Friday, November 6, 2015

In Conversation With Tomm Moore

EDITOR'S NOTE: To celebrate the UK and Irish Home Entertainment  release of Song Of The Sea on November 9th 2015 we're republishing our interview with Director Tomm Moore (originally published in two parts)

It's just possible that you might have picked up that we're pretty big fans of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon around here. The Secret Of Kells was actually the third review ever published on the site, and as soon as we heard about Song Of The Sea we started following it extremely closely. 

Tomm Moore the film's director (and studio co-founder) may have only made two features so far but he's had quite an impact. Not only have both films (the first he co-directed with Nora Twomey) scored Oscar nominations for best animated features, but Song has had numerous other nominations from around the world, as well as winning awards in Japan, China and Ireland. In fact Ireland's Academy named it not best animation, but best film overall at this year's ceremony.

Winning comparisons with Hayao Miyazaki, Moore is easily one of the most exciting talents to emerge in animation in recent years. And he very kindly agreed to speak to us from the studio in Kilkenny about his career, inspirations, future and of course Song Of The Sea.

AFA:How did you get started in animation and how did Cartoon Saloon come about?

Tomm Moore :I was always interested in animation and I used to muck around with it, on my own as a kid and draw comics. I remember my dad giving me some acetate if I washed the car, but I didn't actually make any animation until I joined Young Irish Film-makers when I was about 14. When I was in YIF they had an AMIGA and kind of rudimentary stuff, but enough to muck around and learn the basics. Then I went to Ballyfermot College- and I actually went to Ballyfermot  thinking I wouldn't do animation, I was thinking I wanted to do comics, because I thought that would be a bit more autonomous-I could stories just myself or myself and one other person. So I was more into comics as a teenager, but once I got into Ballyfermot, you kind of get the bug because you're surrounded by other people that are also really into animation. Some of my friends I met there in College they're the people that I run the studio with, we all met in Ballyfermot. We set up the company, basically came back down to Killkenny the year after we finished college and YIF gave us some space, because they had the huge space that they weren't using all of, [it was..] an an old Orphanage. So that was how I got started, back in 2000.

The Studio was founded in 1999, but it took around 10 years before Secret of Kells came out (2009)- how did you decide to move in to features with Kells?

It was a bit of a naive, youthful thing. We came down thinking we do a half an hour, YIF had some contacts with Channel 4 Schools, and there seemed to be some interest in doing a half-hour. So We had an original story for Secret Of Kells that we thought could be a half-hour, for something like Channel 4 Schools. YIF had done some live-action stuff for Channel 4 schools, but in the end we could see that wasn't going to work out, and budgets and everything weren't going to happen, so it kind of became the pet project on the back-burner while we built up the company- we did commercials and bits and pieces of other people's films, kind of proving ourselves to the industry, and the financiers and stuff.

Y'know we set up the company to make Secret Of Kells, but, we had to kind of do our time in a way . Before people got behind us. Basically it took meeting Les Armateurs and Vivi Films, The Producers of The Triplets Of Belleville, in 2002 or 2003 and.. they got behind us and really endorsed us and said they wanted to get involved with the film.. and that actually made the Irish financiers take us more seriously, that we had investment from France and Belgium. So that was it, it was a creeping thing, it went from being the idea to make a half-hour special, to realising it was gonna have to be a feature, to thinking that we'd never be able to make a feature [Laughs]! And then suddenly in 2005 it coalesced and we had the finance in place and we got cracking.

Song was your first solo- directing gig. Was this a very daunting step up or did you feel comfortable working with the same team?

No, I mean.. the funny thing is I was kind of down to direct Secret Of Kells on my own, and I was initially going to co-direct with Aidan Harte, who did Skunk-Fu, but once he was doing Skunk-Fu, he was busy with that,and I carried on my own for a while, and then when it went into production I knew it was too huge of a task for me. I had really never even done a narrative short film that I thought really matched it, whereas Nora [Twomey] had done a couple of really great shorts that won awards and so I asked her to co-direct it with me, the first one. And this time I was lucky because I had all that support.. Nora stayed really involved as Story Supervisor.. and I had so much support this time and the Studio was that bit more mature, and the team, everyone I was working with were people I worked with either on Secret Of Kells or other projects since then. I felt surrounded.. I felt that if it went wrong that it was going to be my fault, because everyone else was so good!

