Making “The One and Only Ivan” Without a Gorilla: How Disney Brought the Beloved Novel to Life

Katherine Applegate’s award-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, becomes a Disney+ original film on August 21st. The cast and creative team recently reassembled for a virtual press conference where they reminisced about the fun of bringing Ivan’s story to the screen and the challenges that came along with it.

“We wanted to capture the heartfelt spirit of the book, which was the most important thing,” Director Thea Sharrock shared about the source material. She experienced it through her kids and realized that there was something very special about it. “And they connected with it emotionally on a level that they really appreciated the journey that these characters go on. And I knew, reading it as an adult and as a parent, that I was appreciating something slightly different in certain aspects.”

Angeline Jolie had a similar experience, talking to one of her kids about a book they loved and feeling inspired to pursue it as a project to produce. Development work had already begun when she came onboard, which had previous adaptations by other screenwriters. “One of the things Mike [White] did, that I think was very special, is I had seen it start to go down a road where it really started to become a light, fun, kid's cartoon-like action, a simpler story. It was easy for somebody to come in and just try to pick a few threads and make it quite simple and add some action here and to really make it what it is intended to be. And Disney and Mike and everybody involved, really to understand that it's hard. It's not a light film. It deals with heavy issues, but it is charming and fun and full of life.”

Screenwriter Mike White was tasked with adding that life and energy back into the project to retain the spirit of the novel, but also making this Disney film feel like it belongs on a shelf among the classics. “I feel like I was really lucky because the characters are so rich and it's so emotional and very soulful for a children's book or young-adult book,” the writer shared. “I think that it needed a structure, like a lot of these adaptations, where you just need to make it have more of a plot, in a sense. Because the plot isn't really front and center in the book, so that was the biggest challenge. And just giving Ivan and Mack arcs. Mack's arc is pretty solid in the book, but Ivan having an arc that is more classic as far as a Disney film would require, that was the biggest challenge in working with Thea and the producers and Disney.”

Being a children’s book, the adults on the call didn’t have to look far for kids to back up their enthusiasm for the story. “I actually read the book before I even started acting,” Disney Channel actress Ariana Greenblatt shared about her love of the source material. “I read it in third grade and when I got the job, I was looking through my camera roll and I saw a picture of me reading it to the class. And I was like, no way, that's crazy. When I read it, it was actually one of my favorites I've ever read in my entire life because I've always been an animal lover. And I've always wanted to help animals in any way I possibly can. So reading it was very touching to me.”

Actor Bryan Cranston, who plays the owner of the circus and ringleader of the act, recalled how he became involved with the project. “It started with Mike's script, which resonated with me and the plight of not just the animals and their particular emotional journey, but also with Mack.” Cranston came on board early and was able to help craft the character of Mack. “I met with Thea a couple times before we started shooting and we really discussed how we'd lay this out. And I, too, saw him as a man who has flaws, but also is attempting to make things right. Ivan was like a child to him and so he wasn't about to abandon his child. He wanted to figure out, ‘How do I embrace the fact that he's now a full-fledged silverback gorilla and how do I live with that?’ And so it was to discover those nuances and allow for the character to be vulnerable. We talked about it and I pitched the idea that Mac wears a wig and that at one point the wig flies up and he's bald and it embarrasses him… He was presenting himself as someone he wanted to project, but it wasn't really him.”

With a story about animals in captivity, the filmmakers made a choice to make the animal stars fully computer generated characters, which added new levels of complexity to the production. “Shooting this movie was very much like simultaneously working on two movies at the same time because of the technical aspect of it,” Director Thea Sharrock recalled. “We started the whole process with the voice actors because the animators needed their voices to begin to be laid down for the animation journey to begin. So we started with that. Then we shot all of our live-action stuff and then we went back in and we shot the virtual aspects of the film, which was whenever we had just animals in a scene together. And those scenes we often revisited. So we went back in and we did them several times just to get tiny, tiny nuances. Changes in the actor's voices, changes in their performances made a huge change to the animators and what they were doing. In that sense, the technicality of it was certainly unlike anything I've ever done before.”

