Clawson filmmaker pays tribute to loved ones with 'Onward'
Dan Scanlon's second film is a love letter to those who mold us
Dan Scanlon wanted to be a breakdancer.
Growing up in Clawson in the 1980s, Scanlon had dreams of making a living by popping and locking on fresh sheets of cardboard. He was the youngest member a crew, the Clawson Breakers, and he would show his stuff off at the Ambassador Roller Rink.
Things changed, time passed, and Scanlon eventually settled for a career in filmmaking. And while his dream job didn't quite work out, his backup plan has gone pretty well; his second film, "Onward," opens Friday.
But he still enjoys breaking when the mood strikes.
"I can still do a little breakdancing at a wedding," says Scanlon, seated inside Clawson's Three Cats Cafe last Sunday, just before heading to a charity screening of "Onward" in Rochester Hills. "And there's nothing funnier than seeing a slightly fatter, balder, 43-year-old breakdance."
There's no breakdancing in "Onward," but there is a pair of magical pants with no torso attached that manages a dance step or two.
The pair of pants is brought to life thanks to a spell cast by two elf brothers, Ian and Barley (voiced by Marvel stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively), who go on a quest to resurrect their late father.
The Pixar film is inspired by Scanlon's own story — he lost his father to a car crash when he was just a year old — and is a touching tribute to familial support and finding magic in those around you.
"This movie is a love letter to those who support you, and it's a movie about the people in your life who go above and beyond to help you become who you are today," says Scanlon, who also directed 2013's "Monsters University" for Pixar. "That can be a father or a mother or a brother or a sister, but it can also be family friends," he says.
For Scanlon, that support came from family members — he's still close with his older brother, Bill, who lives in East Lansing and in no way resembles the burley Barley in the film — as well as a mentor from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization.
As a child, Scanlon was connected with a Big Brother, Mike, who showed him how to use an 8mm camera and how to edit on film. He taught Scanlon about lighting and storytelling and how to do a three-camera shoot, and his connections at a local cable access channel gave a young Scanlon real world filmmaking experience.
Scanlon had already shown an early knack for illustration — he was drawing by 2, and doing caricatures of family friends at parties by age 12, according to his mother, Betty — and was soon winning local student film competitions.
Scanlon hopes "Onward" inspires viewers to identify the people in their own lives who helped mold them and pick up the phone and thank them.
"Even if it's schmaltzy or embarrassing, it won't matter," says Scanlon. "They'll love it."
Scanlon, who graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, in 1998 and started working at Pixar in 2001, has been promoting "Onward" around the world. He arrived in Clawson via Madrid — his luggage didn't make the trip with him, so he was stuck with the clothes on his back — and he was next headed home to San Francisco, where he plans to unwind for a few months with his wife, Michele, and unwind from the six-year process of making "Onward."
He says he's a bigger fan of live action films than he is animated films these days — he mentions "It's a Wonderful Life," the works of Wes Anderson, "Shaun of the Dead" and the recent "Little Women" as favorites — but isn't sure of his next chapter.
"I have no idea what the future will hold," says Scanlon, whose charity screening of "Onward" included a $10,000 donation from Pixar to the Assistance League of Southeastern Michigan, which offers community programs to children and adults. "I've sort of used everything I have and now I need to go have some experiences, because that's where you get the good stuff. I also have that lovely midlife crisis beginning, so it's a good time to start thinking about what you want the rest of your life to be, and what you want your life to have been about."
In other words, he's moving onward, and breakdancing into the unknown.