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Getting to the Heart of ‘My Father’s Dragon’

At the recent VIEW Conference 2022, director Nora Twomey talked to AWN about what moved her to chose Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s book for her new film, Cartoon Saloon’s first non-co-produced feature, a delightful 2D animated fantasy dropping on Netflix November 11.

Since its founding in 1999 by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young, the independent Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has produced a series of exceptional feature films, whose high quality and critical acclaim belie their humble origins. Beginning with their first feature, The Secret of Kells, in 2009, and continuing with Song of the Sea (2014), The Breadwinner (2017) and Wolfwalkers (2020), Cartoon Saloon productions have racked up an enviable number of awards and nominations, including four Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature.

My Father’s Dragon, inspired by American writer Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s book, is the second solo feature directed by Twomey, after 2017’s The Breadwinner. This beautifully designed and delightfully told story follows 10-year-old Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), a resourceful boy who reluctantly relocates with his mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) to the urban wilds of Nevergreen City, following the foreclosure of their small-town grocery store. When Elmer brings a cat (Whoopi Goldberg) into their no-pets-allowed apartment, tensions between him and his mother boil over, and Elmer runs away, eventually reaching Wild Island, a strange living organism inhabited by a variety of creatures with “really big pokey teeth and pokey claws.” There’s also a dragon named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), whom Elmer befriends and with whom he embarks on a fantastical and dangerous journey.

For Twomey, working under the auspices of Netflix – after a couple decades of wrangling international co-productions – was itself something of a strange journey, which required her to adapt to a different way of doing things. Late last month, Twomey spoke with AWN at the 2022 VIEW Conference in Turin, sharing thoughts on her production experience, how she first came onto the project, and what in the story convinced her this had to be her next film. 

AWN: Like your last film, The Breadwinner, My Father’s Dragon is also based on a children’s book. It’s also obviously very different from The Breadwinner, which is set in Afghanistan during the first Taliban era. What drew you to this book as a source for your new film?

Nora Twomey: Since The Secret Of Kells and the short films we made before that, Tomm, Paul, and I have always been led by our hearts and by the stories we wanted to tell. Because, at the end of the day, that's the only thing that can sustain you during the four or five years it takes to make an animated feature.

When I first read the book back in 2012, my two boys were very young. They were two and four. And when I read the part where Elmer and his mom have an argument over a saucer of milk, I immediately started to think of the layers of storytelling involved in that – the little lies that you tell your children in order for them to feel safe and not get scared. I was beginning to understand how, as a parent, sometimes you can get that really wrong. Sometimes you try and protect them from things you can't protect them from. Sometimes you shut them out a little bit when really you should include them. And that was the handle I needed.

At the first meeting I had with Julie Lynn, one of our producers on the project, I started to pitch myself at Julie because of that one page. I was pitching myself as a director, while, having gotten the rights to the book, she was pitching herself as a producer. And that was the beginning of it. So, while it is different in ways from our previous works, in other ways it's very similar, in that it's a child's perspective. We're looking at the world through a child's eyes. We're never letting the audience jump ahead of Elmer.

AWN: My Father’s Dragon feels like a bigger, more expansive film than anything your team has done before. The designs the studio does are always phenomenal, but the different environments, the sets, the backgrounds here seem to be at an even higher level. Is there any truth to that?

NT: Having the support that Netflix was able to offer meant that we probably had fewer restrictions in terms of being able to access the kind of talent that we wanted, as well as being able to walk down the creative roads we ended up walking down. Usually with our co-productions, we have to look very closely at what our co-producers can bring to a project, and so we’re always faced with a multifaceted set of decisions. This one was a little more straightforward in terms of that. Of course, we got hit by COVID, and so we had a whole other set of complications on this production.

But, while the look of a film can very much enhance the audience's ability to emotionally connect with the story, I didn't want to put the art direction between the characters and the audience – especially because, since this is a Netflix production, I have no control over how audiences are going to connect with the story, whether it's on a phone or on their living room TV screen or whatever. And so I wanted to draw them in and establish an emotional connection as quickly as I could. So that kind of dictated the look of the film. Our art director, Áine McGuinness, worked really hard with their team to try and emotionally ground the look of the film. Things like gravity, balance, lightness, and darkness are very important elements. And Áine and the team worked to make sure that those were felt, rather than just seen.

So, for example, when Elmer is being chased by somebody or something, we wanted to be really explicit about how many steps there are between him and whatever it is that's chasing him. And things like that began to inform how the film would look – that plus the beautiful illustrations in the book. We also metaphorically got down on the floor and asked, “If I was a child, how would I see this world?” Generally, if you ask a bunch of artists to draw an environment, they will draw brown earth and green grass and trees that look like trees. But when you start to look at things through the eyes of a child, there's no reason a tree has to look like a tree. It can be a giant mushroom or a giant dandelion.

AWN: Apart from The Breadwinner, all your other films are set in Ireland. In the new film, while it appears it’s based in the United States, both the time and the place are undefined. Is that lack of specificity the result of a purposeful decision to appeal to a larger, more mainstream audience?

