Nora Twomey Interview: ‘The Breadwinner’ Director Talks Animation, Storytelling and Cartoon Saloon

The Breadwinner is the gorgeous story of a young Afghan woman who must disguise herself as a man to look after her family, after her father is arrested. We talk to director Nora Twomey about the creative process behind the film, the sensitivity of the subject matter and the challenges in making a challenging film for young adults.

 

How did this adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner get started?

Oh Gosh, it’s about five years ago or more now, I think, when my partners in cartoon saloon, Paul Young and Gerry Sherrin, came back from an animation market in the US and they had met two Canadian live action producers, from Aircraft Pictures; Andrew Rosen and Anthony Leo who had the rights to Deborah’s book. I hadn’t been aware of her, her writing, I hadn’t read any of her material. But Gerry handed me this book to read and I took it home that evening and just couldn’t put it down. It’s a really beautifully written book, very down to earth, very matter of fact but very empathetic and searching. The idea of being able to put the character of Parvana as Deborah had written her onto the screen; to re-imagine the story for the screen, these were things that I couldn’t…it just felt right basically. That’s kind of how it started. Again, because we had made Films like The Secret of Kells and Song of Sea we had partners around the world, we had this new relationship with aircraft pictures, we knew that we could get together a team of people to do justice to the story. It’s such a complicated story I guess, we were always trying to walk very sensitive lines with this film. Which meant getting as many Afghan people involved in the whole process as we could, in terms of just trying to advice and the best way to kind of handle a story like The Breadwinner and a character like Parvana. It’s been a very interesting journey but one that I’m very glad that I didn’t shy away from.

Excellent. When did you make the decision to serve as director on the film?

I think very soon after reading the novel. That same week, Tom and Paul and Gerry and Myself, we sat in the meeting room in Cartoon Saloon and as we began to discuss it, it just became clear to me that it was, if we were going to do it, it was going to have to be me, I guess. I wasn’t particularly looking for something to direct. I had kind of fallen into a role in Cartoon Saloon over the years where I would creatively encourage many different projects; whether that meant being head of story in Song of the Sea or creative producer in Puffin Rock. I love working on films. Quite practically; I love sitting in front of an edit machine, I love directing voice actors, I love every single process in animation, but I hadn’t…for me it wasn’t about wanting to be a director, it was about trying to guide the stories the best way I felt that I could and to try to encourage the relationships that were specifically needed in order to make The Breadwinner the film that it became.

Were you worried at all about the darkness of the film and the story?

Yeah, unfortunately or fortunately I am somebody who is very drawn to darkness so even when, you know, on the Secret of Kells or on Song of the Sea I was very much the one who was…for instance with the Secret of Kells I was always trying to make sure…I love that film very much, the tone is interesting though and I think we learned a lot on that film about tone and setting tone and setting up expectations for the audience. Life contains darkness, it contains darkness for children as much as for adults and no matter children go through, whether pretty extreme circumstances like Parvana does or growing up in the west and being exposed to everything that kids hear on the radio and what they’re exposed to on social media, etc. Nobody’s life is easy; we all have darkness in our lives. Stories help us to cope with that in some way and I think that The Breadwinner is an exploration of what it is to be a child and to normalise extraordinary circumstances. But what it is for audiences, as well, I think, to empathise with characters like Parvana, for me that’s incredibly hopeful, so there is darkness but for me I suppose that with The Breadwinner I was searching for hope.

There are intrinsic things with, you know, the way that animation has been used for the last hundred years, the way that it’s seen as something that….you can babysit with animation, basically. You know, “the film is animated, therefore I can put a three year old in front of it, I can walk away and the three year old will be ok”. So there’s that that we’re always fighting against. Animation can be anything, and animation can handle any kind of story. So you have to fight against that, I guess anyway. We have to continue to try and push out the boundaries of what is expected of animation. But also what is expected of children. I mean we aim this film at older children from the ages of about 9 upwards, the same as Deborah Ellis’ Book has been geared towards. I don’t think that’s an age group that’s being catered for. There aren’t many films out there that introduce children to the idea of conflict, of war, human rights, women’s rights, so you know, I guess, again, the opportunity to do that is something that I couldn’t pass up on because it’s few times in one’s life as an animator or as a director that you get an opportunity like this and again, it’s this independent film model that we have with co-productions, you know, means that we have the creative freedom to make a film like the Breadwinner.

That’s very interesting, and it’s interesting what you say about people’s expectations of animation, because I’m a big fan of Japanese animation and it seems like in Japan there’s a much broader audience for animation, whilst over here animation is largely seen as something that is marketed and created for children.

