There be dragons in Nora’s new animated film

Cork film-maker Nora Twomey tells CARA O'DOHERTY about her latest work, which embraces a child-like wonder and enters a magical world of dragons and adventures
There be dragons in Nora’s new animated film

Nora Twoney with Angelina Jolie at the premiere of The Breadwinner

NORA Twomey is one of the three owners of Cartoon Saloon, one of the most respected animation studios in the world. Talking to the Cork woman, you don’t get the sense she is a two-time Oscar nominee.

Her first nomination was for co-direction of The Secret of Kells in 2009. The second for directing The Breadwinner in 2017. Unlike many other directors, Twomey is reserved, her answers meditative.

Like her partners in animation, Tomm Moore and Paul Young, the Midleton woman holds creativity at the centre of their universe; the awards and plaudits are a bonus.

“I wanted to explore things with a childlike imagination,” she says of her latest film, My Father’s Dragon, a whimsical adventure that follows a young boy Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), as he befriends a friendly dragon, Boris (Gaten Matarazzo). The film is based on a 1948 novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, and Twomey says it first came to her attention in 2012.

                        A scene from My Father’s Dragon, directed by Nora Twomey
A scene from My Father’s Dragon, directed by Nora Twomey

“I met with a producer, Julie Lynn, who read the book as a child and then read it to her children. It was her husband’s favourite book. Julie was keen to see it made into a film. I read it and loved it immediately. The illustration style is beautiful; it has a gorgeous sense of pattern and character.”

Twomey says although the story is a fantastical adventure, it has many layers.

“The characters visit an island of tangerines, and I knew from my grandmother that oranges were rarities. In the 1940s, they were put in Christmas stockings. I got the sense of the preciousness of things that we no longer see as precious. Elmer’s mum gets angry when he gives an alley cat a drink of milk. Giving a saucer of milk to a cat was a big deal because they couldn’t afford it.”

“On the surface, it’s a fantastic adventure and a tale of friendship, but underneath there are themes of fear and control; those are the layers you look for as a filmmaker.”

Cartoon Saloon made The Breadwinner and Wolfwalkers before My Father’s Dragon, but Twomey was tipping away in the background.

“Writers and directors often have several projects at various stages simultaneously. As one of the company owners of Cartoon Saloon, I have several projects from a production perspective in my mind at the same time, so there’s space for everything. The Breadwinner had a very sensitive story so having My Father’s Dragon to go to with its whimsy was a fun escape from the more serious subject matter of The Breadwinner.”

The studio’s Irish-themed films are rooted in Irish mythology, which is reflected in the animation style. Similarly, The Breadwinner, set in Afghanistan, is animated with a rich sense of Afghan culture. So, how does a studio that leans heavily into the culture it portrays then set about designing a concept for an imaginary land of dragons?

                        Nora Twomey with The Breadwinner producer Anthony Leo at the 2018 Oscars
Nora Twomey with The Breadwinner producer Anthony Leo at the 2018 Oscars

“It has a different type of mythology. It has children’s imaginations as its very root. I went to Ruth Stiles Gannett’s home a few years ago to speak with her about what it was about Elmer she felt generations of children were responding to. She had received hundreds of letters from children through the years. They all responded to the fact Elmer was just a normal child. He was not a superhero and didn’t have magic. He was just a kid trying to make his way in the world in whatever way he could.

“Rather than looking at a specific place and time in history, I asked my own two boys to draw from the book. We asked everyone involved in those early stages to talk to the children in our lives get their perspective and remember what it was like to be a child and have no restrictions placed on your imagination. What was the culture of this film? It was a child’s eyes and the child’s imagination.”

The film has a fantastic voice cast, but one stands out, the legendary Rita Moreno.

“We had an amazing casting director, Amy Lippens, who brought this cast together in ways I would never have broached. I would have felt silly asking them, but Amy has a terrific imagination. Rita came with a tremendous amount of energy and playfulness. She brought humour to Mrs McLaren, a stoic closed-off character. The animators were then able to use her energy for the physical performance of the character.”

Twomey says it is vital that the animators have quality voice performances to base their work on.

“I’m always aware that if I go to an animator and ask them to spend a week animating four seconds of performance, it better be a voice performance where the actors believe what they’re doing and bring emotional substance.

“Many, many animators work together to bring just one character to life. We have a fantastic team, so it is only right that they have good material to work on.

The company has grown from its days with just Twomey, Moore, and Young dreaming of bigger things. They now have a dedicated team supporting the studio’s everyday operations, but Twomey says support and respect are at the heart of Cartoon Saloon.

“We have a long history of working together and creating a culture of respect.

“It’s the most important thing, especially coming out of the pandemic where respect, encouragement, and minding each other were so important”.

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