So it was a bit like getting the gang back together?

 It was bit like that yeah.

Something that strongly connects Kells and Song Of the Sea is that distinctly Irish mythology is a big part of your work. Is this something that is very important to you personally? Something you have a deep personal connection to?

I do and I don't.. I think what happened was that these films.. and the next film I working on is also based on Irish Folklore, they kind of evolve out of each other. Because Secret of Kells was the first one, the idea for Song Of The Sea came during Secret Of Kells, and they all just feed into each other. I think I'll do one more and then maybe see if I can do something completely different. Nora's exploring a really different type of story with her film The Breadwinner.

That looks amazing..

It's set in Afghanistan, and it's really interesting. I was helping out with some designs and storyboards and it's completely different so I wouldn't limit ourselves. But for me personally, with Secret of Kells I was coming from the point of view I was trying to see if I could take Irish Illustration, Irish Illuminated manuscripts and transfer that style to animation. And for Song Of The Sea it was more about the folklore and stories, I wanted my son and his generation- and maybe the generation after that as well- to have these stories not in the way they're presented usually- for tourists and in touristy gift-shops, and a bit twee. I wanted to reinvent them in a way that the younger Irish kids would know the stories, but not in a way like schoolwork. You know what I mean.. it's not like eating your Broccoli? I wanted it to actually become part of the vernacular again. So I'm really hoping that when the film is released now it's going to be embraced by Irish audiences, because I was disappointed that with Secret of Kells it was way more successful abroad than it was here.

So it was also an effort to bring the mythology to a new audience?

American audiences or French audiences or Japanese audiences might see it as a bit exotic and interesting. Whereas Irish kids might associate it with something a bit old-fashioned, a bit dusty or schooly. So that's the real challenge, to make them.. there's an awful tendency among Irish people to cringe at this stuff. So we're trying to reinvent in a way, and look at what was universal in those stories, that would even be understood by anybody anywhere in the world really. The themes of family and the mythology.. I think I'm more interested in mythology than specifically Irish mythology. It's just that Irish mythology is the one I grew up with. I think mythology and storytelling, all that Joseph Campbell stuff, really got under my skin when I was younger, and I still think it's the well that most great stories spring from.

Because it's so very Irish, Are you surprised how well it's travelled? Such as winning an award at  Tokyo Anime Festival?

I have to say I'm so delighted because all the way through, the one thing I had to fight for a little bit was trying to keep it as idiosyncratically Irish as I did. I didn't even compromise on accents. I put in bits of gaeilge [written Irish] . There's jokes that I think only Irish audience will really get. And yet.. I think the inspiration is really when you look at things like Totoro or Spirited Away, you know there's a culture there that's a little bit unfamiliar but yet the character’s journeys are so relatable, that it carries you along.

Because the themes are universal...

Yeah, that's it and that why I find mythology interesting, whether it's a Greek Myth or a native American story, or I was in Hawaii earlier in the year and they've got amazing mythology there. There the same kind of archetypes and tropes, and bits of the humane experience that are embedded in the mythology, and I Think that's what keeps it so relevant, and interesting.

The distinctly Irish-ness nature effects all of Song, from the art with the Celtic flourishes (with all the spirals and circles) and of course, unsurprisingly for a film named Song of the Sea traditional music plays a big part. Can you talk about how the music was written?