Yeah, and that’s changing and even seeing now on Netflix, just how much anime there is on Netflix now, I think that’s changing. Watching my own children, as well, you know on Saturday mornings I was fed whatever was on the national broadcaster on a Saturday morning whereas they chose and they will chose quite happily, they will go from a Studio Ghibli film to like Ghostbusters and they’ll jump genres, jump mediums, you know and even within animation they’ll go from 2D to 3D, go from Akira to Totoro very quickly and that’s amazing, it’s amazing to see, but it also gives me hope for the future. I think people oftentimes see these, and especially film makers, see these streaming services as a huge threat, but to me it’s a tremendous opportunity to broaden out what we expect from animation.

Absolutely, and it seems that audience is ready and that Cartoon Saloon is really going to be at the forefront of that movement.

Yeah, I think there’s room for lots of different types of stories and we have enough princess stories, and we have enough toy driven stories out there, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to just keep pushing and that’s what’s always interested myself and Tom and Paul, is trying to tell stories that haven’t been told already. We always ask ourselves first and foremost when we get involved in a project; why, why animate it? You know animation takes such a long time and there always has to be a really good reason for that. With the Breadwinner actually the length of time it took to make the film meant that we could consider every single piece of the story as much as we could. It went through so many different versions with people contributing every time we made a rough storyboard and that was necessary with The Breadwinner, that length of time, because it needed it.

It’s very interesting what you said there about using the film to introduce kids to these huge themes. There’s a wonderful scene early on where Parvana’s father is telling her about his youth when Afghanistan is this enlightened and peaceful place before it is torn apart by war and then ensnared by this brutally oppressive regime that offered security at a cost, and that feels like a really important message. Was this a concern of yours when adapting the story?

Absolutely, because the more you look into where the Taliban came from and who was supporting the Taliban regime in the west even, and how they came to power in the first place, it’s complicated asking… you know the conversations I’ve had with many afghan people about the rights and wrongs of it, and speaking to people from different ethnic groups, different religious perspectives, people from different political perspectives within Afghanistan. I wanted to try to…oh Gosh, top line it in a way I guess that wasn’t trying to come from one perspective, or any one perspective. For me that’s the wonderful thing that animation has as well. I think if we had made this film in live action it would have become very clear, very quickly what ethnic group Parvana belongs to, etc. I think even those crowd scenes it would have become very apparent what the ethnic makeup of those were. So that’s why I love animation, and especially for The Breadwinner, is that we were able to tell this story, I suppose, in a way that in certain ways wasn’t that specific. It was more universal than specific. But then in other ways it’s quite specific, you know?

Yeah, I mean Parvana’s father does synopsis the history of Afghanistan which is an incredibly difficult, in fact initially it was twelve pages of script, but for me it was important just to try to understand it from a child’s perspective. For me, the most important thing was not to lay blame and there is much blame to be laid, I’ll tell you, in many quarters, but it was more important to tell it from a child’s perspective, from a family’s perspective, to see that she has inherited issues that are not of her making and yet she is the one who suffers because of it. So me for me that was quite important and I’ll tell you that was one of the most difficult things, that and ending the film and tying the two together were these most difficult and sensitive things I suppose that I had to do with the whole film. Because, again, I didn’t want to look like I was endorsing any particular perspective, I again just wanted to stay with the Child’s perspective.

Yes, it’s very interesting the ending, this kind of optimistic note in a very dark world. You create a very good feeling coming out of it, even though you know things are going to get a lot tougher for these characters.

Yeah, and again as we were making the film and more and more people were sharing their stories and their stories became woven in with the tapestry of the film. It did, you know, the sensibility of the film, I guess, was influenced by that. The hope in dark places though, for me that was a theme that ran not just through the film itself but the making of the film. Michael and Jeff Stanna, the composers, brought on the Naheed Women’s Choir of Afghanistan to help create the score for the film. So every time you hear hope in the film you hear these young women’s voices who were recorded last summer in Kabul, I think the same week where over a hundred people lost their lives because of a bombing there. So the bravery of those young women to go into the National Institute of Music in Kabul and have their voices recorded to become part of this film, I mean that’s hope in dark places. That’s hope in dark times. It again speaks of the strength of young women and their voices and the future of Afghanistan being in their hands, you know?

That’s extraordinary, that’s really beautiful. I really loved how one of the main thematic concerns of the film was in keeping with Cartoon Saloon’s focus on the power of storytelling and it played into something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately which is why extremist groups like ISIS set about destroying culture and history, what it is there so afraid of there. In your film there are these little glimpses of a glorious past. There’s the scene where they’re hiding in a cave and there’s this beautiful ornate ceiling that’s been buried down there and books that are beautiful but must be hidden under floorboards. Was this an interest of yours during the development?

