Disney's 'Wish' director dropped out of med school and got rejected by the studio multiple times: 'It took me a few tries to get here'

Fawn Veerasunthorn (c) attends the BFI Screening and Q&A for "Wish" at BFI Southbank on November 19, 2023 in London, England.
Tim P. Whitby | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Before she was directing Disney's 100-year anniversary tribute, Fawn Veerasunthorn had been rejected by the studio several times over.

Veerasunthorn, 41, made her directorial debut in November with the release of "Wish," a musical fairytale that follows a 17-year-old girl who makes a wish to improve the lives of the people in her kingdom.

Roughly 20 years ago, though, Veerasunthorn was a miserable first-year med school student and "did not love" her path to becoming a doctor, she said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

During a semester break, she wrote a letter to fellow Thailand-born Paitoon Ratanasirintrawoot, a visual effects animator, who had years before given a guest lecture at her Bangkok high school, where he also attended.

She shared her career concerns and asked for his advice: How could she change course and become a Disney animator in the U.S. like him?

Over several letter exchanges, Ratanasirintrawoot suggested the med school student look into enrolling at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio — he even recommended her to the president of his alma mater.

"She was really determined," he told the Times.

The determination was needed. While Veerasunthorn was in college, Disney closed the Florida animation studio where her mentor had worked. She applied to, and got rejected from, jobs at Pixar. She then turned her attention toward Disney jobs in California, but yet again didn't land an offer.

In the meantime, Veerasunthorn honed her skills working on Illumination films including "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" and "Despicable Me 2," both distributed by Universal, which is owned by CNBC's parent company.

In 2011, about a decade after she started chasing Disney in earnest, she finally landed a job with the iconic film studio.

Over the years, she worked as a story artist for movies including "Frozen" and "Moana" and became the head of story on "Raya and the Last Dragon."

Veerasunthorn began working on "Wish" in 2020 and co-directed the feature alongside Chris Buck, who's been with the company since 1978.

The release of her first directed feature is a full-circle moment for Veerasunthorn, who was raised in a small town in Thailand and became interested in animation after seeing local artists hand-paint movie posters and watching a VHS of "Dumbo" on repeat.

She practiced her own drawing on cardboard boxes, collected from her parents' auto parts shop, and a wall in her family kitchen. She always considered drawing her hobby and studied computer science in high school before planning to go the medical route professionally.

Veerasunthorn says she sees a lot of similarities between her own career aspirations and the narrative of "Wish," she tells the Times: "The journey that a person takes toward a goal, that is what this movie is about. It took me a few tries to get here. If I were to be discouraged the very first time, this would never have happened."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.

Want to be smarter and more successful with your money, work & life? Sign up for our new newsletter!

Join the CNBC Work Summit on Dec. 6 to hear from leaders and experts, including Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks, discuss how AI could transform the future of work. Register here today.

Check out: ‘I have to direct the films I want to see’: Asian American filmmakers’ success is inspiring a new generation of Hollywood

Why Americans are relocating to Mexico City for a better life
Why Americans are relocating to Mexico City for a better life