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March 29. 2014 7:56PM

UNH degree played a part in Oscar-winning movie


"Frozen" director Jennifer Lee, right, shares a laugh with co-director Chris Buck, left, and visual development artist Lisa Keene. (Araya Diaz/Disney)

Years before walking Hollywood's red carpet this month, Oscar-winning director Jennifer Lee spent her days at the University of New Hampshire developing the building blocks to write and direct the blockbuster movie "Frozen."

"For me, it was all about understanding what makes these strong, compelling stories, and I don't think I understood what I was going to do with it yet," the 1992 UNH alumna said in a phone interview last week. "I just knew that that's kind of how I lived every day, at every moment, was sort of dreaming up these worlds. I guess being an escapist is a dangerous thing, but that's how I was."

The Rhode Island native took her UNH English degree, moved to New York City, built a career in book publishing, shifted to filmmaking and this month received an Oscar for co-directing the Disney animated film, "Frozen" - which has grossed more than $1 billion in ticket sales.

Lee, 42, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, became the first woman to direct a feature film for Walt Disney Animation Studios in its 90-year-history.

Winning an Academy Award, she has found, carries certain privileges.

Like an invitation to meet people she looked up to in the movie business.

"The funny thing about it for me, though, having this opportunity, I joke, has allowed me to meet every single crush I ever had in Hollywood," Lee said from her studio office in Burbank, Calif.

Without dishing any names, she said: "I had a goal to kind of get through all of them and I still had a couple left on Oscar night, but holding an Oscar really does get people to say hello."

For those wondering, the Los Angeles-area resident hasn't found a permanent landing spot for her Oscar statue. "It's funny; right now, he just comes around with me occasionally," she said.

"My daughter keeps putting ("Frozen" characters) Elsa and Anna dresses on him," Lee said of her 10-year-old, Agatha.

Lee grew up loving Cinderella because "I just related to this sort of dare-to-dream attitude she had" and also acted out scenes from "The Jungle Book" film with her sister.

"I escaped into Disney films as often as I could," Lee said.

She never expected to be tapped to deliver UNH's commencement address in Durham May 17.

"I'm a little bit like: Am I old enough? Have I done enough in my life?" she said. "It's such an honor. How could I miss the opportunity to be there, and I hope I can bring something meaningful."

She said she can't wait to see friends from her UNH days that weekend, but don't ask for a copy of her speech yet.

"I have just a big pile of notes, and it's just like how I write a script," Lee said. "I write about 40 pages of ideas and outlines and then hone it down."

Playing down expectations might be part of her game plan.

When a test audience screened "Frozen" a year ago, the response exceeded the expectation of filmmakers, who still had their doubts.

"The key is we didn't know if people would come to it," Lee said. "We were taking some risks with the film, doing a grand musical again with two female leads, and so we just said, 'Well, we'll be fearless and try it and see what happens,' so we were pleasantly surprised, of course."

The billion-dollar movie gross is the highest for an animated Disney film. "Frozen" is an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Snow Queen."

"Fearless optimist Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) sets off on an epic journey - teaming up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and his loyal reindeer Sven - to find her sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter," explained Disney's website. "Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom."

A movie review on the MSN Entertainment website said co-directors "Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have taken pains to see that every frame is picture perfect."

And 3,100 customers on Amazon.com gave the movie an average 4.6 rating out of 5.

Lee said the Anna character "hands down, no question" most resembles herself.

"Those who know me and know how easily I stain my clothes and speak too fast and mess up a lot can agree," Lee said.

Making the movie involved "upwards of 600 to 650 people," including around 70 lighting people and 70-plus animators, she said.

"You start in the story room and you have about 15 to 20 board artists who are working with you," she said. "They're giving notes. We're having long talks about the characters. They really develop it with you ... . At first, we do temporary music and we watch the whole film in story board form several times before we even begin animating."

But winning an Oscar puts more pressure on her to produce, wanting to get better as a filmmaker and story-teller."... I think winning for the whole film, you really just feel much more that you're representing the whole film and all the other people," Lee said. "This just feels like I'm so proud and happy for the crew, so I just feel I don't want to let them down in the next project. I want to bring them something that inspires them just as much and let's them bring out all the amazing stuff they did for this."

mcousineau@unionleader.com


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