Absolutely yeah. Seeing the huge…Afghanistan of course was part of the Silk Road, we see it had many different religious influences over the thousands of years. So yes, absolutely. It is horrific seeing how extremist groups do target cultural sites and try to destroy them and try to separate people from their own history. Because it’s from your histories and your stories that you get a sense of hope. Because you realise that things change and that there are cycles and you can learn from your history. So, I mean that is, that was a big scene with those very iconic images of the Bamiyan Buddha’s being blown up by the Taliban were something that was certainly central to the research of this film and the idea of wanting to make sure that Parvana was connected to her history. But that also, you know it’s funny because people ask quite a bit about the story that Parvana tells her little brother initially and then begins to tell other people before it becomes something much more deep and personal to her and they ask about what Afghan folk tale it’s based on and it’s not really based on anything. It’s her own story, she just makes it up because her brother is looking for something from her and all she has to offer him is her own voice and the soothing quality of her own voice. So not just does Parvana touch upon the history of Afghanistan, her father does and we see in her imagination we see all the wonderful colours and textures and motifs and visual artistry of Afghanistan, but you also see the future and she is the future and she can make up her own story that helps her and her family get through the situation that they’re in at the moment, you know? And again it tells of another cycle of violence in Afghanistan where a particularly brutal Russian invasion took the lives of many, many children and it’s been interesting watching this film and seeing the reaction of Russian audiences as well. Because wherever you go in the world they have a different relationship to places like Afghanistan, so just seeing how audiences react in different ways in different parts of the world to different parts of the film has been quite interesting.

I did wonder the extent to which you were able to gauge reaction from different kinds of audience.

Yes, well for me, first and foremost it was afghan audiences that I was specifically mindful of and during the making of the film we had the Afghan Women’s Organisation, who run orphanages in Afghanistan, and many different consultants basically all of the way through the film-making process. Again, that’s why I say that it’s great that this film took so long to make because it meant that mistakes that we had or ignorance that I had, I had a chance to change things and understand better the situation in Afghanistan as it was and as it is now. So it became a very collaborative storytelling process that informs the film. So even by the time we had a rough animatic complete and ready for animation, the story was already not just Deborah Ellis’ book but contained the viewpoints of many, many Afghan people. It has been really interesting watching the film everywhere from the United Nations Building in New York, watching the film with Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan, and many young Afghan women who found themselves in similar situations to Parvana, one young girl in particular, a young woman, Shabana, who had cut her hair and dressed as a boy in order to accompany her older sister to a secret school in Afghanistan. So watching the film with different audiences and particularly Afghan audiences has been pretty amazing.

The film, in some ways it’s so subtle, it can be… you can read into it whatever you want in ways. Certainly when it comes to the politics or the religious perspective, that was quite…we intentionally tried to step back a little bit and very much come at it from a child’s perspective. But it has been quite interesting, not just again watching this with afghan audiences but with…for instance the film was released in France and Golshifteh Farahani, an Iranian actress does the French dub for Parvana, she’s the French voice of Parvana and she says that she see, when she was a teenager, cut her hair and dressed as a boy so that she could go out and play soccer and ride a bike and do other things that she wanted to do. So it’s amazing how resourceful children can be when they need to be, but again it’s been quite satisfying to see that the film then forms part of a larger discussion and especially with older children. I mean this was the whole aim of the thing, to see older children come to see The Breadwinner and see what they make of it, you know? It’s always interesting then seeing adults with older children and oftentimes the adults have the much bigger emotional reaction than children do. Because they are aware of the context of everything whereas children just tend to take on face value as Parvana does.

The Secret of Kells had a very direct source for it’s extraordinary visual style, it was sort of imitating this beautiful Celtic bible. Did you have any similarly specific references for the two very different animation styles that we see in The Breadwinner? That of everyday reality and the story.

It’s interesting because with our two previous films the style, the style, the visual style certainly, with Ross Stewart and Tom Moore on The Secret of Kells I think very much it did source from the actual book of Kells and then with Song of the Sea again it had such a very strong beautiful visual design to it. But with The Breadwinner it was very, very different. And we knew it needed to be quite different and we knew that everything needed to radiate from Parvana’s face, the entire film had to radiate from her face. Again even to portray a young Afghan girl at the time, she would not have necessarily have expressed herself in that first act and told us exactly what she wanted and then go on a journey as you would expect from a typical Kind of heroes journey, three act structure. We knew that she had to…that a lot of her motivations are quite internal, that she wouldn’t necessarily verbalise them. That she’s somebody who would put the needs of her family above her own needs as an individual. So it made it quite difficult then for us to understand what the world needed to look like in order to support that. We knew that it was very much a character led story and that the visuals needed to support the character and we didn’t want to put art direction between the audience and the character of Parvana.

