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In Conversation with Tomm Moore (part 1)

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. So we're delighted that the film is finally arriving in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on July 10th.

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.

Be sure to come back on Friday to read the second half!

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 had Bruno [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.