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Q&A: Aircraft Pictures’ Anthony Leo Talks ‘The Breadwinner’

The first solo effort from Cartoon Saloon director Nora Twomey makes Oscar waves.

Director Nora Twomey and producer Anthony Leo have been nominated for an Academy Award for ‘The Breadwinner’ at the 90th Oscars. All images courtesy of Aircraft Pictures.

A meticulously crafted story of self-empowerment and imagination in the face of oppression, The Breadwinner boasts the breathtaking hand-drawn animation that has made the Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon one of the world’s most beloved and respected animation studios. The Ireland-Canada-Luxembourg co-production follows Parvana (voiced by Sarah Chowdry), a young girl living under the Taliban regime who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is imprisoned.

Directed by Nora Twomey, The Breadwinner was produced by Toronto-based Aircraft Pictures’ Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen, Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Paul Young, and Melusine Productions’ Stephan Roelants, with the beautifully executed 2D animation provided by Cartoon Saloon, Melusine and Guru Studio. The film was executive produced by Jolie Pas Production’s Angelina Jolie, Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer, Mimi Polk Gitlin, Jon Levin, Regina K. Scully, Frank Falcone and Mary Bredin; Cartoon Saloon’s Gerry Shirren; and GKIDS’ Eric Beckman and David Jesteadt.

Aircraft Pictures co-president Anthony Leo.

The film, which is based on the young adult novel by Deborah Ellis, first debuted at TIFF, and had its U.S. premiere at the inaugural ANIMATION IS FILM Festival held this past October, winning both the grand prize and audience award. The Breadwinner went over especially well with critics, receiving a slew of awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Toronto Film Critics Association, and many others. It went on to receive a Golden Globe nomination and a whopping 10 nominations at this year’s Annie Awards, where it won the award for best animated feature in the newly-created independent feature category.

The Breadwinner has also been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, up against DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby, Pixar’s Coco, Blue Sky’s Ferdinand and hand-painted independent feature Loving Vincent. The nomination is the third nod from the Academy for Cartoon Saloon, which was previously nominated for The Secret of Kells (2010) and Song of the Sea (2014).

Leading up to Oscar Sunday, AWN had a chance to chat with Anthony Leo, co-president of Aircraft Pictures, about bringing The Breadwinner to audiences. Read the full Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

AWN: When did you first become aware of Deborah Ellis’s book?

Anthony Leo: It’s a coincidence, but I became aware of the book shortly after it was first published, through a nine year-old girl I knew who was reading it. We were on a vacation with a couple of families, and the first night after dinner she asked her mom if she would read aloud from “The Breadwinner” to her. And she did, and slowly but surely everybody around the table got sucked into listening to the story. It became a ritual that week. Every night after dinner we would all sit around and listen to the story being read, and it really stood out to me as a traditional kind of oral storytelling experience that we rarely get to appreciate or experience these days.

It was a testament to Deborah Ellis’s novel, and her work; even though the book was geared towards grade six to eight, it was still really captivating for adults, too. But at the time I was just starting out as a producer, and didn’t know the first thing about how to option a book or anything like that. It wasn’t until several years later that I was meeting with the book’s publisher, Groundwood Books. She pulled out a copy of “The Breadwinner” and said, “You know, we have the rights to this available.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the book we read that around the table when we were on that trip!”

And so we instantly optioned the rights, and at first had decided to do it as a live-action film, because Aircraft traditionally has done more live-action projects. It was just a natural go-to, but as we were developing it and developing the first draft of the script and looking into the marketplace, we saw that, when it came to films that dealt with that subject matter, the marketplace really was into art-house adult films, like The Kite Runner or Osama.

We thought that if we wanted a major art-house film like that, it would be alienating to a lot of the kids who grew up reading the book, or were reading the book, but if we went the animated route, it would allow us to kind of delve into that heavier subject matter, but sugarcoat it a little bit for the kids, while still making it relatable and acceptable for adults. Nora Twomey, the director, actually coined that phrase, “sugar the pill,” using animation to help kids and adults stay present in the story and not disengage when the subject matter got a little too heavy.

So we opted to do the book as an animated piece, and we looked at films that really inspired us, and interviewed people whose bodies of work we really admired, like Cartoon Saloon. We basically just reached out to Cartoon Saloon as our top choice and then met with them and talked about the project.

We met with Paul Young and Gerry Shirren, and they really loved the material. They took a copy of the book back to Cartoon Saloon and when Nora picked it up to read it she ended up reading the entire thing in one night, in one sitting. She was just so enthralled with the story and the character. When she came back to us and said, “I would like to direct this,” and pitched us her brilliant vision for the project it was unanimous that she would be the one to direct it and take it forward. And so we decided to get married, so to speak, and co-create it together.

AWN: You mentioned that this was a different sort of undertaking for your company, Aircraft Pictures. Was there a learning curve for you personally in terms of getting an animated project off the ground, as opposed to live-action?

AL: We’re definitely no strangers to co-ventures and co-production and working with other companies -- that part was all fairly straightforward. When the learning curve started to come in was during early production. For example, with animation, obviously you’re locking an animatic very early on in the process and then, once that’s locked -- unless you have a lot of money -- you don’t really want to reopen things down the road. Whereas with live-action, locking picture is the last thing we do, after you’ve shot everything, you’ve edited, you’ve done all that stuff, at the very end of the process. There was something really nerve-wracking about the idea of locking the picture before we even have any animation to look at. That took a little bit of time to wrap our heads around.