NT: We don't set things in Ireland unless there's a specific reason for it. My Father’s Dragon is an American book that was first published in 1948. Julie’s husband had read it as a child, and then they read the book to their children, who now love it. So it's a generational thing, and there's a timelessness to that. There's a suggestion of economic issues in the film, but you see it from Elmer's perspective, and he doesn't know what's happening to the economy. All he knows is that his mom seems pretty scared and she's not telling him why. We wanted to make sure that those things were hinted at, and they're layered in there if you're looking for them, but in ways that aren’t specifically tied to any one time.

It's this cyclical thing. And it's the idea that there is some kind of a cycle going on, and children are always challenged by something in their lives, whether it's something huge like a pandemic, or maybe it's something quite personal that happens within their family. And it's the ways that they find to cope that I think are really interesting. And something that I'm really interested in as a storyteller is dealing with these things in a way that doesn't talk down to children, but also doesn't confront them in a way that's unbalanced or inappropriate.

AWN: Can you talk about your production process and how you worked with your team?

NT: Directing isn't about having all the right answers or knowing exactly how to do something and then getting everybody to do it that way. It's about problem-sharing with your team, getting the best out of everybody, making sure that they feel creatively supported, whether they're an intern that has come in for a couple of days, or somebody who's been working really hard not just for their own department, but for other departments. So, for example, when we finished the animatic of a sequence, we made sure that everybody saw it, everybody's input was there, and everybody's voice was heard. And we would have these huge meetings where I would talk through an entire sequence and what my hopes were for the sequence. And then all of the heads of departments would also get a chance to talk about what their concerns were, their ideas, what we could do better, what we could experiment with.

And we did that early on in the process, so that, by the time it hit those departments, we'd already problem-solved as much as we could. The crew for each department really knew what they were doing, they knew what was coming, so nothing was a surprise. And that became so important when the pandemic hit, because communication was the name of the game. When people are meeting in a room together, after the meeting, you can always ask people questions and sort things out. When there’s 30 people on a screen together, it's not going to happen, because nobody's going to put their hand up and say, "I don't know what that means." My job as a director was putting forward all those stupid questions, because if you don't deal with them there and then, you're going to deal with them in compositing when you have a deadline at the end of the week.

AWN: Cartoon Saloon is a perfect example of a studio that has grown and prospered using the co-production model. But to get your projects made, you’ve had to integrate teams to do a piece of this and a piece of that in multiple countries. Can you talk a little more about what the differences were in working with Netflix, and what, if any, creative  trade-offs you had to face?

NT: There are different types of creative freedom, and there is absolutely a creative freedom that comes from co-productions when you do them well and you make sure that your partners have skills that complement your own, rather than you both doing exactly the same thing. It can be really, really fantastic and it can be looked at as an opportunity, rather than a set of difficulties. And that's certainly been our experience.

Working with Netflix was a lot easier, in that I didn't have to say, “Okay, if we do the layouts, can you do some of the animation? And can you do the scoring? How do we split the script?” From that perspective, it was much simpler. But in terms of the storytelling, for me as a director, it was a little different. I love to lock my animatic and say, "Okay, let's go into production." Netflix wanted to make sure that the story was as strong as it possibly could be, and that the themes were as strong as they could be. And so we entered into production with only a third of the animation, as two-thirds were still in script and animatic. So that was a huge stretch for us, a massive stretch. And we had different problems than we usually did. On a usual co-production, we'd try and hire people at the last possible minute so that we don't use up our budget, so that we can hit the ground running and get the animation done.

AWN: And you don't animate a frame that you don't need to, since you edit it before you go into animation.

NT: Absolutely. So, for the first time, we had animators kind of sitting around going, "Okay, would you like me to test something? What would you like me to do?" Because we weren't ready to give them scenes yet, because we were still making sure that we were earning that animation. And it was a whole different set of issues for our supervisors, as well, who are used to being so economical about everything that they do. They’re looking at our animators and just trying to make sure that they're kept busy with doing something that's useful until we're ready to give them scenes.

As it happened, when they did start animating, they knew everything about Elmer's character, what his physicality was. And so it was easier in some ways and more difficult in other ways. But I guess I just felt the pressure of the scale of this – the fact that people around the world can just press play together and watch this film. The reach of this is something that is really exciting for Cartoon Saloon and certainly played a large part in us wanting to make this particular film in this way.

AWN: Out of all the things you’ve mentioned, including the pandemic, what was the most challenging part of making the film for you?

NT: I think the most challenging moment for me, which was actually before the pandemic, was when we were standing with our team and saying, “Okay, I know we said we were going to go ahead with the whole thing now, but we're just going ahead with a third.” That was really difficult, doing a third of the film, and then going back and making sure that we rewrote and strengthened the themes as much as we could with the other two-thirds. Because I know enough about every department to know that everything is really hard work. And you need to know, your spirit needs to know, your soul needs to know that what you're doing matters, and that the work that you're doing is not going to be thrown out at the end of the week.

So that was the most difficult part for me, knowing that there was a huge mountain that I had to climb to make sure that everyone on the crew would get to work on things that were really meaningful, and that really did tie into Elmer's arc all the way through. When we got there, it was absolutely fantastic, because I knew exactly why every sequence existed in the film. There was nothing superfluous in there. Everything was really tight at that point. But for me that was the most difficult moment, because everybody is looking to you to guide that process.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.