Interview: Nora Twomey talks My Father’s Dragon
Ivan | On 08, Nov 2022
This weekend sees the return of Cartoon Saloon to our screens. The Irish animation studio, which has brought us The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers, has always excelled at exploring childhood, adulthood and imagination. That’s true even when it’s stepped away from Celtic folklore to bring us an adaptation of The Breadwinner – and now, its director Nora Twomey is taking flight to even more ambitious pastures with an adaptation of My Father’s Dragon, the children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett.
Starring Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo and scripted by Meg LeFauve, the film follows young boy Elmer (Tremblay) who is struggling to cope after a move to the city with his mother. And so he rungs away in search of Wild Island and a young dragon, Boris (Matarazzo), who waits to be rescued. Elmer’s adventures introduce him to ferocious beasts, a mysterious island and the friendship of a lifetime.
Ahead of the film’s release on Netflix on 11th November, we sat down with Nora to talk about friendship and creativity:
My Father’s Dragon in some ways feels a long way from The Breadwinner, but they have a lot in common thematically. What drew you to the project?
That’s an interesting question, because I choose projects by what really takes me takes my heart, so I don’t really look at it intellectually – I look at is there a moment in the story, or is there something about these characters that I know is going to sustain me all the way through production, because animation can take up to five years or more. You might commit to something now and it could be 10 years’ time when you’ve finally finished it. So I need to know that there’s something in there that I really want to say or that I really want to explore. And that I know that I can, you know, pull a team around who also really connected with it. It’s a very emotional thing.
When did you first hear about the book?
In 2012. Julie Lynn, one of our producers, contacted Cartoon Saloon having read the book to her children growing up, and her husband had read the book when he was a child. She had a very deep and emotional connection with the source material. And when I read the book, just on the way to that first meeting, I immediately connected with that one page where Elmer, you know, has been sneaking bowls of milk to a cat and his mum gets so angry with them. It just really struck me because I had recently become a mum. And I was thinking about the things you do, these little white lies that you tell to children, the things that you say to protect them. And kind of navigating all of that as as a mother. The complexity of all of that is something that really kind of struck me. In the meantime, I made The Breadwinner, which was a film that I really tried to imagine and see through the eyes of the protagonist and so I suppose I took a similar approach with My Father’s Dragon. I never… and this is something Ruth Gannett, the author of the book, really felt strongly about herself: she never talked down to children. She never let her readers jump ahead of the children who were the centre of the story. She always just stayed with them and stayed in that place and looked through their eyes. And so that’s what we did with Elmer and Boris for the story; we never let the audience kind of jump ahead. Or we never fronted it with a big moral tale or anything like that. We just tried to put their experience at the forefront of the entire story and let that lead us through the process.
“The island as a character we felt was the catalyst of the relationship between Elmer and his mother…”
In the adaptation process, was there a conversation about how soon the film would move from the city of Nevergreen to the island?
Yeah. So early on, our kind of early conversations were about how much there was in the relationship, the potential of the relationship between Elmer and Boris. And the island itself, you know, as an expression of Elmer’s kind of inner space – we knew that was plenty for 90 minutes. So much. So the idea of moving off that wonderful location is something that we just couldn’t do. Because it just, it just seemed like there was so much to explore in that relationship.
And the island itself as a character was something that we really, really felt was the catalyst of the relationship between Elmer and his mother. Elmer and Boris are two kids who are around 10 years old – that whole idea of your parents are no longer able to answer your questions at that point, you know, you no longer look to your parents to answer your questions. You look to, you know, your friends – if you’re lucky, you have a friendship, that makes it feel like that’s the centre of the universe, that there’s nobody who understands you like that. That friend you choose for yourself around that age can be so transformative.
It’s something that Gaten Matarazzo and Jacob Tremblay also really dug into when they gave their voice performances for Elmer and Boris. And I could tell even the friendship that formed between them, when we put them in a room together, was exactly what we were going for. I knew that I was a little bit on the outside of that, of that friendship, you know, as a director. And so, when we got into those recording sessions, I would feel like I was right in the middle of them. I felt on the inside of that. And that’s what we were really trying to go for. So it wasn’t a page-for-page adaptation, because they didn’t think that that would do justice to either the book or the film – I felt that if we just took those moments that that put the audience in the middle of that friendship, even for a fleeting second, it would be something worthwhile doing and fun to put up on the screen.
Jacob and Gaten recorded their parts in person together, is that right?
