme come out as you were creating the characters?

The bullying theme was there pretty much from the start. The original idea, many, many years ago, was simply, "how cool would it be to make a stop motion zombie movie for kids?" It would have been very easy to just make a colorful, silly, gross-out pastiche, but I wasn't interested in that. I looked at what makes the best zombie movies tick, and it is always social commentary. Look at Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and more recent movies like 28 Days Later and in all of them zombies are used as a metaphor to say something else about the human condition.  I thought it'd be cool to use this same approach, but for a subject matter that applies to kids.

It seemed that the biggest issue we face when we're growing from children into adults is fitting in; successfully being "part of the crowd." It was pretty easy to delve back into my own childhood and mine those feelings of awkwardness and confusion about how you fit into the world. I got really excited by playing with this idea of contrasting the fictional horror of monster movies with the real horror of what it's like to be 11 years old when you're not one of the popular kids. Those themes of tolerance and bullying, and how that reflected Aggie's witch hunt story, all came together pretty easily when I knew what I wanted to say.

On television, programs geared toward a younger demographic are often inclusive of the LGBT community. There's Degrassi on TeenNick and several shows on ABC Family.  Why do you think that hasn’t translated as much to film?

Honestly,  I don't really know. I only know that the MPAA gave us a PG rating for our movie, which is a definite move in the right direction, as usually any mention of sexuality outside of the heterosexual "norm" gets a PG-13 rating or higher.

What was your reaction to the GLAAD Media Awards nomination announcement, especially considering ParaNorman is the first animated feature film nominated for a GLAAD Media Award?

We've been nominated for a lot of awards, and it's always a thrill to have your peers enjoy your work, acknowledge your efforts and respect your craft. The GLAAD nomination went somewhere else entirely. This nomination doesn't just say, "we like your movie," it says, "your movie did something progressive and socially important," and THAT… nothing is a bigger accolade than that.

Can we expect to see a ParaNorman 2, and if so, do you think we'll get to meet Mitch's boyfriend?

As much as I'd love to see the further exploits of this band of misfits, there's no current plans for a sequel. So Mitch's boyfriend will have to remain a source of speculation!