Cartoon Saloon has knocked it out of the park ever since they hit the scene in 2009 with The Secret of Kells. Their feature-length movies have consistently garnered praise from critics. Nora Twomey, who co-directed Kells, is back as a solo director on the studio’s third film: The Breadwinner.
The Breadwinner is an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s book of the same name. It tells the story of a young Afghan girl who is forced to provide for her family under an oppressive Taliban regime. As of early 2018, The Breadwinner has won an Annie, earned a Golden Globe nod and was recently nominated for an Oscar — making it the third consecutive Academy Award nomination for the studio.
After attending the London premiere of The Breadwinner in October, I sat down with Ms. Twomey to discuss the early buzz for the film and the intricacies of internationally collaborative animation. We also explore the delicate process of balancing representation, historicity and modern gender politics.
How many times have you seen the full movie now?
I suppose with an audience… This would have been my seventh time. That includes cast and crew screenings, which we’ve done one in Kilkenny, one in Luxembourg and one in Toronto because we have crews in each one of those places. But every time I see it, I suppose I remember something different about the scenes — whether it’s, you know, the time you spent with the voice cast, animators… rough animators, clean animators, the backgrounds. There’s so many different layers to the storytelling process with animation, so certainly looking at it every time brings up something new.
But also, I think just sitting with an audience reminds you of your audience? Because when you’re locked in production for years and years, and you’re surrounded by people who are in your industry, and who are focusing on details, when you sit with an audience, it’s very humbling. You’re hyper-aware of how they’re reacting to what’s going on in the cinema. And it’s different from place to place, as well. It informs your next project, basically, if you sit with an audience, and then can sit through it as many times as you can. [Laughs.]
There’s something to seeing a movie in the theater with so many people you don’t know. It’s a great sampling of reactions.
Absolutely, yeah. And looking at the difference between how young people react to the film as opposed to how older members of the audience. What was interesting [at the London premiere] was the questions that came after with some of the young people in the audience. I always think that the questions young people ask are oftentimes more honest and more refreshing than older generations.
Also, I suppose because a film like The Breadwinner has certain tensions associated with it. As an adult, you watch a film about growing up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Immediately, you don’t need to do anything as a filmmaker because people feel tense already. You’re just adding the tension the whole time.
Whereas with children, they don’t know so much about that, so they just take it on face value. They follow the character of Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and the way that she deals with her life in the film. They take their cue from that, basically. It’s a much different experience, so it’s an education for me as a filmmaker watching the way that young people respond to film, for sure.
This is a question I also asked Tomm Moore. How do you respond to the conflict between how audiences perceive animation as a “kids’ medium” while filmmakers and artists often view it as fit for all-ages?
It’s still a fight to have it seen it as not a genre, you know? That animation has to be funny, it has to be for children under a certain age, that it has to be universal, all of these things. That’s a constant fight. And certainly you can tell from some of the reactions to films like The Breadwinner that many people expect a certain thing and then they complain that they didn’t get the thing that they were expecting, rather than responding to just the film as it is — which can be very frustrating as a filmmaker.
But yeah, animation is an incredible medium. I love working in it. Every film has its own personality because you see, you feel the animators’ hands on different projects, and how they respond to different projects, and how people work together as teams, and how layering artists work on top of each other. And voice actors, composers, sound designers — they all work together to create one film. All the separate layers that you have of storytelling, for me, that’s always been extremely important and interesting.
I also think that, especially just the hand-drawn medium, as well? Whether it be drawing onto the screen, which we do nowadays, versus what we did back in the time of The Secret of Kells, which is drawing directly on paper and then shipping the paper around the world to different studios.
So that’s all digital now?
It’s done digitally, yeah. We still draw — we draw onto the screen instead of drawing onto a piece of paper. And there’s a wonderful freedom there with co-productions like we’ve done with The Breadwinner whereby I can, in my house or in my workplace, I can pull down a scene that somebody’s animated in Luxembourg, I can make some changes to it, I can send it back up, I can write little notes on it, and they get it back the same day. That kind of collaboration and the ease with which technology now facilitates artists and animators is incredible.
Then to be able to make the most of each studio’s strengths… We worked with Guru Studios in Toronto, who did an amazing job with the compositing of the film and trying to figure out ways by which we could get the look of cutout animation without actually the expense of making a cutout animation. So yeah, it’s been in a really interesting process.
The landscape seems to be dominated by 3D computer animation. Do you find audiences respond to 2D animation just as much as they do other kinds?
