Interviews & Profiles

The Breadwinner: An interview with director Nora Twomey

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I loved The Breadwinner. LOVED The Breadwinner. I wrote a glowing five-star review of it, made it my Overall Film of the Festival, cannot stop thinking about it, and just generally have not been able to stop banging on about it to any and every one whether they want to hear me aimlessly ramble for upwards of 10 minutes about it or not. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie, both visually – with its gorgeous boarding, amazing art style, and brilliant usage of colours – and narratively – in the hope and compassion that flows through the tale of a young girl, growing up in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, forced to support her family when her father is arrested and thrown in prison without charge. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s not out until next year, it’d be one of my favourite films of the whole year, which is saying a lot given the near-2014-level year we’ve been blessed with up to now.

So, when an opportunity to interview the film’s director – Nora Twomey, who is also one of the co-founders of the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, responsible not only for this but also The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea – at the Festival made itself available, I leapt at the chance. Read on for an insight into Twomey’s animation process, the relevancy of Deborah Ellis’s original novel 17 years on, and what’s next for her and the rest of Cartoon Saloon.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

Callum Petch: Cartoon Saloon’s first feature was The Secret of Kells, which you co-directed, and then that was followed up by Song of the Sea, both Irish Fantasies. So, why The Breadwinner for your next film, and why choose it for your solo directorial debut?

Nora Twomey: I think it was that the book spoke to me quite a bit. The character of Parvana and the way that Deborah Ellis had written for a younger audience, but without talking down to them, really shone through. So, for me, that was very interesting. And always, as a filmmaker, you’re always open to challenges as well, so the idea of taking on a project like The Breadwinner and bringing to it everything that we can bring.

Callum Petch: The novel was originally written in 2000. Afghanistan is a very unstable country that had seen war and devastation there up to that point, something that is directly addressed in the film itself. Now it’s 17 years later, yet there’s still a genuine relevancy in the novel’s perception of the Middle East, not just in life there but also in the way that the media at large depicts and handles Afghanistan…

Nora Twomey: Yeah, absolutely, I get that. One of the first things that kind of came to mind when looking at Deborah’s book was the time period in which it was written, and in some ways I had a more simplistic idea of the politics surrounding countries such as Afghanistan, and the role that the West plays in countries and areas affected by them. So, I wanted to sort of address the time period in between [the book’s publication and the production of this film], because 9/11 happens, and the attacks on Europe, the emergence of IS, the re-emergence of the Taliban… That meant I wanted to create a more universal story, to give the film the context of waves of changing regimes. I also simplified the story quite a bit to think about family, the idea of family to somebody like Parvana, her relationship with them as a character, one who’s deep and human, and normalising that. So that was a big thing to find.

Callum Petch: I noticed that as well. It’s often a hard and heavy film, but there’s a genuine pulse of hope and kindness that powers through the centre of the film and the story.

Nora Twomey: That was our intention, absolutely, and we had to work hard on that. There’s many things going on [in production]. There’s us filmmakers telling the story, you have all the people informing the book in the first place who told their stories to Deborah, all the other people who worked on the film. And that helps us to find the exact right sensibilities for it. It’s about finding the exact right way to visualise it, rather than using excessive force or violence, certainly for our younger audience as well, but it was important to me to not simplify or unnecessarily humourise it.

Callum Petch: I found that a lot of the film’s power came from the casting; Saara Chaudry as Parvana and Soma Bhatia as Shauzia, especially. What was the process like to find the right kind of heart and performer to fuel that?

Nora Twomey: Angelina Jolie [one of the film’s producers] helped quite a bit in guiding me to find the casts that were going to add as much as possible to the film. For an animated film, getting a strong voice cast is extremely important because an animator can never animate a scene that hasn’t been informed emotionally by the voice cast. But we just put the call out broadly around Toronto, which is where we did out voice recording, and everyone was just incredible. The part of Razaq was especially important, and Kawa Ada [his voice] was also our dialect coach. He had come from Afghanistan to Toronto, having been a refugee for a period of time, so he was able to bring a lot to the recording and our cast.

