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Director Nora Twomey on Cartoon Saloon's new Netflix Original, My Father's Dragon
21 Nov 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Cartoon Saloon’s new Netflix Original, My Father’s Dragon
Oscar-nominated Irish director Nora Twomey took some time to speak with IFTN, ahead of the release of Cartoon Saloon’s first Netflix animated feature film, My Father’s Dragon, which is currently available to stream worldwide.

From five-time Academy Award®-nominated Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers), My Father’s Dragon is inspired by the Newbery-honoured children’s book from author Ruth Stiles Gannett. The film has an amazing voice cast including Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Adam Brody, Charlyne Yi, Maggie Lincoln, Jack Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ian McShane.

Produced by Mockingbird Pictures’ Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, and Cartoon Saloon’s Paul Young, My Father’s Dragon is written by Meg LeFauve and directed by Nora Twomey. Executive producers on the project include Meg LeFauve, John Morgan, Tomm Moore, Gerry Shirren, Ruth Coady, and Alan Moloney.

Kilkenny based Cartoon Saloon is a five-time Academy Award®, Golden Globe®, BAFTA®, and Emmy nominated animation studio founded by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey. From award-winning shorts to feature films and TV series, Cartoon Saloon has carved a special place in the international Animation industry. Based in Kilkenny, Ireland the studio has a crew of over 200 artists and technicians in production and project development.

In 2010 the studio’s first feature film, The Secret of Kells, was nominated for an Academy Award® and again in 2015 with Tomm Moore’s follow up feature, Song of the SeaSong of the Sea was also the first animated feature to win Best Picture at the Irish IFTA Academy awards. Directed by Nora Twomey, Golden Globe® and Academy Award® nominated The Breadwinner was released in November 2017 to huge critical acclaim.

The studio had its first short film Academy Award® nomination in 2019 with Late Afternoon, written and directed by Louise Bagnall, and produced by Nuria Blanco. Most recently in 2020, WolfWalkers, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart was also Golden Globe®, Academy Award® and BAFTA® nominated and the studios second feature to win Best Picture at the 2021 Irish IFTA Academy Awards along with many other awards nominations and wins.

My Father’s Dragon is currently available to stream globally on Netflix, read our interview with director Nora Twomey below.

IFTN: Firstly, how does it feel to finally have the film out and what has the reaction been so far?

Nora Twomey: “It's great, you know. It is the most amazing thing to finally see the film, having worked with over 300 people over 5 years from the initial screenplay to the final mix of the sound and having gone through trying to manage a production during the pandemic. Especially with audiences from animation aficionados to children, and seeing their responses has been amazing. I was in West Virginia at the Virginia Film Festival a couple of days ago, and two young girls just stood up in the audience after the film and said ‘Elmer and Boris are just like me and my friends! We go on adventures!’ And it was just the loveliest thing. So that kind of stuff is what I love bringing back to our crew because it's why we do it.”

IFTN: The lifespan of even a live action film, from script to screen, takes a long time to be made, but the rollout of an animated feature is significantly longer. Due to that, deciding on what project or story you're going to tell must feel like a sizable commitment. How exactly did you decide on this to be your next project?

Nora Twomey: “Yeah, well this project, in terms of deciding to make an animated feature for 'My Father's Dragon' happened back in 2012 - so, it was before the 'Breadwinner' and 'Wolfwalkers'. I had met with Julie Lynn, whose an American producer, and at the time was just finished ‘Albert Nobbs’ in Dublin. She had read the book 'My Father's Dragon' as a as a child and had then gone on to read it to her children. It was her husband's favorite book. Meg LeFauve, who's a good friend of hers, had read it as a child and had gone on to read it to her children. So, they wanted to meet with us in Cartoon Saloon because they had seen the 'Secret of Kells' and wanted to work with us.”

“I read the book on the way up to a meeting and just really loved it, both the beautiful illustrations in the book but also there's a sense in the book that there are so many layers to the story of Elmer, so on the surface it's a fantastical adventure where he meets and rescues a dragon but then there's layers underneath that. There's a particular page where Elmer tries to feed some milk to a stray cat and his mother gets really angry with him. I've been that mother that gets really angry with children, giving them flashes of something they probably as children shouldn't see, and then I've also been a child who looked up into parent's faces and realized that they weren't telling me the whole truth, they were trying to protect me from maybe some of the harsh realities of life.

“So, I thought there was a way of layering that story similarly with how it works in the book, bringing that to the screen and really leaning into those layers so that you can read it as both a fantastic adventure, or you can dig deeper. That was back in 2012, when I signed on for 'My Father's Dragon', and then it went into development, but while we were working on other projects, we would pick it up, do some work, and then put it back down again for a while.”