I don’t know. I mean, I use my own two boys as a reference point a lot and I see that they don’t really care that much whether something is 2D animation or 3D animation. They watch the whole series of Casper the Friendly Ghost and then would move on to Trollhunters or something on the same Saturday morning. They don’t care. There comes a point I think around teenage years, certainly, where kids will reject animation, whatever form it takes, and move on to live-action. Lots of kids will. I don’t want to generalize and say across the board. Of course, now lots of “live-action” films contain massive amounts of 3D animation.
That line is kind of an absurd one to draw these days, for sure.
Completely, yeah. But sometimes live-action filmmakers won’t acknowledge it because they don’t want to get the stigma — or the whole genre question again — attached to animated films. So they don’t use that language even though you might have a film that might be mostly animation with very few live-action parts in it.
You see the reality of this stigma when voice actors are never nominated for things like the Academy Awards. It feels like it’s not taken as seriously.
Absolutely, and I think that voice actors for animation have a much harder job. For The Breadwinner, we didn’t record any of the actors together. They had to try match performances that they weren’t sure how they existed. As a director, it was very hard to try and manage all of this in a way that we still got scenes where it looked like all of the characters were talking to each other. The actors have to use their imaginations inside dark booths, basically, with microphones to try and perform in and around that.
To be vulnerable in a situation like that where you don’t have other actors to support you, where you’re looking at a sound engineer behind a pane of glass — that’s tough work, for sure. And we [visually] record our actors, so that we can pick up on any little facial features or expressions that they have while they’re performing their parts. So it’s a tough one, yeah.
It’s usually pretty obvious when voice actors record their parts separately, but here I had no idea. Is it a case of editing that made it feel smooth? Direction?
All of those things. I stood in the booth with every actor. I would do the parts opposite them to try get the energy level to where it needed to be. Whether it was pulling down the energy, in the case of the younger actors, because I was very mindful that we were portraying characters who would work 16 hours a day who might not have had full nutrition. So trying to pull energy out of younger actors and maybe to create a really safe space for actors to express themselves as much as they needed to.
I also felt like a conductor, I guess! [Laughs.] In those sound booths… And the first thing I do, I edit the sound myself. So in the situation where we wanted two characters to argue with each other — two sisters, for example — I would push their performances on top of each other in a way that is very difficult to get with actors, especially in a recording setup where everyone feels like they’re giving each other the right amount of space. It’s very hard to intercut that stuff together because even though people have their own microphones and their directional mics, you can still hear other people in the background and things like that.
I suppose to get the purest sounds that I could, and to be able — in one sense, it’s quite controlling, but in another sense, it’s quite freeing for actors, as well, because they can simply explore their own roles. Especially for the younger actors, I wouldn’t really read opposite them. I would just suggest things to them about the character that might help the line that they’re going to perform. Rather than just simply reading opposite them, it was more about creating the right energy.
But it’s funny recording the cast separately and then bringing them together. A lot of them didn’t meet until the cast and crew screening.
Tell me a little bit about bringing together international studios to produce a single vision. Did it make things easier for you?
This time around, I think it was quite easy. The Secret of Kells was a baptism of fire because again, I think the practicalities of working on paper and shipping paper around the place and not having control… If something is going wrong with the scene, you couldn’t physically take it back in the way that I described pulling something down off the internet, which was very easy for The Breadwinner. We felt if we could handle The Secret of Kells, we could handle anything when it comes to co-productions. [Laughs.]
But I guess, as well, we had worked with Melusine [Productions] in Luxembourg before on Song of the Sea, so we were very aware of all of the animators, the wonderful animators, that they have there. It was the first time doing a Canadian co-production. Aircraft Pictures were predominantly a live-action company but they helped find Guru Studios in Toronto, as well, which was a complement of skills between the different studios. Each studio, and the heads of all of the departments, and the artists in all of the departments really wanted to solve problems. It was a really interesting experience, but I have to say it wasn’t that hard.
And you know, using Skype daily, with all of the different heads of department, it just made things really easy. You communicate more with people because you’re expected to. You’re aware things might fall apart. I had my assistant director, Stuart Shankly — he had worked on Song of the Sea, as well, as an assistant director — incredible director in his own right… He came to Cartoon Saloon and worked for about 9 months with us during the storyboard process and then went over to Toronto and worked with Guru. So he was kind of the bridge between Cartoon Saloon and Guru. And then we went back and forth with Melusine, as well. It’s an exciting thing because every team that comes onboard adds their energy to the project. So if you’re flagging after two years, you’ve got a new team of people who are willing to get into it.
