Before Raúl Cocolotl was a teenager helping transboys Wendell & WildWhile heroine Katherine “Kat” Koniqua Elliot saved her town from demons, economic downturn, and the industrial prison complex, he was just what stop-motion movie director Henry Selick calls a classic “goth loser kid.”
The narratively complex, visually striking and representatively groundbreaking animated film, which debuted on Netflix late last month, is based on a short story Selick co-wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman some 20 years ago. For the 2022 shot of the stop-motion legend, which he co-wrote with Oscar winner Jordan Peele, they modernized the story by setting it in a girls’ school in a city dealing with a rusted economy and the threat of private prison developers .
Despite those changes, Selick was determined to keep Raúl in the story, even if he existed otherwise. “I still needed Raúl to be a part of it, and what’s the reason for a boy in a girls’ school? He’s a trans kid,” Selick says The Hollywood Reporter. “It took us a while to realize, and that’s not what the whole movie is about, but the answer was there.”
The director says the decision to make Raúl transgender was made “at least four years ago,” when he and Peele were conceiving the film. It was a choice strongly inspired by his co-writer self’s “touching” admission that as a young black boy he wanted to see himself in animated films like Selick’s. Hearing that freed the director, he says, to move forward with characters like Raúl, creating a “ripple effect” not just with individual characters, but with the whole story.
“Once we agreed to do that, it fed our story so much with his friends and his interest in Kat, the new outsider — he was intrigued by her and had a sense of confidence in her,” Selick says of the impact of the way Raúl was trans, which influenced more than just his arc.
After the duo settled on that aspect of Raúl’s identity, Selick began his typical deep-diving process, building the character’s backstory to further flesh out the young teen’s characterization. When it came to Raúl’s appearance, Selick turned to Pablo Lovato, who referenced Mayan, Aztec, Toltec and “perhaps even further south, Inca” artwork and stone sculptures, the director says, to explain the ethnic background of the teen.
It’s just one shadow within a larger, more inclusive community of characters rarely seen in stop motion. “He’s part of the community that’s a bit of a turning point and that could go one way or the other with the political situation in the city,” says Raúl’s voice actor Sam Zelaya.
“Rust Bank was inspired by a town called Red Bank, and the history of this town, Rust Bank, is that it was a thriving working-class community,” Selick added. “Yes, there’s the rich school on the hill, but it’s a place with a lot of black and brown people.”
Then there were the elements of his personality and his interests – things like his closeness to his mother, his “sweetness” and love of visual arts (the latter resulting in a huge mural with a large political statement being painted on top of the city). houses) – that also became the key to understanding the full picture of Raúl.
“His main thing is his journey as an artist and the celebration of his mother as this protector of him and the city against these monsters that want to devour the place, who are ultimately the Klaxons,” says Selick. “At some point he realized he was destined to be someone else and made the choice with the help of his mother.”
The Wendell & Wild The director said that when it came to Raúl’s transition, viewers would never see him kicked out of school, but the character would receive different reactions from those around him. “I couldn’t tell you Father Best fully understood, but he needed the money. That’s probably Father Best’s truth,” says Selick. “And the other kids — his best friends — went through a phase where they wondered, ‘Why weren’t we happy to be one of us,’ before they got to a place of understanding.”
“I know that for a lot of people who switch and change their name – starting from their dead name – they go about it differently. Raúl shows great patience,” Selick adds, noting how the teen reacts to his former friend Siobhan Klaxon giving him a deadly name in a moment of anger (which is quickly followed by an apology).
While other projects have chosen to refrain from including the dead names of trans characters and other elements of a trans person’s pre-menopause life, Raúl’s confrontation was part of a larger conversation Selick wanted to have about respecting who other people are.
“These three girls, I call them The Rich Girls, they’re not bad, but they make up a nickname for Kat. They call her KK, the initials of her first two names. Well, who are they to give her a new name? asks Selick. “It’s kind of a bigger problem I think. We need to respect who people are instead of making up a stupid nickname or dawdling or not mentioning someone they are with.”
For help figuring out elements of Raúl’s story — and how it would be portrayed and woven into the larger story — Selick said he turned to the film crew and others in his life. “Part of that is simply that I work with a large group of very talented people and among them are several people who have transitioned and people who are about to transition,” Selick explains. “I also care deeply about representation, and I know firsthand a parent whose child is in transition. It’s a fact of life for people I respect and care deeply about.”
“I saw the script and a lot of it was there and spoke to me in a way that you always hope a story will, but never really expect,” Zelaya says of how much Raúl’s identity story already appealed to him. “It felt like they could see inside my head when they were writing it.”
Selick gives major credit to voice star Zelaya, who he says “took a long time to find” but “contributed so much to bringing that character to life.” The search for escape was partly driven by a desire for authenticity. “Anywhere we can cast people who mirror their characters in real life, why wouldn’t we?” says the director.
For Zelaya, who had mainly worked in British theater before making his feature film debut with Wendell & Wild his feature debut, the complexity and fullness of Raúl’s characterization means his representation extends beyond just young trans viewers.
“It’s really cool that young trans people can see themselves, but I also think – or I hope – every kid can pick up on this character who is trying to find his feet and courage and learning to stand up for himself and his friends and his community through his friendships,” says the actor.
It’s the kind of comment that makes clearer what Selick means when he says that Zelaya was his Raúl because of the qualities the actor and his character share.
“Of the very talented people we found, and it was kind of down to a few, Sam had a really attractive quality. I wanted to know more about him, and I wanted our movie audiences to be intrigued,” Selick recalled. “He had a mix of a little bit of sadness and a lot of hope, and at the end of the day he just has faith in who he’s in, which is what Raúl needed most.”
While Selick recognized Zelaya’s confidence, the voice actor shared that, especially since it was his first major voice role – and one recorded over 20 days while still pre-testosterone – he needed to “get out of my head a little bit.”
“I had to convince myself that I deserved to be here and that, as a voice actor and just as a person, my voice was something worth hearing,” said Zelaya. “Many transgender people grow up with the opposite, and it’s hard not to internalize that.”
The combination of off-screen voices to inform the character’s experiences, a push for visibility from Peele, and the film’s existing broader themes of family relationships, coming of age, and figuring out who you are helped shape a story for Raúl that felt authentic but never shoehorned into a story with so many characters long left out of stop-motion.
“With this movie, I wanted to be a little more serious about things that were important to me,” says Selick. ‘I’m not a young fellow. I don’t get as many opportunities to put things into the world that I really care about and love. So this was the movie to put a lot of that in.