"I was a shy kid, a little bit sheltered by my family," director Enrico Casarosa reflects. "When I met my best friend at 11, my world opened up. He was a bit of a troublemaker; he didn't have a whole lot of supervision. And so, in those special kind of summers when you're growing up and finding yourself, I was following him and getting dragged into troubles. It really made me really think about how much we find ourselves with our friendships, how much friendships help us find who we want to be."
Casarosa's upbringing and his thoughts on friendship helped inspire his latest movie, Pixar's Luca, which tells the story of a young boy, Luca (Jacob Tremblay), who finds his whole life changed when he meets the fearless Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). However, unlike Casarosa and his best friend, Luca and Alberto are sea creatures who live off the coast of Italy – when they step onto the surface and dry off, they transform into human boys. Luca has never gained his land legs, yet Alberto already seems a natural at life above the water.
"When you get to meet Luca, he's a bit more of a timid kid," Tremblay says. "He really wants to be able to explore the human world, but his parents have a lot of restrictions for him. Alberto helps him kind of step out of his comfort zone."
Alberto encourages Luca to join him up on the surface, which holds its own complications as the people of the postcard picturesque town of Portorosso are obsessed with hunting the sea monsters they believe lurk in the depths. That doesn't stop the duo becoming enamored with life above water, and they hope to win the prize money for a Vespa at the annual Portorosso Cup.
"The aspect of curiosity is across both of them," Grazer says. "But Alberto – he's got no restrictions. And he's so eager, and he's so yearning to explore and fulfil all these fantasies and curiosities that he has. And I think that he's a huge part in inspiring Luca to go to Portorosso to get the Vespa."
Portorosso is where they meet the outgoing Giulia, voiced by Emma Berman. "She's a very strong character," the actor explains. "She's determined, and she's hardworking, and genuine, and intense, but she's also awkward, and quirky, and goofy." The friendship the trio form is central to Luca, and was something that developed as the movie was being produced.
"As we were making it, we built [on that] sense of friendship, and we realized that, when we delve deeper into friendship, what do these friends do?" Casarosa says. "It's like the person you can completely be yourself [with], like, 'Is that too much? I'm a little too intense?' I'm like, 'No, it isn't for me, you can be yourself, you can be vulnerable, you can be goofy, you can be all of yourself.' It tied really nicely into the theme of friendship and having to really embrace yourself, show yourself, and let the chips fall where they may."
And though the idea of transforming sea monsters may seem strange, it was essential to putting friendship at the heart of the story. "There was this idea of a kid that had to hide being a sea monster, so this idea of a changeling was there at the beginning," Casarosa says. "I remember in the first pitch someone, I think it was [Chief Creative Officer of Pixar] Pete Docter actually, mentioned, 'Oh, yeah, that feels like a feeling I've had as a kid that I am ashamed, or I don't fit in, or I feel odd in my body because I'm growing'… But there was something that felt right about just the problem that these kids are having with a secret that felt true of that moment, where… you don't even know who you are yet."
Swimming against the tide
Luca is Casarosa's first full-length feature film, but he also helmed Pixar's Academy Award nominated short La Luna. The two projects share much DNA, particularly in Luca's beautiful, surreal dream sequences (Luca is a very imaginative kid). "The first step was me trying to find a tone that carried some of the things I did in La Luna, 'How do we bring some of the fantastic, the surreal in this?'" Casarosa says. "And we found an opportunity with going into Luca's head. And it felt right also, because he's more of an introvert, there's a wonderful way for us to get a little bit into his wishes and to his daydreaming."
The dream sequences are just one of the ways Luca stands out from its predecessors: Pixar is famous for incredible animation, but Luca is a clear visual departure to what's come before. The style showcases Casarosa's influences, and the creativity and imagination that went into forging this new path is clear.
"It was a very collaborative process. It was really about showing my influences and showing them Future Boy Conan, that I love and grew up with," he explains, referring to the anime series by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. "Looking actually at [Wallace and Gromit studio] Aardman [Animations], too. What is it that is so lovely in stop motion animation? There's a warmth to it, when you can feel the artist's hand. So we talked a lot about that, and also the fact that this is playful – there's someone being dragged into play, and Alberto having this force of nature, we wanted to bring some of that energy to the animation... I think finding this overall style of the movie – it's a story of, 'Let's bring these elements and see what we get.'
"We didn't know exactly what it was all going to look like, which was kind of strange and sometimes a little uncomfortable, because you don't have a 'We're going to go exactly there.' We're like, 'Let's get on the road, and we'll find it together.'"
While the animation was a creative challenge, the film had to surmount a far bigger obstacle: the pandemic. "I think every project is a little different," producer Andrea Warren, who has been with Pixar for over 20 years and worked on iconic projects like A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc., says. "I think you have a little bit of a roadmap of how to accomplish the project, knowing that we've done many before, but every project has its own challenges. Obviously, for us, the pandemic came along, and before we knew it, we were all needing to try to continue staying on the schedule that we were on, but making this film from home. So that provided a huge challenge.
"But everybody on the team was just so innovative and flexible and creative in finding ways to keep it moving. So we really just sort of picked up and started working in all these other ways. It's amazing to have the kind of team at Pixar – they're such experts. Enrico threw the challenge of the look of this film, and all these other things, and everybody's just ready to tackle all of those kinds of challenges."
Now that Luca is here, Casarosa hopes it can have a positive impact: "I think, especially now, my biggest hope is that we bring some joy," he says. "This is a playful movie, it's a nostalgic movie, so I hope it can bring some warmth and some joy and delight. It talks a lot about wonder, and looking at the world… I hope you call your old friend that you haven't heard from [in] a few years, and if you're a kid, maybe you take a chance on something and you're not too afraid."