Cartoon Saloon previously released two films that were fantasy-based and focused on Ireland. The Breadwinner, on one hand, has some similar art style hallmarks that feel very typical of the studio. On the other, it felt different stylistically and aesthetically (the color palette, for example). How much did you want to separate it from those other films?
It wasn’t a decision to be different from the other films. It was a decision that came from the story that we were telling, and the place. Afghanistan itself, and Kabul, listening to the stories of the Afghan people that we talked to in the creation of the film — the members of our cast who are Afghan, talking to them, as well. That all informed the kind of look that we wanted to get, but also the subject matter, the idea that we wanted to show the vulnerability of Parvana, the life that she led, the physicality of that.
I think we needed to have a little bit more realism, I suppose, than our previous films. The use of perspective, visual perspective, is different in The Breadwinner than it is in our previous films. The reason for that is that I just really wanted to have that sense of tension and immediacy. If Parvana was running in a scene, that we knew how far the character that was chasing her was. It was about whatever the story needed the visuals to look like, we let the story and the characters lead the look of the film more than anything else.
Then we have the two different looks in the film. Certainly the story world probably looks a little bit more like what we’ve become accustomed to in terms of Cartoon Saloon’s look. And again, I suppose for that we wanted whatever the “real world” was, the story world couldn’t be and vice versa. We wanted to get a big contrast between the two.
We didn’t set out with a picture of how things were supposed to look, and then we were going to apply that to the film. It was led by the story and characters.
I really liked how the clothes seem to have cloth fibers on them, and the lines of the characters faces almost look like calligraphy.
That’s somebody’s job. Somebody in Canada went and made sure all the cloth looked like it was moving with the animation. That sounds simple enough-
It sounds difficult!
-in 2D animation, it is because you know software is going to recognize a 2D animation moving around the place, or a character moving. What was wonderful about this film was just different people focusing on different elements of filmmaking, and the technicalities of it. We all had each others’ back making the film. We all tried to make it as good as it could be so that it contained less mistakes as the process went on. Because it’s all about making mistakes and refining along the way.
Questions of representation in filmmaking gain another level of complexity in animation where an artificial face, potentially of another ethnicity or background, is placed over whoever is voicing them. How did that factor into the casting for The Breadwinner?
Angelina Jolie had a big input into how we dealt with casting of the film because we had a problem in that — it would have been fantastic to go to Afghanistan and cast the film there, but we couldn’t do that. It was a co-production, you have to spend the money in the countries that you raise the money. So we knew that we were going to record the voices in Canada.
But Toronto has such a — lots of Afghans, lots of people from different cultures, and generations of different cultures. Merle-Anne Ridley, the casting director, just put posters up in Afghan markets to see who we could attract. We got a lot of Afghan actors, actually, to play some of the parts. Kawa Ada played Razaq, Shaista Latif for Soraya, Kane Mahon for the Kiln Owner. Where we could, we cast people who had a story to tell about Afghanistan, whether it be their own story, their parents’ story, their grandparents’ story.
And then, beyond that, it was literally listening to the quality of voices in the film and making sure that we had a lovely play between Parvana’s mother (Laara Sadiq), her sister (Latif) and herself and that the voices sounded well together. That was a huge thing for me. And also the enthusiasm with which the actors brought to the roles they were playing, as well. That was tremendous.
At the London premiere Q&A, you discussed bringing good gender politics to the story without making it unbelievable for historical Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. How did you navigate this push and pull as a filmmaker?
Just informing myself as much I could. Again, animation is such a slow process that you can afford to make lots of mistakes and go back and get informed and make sure that you have people who were there and can tell you about it and can tell you what it was like. That was very important to get as many people as we could who could actually tell you what it was like under the Taliban regime.
It is a line between finding the universal aspects of the film, by which I can feel connected to the characters as a mother and as a former child, but also then to not belittle the larger context of the film. Afghanistan is a paradox in many ways, as are many countries — as is Ireland, you know! [Laughs.]
So finding that exact tone, it’s a universal thing. At the end of the day, as a filmmaker, I have my own sensibilities, as well as my own outlook. I wouldn’t like to make a film that is just about that or anything. I almost paralyze myself a lot by overthinking things. But overthinking can be a good thing, and certainly in filmmaking with a film like The Breadwinner, is probably not a bad thing. [Laughs.]
