How ‘Orion and the Dark,’ an Animated Film Written by Charlie Kaufman, Came Into the Light

Director Sean Charmatz had just finished work on “Trolls: Holiday in Harmony,” a TV special that aired on NBC on November 26, 2021, when DreamWorks Animation brass decided to, in Charmatz’s words, “show Sean this Charlie thing.”

“This Charlie thing” ended up being “Orion and the Dark,” a script that Charlie Kaufman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” had completed for the animation studio (based on the book by Emma Yarlett) years earlier. (Genny Tartakovsky worked on a version way back in 2015.) It was the right move.

The movie is about a little kid named Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who is afraid of everything, but is particularly fearful of the dark. Before he embarks on a magical nocturnal odyssey with the personification of the Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), the film takes some decidedly left-handed turns and is full of what can only be described as Kaufman-isms.

These spoke to Charmatz’s sensibilities. “I got to the part where Orion says, ‘But I don’t want to punch him back, because the nose will go into the brain, and I’ll kill them. And then I’ll go to prison,’” Charmatz said. “That’s how my mind works. That’s the kind of math that I do. I so related to Orion and to Charlie’s writing, and I was just like, I love this.”

Executive producer Walt Dohrn, who had worked with Charmatz on the Trolls special and was now on “Orion and the Dark,” asked Charmatz for a proof-of-concept. Charmatz decided to storyboard a sequence from the script. But since Charmatz was so fast, he completed his pitch a week early and decided to do something more involved — an entire animatic of the sequence, complete with dialogue he recorded (with his young son filling in for Orion), music that he had selected (“Tame Impala,” which made it into the final film) and other flourishes.

“They were expecting me clicking through. I didn’t even tell anyone and I just went boom, and I push play. And then they just got, like, a basically a cut of my thing instead of a pitch. I think they were like, Whoa, we get it, we get what you would do. This was really clear to us,” Charmatz said. “They just had to figure out what they could do with it because they felt it wasn’t as four-quadrant as some of the other films.”

Luckily for Charmatz (and “Orion and the Dark”), Greg Taylor, a former DreamWorks executive who had been a fan of the script, was now at Netflix, and he had an idea: The two studios could partner on the movie, using a vendor (Mikros Animation) to provide the actual animation.

And for the record, Charmatz wasn’t afraid of the dark when he was little. “I was afraid of, like, the apocalypse and people just taking over houses,” Charmatz said. He blames growing up in a house with “no censorship” for the intensity of his fears. (He remembers watching “Platoon” when he was six.)

It’s a perfectly Kaufman-esque twist, too, that a smaller, more indie-minded animated feature, deemed too weird for wide theatrical release, was now going straight to Netflix, beamed into more than 250 million screens worldwide.

Orion and the Dark – Paul Walter Hauser as Dark and Jacob Tremblay as Orion (DreamWorks Animation)

“I feel so I’m happy, in a way, [it] went where it went,” Charmatz said. “And I think it’s so accessible. It just got to be what it is.” He was right. It was the #1 movie on Netflix when it debuted earlier this year, is one of the most watched animated features on the platform (at least according to what has been shared with Charmatz) and now has a chance at Emmy gold. And more than that, the movie has actually helped people.

After the film premiered, Charmatz would “get feedback from people like, ‘Tell Sean that it really helped, for real.’ I am still cynical and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t believe you.’ But I have gotten feedback that is like this.” He said that he had been told that someone’s son was finally comfortable going to bed at night after watching “Orion and the Dark.”

“Orion and the Dark” changed Charmatz too. “I’m so thankful for the experiences and learning to trust the process. This is kind of a mantra for my life now: Don’t stress out, don’t get anxious about things that aren’t quite working yet. If you just stay positive and you just keep trying to make it right, it’ll get there,” Charmatz said. “I have to let it go and just let the process happen. And trust the process.”

Letting the process happen includes not stressing about his next gig, which he hasn’t settled on yet. “I do believe that they’re going to put me on something and it’s going to be great. But right now it’s not anything,” Charmatz said. “I have to be okay with that and be grateful and appreciative. We’ll see what happens. But I do appreciate that they want me. I’m still there.” Orion would be proud.

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