We wanted everyone to feel quite immersed in it so not to be too challenging from a visual perspective. Also I suppose that we wanted to make sure that the characters felt vulnerable. I don’t know you look at these huge blockbuster films where you have like a hundred thousand people die in a city and it has no emotional impact whatsoever. Whereas with The breadwinner we wanted to make sure that if Pervana fell, if she hit part of her body off the ground that you felt it and that it felt quite real and that you felt the vulnerability of life, how precious it is, how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to nurture. So that’s dictated the look of the real world so where we see Parvana, you feel the artists hand of the brushstrokes that create the environment that Parvana lives in and you feel the empathy of the artist and of the animators there, as they quite subtly show you what she’s thinking through the movement of her eyes and the slightest kind of subtle movements.

And then…because  to watch that for 90 minutes would be, I was aware that the audience could emotionally disconnect from the characters, I suppose and I didn’t want that to happen, so I wanted to allow them to escape, the same way that I would if I were living in Parvana’s environment, I would probably escape into my head quite a bit. So we knew that we had to do something that was quite opposite, so with that that’s how the story world came to be and with that we felt we could reference Afghan art and culture more. Even with the music and sound design. You hear more tradition Afghan music in the story world sequences, the real world is more cinematic. So Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy, the two art directors of this film worked together to make those two worlds. Reza designed all the characters in the film, Ciaran really looked at the real world and made that as immersive and cinematic as he could. And then Reza with artists like Alice Dieudonné made the story world as it is. So yeah, it was a huge process, I didn’t have an idea at the beginning, I knew that we had to have two opposite worlds. I knew that we had to sugar the pill so to speak, as much as we could so that the audience felt that it couldn’t look away, you know I was always aware of emotional disconnect between the audience and the screen and I just wanted to walk the line as much as I could with that.

Absolutely, and I think the effect is stunning. Was the animation within the storytelling realised in a different way or just designed to look different?

Yeah, no it was a completely different pipeline. So our real world animation is all hand drawn, every…twelve frames a second, people drawing on to computer screens. But with the story world we wanted it to look like cut-out animation, but it became apparent that I couldn’t really do that to the level that I wanted to do it. Jeremy Purcell who is Storyboard sequence director and I were looking at wanting it again to feel like….for it to be incredibly luxurious and beautiful and colourful, so we couldn’t really do that with our budget, practically speaking, with cut out animation. So we brought on a cut out animator who came here for over a year and a half I suppose and she went to the basement of Cartoon Saloon and cut out Reza’s character designs, tested them and just did a lot of research with us. So that became the basis of everything we did. We went to our partners in Guru Studios in Toronto who were compositing the entire film, with the process, I suppose, of back and forth between us and them we came up with a digital way to recreate the look of cut out animation without the hardship of it. We wanted it to look like a master cut out animator had twenty years to create a piece of animation, fifteen minutes of animation with every resource available to him and that’s what we kind of went for, so we did put limits on what, because of course Guru were compositing with an amazing system called Nuke, anything is possible with that, so it was a process of giving restrictions on what they could do as well as to make sure that it looked practical, it looked like paper that you could touch.

Wonderful, well I think The Breadwinner is an extraordinary success. Can you tell us anything about Cartoon Saloon’s next project, The Wolf Walkers and specifically you’re role within it, because I can’t seem to see how you will be credited within it?

So Wolf Walkers is, I’ll tell you it’s absolutely gorgeous, I watched an animatic last week and it’s really looking really gorgeous. Tom Moore and Ross Stewart have come back together and are co-directing the film. I am just doing a voice in this film. I mean obviously as creative director of the studio I’ve had an input into the screenplay and the animatics as they go on, as Tom and I and Paul look over each other’s work all the time and input into it. So I haven’t been working on Wolf Walkers, I am working on another project which will begin after, well as Wolf Walkers goes into production we’re in development with another feature film. I’m working with American writer Meg LeFauve who wrote Inside Out and Captain Marvel and we’re developing a screenplay for another feature, so we’re trying to get features off the ground a little more quickly these days, so it’s not the huge gap between them. But it’s interesting and like I said it’s always amazing to see all of the different projects in Cartoon Saloon, all of the different partnerships with studios around the world and seeing how they all take off and look different and feel different. But yet they all have the same kind of mark at the same time.

Great, well it seems like things are looking very bright for Cartoon Saloon in the future.

Yeah, we’re continuing to do the thing that we love which is just animate and draw and tell stories, you know?

The Breadwinner is still in cinemas nationwide and will be released on DVD in the UK on the 24th of September. You can read our five star review here: https://screenmayhem.com/the-breadwinner/

 

 

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