The music was really important, because again on Secret Of Kells the Music came at the end, we hadBruno [Coulais, composer] involved early on, but we just had to make the film with scratch music. And then at the end Bruno and [the Irish band]  Kila got together for a very short period and did the music for the film and they did a fantastic job- they got on really well too. And Bruno was from France but he seemed to click really well with the guys from Kila, so he brought a film score professionalism, and the guys are just masters of traditional Irish music as well as a lot of world music. They got on really well and it was much more of a collaboration between the two of them this time. They were involved while we writing the story, doing the storyboards, [and] we were also working on the music so that the music would feed the story. If we hit a snag, or we felt there was something we thought was too exposition-y and talky in the script, we'd work with the musicians, to try to find a way to tell the story with the music and picture, rather than with too much talking. I think it was kind of messy and sometimes it was a bit nervewracking, but I think the organic method really improved. I think it made the film fulfil the promise of the title at least, it is a very musical film.

I have to say it's been stuck in my head since I saw the film!

Yeah, I think, something that Bruno did is that he took Lisa's voice [Hannigan- voice of Bronach]  and made her very present in the soundtrack, so that a lot of the flashbacks we would have written in to try and remind the audience of the Mum, we didn't need to. [It was] Something I thought was a really big part of the storytelling. And I think the music just is really beautiful. And we uses some really traditional Irish tunes that I always loved as well. And it was fun to reinvent those again as well, and take them out of the dusty old cupboard, and give them a dust off and play with them again too.

What came first with the concept, did you always want to make it about Selkies, or was it just a desire to make it about Celtic mythos, or something else?

Selkies actually came first. It was funny, it was kind of a slow burn what the actual story would be. I knew I wanted to make a film that really squarely aimed at younger kids. During Secret Of Kells I though I was always battling the tone, it was film that was aimed at families but started out with something that was a high-faluting idea, that even in difficult times art was important. My son was 10 at the time and I wanted to do something that spoke to his age-group very squarely. So when I came across the Sekie stories, I saw that they were really allegories for loss, and there had been some stuff around me at the time, really sad stuff going on in family and friends.

So it was kind of close to the bone. I though it'd be interesting to try and reinvent a Selkie story for a modern audience.
So it can come back from being this quaint tale about someone turning into a seal, and come back to being a relevant story that helps kids deal with loss. And really helps anyone deal with loss.. because I think that was really what the core of that mythology really was.

You've moved from a tale in the ancient past to something more modern, it's set in the 80s.

I tried to set in 1987, and is the production went along, a lot of the things that would really tip you off to when it was fades, so you'd have to be really eagle-eyed to notice.

Well there's the fact that he's got the Walkman..

A Sony Walkman [laughs] and the old-school 3D glasses and things like that..

But pretty much other than that it could be almost any time.

Totoro was like that, I remember reading that My Neighbour Totoro was set in the 50s, but I couldn't have told. I knew it was in the 20th Century some point, but because it was so immersed in a magical fantasy world and woodlands and timeless things like that. The fact that Totoro was set in the 50s.. I suppose the fact that the Mum was in a Sanatorium for TB, which was pretty much a big thing in the 50s. Hopefully it' something that won't alienate you that it's set in the 80s but it just adds a little bit more colour.

And it's a honest version of modern Ireland, . It's not all tourist board ..

[Laughs] approved!

There's rubbish in the countryside, it's a bit more down-to-earth and honest

Myself and Will [Collins, screenwriter] definitely have a lot of memories growing up, in the late 80s early 90s in Ireland and going across the fields, and the reality was that as beautiful as the country is, sometimes I don't think the locals particularly appreciate it. There was a little bit of a metaphor going on there as well.. where the story came from that the folklore bound people to the landscape, and I thought that was being lost. And that was pretty visible when you saw that people had dumped their old TV in a Fairy Fort or something.

AFA: The characters behave in quite unique ways, and rather than make big theatrical gestures like many animated movies, a lot is done with subtle gestures like darts of the eyes or things like that. Could he just talk a little about how that acting style developed at the studio and throughout production?