Right, especially with animation where you have to draw every detail into the background and foreground. It’s hard to make the mise en scène random; there’s a lot of intentionality.
There’s certainly thought going into all of those elements, and you can layer them in there so that in the second watching of the film, you can pick up on different things than your first viewing of a film. That’s all there. Some of the smaller touches, they don’t matter in a [way] — but in another [way], they can be the thing that somebody latches onto. It’s interesting with a film like The Breadwinner coming out, after a screening, hearing different people responding to different things. People crying at different moments in the film, and that not being the same for two people.
So in one sense, you feel like you have control as a filmmaker, but in another sense, you don’t, really. Because at the end of the day, it’s what the audience brings to the film themselves and how open they are to what’s on the screen.
I noticed that even speaking to various people who worked on the film. Everyone had different scenes, moments or aspects that were the highlight for them, while I was most moved by a showdown late in the movie between Fattema (Sadiq) and another character. The visuals, particularly the light play, are incredibly striking.
Yeah, [screenwriter] Anita Doron when, again, we were trying to grapple with the film in terms of the story and as we reached the climax of the film… That scene in particular, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone because it’s at the end of the film! But that’s something that her own mother had gone through, where she basically out-crazied somebody who was going to attack her when she was a young woman.
Again, the generosity of people around this film in terms of their own stories and investing their own stories into The Breadwinner has been amazing. Things do stand out as being honest.
And authentic, absolutely. One of the things that surprised me was when you mentioned at the premier that the bribery scene in The Breadwinner was written differently until you learned it wasn’t authentic. That seems like a significant plot point to have to rewrite. How much freedom did you have to change the story, especially working from Deborah Ellis’s book?
Deborah Ellis is really generous. She came to the screening of Song of the Sea in Toronto. That was where I first met her. I think when she watched Song of the Sea, she was happy enough to — she certainly inputted into the screenplay and made sure she was happy with what we had done, but from that point then, she left us alone to get through the animatic process as we needed to. Again, what I was most mindful of was published in 2000 and so much as happened…
Before the Iraq war.
Yeah, before 9/11, before the formation of ISIS, before the fall of the Taliban, not to mention the resurgence. So I suppose just trying to make sure that there was a sense of all of that, our new understanding of global politics and conflict is more sophisticated and complex than we probably would have thought back in 2000. There were things I was mindful of. [Deborah] gave us freedom to do what we needed to do.
And of course you want to avoid presentism, as well. You have this modern perspective and you want to avoid injecting future knowledge that would interrupt the point of a contemporaneous narrative. It is still set in the same time frame?
Yes! We pushed the time scale on it a little bit, toward 2001. But again, we wanted to tell something about the cyclical nature of conflict and that it’s something you have to break out of. If you don’t, there’s the idea in the film that another wave comes across the country. [Afghanistan] has had many invasions of one sort or another, and there are always families caught in the middle of conflict situations like that. And how vulnerable the idea of peace is, how families try to protect themselves, protect each other, how children are a symbol of hope. There’s nothing more hopeful than children in the world.
I was going to ask about that. I love the recurring motif of Parvana telling the same fantasy story throughout the film to other characters and to herself. It helps remind the audience that despite her bravery, she’s still just a kid. Other films often superimpose adult words and thoughts onto kids — what was your process here making Parvana an honest-to-goodness child?
Absolutely — there’s nothing that annoys me more than when you hear the voice of screenwriter coming through a child. That really irks me. So I always wanted Parvana to always sound like a child. I know that the strength of the story is, as you say, that she does always remain a child, and has the fears of a child. She never does something that’s beyond the bounds of possibility for a child. We don’t try and put on her a perfection or a bravery that’s beyond her years. As real as we could make her as a human being, the more power the story has.
The other identity Parvana has is as a young girl in a society where that’s quite restrictive. When she starts to present as a boy, music plays that suggests newfound freedom. But is that really freedom if she has to pretend to be someone else to get people to treat her with respect?
And I mean, in an ideal world, boy or girl, she would have been in school and she wouldn’t have any of the responsibilities that she has. It’s not the case that she has a holiday as a boy, either. She has a very serious job that, again, no child should be asked to do, which is to try and support your family.
So for me, it wasn’t particularly about Parvana being a boy or a girl. It was just about her trying to navigate her world. Just the idea of somebody seeing themselves from the inside out. I don’t particularly associate myself every day with being a woman, you know?
It’s part of many identities!
