The TDF Interview: Nora Twomey, director of The Breadwinner

Founded in 1999, Cartoon Saloon have now firmly established themselves as one of the leading animation companies in the world thanks to their first two feature length films, The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards. This week sees the release of their latest effort, The Breadwinner, which moves away from the Irish mythology that characterised their previous films and into the mountains of Afghanistan to tell a story about a young girl's fight to support her family.

The Digital Fix recently had the chance to sit down with Nora Twomey, co-owner of Cartoon Saloon and co-director of The Secret of Kells and solo director of The Breadwinner. She tells us about the talented voice cast involved in making the film, how she balances being an owner and creative and how Angelina Jolie became part of the team for the film.

Hi Nora, thanks for setting aside some time to speak to us.

No problem, nice to meet you guys.

What has the feedback for the film been like so far?
It’s been very positive. After the premiere we had a Q&A and a lot of young people raised their hands in the audience which was really fantastic. The nature of their questions were not what you would expect, because it seems adults get one thing from the film while younger people get something completely different. Adults see the tension-filled aspect of the story given the conflict going on around Parvana and expect certain things to happen, while children very much take things on face value, so that’s been an interesting mix of reactions.

What interested Cartoon Saloon in adapting Deborah Ellis’ book?
The producers who owned the rights to the film originally thought it could be made into a live-action movie but they saw our first film, The Secret of Kells, and thought we might be a good match for the story. My colleague Gerry [Shirren – Managing Director of Cartoon Saloon] showed me the book and I read it immediately because I absolutely fell in love with the character of Parvana and loved that Deborah hadn’t talked down to the young people she was writing for. She took us on a day-to-day journey in a very childlike way which I thought was a very interesting approach that could be continued into the film. It’s very much a non-sentimental way of storytelling, very matter-of-fact in certain ways. To animate something like this also allowed to us to explore other visual areas that really interested us too.

How did Angelina Jolie get involved as executive producer for the film?
Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer managed to get the film in front of Angelina who read an early draft of the screenplay. She is very much somebody whose sensibilities are aligned with the film and has supported young girls education in Afghanistan for over a decade now.

When I first met her she very much understood what we were aiming for with the film and she helped guide us a lot in terms of the voice casting for the film. She asked us to use Afghan actors if we could and to listen to as many Afghan voices as possible in terms of the storytelling to try and understand the nature of conflict in the country but also the cultural sensitivity there and the differences and similarities between my own Irish culture and Afghan culture. This helped us to approach the film from a more universal standpoint. Angelina has been supportive of the filmmaking process throughout and she’s watched all the animation processes that go into making a film like this.

How did you prepare Saara (Chaudry) - who is 13-years-old - to take on a character like this dealing with such weighty themes?
Saara was actually 11 when she recorded the voice of Parvana and 10 when she auditioned. When she was recording we created a very supportive base around her. Honestly, Saara and Parvana share a lot in common, she is a very intelligent young woman and an incredibly talented actress, very responsive to direction and was able to bring a wonderfully compassionate element to her performance. I’m not sure I did much in all honesty! What really struck me was her ability to shake off the character of Parvana at the end of the day and just become this young, vibrant Canadian girl. I think all the voice cast brought so much to each of the characters, especially the Afghan actors like Kane Mahon, Shaista Latif and Kawa Ada – to name a few – they all brought the stories of their families to their characters and the larger story. They helped to add the depth and the human story that sits at the heart of The Breadwinner.

Cartoon Saloon have a very distinct animation style, different to anything else out there. Is that a conscious decision or is it led by the stories you choose to animate?
We’re a group of animators, artists and designers whose sensibilities are very similar so there’s a cultural aspect within the company where we express ourselves in a similar way. At the same time, for The Breadwinner, in the part of Kabul where Parvana lives we did try to give it a subtler sense of reality, creating a different perspective than we had in our previous films. We approached the animation in a different way where we tried to get more naturalistic performances into the characters, so we do try to be responsive to the needs of each story.

But at the same time we do all work together very closely and we’re influenced by each other. I love hand drawn animation and how timeless it is. For example, The Secret of Kells was released in Japan late last year (it originally came out in 2009) but it still looks the same as it did upon release and it’s not like the style has dated, which can be the case with 3D animation. It’s not necessarily the case of 2D vs 3D because we use a lot of technology in our films, but it’s more how can we make the film look as unique as possible and how can we ensure the art doesn’t date so it will remain timeless.

You co-directed The Secret of Kells and were heavily involved in Song of the Sea – but you’re also a co-owner of Cartoon Saloon. How do you find the right creative and commercial balance between the two?
When either Paul (Young), Tomm (Moore) or myself – the owners of the company – are heavily involved in a film as a director then the other two come in to take a more supportive role. We try to separate out the producer and the director in each of us to lessen any conflict and try to protect each other as best we can and that was certainly the case for Paul and Tomm in The Breadwinner. Having said that, I’m very realistic when it comes to knowing how much money we have to make the film and the wider network of partners we are working with because we’re dependent on each other to finish on time, so the next stage of the process can start. It helps in a way too because as a filmmaker you’d never really finish anything if you felt you didn’t have to.

What can we expect from Cartoon Saloon in the near future?
We’re developing a new feature film called Wolfwalkers, directed by Tomm this time. It’s about a young girl who comes to Ireland in the 1600s around the time when the last wolves were “taken”. It’s sort of the third in a trilogy exploring Irish mythology. We also have another film called My Father’s Dragon which is in development which is based on a book by American author Ruth Stiles Gannett. We also have lots of TV series at the same time, so we’re keeping busy enjoying making films and telling these stories.

The Breadwinner is released nationwide in the UK on May 25th 2018.

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