TM:When I was younger I really wanted to be an animator and I hero worshipped the big American animators. It was Nora who pointed out that there's an American acting style that you see in a lot of the animated features.[Whereas] In Miyazaki films it's much more understated, and it's much less in-your-face. The animators aren't all show-boating. I wouldn't say that the American animation is over animated but it's a different style- it makes me think of you know the TV show Friends or something like that? Everything's emoted and they use their hands a lot.

Everything's Up to Eleven..

Yeah, if you go into Frozen, it's great fun but it's all like [American accent] “HELLO!” “WHATEVER!”.. and everything’s really animated I suppose. Whereas that's just not the way that people in this part of the world behave. We tried to tone down and make it more subtle. That was really one of the most interesting things about directing the animators. Fabian Erlinghauser, he's an old friend of mine since college, but he was the assistant director in charge of the animation and that was the big thing that we had to keep... I think a lot of animators usually get patted on the back for anything that looks like Glenn Keane did it or something. So you had to tell them no, you don't get any extra points for doing big broad animation! That's why people really enjoyed it whenever they got to characters like Macha or The Seanachai, because then they could really have fun and do a really broad character. And do it with with more contrast because not everybody was acting with the same mannerisms.

The opening of the film is a bit of an emotional gut-punch with the night of Saoirse's  birth. I'm not sure if you got a chance to see other animated films of 2014 (your fellow nominees for example), but it seems to be a bit of a trend.

Yeah! I was so surprised, I remember seeing Big Hero 6, right after our premiere of Song Of The Sea in Los Angeles. I literally ran up the road to the El Capitan theatre to see Big Hero 6! There's definitely a trend in that, and then we have How To Train Your Dragon 2. Maybe it's Up? I sort of blame Up, because In 2009, Secret Of Kells was playing in the festivals, I went to see Up and thought "this is the winning team". Because if you can start the movie out and people are already so engaged, people are already crying at the end of that opening sequence and I always though that was just amazing, that an animated film can have that impact on audiences of all ages . I think that upped the game, upped the bar for animated feature directors. So maybe that's where it came from, I don't know?

Do you think there’s something about animation as a medium that lends itself to such emotional storytelling in children’s film?

Yeah, it's stuff that might be intolerably painful or mawkish in live-action. I always thought that with Grave Of The Fireflies the Takahata film, that if that was in live-action it would be unbearable. There's something about the animation being both kind of heightened emotionally but also giving you enough sense of distance that you can bear it.

The film deals with some very honest and complex emotions. For example, at the start of the movie, Ben seems to blame Saoirse for taking their mother away, and Conor quite blatantly shows more affection for Saoirse than Ben. Did you ever find trouble pitching these elements at the start?

No, with the way we make these films,I'm really lucky it's a kind of coalition of... we looked at other funding methods but it would've meant ceding a lot of control to executive producers and whatever, and the way we make these films I kind of have the final say. So I'm really lucky that way, it's all just co-producers so most of the time.. no, 100% of the time, all the partners were totally on board with that vision that we were going for. And that's why we make them like that, for smaller budgets, with small teams scattered around Europe. It's a way to not to have to appeal to the broadest [audience]. I have so much respect for the guys who do those big movies, I don't want to knock them in any way. They're responsible for hundreds of million dollars of shareholder's money, they have to make really broad, wide appeal films, and they just can't take the same risks that a small film can.

I also think in Continental Europe people are more open to animation..

Right from the start whenever I talked to partners nobody tried to get on board who wanted to change it, because everyone that we got involved with, we'd either worked with before, whether it was on Secret Of Kells or another project, so we all shared the same taste. And I told them that Totoro and Into The West, the Irish film, were touchstones, so once they knew that was what I was heading for they knew the kind of film I was trying to make.

Interesting that you said Totoro was a touchstone, because I was wondering if it was the case. It feels a lot like it in the way that the spirit world is just beneath the surface of mundane life

Yeah! That was the thing that I felt that that my grandparents lived in a world that was like that. My grandmother lived her life fully believing all that kind of stuff about fairies alongside a strong Catholic belief, alongside being a practical down-to-earth woman living on a farm (laughs). I think that was something that was nice to dive back into, and to look at that.