And she, similarly, would just see herself through her eyes in terms of what she needed to do in order to get through that day without particularly putting herself in one box or another. It wasn’t a particularly a society where boys had a great time, either.
On a more personal note, I’d love to know how you came to animation and, eventually, Cartoon Saloon.
I came to animation — I loved animation as a child, loved the Disney films, but never saw myself as an animator. Or I certainly wouldn’t have seen it as a career option. I left school when I was about 15 — just couldn’t hack it. My dad had died the year previously, and I just quit, left, stopped.
Then I went working, I did different jobs. Eventually, in my early 20s, I decided to try find my way back into education. I went to art college and was accepted just on the strength of the work that I had been drawing… It was from there that I heard about animation, and I realized there that I didn’t really want to get into the fine art world where — at the time, certainly — the way the education system was at art colleges was more about writing an essay on a white wall which you then put in a gallery, then find an object, then put that in the middle of the floor… [Laughs.]
For me, I just wanted to draw. I just wanted to have a method of communication, so animation was the way forward. In college, I met [producer] Tomm Moore, [producer] Paul Young, [animation director] Fabian Erlinghauser, [sequence supervisor] Jeremy Purcell. All of the people I still work with today!
Amazing — you guys go way back!
We go way, way back, yeah. I worked in Dublin for a year and then, having finished college, Tomm finished the year after me and we all went to Kilkenny to make The Secret of Kells which was then known as “Rebel” and was a short film — a long short film — as opposed to a feature film. So yeah! I’ve been there nearly 20 years, I suppose 18 years now.
So you were there right at the beginning of it all.
Yeah, there were about 12 or 13 of us who came down together, and some of us are still there, pelting away. [Laughs.]
Is it incredible seeing the progress and the state Cartoon Saloon is in now?
Yeah, I find looking back at pictures of us — because we were all in our 20s and… Early 20s is crazy looking back at pictures of us now. In one sense, it feels like only yesterday. But it’s wonderful that the culture of animation makes Kilkenny and that town — it’s really lovely to witness. Seeing people come from all over the world to come and work at Cartoon Saloon, that’s really special.
Has it expanded to a more international crew?
We always had a fairly international crew, even when we were like, 15 people. We would always have someone from France, and someone from Canada… So yeah, it’s always attracted people from different parts of the world. Honestly, I suppose the internet was always there — even going back 15 years or whatever. People were always aware of us. Tomm used to blog about The Secret of Kells very early on — I think 2005, or before that. And really honest blogging — day by day, what was going on in the production.
Which is not easy to do, keeping a diary! Especially with public scrutiny.
And it just wasn’t the done thing! [Laughs.] It’s the kind of thing that the distributors frown upon. You’re supposed to go, “Ta-da! Here’s the finished thing.” But I mean, people in studios in the States were aware of Cartoon Saloon because of that. I suppose it changed the idea of animation, the culture of animation, the sharing of work.
It was a good way to build a profile before it was released, too, especially as the first feature from the studio. You continued that openness with The Breadwinner, too, by sharing a lot of the early work and sketches over social media. Speaking of projects, can you tell us about anything you’ve got in store?
In terms of what we intend to do is just continue making films, basically. Tomm is making Wolfwalkers next-
That’s still looking for financing, right?
Yes. It’s still looking for financing, but it’s looking beautiful from what I can see so far. It’s funny to go right back into the start of something again, and to remember because every film has its own worries at the beginning, own worries in the middle and own worries at the end. It’s funny to plunge straight back in.
So you and Tomm directed the first film (Kells), then he directed the second, now you’ve directed The Breadwinner. Are you trying to build a fleet of directors, or are you keeping it tight?
[We’re] trying to encourage more directors within Cartoon Saloon. We have more directors coming up who will hopefully take the helm of future films. I mean, it wouldn’t be very nice if it was “The Tomm and Nora Club” and I certainly don’t see what’s that interesting about that because it’s always about being hungry to tell stories and finding people who are hungry to tell stories. And to try and support people who can tell stories in new and interesting ways, I think. That can come from anywhere, and if we can guide that — and certainly the system that we’ve built up in Kilkenny, and our links with co-producers across the world-
Lots of opportunities.
Absolutely. Exciting opportunities.
Thanks for your time, and congratulations again on the film!
[Laughs.] Thank you.
GKIDS is handling U.S. distribution of The Breadwinner. Oscar winners will be announced at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 4, 2018.
Note: Please do not reprint this interview in any form without express permission of the author. Queries should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s okay, we don’t bite.