Callum Petch: So, there’s the voice of the film, on the one hand, and then, on the other, there’s the look of the film, which is just utterly gorgeous. I know that there’s a sort of house style at Cartoon Saloon, but it’s been slightly altered here, so how did you decide on the look of the film, both in reality and also the story-within-a-story which is… The best way I can describe it is paper-puppetry, but I can’t remember exactly what the term is?

Nora Twomey: It’s actually a digital technique that we used for those, but we wanted the story-within-a-story to very much mimic the look of cut-out animation. We did a lot of research with cut-out animation and we shot a lot of footage with practical light and practical tape and all that, and then that involved the look of those sections. But in terms of the real world, where Parvana lives her everyday life, it departs somewhat from our usual style, from Song of the Sea and Kells. The reason for that was because, again, given the subject matter, I wanted there to be a real sense of vulnerability and humanity about the whole thing. I felt that if we were able to infuse the animation with very subtle characteristics, that could bring the characters closer to us as human beings. So, we always wanted it to be as beautiful as possible, and that would, in a way, sugar the pill, because we do have a very serious subject matter. But then by making the frames as beautiful as we could, we could make our audience feel like they couldn’t pull away.

Callum Petch: I also noticed the interplay of colours and the shading. The way that they brought both a warmth and a coldness at the same time, that the world feels real but you never lose sight of the risk and the harshness of everyday life whenever Parvana steps out of the house.

Nora Twomey: Yeah, absolutely. We worked from a colour script, so you have an evolution of the colour design throughout the film and how it becomes more intense as we reach the climax of the film. All of these were very deliberate decisions. We worked with a wonderful Canadian studio called Guru Studio that helped us composite. So, they helped us figure out all the technical issues with that second style, that cut-out style, and they also helped us to integrate our characters into the backgrounds in lush ways, because… It’s not a big budget film, but it had a big heart in terms of all of the people who were involved in it. They’d work through the day, and then go home at night and try to problem solve something that we could put into effect the next day across the different co-producing studios.

Callum Petch: I’m gonna try and tiptoe around this slightly because, of course, the film’s not out yet and people should go see it. But I noticed that the ending of the film seems to depart slightly away from where the book the ends, without losing the essential core heart of it. How hard was it to…

Nora Twomey: …to find the exact sentiment over the end of the film? Yeah, it was quite difficult. Angelina Jolie actually helped quite a bit there, cos her broader view of the political situation in Afghanistan and the ongoing struggles of the people based there, not just in Afghanistan but also in other areas of conflict around the world, made us try to have as nuanced an ending as we possibly could. But we wanted to make sure that we represent hope, because we weren’t interested in making a really nihilistic kind of film. We wanted to express something that… Children are the ultimate expression of hope, y’know? So, to… I’m finding it hard myself to tiptoe around… [laughs] When I read Deborah’s book, I knew that there were three other books in the series, but I didn’t want to read further because, whatever the book ended with, I wanted to feel that sensation. Then I’d try and work with the screenwriter, Anita Doran [Ellis is also credited as a co-screenwriter], to respect that sensation I had with reading the end of Deborah’s book. So, it’s a different telling, but films and novels are completely different mediums anyway, so… It was difficult for sure.

Callum Petch: Yeah, because with an adaptation you always need to change something in a way otherwise it’s kind of a sense of, “why not just go back and read that?”

Nora Twomey: Yeah, absolutely.

Callum Petch: So, what’s next for you and Cartoon Saloon?

Nora Twomey: Well, first we’re publicising the film and trying to get as many people as possible to see it! Thomas [Moore, co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, co-director of The Secret of Kells, and director of Song of the Sea] is directing a new film called Wolfwalkers. It’s a very Irish mythological film, set in the 1600s about the last wolves in Ireland, with two young girls at the heart of the story. It’s just in storyboards now and I’m getting to see that. I’m in the same room as Tomm every day so I’m getting to see what he’s doing there, which is quite gorgeous. And we have other films in development, including one called My Father’s Dragon that’s in development with a US company, albeit in the early stages.

The Breadwinner will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland by Studio Canal on May 25th.

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