They did, yeah. As a director, usually, especially with a cast of this caliber, it’s impossible to get them into the room together, so most of our cast recorded separately. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, when we had to do pick-ups with the cast, sometimes it was from their closets – whatever was the the least echoey room in their house. For Gaten and Jacob, I met them separately and they recorded some stuff separately and it was good. But when they were together in the room, there was a whole different energy. When you put the headphones on in a recording booth, you can hear everything, like every time you swallow or move your mouth. The first thing they did was they put on their headphones together, they just started making noises and laughing at each other. This is a story about what you can hold on to and what it is that makes you feel safe in the world. Those are very powerful things and they just immediately gave a sense that they were able to go from like the silliest of fart jokes to the most emotional range and depth.
“We would literally start off by doing Irish dancing around the room…”
How odd is it to direct actors when they can only express things with their voice?
It’s odd, but I don’t know any different because I’ve never directed, you know, costume and prop actors. Actors are incredibly imaginative and they take imagination extremely seriously. So if you ask them to go somewhere in their heads, they do – they figuratively hold your hand and they’re off. And they’re incredibly trusting as well. Oftentimes, you have to create a very physical space. So yes, it’s a dark room, you have a microphone, you have a headset, and nothing else really, but we literally run around room, we get very physical with those voice performances, because you can’t treat it like a radio play – you have to imagine the characters you’re acting opposite are there with you. With Gaten and Jacob sometimes, for some of the more energetic scenes, we would literally start off by doing Irish dancing around the room to get the energy up and get that sense of fun going.
Then how much of a challenge was it to do that during the Covid-19 pandemic?
We were lucky to do most of our recording before the pandemic. Some I never actually met in person. Justin just did it in his house. For pick-ups, Yara Shahidi, for example, who plays the part of Callie, recorded a lot in her father’s closet with a very fancy microphone and an iPad – her father’s closet was what they call a dead space, where your voice is bouncing off of the walls and therefore it’s very good quality for our sound recordist. Zach Seivers, who is our supervising sound editor and Justin Davey, they did just an incredible job on the entire soundscape of the film. But also, during those really challenging times, trying to record actors in their own environment while not actually being with them. They were just so patient, just making those recordings work.
“We could all do with a friend like Boris at the moment…”
Visually, too, the contrast between the city and island is astonishing. Was the animation process also disrupted by the pandemic?
It was. We had to move out over a weekend, so some people had to fly home while they still could. I was used to seeing people’s bedrooms or living rooms or whatever for about a year and a half. As a director, I’m quite physical myself, so what I would do is I would just set my phone to record, and whatever I had in my head was quicker than doing rough animation, so I would record a physical performance myself. Our head of animation, Giovanna Ferrari, and I would discuss it with the animator. They would bring their own ideas to it but they would know, for example, when you’re trying to handle a character like Elmer who has a particular physicality about the way he puts his hands through the strap of his backpack, it’s something I wanted to have consistent across the film. So those are the kinds of things I’m communicating through like a phone recording. And then the animators would bring their own brilliance to it, they would look at each other’s work. So we always had a true line of performance or physicality. Choosing each character, whether it was Boris’s kind of way of almost apologising for his existence comes through in his physicality – those character arcs, those physical arcs, e plotted all the way through the film with our head of animation, Giovanna, and with her entire animation team. I guess the pandemic forced me to communicate more than I normally would with those phone recordings, but our animators are just incredible people and, even if they’re sitting right beside each other, they go off into worlds of their own anyway. They’re animating on paper, the screen is like paper, they work with a pen, so it’s not a wireframe thing – they’re working with a pen through the whole thing. And it takes them about a week to animate four seconds out of a performance.
What was the last thing that you watched on Netflix or another streaming platform?
That’s a great question! The last thing I was watching was The Little Prince to see how Cinemascope plays on a screen – no matter whether it’s on your phone screen or in your living room. So I was looking at The Little Prince and its stop-motion is absolutely gorgeous. It also really put my put my mind at ease that the Cinemascope looks beautiful no matter what way you look at it. And I guess that’s the thing with My Father’s Dragon – the ideal is watching it on the big screen and hearing that wonderful score and sound design. But I’m glad the film is on Netflix, because I think, having come through these couple of years, we could all do with a friend like Boris at the moment. So the reach through Netflix is something that I’m really, really happy is there.
My Father’s Dragon is available on Netflix from 11th November 2022.
Main photo: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Netflix