INTERVIEW: Nora Twomey talks “The Breadwinner” – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Nora Twomey talks “The Breadwinner”

Nora Twomey is the co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and several other animated films of the past few years. Her latest credit is as director of The Breadwinner, which is up for 10 Annie Awards, and also received Best Animated Feature nominations from both Critics Choice and the Golden Globes.

Jackson Murphy: Cartoon Saloon has certainly shaken-up the animation world.

Nora Twomey: I guess it wasn’t intentional. We just wanted to tell stories, and we were lucky enough to have support of the film board in Ireland – and a tax break in Ireland. And actually early on, Gerry Shirren, who became our managing director, he took Tomm [Moore] and Paul [Young], my co-founders, under his wing at an animation festival and kind of told them who they should be talking to and what kind of things were available, which set in motion a way of producing films for us.

These kind of films haven’t been produced in Ireland with that kind of production level before. We started out doing “The Secret of Kells” – having done a few short films before that. We’ve just learned along the way, but honestly we’ve been led by story the whole time.

Because films like this are funded from different sources, it gives us a creative freedom, which we wouldn’t ordinarily have if we were part of the studio system here in the states, for example. So I suppose stories that are a little different get told. And then partnering up with people like GKIDS means that the films get seen.

JM: “The Breadwinner” is based on the novel by Deborah Ellis. What was it about this story that attracted you?

NT: Our Canadian co-producers had the rights to Deborah Ellis’ book. They gave us the book. They asked us to read it. They had seen “The Secret of Kells”. They wanted to see if we could do something together with “The Breadwinner”. When I read it, I was just immediately excited by the idea of telling a story like this for older children – I suppose primarily – to go after the same age Deborah Ellis was writing for. To make something where kids around 10 years and upwards would be introduced to ideas that, again, they wouldn’t ordinarily be in contact with or ones they wouldn’t necessarily get to explore.

So to try to do that, for me, was a tremendous challenge. And then, the idea of taking-on a world that I read about but didn’t have much experience with and to get the film to be universal and specific at the same time. These were challenges that led me forward. They were like puzzles that needed to be solved.

JM: You talk about aiming at older children. I think people still have this misconception that animation is just for young kids. It’s not. You can tell pretty serious stories like this one with the scope of animation and be really successful with it.

NT: Absolutely. When you look at films like “Grave of the Fireflies” or “Anomalisa” from a couple years ago, they’re completely different films. We’re able to access a different part of your intelligence or your emotional intelligence. They all go for something that’s a little bit different. So for me, it’s the perfect medium for exploring all kinds of ideas.

And yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t need to be – animation doesn’t need to be for young kids, but it’s something that I keep coming up against. If you explain what you’re doing, to somebody who doesn’t know much about animation, they immediately start telling you that they love animation because it’s funny or because kids love it. It’s been seen as a genre rather than a medium. Films like “The Breadwinner” push that a little bit. If people actually just let the film be the film – let themselves experience it for what it is – then they would have a different experience with it.

JM: When it comes to the animation itself, there are two sides to it. You have the regular story about Parvana (done in a traditional hand-drawn style), and then you have the stories she tells to everyone else. Tell me about the animation used for those stories. There are a lot of shapes…

NT: It’s interesting because, as a director, I come at things more from a story perspective than a visual perspective. [Producer] Tomm Moore is a very visual storyteller, very beautiful sensibility in terms of the cinematography and production design. So with “The Breadwinner”, I wanted to be led by the character Parvana. I thought it was very important, with a story as sensitive as this, to be led by the character and the character’s performance.

I had two art directors on the project: Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy, neither of whom had art directed before. Ciaran had worked and painted on “Song of the Sea”. Reza had done many short films. Neither had done something of this scale. The way they worked together was absolutely fantastic. Their skill sets came together to create something that is, in a way, neither of their styles. It’s something new entirely.

So we started out with the real world – the world Parvana inhabits in Kabul. We wanted to make sure it had a sense of reality about it. If Parvana’s running away from a character, you know the distance between her and the character that’s behind her. You get a sense of the environment.

For the story world, where she begins to become a storyteller, then that’s limitless. That’s funny. It’s full of colors. It’s full of the centuries – the millennia of history. So we just wanted to get those two sides of existence because she carries those two herself.

JM: Have you always, throughout your life, wanted to be – or considered yourself – a storyteller?