IFTN: I've read before that you wanted the film to be an immersive experience, taking inspiration from films that you grew up watching and things that shaped your imagination, but also things that shaped your children's imagination and some of the other production team's children’s imaginations. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how that aided your approach to how the film sort of looked stylistically?

Nora Twomey: “Yeah, when we were approaching the film, and using a source material like 'My Father's Dragon', I wanted to be respectful of Ruth's feelings and of her book. So, I went to visit her several years ago, to ask her what it was about Elmer, what was at the heart of what she was getting across to readers. We sat down at her kitchen table, and she showed me the fan-mail that she had gotten over the years, and she continues to get fan mail for her book. What Ruth herself, I think really wanted to get across was that; Elmer is not a superhero. He has not got magical powers. He is not a royal blood. He's just a normal kid who's trying to navigate his way through the world and manages to find a friend with who to do it. That was really important to her, so that became the heart of it.”

“I went for a walk with my kids, and they had a group of school friends with them. I just kind of walked behind them and listened to their conversation. They were just talking about something that happened in school, but one of them picked up this big log and started dragging it along behind them. My adult brain was kind of going, 'Oh, what are you doing that for you're going to trip everybody, just leave it where it is.' But instead, this group of friends began helping to carry this log, as they were discussing what went down at school. And then one of them said, 'watch out for that black hole over there.' And they all stepped around the black hole - this imaginary black hole. It just really blew my mind because I was thinking that we're just so keen on intellectualizing childhood experiences, and there's a child within all of us. And so that was the way that I wanted to approach this film. Rosa Ballester Cabo, our production designer, also had young children and she got them to draw from the film as well. That was really the approach that we took, we just didn't question from an adult perspective, like an intellectual perspective, we just placed a huge importance on children's imaginations and gave Elmer and Boris that freedom.”

“What really struck me was the importance that Ruth places on children's imaginations and on her own imagination. That was the way that I kind of felt was the way forward for this film, so I read my children the book and then ask them to draw from it. They did things that I hadn't thought of like they drew the Tiger's head really big because their head is the most ferocious part, they would draw like a tangle of crocodiles, because they literally get into a knot. That kind of confidence with which they drew and the unquestioning way in with which they did it as well, was really interesting to me.”

IFTN: Children don't seem to feel the need to second guess someone, they all just go with whatever is thrown out there. It's almost like improvisation sometimes…

Nora Twomey: “It's a different way of thinking, and it really struck me. When you look at the Geneva Convention for the Rights of the Child, children are not adults. They have their own perspective, from exactly where they're at and exactly at the ages that they're at, and we lose perspective of that sometimes, and we talk down to them. But their own perspectives at exactly the stages of life that they're at are extremely valid and should be taken seriously. Their imaginations need to be taken seriously. So that's the approach that we took with our film.”

IFTN: I suppose the animation is one aspect, but the voice acting, and the sound design are two major components that I felt really made it an immersive experience. How exactly do those recording sessions with actors work and how do you approach that process to inspire or evoke the emotions that you need to match the screen?

Nora Twomey: “That is a great question. Back when we did the 'Secret of Kells', I became really aware of with, Mick Lally and Brendan Gleeson, that actors really want you to help get the best performance out of them, and help the animators get that up onto the screen. So, they really are willing to trust and to go places in that dark room where you literally have no props, you have no costume, oftentimes, the actors aren't acting opposite each other, they just have me, the microphone, and the script. They have incredible imaginations and speaking again about the imagination of children, actors have that imagination with them. They are willing to go anywhere they feel the characters should go. So not just people like Jacob, who was 13 at the time, where he brought the wonderful depth to the performance of Elmer, but people like Ian McShane and Whoopi Goldberg who want to deepen their performances and help the animators get that up onto the screen.”

“For example, what we would do is, I would read opposite the actors, and help them get the energy to where it needed to be for whatever particular time we're at with this screen.  I'm a very hands-on director, so I do a lot of editing myself, I do some storyboarding, So I know intuitively, and without having to look, exactly where the camera is at a particular time in the film, what the energy is, what the character needs to be doing, and therefore can help guide the actors. And again, they're so generous with themselves that they will give as much as is needed to get those scenes across.

“Jacob and Gaten Matarazzo had their recording sessions together, they had a special energy between them. Julie, our producer, really felt that if we put them together in the room, that we would really get magic from them. The first time they got into the room together, the energy between them was fantastic. They had a genuine fondness for each other, they shared a sense of humor, so it was really easy as a director to just help guide them and let them off.”

“Basically, when you go into a recording studio, you have your microphone, you have your headphones, and if you're acting opposite somebody, you can hear them really clearly in your headphones, so they can hear each other swallowing and things. They just started to laugh at each other and they were laughing for about 10 minutes, they were both childlike enough to just have fun and laugh at each other, but they were professional enough to laugh into the microphones because they knew that I could use those genuine laughs. Our audiences are highly tuned and can tell the difference between a real life and a fake laugh. So they were professional enough to be able to guide it, even just when they were having fun.”

