Raya and the Last Dragon filmmakers on diversity, inclusion and Disney

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 19: The marquee is shown on re-opening night at El Capitan Theatre on March 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. The El Capitan Theatre reopened after being closed since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 19: The marquee is shown on re-opening night at El Capitan Theatre on March 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. The El Capitan Theatre reopened after being closed since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

With Disney‘s Raya and the Last Dragon coming home to Blu-Ray and digital this Tuesday, several of the key creatives behind the film are speaking up about how they made the magic happen.

Making over $100 million at the box office, the film features the first Disney Princess from Southeast Asia. Culturess spoke to the creative team about the importance of representation, how they made sure that the fictional land of Kumandra was culturally accurate, and how the thorough process that Disney utilizes for all of its animated movies helped them bring Raya and the Last Dragon to life.

Get to know these talented filmmakers better in our feature below, then get your copy of Raya and the Last Dragon either digitally or on Blu-Ray tomorrow.

More from Disney

Culturess: What about Raya and the Last Dragon inspired each of you initially?

Adele Lim (co-writer): I came on early on, and [they] couldn’t tell me a whole lot before I officially joined the Disney family. [They were] like, we have a kick-ass female warrior and we have a dragon. And I was like, “You can stop talking. I am your person for this.” I grew up in Malaysia and Southeast Asia on a steady diet of Kung Fu action movies. I loved the image of the strong female warrior who could have flowers in her hair and be the good girl, but still able to lay waste to all the dudes.

And like most Asians, I’m just obsessed with dragons. They’re such an auspicious symbol for us. Being able to explore a new dragon that the world hasn’t seen—because I think we’re used to the fire-breathing, winged dragon that you have to take down, and this is a very different dragon. She’s goofy, she’s sweet, she’s auspicious, and underneath all that, there’s this hidden wisdom.

But in the beginning, it was just the idea of having a cool Asian girl with a sword and a dragon. There was something about that I knew I just had to be part of.

Qui Nguyen (co-writer): As an artist, from my days of doing theater to my time at Marvel to now, I’ve always been in the business of making superheroes. This was the rare opportunity to make a superhero that looked like me and my kids—to give them someone that I always wish existed in my pop culture universe. Once I heard about it and knew I could have a chance to be on it, I just leapt at the opportunity.

Osnat Shurer (producer): The opportunity to tell a story about a strong, interesting, nuanced flawed female lead, who’s a hero who has to go on a hero’s journey and save her world, and to center that on a friendship with another female character in the form of Sisu the dragon, as well as explore the relationship with the antagonist.

I think there’s so many cool opportunities that we’ve had on this film because of those main characters, and of how many wrong things we’ve allowed them to do and find their way back. So for me, it was between that and the cultures of Southeast Asia that I’m just so drawn to.

Fawn Veerasunthorn (head of story): What I love is that we get to explore the main lead female character. That is so fun, and to me that’s very relatable. We always go for the aspirational character, but in this one, we’re going for someone with trust issues. Once that was brought up, I knew it was going to be an interesting and nuanced subject to tackle.

And we [don’t] have just one female character who has to carry all the burdens of being the one female character. We have so many that at one point we’d be calling a character ‘she’ and I didn’t know which ‘she’ we were talking about because we were between three people—Sisu, Namaari and Raya. Once that happened, I was like, “Oh, this is new territory; I’ve never been in a story room where we have this happening before.”

Don Hall (co-director): For me it was the potential of the world. It had been going for a while before I came on, and the world was so interesting and rich and evocative, and like something I’d never seen. It was this world that had five different lands inspired by the different cultures of Southeast Asia, but yet, it’s gone through this fantasy filter with tuktuks and intriguing creatures. And so it felt not unlike Star Wars to me. It felt like this huge canvas of all these different worlds and it just looked like a fun place to go and play.

Carlos Lopez Estrada (co-director): I loved the characters from the beginning. But I think what was strongest to me was this notion of a story about a world that’s broken or that’s fractured and people having to come together to fix it. That just felt so powerful and so timely and like such a necessary story back when I first started working on it, but also today and all throughout the process.

Culturess: It takes years for a Disney animated film to go through production. Can you discuss that process and its impact on Raya and the Last Dragon?

CLE: I come from live-action and I joined the studio a little bit over two years ago, and there’s many things about making movies here that is very unique to Disney. The one that is the most different is the story process, which is essentially this idea that you’re with a group of people—you’re with your fellow directors, writer, a group of our story artists, producers. It’s usually like 15 or so people meeting in a room every day for very long periods of time and just workshopping the story. We’re trying to figure out how you can make the characters deeper, the story more complex, more rich, the funnier moments funnier, the dramatic moments more dramatic. And this is essentially all you do for years and years and years.

I think that’s what gives the stories like the level of depth and complexity that you see once they’re finished. But [for] every scene, to every joke, to every moment, there’s probably like 15 other moments that were tried—that were storyboarded, that were scripted, that would screen and [have] people reacting to them. We get back together and say, “Okay, let’s do it differently. Let’s try it now from this point of view, instead. Let’s actually flip the whole movie on its head.” That happens a lot. I don’t think anywhere else really makes movies this way, which is one of those big things that I don’t think people really get to realize.

Culturess: Diversity and inclusion are the two biggest issues in entertainment right now. Based on your experience on Raya and the Last Dragon, what advice would you give to other creatives about how we can continue to improve in that space?

DH: Starting from a place of intense research, and I don’t mean just the Internet kind. That’s good and helpful, but I mean the experiential kind. Over the course of this movie, there were I think three research trips to the many different countries and cultures all throughout Southeast Asia. And the reason why that’s important is you’re seeing it through your own eyes as an artist. You’re taking pictures, all kinds of photos and videos and amazing sketches.

