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Q&A: 'Frozen' producer talks Disney, sequels, and advice for aspiring filmmakers

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 02:  (L-R) Producer Peter Del Vecho, directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck accept the Best Animated Feature Film award for 'Frozen' onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 02: (L-R) Producer Peter Del Vecho, directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck accept the Best Animated Feature Film award for 'Frozen' onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Peter Del Vecho has produced a number of Disney films, including “The Princess and the Frog” and “Winnie the Pooh,” but is best known for producing “Frozen,” which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song for "Let It Go." Last weekend, Del Vecho attended Duke’s Parents Weekend as the father of a first-year student and gave a talk on the production of “Frozen." The Chronicle’s Christy Kuesel talked with Del Vecho about the film industry, how to be a producer and why some fans of the film just can't let it go.

The Chronicle: How did you get interested in working in the film industry in general?

Peter Del Vecho: I worked for 15 years in live theater, mostly on the East Coast, and then ended up in the Guthrie Theater, the largest regional theater in the country, which is in Minneapolis. There I worked with new plays as well as classical plays. I think that experience made me really key into storytelling, which is what animation, as well as theater, is all about. That brought me to Disney.

TC: What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?

PDV: These movies take three to four years to make, and it starts off usually with a very simple idea. The most rewarding part is when the movie begins to tell you what it needs to be, and the movie takes on a momentum of its own, and now you’re just trying to keep up with it. That you breathe life into the movie, and it takes on a life of its own. That’s probably the most rewarding time. Another point is after the movie releases, particularly when “Frozen” was released, and you get to read and hear about how the movie has affected people in ways beyond what you even imagined.

TC: Was producing “Frozen” different from producing any other movie?

PDV: I would say that all of the movies that I produced at Disney taught me something, and a lot of that led to “Frozen.” The studio got stronger from “Rapunzel” to “Wreck It Ralph” to eventually “Frozen." Our storytelling got stronger. Everything led to that path. We knew we had a strong movie, but of course nobody could have predicted that it would become a phenomenon. That you never can predict, but we did know that we did have a good movie.

TC: What advice would you have for any student planning on going into the film industry?

PDV: When I first started in the industry, you had to be two of three things: you had to be good, you had to be fast or you had to be pleasant to work with. If you were good and fast, we didn’t care if you were pleasant. If you were pleasant and good, we didn’t care if you were fast. But the truth is, the world has changed and it’s getting much more competitive. Now you need to be all three. 

When I hire people at Disney, I’m very fortunate in that I get to hire people who are overqualified for their job, and I see two types of people transition from college into work. One will constantly remind you that they’re overqualified for their job, and another one is the person who rolls up their sleeves and works really hard and joins in when anything needs to be done. Those are the people you tend to hire and promote to work on your next movie. The ones that were constantly reminding you that they were overqualified become such a drain that you end up not hiring them again. If the goal of the movie is worth working for, do the best you can in the job you have and you’ll get recognized and you’ll get promoted and get advanced that way.

TC: Back to the topic of “Frozen." Did anything crazy or unexpected happen during the planning or production of the movie?

PDV: Well, probably the most unexpected thing was that when I started on the movie, it was supposed to come out in 2014. Six months into the project, they asked us to take a year out of the schedule to have it come out in 2013. That was certainly unexpected to suddenly have one year less than what you thought to work with. There were plenty of unexpected things. These movies are very hard to make. Andrew Stanton [writer of "Finding Nemo"] from Pixar once said, “It’s like jumping out of an airplane with your best friends and making the parachute on the way down, hoping you don’t impact the ground before you make the parachute.” It’s a little bit what making these movies is like. So even in “Frozen,” there were so many times where we screened the movie and we could see the potential of it, but it just wasn’t adding up. We made our final changes a few months before the movie came out, and all of a sudden everything clicked into place. Suddenly we went, “Wow, the movie really got great.” You never know when that magical moment is going to happen.

TC: “Frozen” came out almost two years ago, but it’s still very popular and very present in society. How do you feel about the ubiquity of “Frozen”?

PDV: It’s not our movie anymore; the world has made it their own, which we love. Love versus fear was our theme and that’s a very relatable topic. So many people related to “Let It Go." It seems that everyone who tells me a story about “Let It Go” thinks that it was written personally for them, and yet their takes are very different. I’ve had somebody who was back from the war who had lost his legs feel like “Let It Go” gave him the courage to accept who he was. That’s powerful stuff. There were people who felt that they had too much pressure from their parents and were trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, and “Let It Go” meant shedding the expectations and focusing on what it was they felt they were intended to do. Yes, the movie was funny and it made us laugh, but I think there was an emotional connection to the movie and to the characters that was terrific.

TC: Disney announced earlier this year that Frozen will have a sequel. What can viewers expect from “Frozen 2”?

PDV: The only thing that I know for sure is that we’re getting the same creative team back together. It’s going to be all the characters we know and love: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf. We’re excited by the ideas we have, but it’s too early to talk about them. We wouldn’t be making a sequel if we felt that we didn’t have a story to tell that was equal to or greater than the original.

TC: What are you working on next?

PDV: Right now part of my day is handling the “Frozen” franchise. There is still so much in development. There’s things that are happening in the parks or with consumer products, so I’m still involved in that. The other part of my day is in development with Chris [Buck] and Jen [Lee] the directors, working up ideas for the development of “Frozen 2." Those are my two primary focuses right now.


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