NT: I guess I always was without realizing it. When I was younger, I would draw a lot and make story panels. I was really trying to process the world around me, or try and escape it sometimes. So I really didn’t realize what that was about. When I went to college and animated I loved it. I loved performance, whether it was through pencil or performance itself. I loved it. I suppose now I love to construct a story from storyboards. I am a storyteller, but we all are. Even when you’re saying “How was your day?”

JM: Angelina Jolie is a producer of “The Breadwinner”. What did she see in the story, and what did she see in you?

NT: I suppose you have to ask Angelina. What was very, almost shocking to me, was how quickly she came on board. We had an early draft of the screenplay, and we thought it was going to be quite difficult to pitch it, but she just read it and saw the possibilities in it and whatever rough drawings we had at the time. And she asked to meet me. I think she wanted to know that we were going to be sensitive in the way we told the story.

And when she understood that we were, then she was absolutely on board 100% and was a very strong, guiding force behind the whole thing, in terms of watching all the animatics as they went through – and back at the screenplay stage making sure, especially for the ending of the film, that we hit the right note with it: just the right amount of hope vs. realism. At every stage, she was just there, which was great.

JM: The score, by Jeff and Mychael Danna, is excellent. How did they create this score that had to balance all the themes of the film?

NT: They certainly researched a lot before they went into the film in the first place to make sure they could create a score that was traditional and Afghan in one sense, but in another sense universal and very epic – what we come to expect from a cinema score. Balancing those two things was similar enough to what we were trying to do with the two worlds. They just did an absolutely incredible job. We didn’t want the score to ever lead the audience in terms of them feeling manipulated or have them feel like we were trying to tell them how they should feel. We wanted to make sure the audience was able to feel what they feel anyway with the film and to support them after they felt it.

They did some incredible work. They also found ingenious ways of working with people. They worked with musicians all around the world, finding masters of particular instruments. They also worked with the Music Institute of Kabul. There’s a young girls group there. Every time you hear hope in the film, it’s these young girls’ voices. And at the very end of the film, during the credits, you hear them sing a folk song, which is really gorgeous.

JM: We’re in the midst of Awards Season: Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations – and these Annie nominations, including two for Voice Acting.

NT: Honestly, I love directing voice actors. Saara Chaudry who plays Parvana, she was 11 years old when she took on this role. It’s a difficult role, and it’s even more difficult because you’re in a booth – with a microphone, a pair of headphones and a director badgering you. And the way that I work – I’m just with the actor myself. I don’t do group recordings. So it’s difficult. The same with Laara [Sadiq], who plays the character Fattema. Hats off to her – just an incredible job.

Kawa Ada, an actor I would really point out as well, gave an incredible performance as the character Razaq – a very conflicted character. He’s a Taleb, who’s doing his job, in one sense, but is a very powerful character. Characters like that are extremely interesting. Not every actor can pull off that kind of performance, which then has to go to animators, who are animating at 4 seconds per week.

And the pressure is on, especially for films like this where you have to get the majority of a performance in a couple weeks. Your animators don’t believe that performance if you haven’t got it. If your actors haven’t believed what they’re doing, then your animators aren’t going to, which means your audience isn’t going to either. It’s a lot of pressure, but they’re great people.

Half of them are Afghan. Some are Pakistani. Some are Indian. All of them are living in Canada, and all of them came to Canada at different times. A lot of heart and enthusiasm from them.

JM: You’re doing this “Breadwinner” stories contest online. Tell me a little bit about that.

NT: We just wanted to encourage young people out there to start telling their own stories – to submit them to us. And then we will have a look at them. I think it will all be really interesting to read. Writing is such an interesting thing for young people to do.

And of course sharing your stories, for me, that’s incredible. And it certainly is one of the big themes in “The Breadwinner”: the power that story has to heal. Once you can speak about your experiences, you’re already on the road to recovery. It’s certainly something that “The Breadwinner” centers around.

JM: What do you hope that people, especially girls, take away from the movie?

NT: When I was making the film, I very much stayed away from the idea of creating a message. I wanted to just tell a story and create a character and make the character as whole as I could. To make the character flawed, funny and even though she’s going through something so [difficult], at the same time, she’s just a little girl. So I thought I could do that: build her family and her environment around her, with everybody who worked on this film. I don’t think there’s a message.

If there’s anything that I would wish from this film, it’s that it forms a conversation. It informs in some way, especially young people, start to think about children in different parts of the world, so they just don’t go for easy answers and soundbites – that they form their own opinions based on their own research. In the end, that would be great.

Director Nora Twomey and interviewer Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website Lights-Camera-Jackson.com, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
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