Lin-Manuel Miranda on Disney’s MOANA and Getting The Rock to Sing

On November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving, Disney’s newest animated film MOANA will be released into theaters, officially starting the holiday season.  The film tells the story of a young girl’s journey to find her true self.  We previously received a behind-the-scenes look (found by clicking here), and now the voice cast joined the creative team to share their perspective on MOANA. Included in the press conference were the movies co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as producer Osnat Shurer.  Joining them were actors Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (voice of Maui) and Auli’i Cravalho (voice of Moana), and musicians Lin-Manuel Miranda (original songs), Opetaia Foa’i (original songs).

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(L-R) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda sing at Disney’s MOANA premiere, image courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Being a story inspired by the oral histories of the people and cultures of the Pacific Islands (Oceania), an important aspect of the filmmaking process came from the desire to stay true to the spirit of the Islander’s culture.  Though the story of Moana herself is a creation of the team of filmmakers who worked on the film, many research trips were made to the Pacific Islands in order to stay respectful to the culture they chose to represent.  Producer Osnat Shurer explained, “One of the great things that happened when we went on these research trips is we met incredible people, people with knowledge in areas of navigation, master tattoo artists, weavers, anthropologists and archeologists… they became kind of what we loosely called ‘Our Oceanic Story Trust…’  Of course, it’s a fictional story…  but we wanted it really to honor and respect the cultures that inspired the movie and so we kept working together (with the Trust).  Everything from every tattoo was checked with our master tattoo artist.  The dances were all choreographed by one of our consultants.”

The movie’s story also seemed to be very personal to some, as much of the creative team consisted of actual Pacific Islanders.  The young actress Auli’i Cravalho, who voices the main character Moana, talked about her attachment to the culture that the film represents, a culture that she actually grew up surrounded by.  “I’ve grown up in Hawaii all my life.  I grew up in a small town in Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I literally grew up with pigs and chickens.  I am deeply rooted to my culture.  I actually go to an all-Hawaiian school where the mythology and the folklore of Maui is in our curriculum… I’ve listened to these stories as bedtime stories, and I’ve grown up with the ‘Aloha Spirit’ all around me.”  Dwayne Johnson, who voiced the demigod Maui and also grew up in the Polynesian culture added to this, “What Auli’i just said, she mentioned a term, it’s called ‘Aloha Spirit’ and it’s something that is very special.  It’s very meaningful to us and our Polynesian culture… so for example, those of you who have had the opportunity to visit Hawaii or any of the Polynesian islands, it’s a very special thing…   When you get off the plane and you have your feet on the ground there, energetically it takes you to a different place.  That’s ‘Aloha Spirit.’  And you know, the opportunity that we had, just as Polynesians, to be part of a story and to bring to light a story of our Polynesian culture in this capacity, with our great partners at Disney, musically with these masters, was just a really, really special opportunity for us.”  Later, Cravalho added, “It’s just been an incredible journey for me.  I’m 15 going on 16.  I’m working with the best people in the entire world… making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life… that is something so incredibly special.”

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As with most Disney animated films, original songs play a major role in MOANA.  For this particular film, Disney’s creative team reached out to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the acclaimed Broadway show HAMILTON, as well as Opetaia Foa’i, the creator of the band Te Vaka, a musical group that performs their own brand of South Pacific music.  Listening to Miranda talk, it was obvious that he was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with everyone over at Disney, but he also may have been a little intimidated by having to live up to the studio’s history of excelling in the area of original songs.  “I think when I first interviewed for this job I walked into a room with Ron (Clements) and John (Musker), makers of my favorite Disney film of all time and I said, ‘You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room,’ and I think I probably scared them a little bit, because I’d quote some obscure section of THE LITTLE MERMAID they had since forgotten about.  I love those movies and you want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions.  At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world…  I will admit the first time I sat down at my piano to work on something… I remember thinking, don’t think about ‘Let It Go,’ don’t think about ‘Let It Go,’ don’t think about ‘Let It Go…’  But you solve that problem by just really getting inside the heads of your characters and my way into Moana in particular was the way she feels the call of the sea, it’s the way I felt about writing music and making movies and singing songs when I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large and so I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.”

The movie features a song called “You’re Welcome” that’s actually performed by Johnson, someone known more for his WWE wrestling than his singing.  When asked about working with and writing a song for “The Rock,” Miranda explained, “I’ve gotten a lot of questions from reporters this week like, ‘How did you get The Rock to sing?’  That’s not what happened here.  When Dwayne accepted the role he said, ‘So what are you giving me to sing?’   He was really excited for this…  For me, I went to YouTube where the answers always lie and you know, I’m a big fan of his wrestling days and there was a time during his heel turn era where he would pull out a guitar and taunt whatever town he was in…  and so I got a really good sense of his vocal range from a 10-minute supercut (on YouTube) and then the rest of it was just writing lyrics that embodied the spirit of Maui, who is this amazing demigod, trickster God… Once I had the title ‘You’re Welcome,’ which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.”  Johnson added to this by explaining why he really wanted to do a musical number in the film.  “It was an opportunity to… to challenge myself.  As Lin (Manuel Miranda) was saying, he did his research and by the time I got the song it was in my comfortable range… then also (there were) parts of the song which pushed me a little bit which I appreciated, because that’s what I needed vocally as well.  One of the best times I’ve ever had in my career was actually working on this project and certainly working on that song, because we all love challenges and this was a challenge… the bar is set so incredibly high in a Disney film to sing, like historically.”  Co-Director Ron Clements then joked, “We thought of Dwayne as the new Angela Lansbury.”

Disney’s MOANA opens in theaters across the country on November 23, 2016 and I would like to conclude with a quote from Dwayne Johnson regarding his reaction after watching the finished film.  He said, “In my entire career, I’ve never cried so consistently through a movie…” and that’s coming from a man who’s faced down the likes of WWE’s John Cena, Steve Austin and The Undertaker in the professional wrestling ring.

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About Mark Oguschewitz

Mark Oguschewitz moved to Los Angeles, California after graduating with a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. Pursuing a career in the industry, Mark became an award winning freelance editor. He is also known for being the creative consultant for the podcast "Skywalking through Neverland" and co-host of the Podcast "Talking Apes TV." Mark's short film "Gourmet" took the Best Micro-Short honor at the International Horror and Sci-Fi film festival in 2007. His spare time is all about movies. It's not just entertainment, but has become more of a real passion, as he tries to see everything he can. Art house or Blockbuster – It doesn't matter, he loves them all.