IFTN: For you yourself personally, you mentioned about how being a hands-on director helps you quantify where you're at when trying to aid actors, but what is involved in that? Do you go through rushes or do you go through and look at images?

I know that Jacob spoke in an interview about when he was preparing for the scene that had the Tigers with the big teeth, he was able to hone in on how scared his character should feel on the basis of knowing what they look like. I assume those are the sort of prompts that can be important to getting the feel that you need for the scene. Is that something you do as well before you go into aid them?

Nora Twomey: “Yeah in terms of working with the actors, it can be helpful. It depends though, Jacob could look at a rough drawing and know exactly what it is. Some actors are better just looking at the script with some guidance; looking at rough drawing is a skill children have, but as adults, we tend to lose it. So, unless you're working in animation or are used to looking at rough drawings, it can be more confusing than anything. We do several passes. The screenplay would have gone through multiple passes to bring it to a point where we would make a storyboard. Then the storyboards passes. I think we went through about nine different versions of animatic. The reason for that is because with animation, you have to edit it at the start of the process. You can't go animating extra footage, animation doesn't work like that. That's way too expensive so before it's animated, that's when you make your animatic. It's a rough cut of all of your storyboards, and eventually, the voice cast is added to that.”

“That's what you animate, and that's the most important part of the entire filmmaking process, because it's where you make the world fully immersive and you imagine it as well as you can, but also as roughly as you can.  So, I work very closely with my editors, Richie Cody and Darren Homestar who had worked on things like the 'Iron Giant' and 'Ratatouille' as well as 'Kung Fu Panda', he's an incredible editor. We have a long working relationship with Richie Cody who worked on 'Wolfwalkers', he’s based out in Kilkenny and is just an incredible editor. I work with them, but I don't sit in the room with them like a normal editor/director relationship, I edit myself and we pass the project between us, collaboratively. That's the most important point in the entirety of making a film. If you can't elicit an emotional response from that animatic that goes into production and the animators get, you're not going to get it from the final film - so that's the most concentrated part of filmmaking for animation.”

IFTN: The film stars Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, who plays the disgruntled island henchman, Kwan. Can you tell me about working with him and how he got involved?

Nora Twomey: We have a long relationship at Cartoon Saloon with Chris O'Dowd, he plays narrator in our preschool series, 'Puffin Rock'. He also grew up in Boyle with Paul (Young), so we know Chris very well. He has been really generous with us over the years.

“I knew with Kwan who is an interesting character, I really get Kwan because he's right, his take on what's going happening on Wild Island is correct. I imagined what his life must be like as he's living on a sinking Island, the space that he's standing on is not safe. So, I understand how he becomes quite brittle and quite angry and he really just cuts to the chase. Chris understood that and there was a depth to his performance that I was really amazed by. When he came into the room and started to voice Kwan, I literally felt like hiding from him because there's a direct force, a fear and an anger there that is just amazing.”

“He brings such depth to the character, it's something that I recognize. All of the animals on Wild Island express an element of fear and an approach to dealing with fear that Elmer has to navigate through, and Chris' in particular has a sense of maturity to it. So even though this is a children's film; a big, epic, magical adventure, there's a truth to what he's brought to Kwan.”

IFTN: Netflix is such a massive launch pad now to release a project. What was it like collaborating with them? Wolfwalkers previously did the same with Apple in 2020, which is another massive reach, how is it having been with Cartoon Saloon to now go up in this scale?

Nora Twomey: “You know, I was talking with Henry Selick recently and he said he feels that this film is going to have a reach that we're probably not used to. When Netflix came on board back in 2017/18, they were asking us to just do our best work. Being able to have that support, especially during pandemic, when working on a production, where everybody had to go and work on the sides of the kitchen table, or the corners of the kitchen table was not easy. But having the support of Netflix through that did make things easier for us. Being able to do things like our score is something I'm really proud of on this film.

“I think that the Danner brothers did a beautiful job, but they had the freedom to record the best orchestra in the world, in Abbey Road, London. Having access to those sorts of facility was just incredible. But also, this film is an emotional film, at its heart it's just about two kids in a huge world trying to navigate what's going on.  The fact that it's on Netflix, where you can choose in your own living room to watch a film like this, which is not about really muscley characters going to battle, it's a story of friendship.

“The fact that children and audiences of all ages can just make that choice without it being a necessary to have a lot of money to go to the cinema, or you might feel that the choices that you make in the cinema lobby defines you. Being able to watch a film like this, and it being able to play around the world is something that I'm struggling to get my mind around. But yeah, it's an amazing opportunity for a storyteller.”

My Father’s Dragon is available to stream globally on Netflix.

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