Details About 'Raya and the Last Dragon' Cut Storylines, and How Hot Benja Sent the Crew Into a Frenzy [Interview]
Raya and the Last Dragon has been available to Disney+ subscribers (for a fee) for the past two months now, but the Disney fantasy epic finally gets a home video and physical release release this month.
Ahead of the Blu-ray and Digital release, /Film spoke to Raya and the Last Dragon co-director Carlos Lopez Estrada, producer Osnat Shurer, and Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthron about which storylines they cut from the movie, LGBTQ representation, and hot the hotness of Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) sent the crew into a bit of a frenzy. Read our interview below.
What has it been like seeing the movie you worked on for over a year now, finally shared with the public through its release on Disney+?
Carlos Lopez Estrada: It’s been surreal on every possible level. Seeing it in theaters was wild, being able to talk to so many people. I think, just for so long, we really wanted to have the conversation that comes from people watching the movie. And I feel like now that people are going to be able to own it as a tangible thing in their homes and like, maybe able to have it up on a shelf somewhere. Otherwise, it just continues to make this journey more and more special
Fawn Veerasunthron: Initially, because I couldn’t go out to the experience with people, then I did wait for the theater. And then I felt the energy from the people watching the film was awesome. I think the most awesome thing is to see my how much my daughter is into dressing up as Raya around the house. She was someone who had all the princess dresses before, and the energy has shifted to the warrior vibe.
Osnat Shurer: I think for me, it’s different than the one experience because we’re not going to theater and traveling, we’re having conversations with people from home, that it just sort of comes in through socials. I’ve got friends sending me texts, you know, my two twin boys, [tell me they’ve watched it] seven [times]. And that is just because I’m having a real conversation. You know, I was on the phone for four years. So it’s really, really exciting.
Carlos, I’ve actually been wanting to ask you: what was it like going from making a hit indie movie like Blindspotting to co-directing Raya?
Estrada: For me, I think getting to work on a movie with 500 people or getting to work in a community of artists that’s like 900 people and more, getting to work on stories that is so timely, but also just timeless, and getting to work with artists in this building, who are responsible for many of the movies that I grew up watching… it’s just beyond anything I could ever imagine.
Speaking of the reach that this movie has and how it represents the main people on screen, Carlos, did you have any reservations about tackling a culture or group of cultures that you personally weren’t as familiar with?
Estrada: I mean, I wouldn’t say reservations, but there’s definitely a sense of responsibility that we have as filmmakers. And honestly, you brought up Blindspotting, it was very similar questions when entering that world. Because I remember talking to [writers and stars] Daveed [Diggs] and Rafael [Casal], saying, “Hey, are you sure that I’m the right person to tell your story? Wouldn’t you want somebody from Oakland or a Black filmmaker?” And they just put their trust in me in a way that was really empowering. They said, “Look you understand us, we understand what you do, we trust you and we have a standing relationship with you, and we believe that you’re going to explore our world with a lot of respect and a lot of responsibility.” I feel like it’s a very similar situation here.
I’m from Mexico, and I would like to think that not only Mexican filmmakers can tell stories about my culture. I feel like that would limit the stories — like they would be rich and authentic, but they would be limited in a way. So I would love to think that anyone can come and tell a story about my culture. But I also like to think that those people would really handle that responsibility, and know that they need to evolve the people that they’re talking about, and that they have to learn as much as possible and know that we really have to immerse themselves into it in order to depict it accurately. So I would like to think that our role here is similar, that I got to learn so much about these cultures, from people like Fawn for people in our crew like Qui, Kelly who could speak directly to it. And I think for that reason, it’s just good to be conscious and aware of the responsibility that we have.
A lot has been discussed about Raya and Southeast Asian representation, but I want to talk about another piece of representation that has been central to discussions of this movie: LGBTQ. Kelly Marie Tran has said that she thinks of Raya as gay, and lots has been said about the central relationship between Raya and Namaari. Can any of you speak on whether those LGBTQ themes should be read as explicit?
Shurer: I think what Kelly said, which I loved, was this idea that if you see yourself represented on the screen, that’s a good thing. That means we told an authentic story. We thought a lot about Raya and Namaari, we didn’t really explore Raya’s sexuality in this film. But we thought a lot about Raya and Namaari as friends, as two people who in some ways were a reflection of each other, almost could have been each other if they’d grown up differently. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we establish that friendship in the short amount of screen space we have, and those are the terms we thought about it in. But I feel the same as Kelly does. If that’s what I see in that story, more power to me, it’s awesome. It’s a great thing the more we see ourselves in our stories. So I think that’s where I land on it.
From what Disney animators have shared online, Namaari in her final form was a later addition, but that found family around Raya was always there. How did each member of the group start out, and how did they settle into what we see with the final product? Was there a point when something clicked and you thought, ” Oh, this is what the character was”?