But I think the more important thing is the relationships that are forged during that. A lot of the folks that were met on those trips became our Southeast Asian Story Trust, and we leaned on them throughout the course of making this film for everything—from consulting on the script, the screenings, character designs, fabric, even down to the little details like the design on Sisu’s horns. It all starts with just going there and immersing yourself in whatever culture that you’re trying to represent.

OS: What I would say in this, from my experience on Moana and on Raya, is include people from within the culture and plan to include them through to the end. It’s something that some of our partners in the Pacific islands said to me after Moana, they talked about a lot of people come here and say, “We’re going to do this together. Isn’t that cool?” and we never see them again. And you guys came back again and again, and again. We came back, we read the script and took notes. We did things like that, and we did something similar on Raya. So I’d say the first order of business is make connections with people who are experts, who can be your trust and work as hard as you can to include people from within a culture that is inspiring the film.

And, or if it’s a film that’s not inspired by another culture, just to have a variety of points of view in your room. Make sure it’s as gender-balanced as it can be, as diverse as it can be. We’re a 50/50 gender balance in the story room, and that is not just because it’s a story about women. It just should always be true. So put a lot of effort into finding a way to have people on the journey, from the beginning, particularly in the creative room and definitely in consultation.

FV: Open up the space and make it safe for people to be able to bring their concerns, because sometimes—speaking from my experience—when you’re not the majority, you don’t look like everyone else in the room, it can get a little bit intimidating. You feel like oh, maybe they don’t want to hear that. I feel like you need to trust your instincts, and be able to communicate why certain notes are important to you. To get to bring a part of myself to this film is an incredible feeling, and I would encourage people to not be afraid.

QN: I would just add that after all that research with having the right collaborators in the room, that you really are starting to honor in the right ways the cultures that you’re depicting. When it becomes a personal journey for all of us, that’s when you make the best movie. If you’re just having to lean on research, it’s not going to be good enough. And if you’re only leaning on someone else’s personal experience is not good enough.

It really matters that this movie means a lot to Adele and myself, absolutely. But it also needs to turn to Don and Carlos, who aren’t from these cultures. It’s something that we all share a big responsibility toward, but also just a huge passion for, and it was something that was very important for us to tell. It’s the moment we all kind of go, “Hey, this is the mission that we’re all putting on and we really, really care about it.”

AL: There’s a saying with a lot of underrepresented communities that there are no stories about us without us. And just as important as what you see on screen is, I think Qui and I feel very fortunate to be part of the storytelling process, and not just with the script. There were so many people on our story teams, our visual artists, who have roots in that part of the world. And so it was amazing having this cultural trust and learning so much more. I grew up in the region but there’s so much about it I didn’t know.

There’s so many details in the movie that were just personal details from our artists and how they grew up. Qui and his favorite foods, and me and my favorite arts, that were put into the script, put into the boards and helped really fill out that world and give it that texture of authenticity and love. Hopefully, if an audience member knows nothing about the region, they’re able to feel that authenticity comes through.

CLE: My personal experience is we’re being a guest in someone else’s culture. You’re being invited and welcomed to explore cultures that aren’t your own. Being really mindful of that position and just knowing that you’re lucky to be able to have a space where you can get to explore someone else’s way of living, someone else’s belief systems, philosophies, and knowing that this is a relationship. You get to put in as much as you want, but you also need to take in what’s coming from the other side, because that’s the only way that you can really tell these kinds of stories.

Having people like Fawn, having people like Adele, having people like Qui, and just knowing that this is really a conversation more than anything, and that you have a responsibility when you’re being invited into someone else’s house to make sure that you’re really understanding what’s important to the people that you’re working with, and for. That, for me, was wonderful because I really got to learn so much about this culture, understand the things that are important about their people. It was a really wonderful experience to feel so welcomed, and to also just learn something from the inside in such a beautiful way.

Culturess: Being a part of a Disney movie is such a great experience. What was the most fun or rewarding for you about making Raya and the Last Dragon?

AL: After the movie came out, it was wonderful seeing all these images from my friends [and] family across the world with their little girls dressed up as Raya and play-acting with Raya. One of my friends, her son [is] a little blonde white kid who’s about three, four years old right now, and he’s watched the movie nine times. He wakes up in the morning, he asks for it, he knows all the lines. The feeling that this amazing Disney movie that will last for decades or generations has that impact on children who don’t know Southeast Asia at all, that is the the coolest possible end result of this whole experience.

QN: I remember when I was working across the street and asking my coworkers, how do you know when a movie like Black Panther succeeds? Their answer was very clear; it’s when kids that aren’t black want to be Black Panther too. It’s not just kids that are Southeast Asian females play acting. Everyone’s fighting over being Raya or Namaari. And it’s just amazing that that’s a hero that gets to be in their sphere. But also as they see their friends wanting to be her, it tells my kids that a hero that looks like you matters, and that that element in you is something to be celebrated. And so that has been one of the most amazing and touching things to see.

DN: I think that’s the thing. Critical reviews are awesome, especially when they go our way. It’s a great feeling. Box office and everything is obviously very important as well, because it means people are seeing the movie. But those moments when you get to just one-on-one experience the thing that we’ve all created, have an impact on a single human being, whether it’s a kid or an adult or whatever—those are the most rewarding moments, because then you see it. You see it with your own eyes. It’s not intellectual. It hits you right in the emotional place. That’s why I keep coming back and doing these, because of that impact that we can have on people’s lives.

Next. When is Soul prequel coming to Disney Plus?. dark

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available on digital platforms and Blu-Ray this Tuesday, May 17.