Despite a string of hit films, three Oscar nominations and a reputation as one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, Ron Clements says he never has gotten over being star struck.
“Coming from Iowa, Hollywood always seemed very, very far away,” he says by phone from California. “Even meeting Robin Williams or Jack Nicholson or Oprah was weird to me…but sort of cool.”
This week, the Bishop Heelan High School grad returns home for the annual Sioux City International Film Festival. There, he’ll talk about his latest film, “Moana,” and reminisce about the career that started with a hand-drawn film he made in the attic of the former KCAU-TV building.
Now, with more than 40 years in the business, he’s still not ready to call it quits, even though his longtime writing, producing and directing partner, John Musker, retired from Disney earlier this year.
“I’m not retiring quite yet,” Clements cautioned. "I’m working on something, but I’m not supposed to talk about it. John’s working on a project, too, but we are at that age.”
Indeed, when Clements joined the Disney studios as one of the shining hopes for the animation business, he was paired with Frank Thomas, one of the animators known as the Nine Old Men. “I was 20 and he was 62 at the time. I thought, ‘Sixty-two, wow!’ He seemed so old to me. Well, I turned 65 this year.”
Today, young animators at the Disney Studios probably consider him old, too, largely because they grew up with the films he made decades ago – “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules.”
“Some of them will tell me those films were what made them want to get in the business and that’s cool,” he says. “For me, it was ‘Pinocchio.’ It’s interesting how many were inspired by a certain film.”
Clements says animation usually strikes a chord with 9- and 10-year-olds. “If it’s going to make an impression, that’s when it’s going to make the biggest impression. That’s when they really get into it.”
Sure, enough, Clements was around that age when “Pinocchio” convinced him what he’d do for the rest of his life. “It doesn’t have the strongest story in the world, but the beauty of the film and how much they put into it was really inspiring. Walt always aimed high. It wasn’t about trying to make money. He really cared about those movies.”
So, too, Ron.
The first film that bore his imprint – “The Great Mouse Detective” – was based on that one-man effort he crafted in Sioux City. It helped him land jobs – first at Hanna-Barbera, then at Disney – and show what he could do.
Because animation was in a slump around the time he arrived in California, studio heads weren’t really certain how much of a future it might have. Eager to get buy-in from animators, they let them pitch ideas. Among Clements’: an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” It got the green light, attracted composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, and became a big hit – what many consider the dawn of a second golden age of animation.
Clements, Musker and the musicians quickly followed it with “Aladdin,” and it, too, soared – largely because they took some risks.
When Clements and Musker were writing the script, they had Robin Williams in mind to voice the Genie. “We wrote the first draft for Robin and his improv performing style, not knowing if he’d be interested.”
Animator Eric Goldberg put some drawings to Williams’ standup and “it was just incredible.”
When Williams signed on, the two directors knew they had, well, magic. “It was unbelievable the wealth of material we had. We only used a small percentage of what he did.”
While big-name stars frequently sign on to voice characters in animated films, it wasn’t always the norm. Without Williams, Clements says, “we didn’t know what we were going to do. The studio gave us other names but we basically said, ‘There is nobody else.’”
In their quest to cast the right voices, Clements and Musker listened to hundreds of voices at times. Some -- like Jack Nicholson – rejected them. Others – like Beyonce -- they rejected. “Usually when we’ve written a role for someone, we still audition other people,” Clements says. “It’s always about getting the best voice, not the biggest name.”
With seven films on their combined resume, Clements and Musker “did pretty much everything we wanted to do. There were a couple of films we were excited about that never saw the light of day. But we’re pretty happy. Most of the projects we’ve gotten involved with got made.”
That elusive Oscar aside, the two have seen most of their dreams come true. “You never say never,” Clements admits about the Academy Award. “But it’s probably unlikely. ‘Moana’ was our last shot, but who knows?”
Because the two are still in the business, there’s a chance.
More important? Clements got to realize his dream – to make animated films for Disney. “My dream was very specific and clear in my head,” he says. “People who have dreams don’t always get to see them come true. I did. There’s something very satisfying about that.”