Just because some of the actor’s faces never appear on screen doesn’t mean they didn’t get into costume, as young actress Brooklynn Prince explained about recording dialogue as the baby elephant Ruby with Angelina Jolie, who plays an older elephant named Stella. “The first time I met her was at the Governor's awards and then I saw her at the Critic's Choice awards. When I saw her at the Critics Choice Awards, I was like, ‘Hey, we should wear elephant onesies in the recording room.’ And I go home and I'm like, ‘Mom, mamma, mamma, please buy me and Angie elephant onesies.’ And my mom was like, ‘I am buying Angelina Jolie an elephant onesie to match my daughter…’ [Angelina] comes in and she drops off the stuff and she's like, ‘You got in it before me?’ And so she put it on. And me and her have a selfie together wearing our elephant onesies… Angie also bought me this stuffed animal with a little baby elephant and a big elephant holding each other's trunks for Easter.” The conversation brought a smile to Angelina Jolie’s face, who added: “I think it's safe to say we became like the elephant family. We got really into our characters, us two.”

“It was a pleasure being in this movie, I loved working with everybody in the film,” Danny DeVito shared about his role as Ivan’s best friend Bob. “I'm an animated dog, so I kind of spoke with Sam [Rockwell] and Helen [Mirren]. I put a lot into the character. I feel like the thing about Bob, for me, was I wanted a friend. And I always wanted a bigger brother in my life and I want an older brother. Now, I don't know if he's older than I am, but I know he's bigger than I am. And that gorilla is my best friend and I always wanted a soft place to sleep. And his belly is just so, so soft. And I could just think about right now just sinking into that belly and maybe eating a little piece of pizza first… just let my eyes just go and go to sleep with that.”

Most of the cast wasn’t present for the live-action shoot, where stand-ins helped actors interact with the digital animal cast. “It was really interesting to see some of the characters that played Ivan,” Ramon Rodriguez shared about his role as George, one of the circus’ caretakers and father to Ivan’s human friend Julia “Ben Bishop, who was amazing, he'd be wearing spandex all over his body and these stilts. When I watched the film, I could actually see so much of his performance. I could see so much of what he gave to that character's physicality, the eye. It was really kind of incredible to work alongside him. And it was a character that played Ruby that would get into this small, baby green elephant outfit and walk around the set. And after a while you'd kind of just go, ‘That's a baby elephant.’ You know, it was actually nice to have that.”

Ariana Greenblat plays Julia, the character who ultimately gives Ivan the means to express his desires through crayons and paints. “When I had brakes during school I actually drew some of the drawings,” Ariana shared about some of the artwork her character shows Ivan coming from her own hand. “Like the Bob one, like a few that you'll see… And it was such a cool opportunity for me to put my own artistic side into the movie. And it's something I'll always remember, too.”

For Bryan Cranston, talking to a human in a small elephant costume may not have been the weirdest part of his job. As the ringleader, he makes his entrance on stage riding a tiny bicycle. “You look at a bicycle and you go, ‘Oh, I can ride that,’” Cranston joked about doing his own bike-riding stunts. “It's actually much harder than it appears. No CG, I rode the bicycle. It was difficult,  but it was fun. And I fell down several times because it's slick and your knees are basically up in your face… When I first saw the bicycle, I noticed on the side of it, it said ‘Property of Danny DeVito.’” Still on the call, DeVito added to the mythology of the bike’s origins, saying “I rode that to work every day.”

“It's not just any studio, it's Disney,” Director Thea Sharrock added about her vision for the film. “We definitely knew that there was a tone that we had to get right. And that was everything from Mike and I in the beginning working on the script and throughout, to endlessly looking with the designer Molly Hughes as to exactly how the domains would work physically. Literally how big the bars are so that on camera they would have the right feel. We chose very carefully when we came to edit it that in certain scenes there are no bars to be seen whatsoever. And in other moments we've chosen very carefully when the presence of the bars are there so that they are a constant reminder. It's not easy when your leading character is behind bars for eighty-percent of the movie and you have to hold at its heart that he creates a dream… We also made the choice to have next to no green used in the movie so that when you get to either Ivan's flashbacks from when he's a kid, which we made as green as possible and made as like the Congo as possible,  or the very end when he gets to where he needs to go, we made that as green and as lush as possible. But every choice up to that point with both the designer and the costume designer, we did everything to keep as much green away as possible.”

Disney’s The One and Only Ivan premieres Friday, August 21st, only on Disney+.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).