Interview with John Musker and Ron Clements, Disney Animation Writers and Directors #LittleMermaidEvent

During our amazing tour of the Disney Animation Studios, we had the privilege of meeting with John Musker and Ron Clements, writers and directors of numerous Disney animated classics including The Little Mermaid.

In preparation for the release of the Diamond Edition of The Little Mermaid in October, we were allowed a brief peek into their brilliant minds and hear their thoughts on their work together in the animated film industry.

ron clements and john musker little mermaid

Q : How did you guys start together?

JOHN : Well we knew each other, um, I mean we’re about the same age – I’m a little bit older, we both worked on Fox and the Hound and-

RON : He was a supervisor on Fox and the Hound, he’d been at the studio a few years before I, I was. I was a regular animator and he was a supervising animator. So he didn’t, uh, [INAUDIBLE] I was the animator in charge of that.

JOHN : I would say we, we sort of became more- we bonded a little bit on, on the film Black Cauldron which was a Disney film.

RON : [OVERLAPPING] Which was a film we both got kicked off together so [LAUGHTER]

JOHN : We got in trouble on that film, uh, it was, it was actually a film we were really excited about. It was based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander, called the Prydain Chronicles. And there were just story-wise we just had some different ideas than the-

RON : We were worried, I was the director on that film. I was, uh, they were trying to bring in a younger director at that point, there were some veteran directors though that they apparently would have been- but they didn’t really see it the way I did or anything.

It was sort of a schism actually at that time Tim Burton who I went to school with at Cal Arts did some drawings for one of the characters who I looked like and I thought, oh this is cool, and one of the earlier directors was like, ooh, too weird, Tim Burton. So, uh, that didn’t happen and then the story, we wanted to do something more like the books, and the other director is like, no do it more like Star Wars, forget the books and I went no-no-no, the books are good. So we didn’t quite, so we kind of bonded a little bit that way. And then when he pitched, uh, uh, I’m skipping over a few years, but basically when he pitched The Little Mermaid, then having worked together on The Great Mouse Detective. He asked me, would I like to write the script for him-

JOHN : John wrote and I wrote. I had written off and on between things and- and actually the- with The Little Mermaid it, it sounds weird, but most of the Disney films that were done under Walt Disney – they didn’t use scripts the way they’re used in live action.

RON : They had outlines and things that people looked at, but they just kind of built the story, and when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came they were-

JOHN : They were, see, from Paramount, they were used to reading scripts. And they weren’t going to be able to okay anything without a script. So, they wanted to see a script on The Little Mermaid and I had written some scripts – and I knew John wrote, so I asked him if he was interested in collaborating on writing this script. And that’s really where we first started working together. And so we wrote the script together and, and Jeffrey actually liked the script a lot. So, so it made sense then that we would direct it since, since they liked the script. And then that went well so we just continued to work.

RON : Yeah I joke that I’ve been married to my real life wife for [LAUGHTER] thirty-three years now, and I’ve been married to him for like twenty-eight or something. Really scary.


Q : Do you guys hang out? Do you have barbecues together?

JOHN : I mean I think we, um, I guess occasionally.

RON : He’s a big dog person and I grew up allergic to dogs and he’s got two basset hounds and it’s like, he is a total dog man.

JOHN : My wife has been in basset rescue for years. So, so we, yeah, we have three now. But we’ve had more than that.

RON : But we have similar taste in movies and just like what makes us laugh and comedians and TV shows and films and things like that, so I think that helped, you know, in fact, in fact we wrote the scripts together, we kind of he- Ron’s more big on structure, and I’m a little bit more dialogue oriented. So we kind of dovetailed, a little, we weren’t doing exactly the same thing, although certainly he wrote some very funny dialogue and I occasionally have a structural idea. But it’s a- we’ve been, it’s the, the sum is somewhat more than the parts.

JOHN : We, we fight sometimes but we generally seem like we see the movie fairly similarly, if we, we haven’t been in a situation where it seems like-

RON : -yeah certainly on casting the voices and generally we tend to like the same actors and things like that, and just our taste, whatever. So- it’s worked out.