How do you feel about being compared to Miyazaki?

It's nice isn't it? It's such an honour to be compared it all. I think it's a bit premature, it's only two films in, and I've got plenty of opportunities to fuck it up! (laughs)

I think there's definite similarities though...

Yeah there's an influence, More than on Secret Of Kells, on Song Of The Sea Miyazaki was a massive influence. I discovered his films pretty late, I didn’t grow up on them or anything, I had to go to college to really discover them. So I would love if that type of filmmaking became more popular in the Anglosphere. So, I'm definitely influenced by him in a major way- even Granny's car is a Citroen 2CV and that was convenient because it looked a bit like an owl, because it's the car Miyazaki famously drives and puts in most of his films, so there's lots of little nods of the hat.

The Bit with the Wind Dogs was particularly..

Yeah, it was one of the most debated sequences, because it just felt right, but it probably would have made more sense with Macha, being the Owl Witch, to have her Owls carry them back but it just felt right, like we needed an ET on the bike, or Catbus type of moment there. That's how the story evolved. Some of it was just concept art that we drew and I'd go to Will and say “this has to be in film!”. I watched a Documentary about how Miyazki writes his films and it's really similar, he has a clothesline of visual images he knows he's gonna have, and then he storyboards towards those. So it's a much more animationy way of writing I think.

Obviously another connection is that it's hand-drawn animation. Has this always been your preferred medium or do you have ambitions to one day try stop-motion or CG?

Yeah, we try everything and it's just that the final look is more timeless. I moved from paper to TV Paint on Song Of the Sea- a little bit reluctantly, I was one of the last people to move over to TV Paint. But once I moved over I was a convert, 'cause I could still do the type of full-animation I love and I didn’t have scanning to do! I still paint the backgrounds on paper but you do a lot of work on Photoshop afterwards. That hand-drawn look I think it suits the type of stories we're telling, and it kind of sets the studio's work apart. It probably limits our commercial appeal a bit, I think a lot of people go to CG-animated movies because there's so many good ones from people like Pixar, that you're able to make a lesser one and people will still trust it because it looks a bit like Pixar. Whereas I suppose our stuff, it's both good and bad that it sets it apart. But for me that hand-drawn looks is so timeless, and I see the old Toy Stories and I love them as stories and films, but they.. age. The software has improved so much, and it's hard to imagine that it will improve much more, but as long as they're chasing that realistic look, they'll always keep dating, last year’s or two or three years ago's films. Hand-drawn animation doesn't date, I mean you watch Bambi now and it still looks as fresh and unique as in 1940s.

And Song Of The Sea was your second Oscar Nomination. How did it feel to be recognised again?

I remember that the days the Nominations were going to come out I couldn't handle it because everyone was expecting it, whereas nobody expected if for Secret of Kells. Which was maybe a bit nicer because it was just a total surprise that came out of nowhere. Whereas this time people were waiting to see if we would make the list. But I didn't think we had a chance, so I just had to hide away. So I had to head off to Castle Park here in town and have a sandwich, because I thought it just wouldn't happen. I thought we'd have to make two or three more films before we'd get a nod again. Especially with Lego Movie and Book Of Life and so many great movies, I just didn't think there was any space for us. So I was really shocked, really delighted. It was a massive endorsement again from the members of the branch. I'm actually in The Academy after Secret Of Kells was nominated so I'm a little bit more in the inside, I understand how it all works. And it hasn't dampened my enthusiasm at all because what it's shown me is that nomination is really a win, because the Branch are all animators, or directors or people involved in animation that vote for the nomination. So it's really your peers, its the best of the best in the industry in the Sates that are nominating you. So it means a lot.

I guess you must have caught some of the controversy about Animation at the Oscars..

With The Lego Movie?

The Academy as a whole not really understanding..