The flipside is that we also really loved the idea of the freedom that creating an animatic brings in the sense that often when you’re in the editing suite of a live-action film you might go, “Oh, it would be really great to have a closeup of her when she says that line, only to find out from the editor that wow, they actually didn’t get to shoot closeups on that day, because they were losing the light or whatever. They had to make something work with the medium or wide shot. And with animation, if you really want to emphasize that line with a closeup, you just draw a closeup. You just put it in there. That was really cool, because you could design the shot. It’s challenging to really think through the entire production early on, but once you do, it gives you a lot of freedom to really make sure you’re getting the film you want.

AWN: And how did Angeline Jolie come to be involved as an executive producer?

AL: Angelina Jolie became involved a little bit later in the process, after the film was fully financed. We had always had her in the back of our minds as someone who would be interested in joining the team because of her experience with building schools for girls in Afghanistan and her role as a Special Envoy with the United Nations, and it just seemed right up her alley.

One of the things she really contributed to the project was impressing upon us the need for a high level of authenticity. She encouraged us to bring in as many Afghan consultants as possible, which we were already doing to a degree on our own, but she definitely encouraged us to keep going in that direction. Just having access to the experience that she’s had making films in different parts of the world and with different cultures really helped when we were going through the process.

AWN: The book was written by a woman, Deborah Ellis, and then for the adaptation you have two powerhouse women involved. Was that your intention going in?

AL: Our initial conversation with Cartoon Saloon was about four-and-a-half years ago, and it was clear to us at the time that there wasn’t a lot going on as far as movies with strong female protagonists, especially young girls. And so it seemed incredibly fitting that we had an opportunity with this to make sure that we tapped into a plethora of strong women we had at our disposal, between us and Cartoon Saloon, to really take the helm of this project. Again, to kind of buy into the idea of authenticity and a women’s voice.

I think it’s hard to make a film about a young girl’s voice in courage if you’re not willing to have a woman be the one to bring that project out. In our minds there was just always going to be something lacking if we didn’t make an effort. The creativity they brought to the project, the amazing ideas, the amazing way that they managed crews in Canada and Luxemburg and still be able to pull off a very kind of intimate, quiet story about family and this little girl and her pathway to achieving some empowerment for herself.

AWN: Can you tell me a little bit about how GKIDS came to be involved?

AL: I was introduced to GKIDS through Cartoon Saloon, because they had distributed The Secret of Kells and were about to distribute Song of the Sea. I had really admired their focus on independent feature animation for some time. We talked to a number of different distributors, but we felt that we would get the most attention working with them. They really got the film and understood what we were trying to do, and they weren’t trying to mold it into something that might perhaps appeal to a slightly broader audience for the sake of being broad. They were willing to trust Nora and our team to deliver something very special, and were very supportive that way. So we definitely made the right choice.

AWN: Were you aware back then that the Animation and Film Festival was in the works?

AL: No, we did not actually. They got involved, I’d say, about three years out from the [inaudible 00:14:27] ... At least before we started with options. They knew, they might have known, but they hadn’t pitched us on that idea.

AWN: There were a number of entities involved in bringing this film to the screen, among them three separate animation studios. How did Melusine and Guru come to be involved?

AL: It was a very organic process. We were really lucky to have such great partners. We started with Cartoon Saloon, of course, but they weren’t able to do all of the work within our timeframe, so they introduced us to Melusine Productions and we added them as a third production company. And then, as we were finalizing what would be done where, we were introduced to Guru Studio as a compositing solution for the cut-paper sequences, which were actually achieved in CGI. It was fantastic to work with Guru, and they really went above and beyond what they were initially asked to do for us. Originally it was about compositing but then it really became this whole second storyline. San Suryavanshi and Sheldon Lisoy really ran with this idea of, I almost want to say, obsession with making the sequences look as real as possible and they just went above and beyond what we were expecting in terms of work and research and development that they put into that piece. Guru brought a lot of artistry to the project that really helped the end-product.

AWN: From a technical standpoint, that compositing workflow is incredibly exciting. They did something really kind of fresh and new there.

AL: Absolutely. We were initially thinking we would have four or five layers for various elements to be composited, but it ended up being more like 50 or 60 layers in certain scenes. Guru just went to town and it just was really exciting to see that whole thing develop.

AWN: Final question. I understand the production budget was around US$10 million. Many animated features cost many times more than that. What helped keep costs down for this production?

AL: First of all, doing it as a 2D production. I don’t think we could have made this film using 3D animation, or, at least -- speaking broadly -- made this good of a film without really stretching our resources. In our case it came down to working with partners who knew how to work in that budget range really effectively.

And you need a director with confidence who is going to make strong choices early on and know how to get the best out of their team. Not to say those things can’t change throughout, but you don’t have time or resources to go back and redo whole sequences and things like that. So I think that really, if you don’t have a leader who’s got that confidence to move forward and make strong, creative decisions, then that’s where you run into trouble. And in our case. we totally had that with Nora.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.