Q : We’re all writers in this room and there’s a part of me that’s always, I’ve got a movie in me, you know. How does one get to-

JOHN : It’s complicated. Certainly there’s all kinds- there’s more opportunities, I think. But there aren’t quite as many opportunities in terms of, of right now, as far as like Disney feature animation. Because John Lassiter, pretty much -and maybe this has changed- kind of takes pitches from the sort of in-house directors. So it’s more difficult, like sort of for an outside person to actually present an idea for an animated feature at Disney. Although that’s, that, on the other hand there are many a, many studios doing animated features, a lot more than, than some of-

RON : – Some of those may want to hear pitches, and that sort of thing, but I think for anyone that’s interested, it really is sort of a tough road that you’ve got to almost- you almost have to kind of write a script and then find an agent who’s willing to represent you. So you’d have to go through like the Writer’s Guild. Because if you just send to it- here I’m going to send my idea to Disney, they won’t read it because of legal reasons. They don’t want to get sued later. So it has to come through an agent. But it’s all sort of a Catch Twenty-Two, you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had something done –


Q: What do you want to be remembered for most?

JOHN : I don’t know that we particularly want to be remembered. I think it’s, it’s nice if the work is, is, is remembered, I mean, that the, the work is appreciated and I think that’s… Not everybody is like this, I know. […] things have opened up from when I started, but it wasn’t something you sort of got into if necessarily you wanted to be well known.

And in some cases, there is an appeal, if you’re kind of introverted or, or shy or whatever, that, that it- I, even as an animator, I’ve always thought it was fun, because an animator is really an actor. And we both started as animators. But if you’re an animator, you’re sort of an actor but no one actually sees you, you know, you’re, you’re performing out there on the screen and if people like the character that you’re animating, then they respond to that, it’s like you’re, you’re an anonymous actor. But if- if they- if they laugh at something you, you, you animated, you feel like you’ve performed that, and you feel, feel good about that.

RON : I mean it’s apparent that the movies that we’ve done stand the test of time, that they live on beyond what we do. I, I do think, yeah, moreso than my own name or something like that. The fact that the characters and the stories still resonate, I think that’s pretty satisfying. And, uh, and-

JOHN : Yes, it’s like people don’t know who we are, but they know who Ariel is. [LAUGHTER]

RON : But we’ve had a stretch of, if we were like in a, uh, certain directors who are really, you know,, Steven Spielberg he goes in a restaurant, you know, he can’t eat a decent meal, but we can eat plenty [LAUGHTER]

They throw us out of the restaurant, usually. [LAUGHTER] just fine. I did- I have to admit though and this was shameless. I was at, I was at The Galleria the other day, the Glendale Galleria. And- and we usually eat lunch together but he was off doing something else, didn’t get to work. So I sketch at lunch time, so I go to the Galleria, I go to the Hot Dog On a Stick with my sketch book and I draw people. And [LAUGHS] and it was crowded, there was room at the table with me, it was jam packed. This woman and her two kids, uh, twin little girls five years old, sat down, uh, with me. They’re like, can we use these seats, there’s no other seats, I’m like sure, you can do that.

And then we do get to talking a little and they see I have a sketch book and they’re, oh yeah you draw, and da-da-da da-da-da. And then, yeah, I did Little Mermaid. [LAUGHS] and they’re like, you did what, I’m like yeah and here’s my land watch. And so then, so that was actually kind of fun that they- they had seen The Little Mermaid and I’m like, uh, and- and the mother is like, do you realize that that- you know [LAUGHTER] enjoyed a little moment with the five year olds. I enjoyed that, I had fun.


Q : Do you have any early memories of the first time you ever read the original Little Mermaid story.

RON : Oh the story.

JOHN : Well the truth is like see I found this book and went to the bookstore and was reading it. Uh, I don’t remember that I ever read the story as, as, as a child. Because the story, I mean, I didn’t know that she was going to die in the end until I got to the end. So [LAUGHS] –

RON : – and I never read the story until he found the story, so that was the first time

JOHN : Yeah I do know one, one interesting thing is in the two-page treatment that I wrote, I didn’t name any of the characters except the mermaid. And I named her Arial. And so somebody then asked, you know, where did that name come from and- and I wasn’t sure. And because, um, I know there’s a character named Ariel in The Tempest that and I had read The Tempest, but I didn’t think of that.

And then just more recently I saw the movie, Footloose, which came out just a couple of years before, before Little Mermaid and the daughter in Footloose is named Ariel. And, and her father is, is like, uh, a minister, and I think that subliminally […] to me it just seemed like a good name for a mermaid, it just sort of popped in my head. But I think there might have been a Footloose connection.


Don’t miss our next interview: Jodie Benson, the voice of Ariel, right here on Mommy’s Busy, Go Ask Daddy  – September 26th!

Written by Kenda Smith, attending on behalf of – read more from Kenda at




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