Oh, that stuff, I think that's where it happens, once it goes beyond our branch.. the Academy is a huge amount of actors and make-up artists and technicians and stuff like that. And the way it works it it's not a jury of your peers after that it's a bit of a popularity contest, because you're talking to such a diverse [crowd]. Yeah, I was really heartened, because I really didn't think we had a chance to win it, but as we got closer to the night I felt we were in the running, because Richard Linklater was there and he said “I Love your film”, Morgan Spurlock, people from really diverse branches saying that they were going to vote for us, and that they really loved it, and even people like Pete Docter from Pixar were saying you guys have a real shot at it because it's really one of the best ones in the running. So I felt heartened, so maybe those grouchy old.. I don't know who they were, maybe they were more of an anomaly than the typical members.

And Then coming up you've got 'The Prophet', which looks beautiful. How did you come to be involved with that?

That was a funny one because I signed up for that and I though we'd have finished it before we started Song of the Sea, but as usual everything got delayed and I ended up making at the same time. As Song Of The Sea. So it was tough, because I was getting up really early in the morning to do a few hours on that and then spent the rest of the day on Song. And I co-directed it with Ross Stewart, who was the art director on Kells and he's co-directing my next feature with me now, so that was a little trial run for that. It was nice.. it was one of those teams you couldn't say no to. Roger Allers was directing it, and people like Bill Plympton and Joan Gratz and people were involved and you're like “I have to be involved with that, I can't say no to that!” So we made it happen..

Both with your involvement with that and Nora Twoemy's Breadwinner are half a world away from what you've done are you trying to branch out?

The Prophet came to me. I think it was Roger, or maybe Salma [Hayek]? I think it was Roger, saw Kells and suggested me for that, but it was nice to be in a different realm. And with Breadwinner, I think it's gonna be really fantastic, it's pretty deep in production now, and it's pretty exciting to see it all come together.

Can you give us any hints of anything you might be working on next?

I'll tell you what I tell everyone, that's just the basic premise because I'm still doing concept designs and storyboards so we don't have the whole film figured out. But basically it's called Wolf Walkers. It's set during the English Civil War in the mid 1600s but Oliver Cromwell decided he was going to symbolically tame Ireland by killing all the Wolves. So he sent all these hunters over, and if they killed a certain amount of wolves they got a bit of land. So the main protagonist is this little boy from England who comes over with his Dad, and he arrives actually near where I live in Killkenny. And he runs up against that around here wolves weren't seen as baddies, they were actually seen as people. The belief was that wolves were people that St Patrick had put a curse on when they wouldn't convert from paganism. So a lot of people believed that wolves.. especially around the Killkenny area.. were people. So that's the kind of premise! I won't tell you any more than that..

It's interesting, it sounds a lot like a lot of Japanese mythology about wolves..

It's still that transformation thing, one thing flows from the other. The Selkie stories really made me tap into all the mythology around transformation.. There's werewolves but this is something different, the stories around here were that when people fell asleep, they almost could kind of live as an animal in their sleep. And it's really interesting to me. And Native American mythology too, it's all really similar. It's interesting stuff to dive into.. but who know what I'll end up when it's finally released but that’s where it's at now.

Well it sounds very exciting! Finally, do you have any advice to anybody who reading who wants to go into animation themselves?

I suppose it depends.. if you want to be an animator it's just about drawing. The software changes all the time, but if your drawing and your skills are strong enough, that'll carry you through any change in software. The other think is just persistence, just showing up, meeting people. I think the tendency in a lot of young people- and I was the same- was to stay in your bedroom and draw and not really meet other people, but joining YIF was the making of me, because I learnt how to collaborate. And I learnt that's a big part of animation. So teaming it up with other people is very important for anyone thinking of getting into the business because that's what it's all about, it's the art of teamwork as much as anything else.

Thanks to Tomm, all at Cartoon Saloon and StudioCanal for setting this up. Song Of The Sea is in UK and Irish cinemas now, don't miss it! Additional questions by Dan Hamman.
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