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After helping to create animated spectacles including Big Hero 6, Mulan, and Raya and the Last Dragon, Emmy-winning animator Joe Mateo looked inward for his directorial debut. Blush, an animated short streaming now on Apple TV+, follows a horticulturist-astronaut stranded on a deserted planet whose universe is forever changed by the presence of another person. The supernatural story echoes Mateo’s own experience of falling in love with his late wife Mary Ann, who died of breast cancer four years ago.
What began as a painful period for the director morphed into a creative opportunity when he met with Skydance Animation head John Lasseter. “I didn’t pitch him the details of the story,” Mateo told Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Ford at a recent virtual screening. “I just told him why I feel like this film needs to be made. And he was on board.”
Below is an excerpt from Mateo and Ford’s conversation about finding catharsis through filmmaking, and connecting with his daughters in the process.
Vanity Fair: Where did this idea come from, and when did you first think about making it?
Joe Mateo: I lost my wife Mary Ann from breast cancer four and a half years ago, and I couldn’t breathe that night. It was really scary. I didn’t know what was happening. I had to call a friend [and] doctor of ours to let me know that I’m having a panic attack—which, I’ve heard of panic attacks before, but I didn’t know that that’s how it is. Fortunately, for me, I was lucky that both of my daughters were around me when it happened. Then I struggled to go back to work for several months, and I found myself looking back to that moment. I realized Mary Ann was my air, and my daughters saved me. So it inspired me to share with people that losing a loved one can be overcome by surrounding yourself with people you love, and I really just want to share that message.
Tell me about creating these characters, especially the main two characters that fall in love. How did you decide what they would look and feel like?
Of course, air is a big factor. So it’s obvious to me to just stay put on this tiny planet without any other atmosphere. I don’t want to create too big of a world. I want to keep it intimate. I created that mini planet, and then it just makes sense, for the characters to fit in, to make them a little more squashed and cute—kind of matching what the tiny planet looks like. I incorporated a lot of who I am and who Mary Ann was into the characters. That scene, when she first turns around, is based on a real event when we first met.
What else about that character is inspired by your wife? I assume she didn’t have pink hair.
No, no. But she would quickly dye her hair sometimes. When we first met, that’s our first week in college. And I hear this big laughter that’s coming from across our classroom, and it’s a big classroom, right? I walked over there, and I saw Mary Ann and she’s like the smallest person in the class, [but] the loudest. So I introduced myself, and the moment she turned around she blushed. She changed color and she has a dark complexion, but she turned red. I remember being concerned, but it was love at first sight for me. I don’t think the same was for her; she’s just known to blush that way. Her nickname back at high school was ketchup, because she blushes easily. So beautiful.
You really do a great job of capturing this couple falling in love. How did you adjust the pacing of that as you went along?
That moment when she first turns around, everything starts to happen right there. We set up that planet really bare and boring and then [when] she shows up, he gets life to everything. The color starts to pop out, the music starts to play. It’s all supported by her love basically, by her showing up and him being in love with her. And then, it just grew from there. Everything becomes lusher. Looking back, it’s really just like how we fell in love with each other. And what’s great about working on this, it’s really helped me look back at those moments, which were very special.
Tell me about the two daughters in the film—how much is their look based on your own kids?