Shurer: There’s a lot of characters, I think we always knew Raya [who] of course evolved over time. And Sisu was actually one of the first sketches and certainly, we had a sense of her. Though, again, they both evolved over time. Some of the characters started out as someone else. Tong was a grandmother earlier on and was connected with Baby Noi.
As the story evolved, each one sort of found their seat and how they connect both psychologically, culturally to the land they come from. That was really important to us, because in the end, each is representing one of the lands when we all come together. And then each character sort of found their place. I think Namaari was always there, but she was a whole different character. She used to lead the Druun, and the Druun were sentient, and all sorts of other versions of what the threat is. And each one evolved under a real clear thematic from what we were aiming at. And I think Namaari was there, but that depth of the relationship, the real thing that goes between those two of “could they be friends?” — we all have friendships like that, where you meet somebody and you like the same bands, and there’s an intensity to those kind of relationships, especially between girls that we were excited to dig into. But I think each character carries something that speaks to the land that they’re from.
Can you talk about some of the cut sequences or storylines for Raya and the Last Dragon, like the mythical sword that Raya at one point was supposed to wield?
Veerasunthron: Yeah, in the early, early versions, we were trying to figure out how she lived on her own for those past four years, and what was that backstory? So we had a lot of backstory that materialized in this mystic sword that she wields. But then we found that if we were to restrict the Druun in the physical form, it takes a lot of screentime to try to explain that. And at some point, we had the leader of the Druuns and it got really complicated. I think with her sword, it was more emotional that it was something passed on from her dad. Because we talked a lot about, this is the start of someone who feels responsibility for her family. And we take the definition of family to the broader aspect, of her making something that represents that and highlight what she’s fighting for. She’s fighting to bring dad back, and eventually fighting to bring the world back.
Speaking of those fights, let’s talk about the intense fight scenes of Raya and the Last Dragon. There was some sort of talk, mostly in jest, about how Raya might have been R-rated, but those fight scenes are intense enough to be convincing. Was there ever a part where you thought, “We have to pull back or we might scare the kids?”
Estrada: I think it was a little bit of both. And part of the development process was gaging that balance of how far can you push something and keep it relatable. It goes the same for the comedic scenes, you try to make them funnier and sometimes you realize you’re pushing too hard. And to our surprise, we thought that the action elements, the fights in particular were potentially going to be too graphic and we would get pushback, first from the test audiences and then from the studio.
But we screened the movie, expecting to get those notes and no one really seemed to have a problem with it. I would like to think it was a testament to the story building that we did, making sure those moments felt earned and that they felt like an extension of the journeys of the characters, but we screened it for the studio and we got lots of notes on other things, but not the fights. Then we screened it for test audiences, spanning some tiny people, some not-so-tiny people in terms of age, and they were commenting on other character traits, they were commenting on Sisu’s humor, and they were commenting on everything and anything except the graphic nature of the fights. I think that for us just meant that we could just move forward and continue developing the characters, it really felt like the fight moments were earned. But we were never doing like a fight just for action’s sake, or because you know, like an action spike in the story, like it just really felt like these weren’t necessary moments that were speaking to the truth of the character.
Speaking of things that may have needed to be reined back for children, have you guys read the New York Times piece about hot animation dads, with Raya‘s Chief Benja at the center? How did you guys react to that piece, and was his hotness a happy accident?
Estrada: We did! We’re very proud of he movie in many ways, but I think we may be the most proud of Benja [Laughs]. Because it was a very deliberate choice to make. Adele Lim, one of our screenwriters, deserves a lot of credit because she had that moment of [asking], “Why can’t Benja be hotter?”
Shurer: Why can’t he?!
Estrada: And that just snowballed. We opened up the model conversation, our technical team came back, we looked at muscles. We were like, “Hey, look at Daniel Dae Kim, he’s like the most attractive human on Earth.” And we just really used him as a direct reference for what Benja would look like. So we know that people had commented it, but to be to be so openly validated about it, I think was really, really good surprise.
Veerasunthron: There was a lot of hard work going into that, and for us, I think it was important for the Asian male representation, right? [Laughs] Like, “Hey, we want someone to look up to, or look like the role model, and Benja has all those qualities, so we should match this appearance to those qualities.”
Well, I hope there’s whole featurettes on the Blu ray about how hot Benja is.
Estrada: Well you know what, I’ll just say… Many times last year, putting the movie together, you get to see shots in unfinished form. Sometimes, you know people show up without hair. And there are a few shots that Benja showed up without a shirt, just because the clothes wouldn’t come through in the render, and I would say it got really, really steamy reactions from people in the crew. People were taking screenshots, people were demanding more shots to come through incomplete in that department. That’s the real thing that happened.
Raya and the Last Dragon is available on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD on now.
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