December 1, 2020

Interview: ‘Wolfwalkers’ Directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart Inject Beauty Into The Beasts

(This interview was conducted by our critic Steven Prusakowski and was previously published on our sister site, AwardsRadar. Be sure to check them out for film, TV, awards coverage, interviews, and reviews).

The team over at Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of KellsSong of the Sea) has quite a track record. All of their first three feature films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Now, Wolfwalkers, the final film in their Irish folklore trilogy, is hitting theaters before streaming on Apple TV+ and is already gaining plenty of Oscar buzz with good reason. The film’s lively hand-drawn animation, with its expressive lines, woodblock style, and luscious colors will certainly stick in voters’ minds.

But, there’s much more to Wolfwalkers than pretty pictures. We sat down with the film’s directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart for a lively conversation. They discussed the historic inspirations for their tale, how the animation expresses the characters’ evolution visually, and why the film is the perfect metaphor for this currently divided world. All that and more. Watch the interview below.

Steven Prusakowski: It’s been a very tense week. I don’t know if you know what’s going on in the United States, it’s probably not on the news anywhere but locally.

Ross Stewart: I think the whole world does.

Tomm Moore: No, I haven’t paid any attention to Irish news, I heard there was a vote of no confidence against our Tánaiste, our second in command in Ireland, and I didn’t even follow that scandal. I’m so busy watching who’s gonna win the American election. It’s like it took over my entire life. But, I don’t know. Are you happy with the results?

SLPI was talking about The Mask Singer. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

TM & RS: (laughter)

SLPYes, I’m very happy with the results. I’m happy that we got the results we have I’m just hoping we don’t have…

RS: …a civil war.

TM: I was really disappointed, how close it was, I couldn’t understand how it could be that close.

SLP: That night, I couldn’t go to sleep. I’m on my phone reading results trying to go to bed and my wife was like, ‘just wake up and see how it goes.’ And it was a very, very tough evening. I woke up to some good news. And now it’s already back to typical Trump America, you don’t know where we stand.

TM: It reminded me of Brexit. A lot. I couldn’t go to sleep, woke up, and was disappointed that it was worse than I thought. And, then for weeks afterward I walked around and going, ‘How could the Welsh people?’ “But why?” I just couldn’t understand. I could understand, maybe, a certain type of English upper-class person, you might have some dreams of empire, but the average working-class person just voted against their own better interests. It just really blows my mind.

SLP: The crazy thing is, it’s not your neighbor or someone across the country. It is the people sitting across the table from you, who were raised by the same parents.

TM: I have a friend in Wyoming and he feels, and he worked here for a while, and he thinks that must be what it was like in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. You know, whenever it’s really is just like the whole culture is divided, even though they’re intermixed, it’s tough. He feels like that in Wyoming. Even his parents and his neighbors, all are really Republican and really into a lot of issues that those who hadn’t been a bit more worldly traveled doesn’t see in the same way. You know? Yeah, it’s very bizarre.

SLPI never thought it would be like this and then about four or five years ago when Trump came down the golden escalator. I said, ‘this guy’s a joke.’ And then the next morning he was leading in the polls. I said, ‘he’s gonna win.’ My mind was blown. Hopefully, we can fix it.

TM: It is stuff that we’ve been talking about a lot with the movie, though, and to segue into the movie. It was stuff that seven years ago when we had the idea, we didn’t see it becoming as huge. But obviously, it’s always been here in Ireland, because of the legacy of colonialism and that sense of them and us, and the need to see the world from the point of view of someone else. So that was a big theme in the movie.

RS: The whole thing. Like when Lord Protector stands up on the stage and is going to use fear to control the population. It’s exactly Trump standing up at his rallies and spouting a load of crap.

TM: When we first talked about we were talking about the kind of religious extremism of George W. Bush. But then while we’re making the project Trump came to the forefront. I don’t recognize that at all because I don’t see him as a true believer. Like Oliver Cromwell, I think he was a true believer, he really thought he was doing God’s work, even if what he was doing was pretty evil.

RS: Trump is just a con man, selling used cars.

TM: I don’t believe he’s Christian.

SLP: There’s no Christian there… maybe by name or in title, but not it’s not in his heart. And that’s where it counts. Let me first say I really loved the film. I truly did. I went to school for animation. So I appreciate…

TM: Where did you study?

SLPRIT. Rochester Institute of Technology.

TM: Okay, cool.

SLP: My animation career never took off, unfortunately, but I get to talk to you today because of that.

TM: Maybe it gives you a more informed view of things when you’re watching animation.

SLP: Oh, definitely a real appreciation, because I also did hand-drawn animation. Just a short 30-second animation with an alien coming down to earth You think he’s going to eat the ice cream and he ends up eating the human who’s serving it. But the amount of time it takes to create this little world is incredible. And then people ask, ‘why don’t you add backgrounds or why don’t you do this?’ And I was like, ‘because I’m drawing every single line.’

RS: By hand.

SLPAnd I was shooting on film, one slide at a time, before digital.

TM: So, you know, our pain, we also started out pre-digital. You know our pain. We still got people saying like, “oh, will you make a short film for me? You might be able to make it in a weekend.”

SLP: It’s amazing. If only you could go to anybody and ask about their profession, say, ‘hey, can you, by the way, do my taxes really quick?’

RS: Do it over lunch. (laughter)

TM: You love doing taxes. (laughter)

SLP: I watched it with my daughters, they loved it. They were pretty quiet at first. I wasn’t sure what their feelings were Because it’s you know it’s not your Pixar, big, noisy feature. But then, when my youngest daughter came up to me about two-thirds of the way through, and came up and hugged me silently when there was a very emotional moment between the father and the daughter. I was like, they get it. And then, afterward they told me, ‘at first I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but I really love that film daddy.’

TM: What age are they?

SLP9 and 12.

TM: Alright, perfect age.

SLP: I knew it worked for me and I was really glad that they enjoyed it. Now, I’m going to go back and watch the rest of the trilogy with them.

RS: Excellent.

SLP: Going into the folklore. What were the origins of the story and how much did you add to it?

TM: There was a lot of folklore that is largely forgotten around wolves because, I think when they were made extinct that folklore died out. But it was folklore from this region called Wolf People of Ossory. It was stories about St. Patrick, putting a curse and the people who would not convert for him and they would become wolves for seven years. Or wolves when they fell asleep and they weren’t like werewolves where they were half man and half wolf. They were just wolves, you know?

But the wolves were sometimes a bit like selkies or something, where they would guide people home who are lost in the woods or they sometimes are stories of them being able to speak and stories of saints baptizing the wolf, and then the wolf turning into a person. So there was all these kind of mishmash of wolf stories wolf transformation stories.

The most interesting ones I thought were the ones where and the wolf would leave the human body behind and leave the body, almost like a kind of a spirit. Then that wolf would travel and anything that would happen to that wolf happened to the human body sleeping back at home. Oh, that was interesting and different and allowed us to take a different take on the whole.

RS: Yeah. But in terms of like the actual folk tale. It’s quite a small part of the whole Wolfwalkers story really. For us, in that, we came across that nugget of like goodness in the folk tale but expanded massively upon it. So, any of the fact of them living in a cave surrounded by the wolf pack and all that. That’s very much an adaptation.

TM: We kind of imagined that those people that wouldn’t convert for St. Patrick had lived on and become a tribe of healers and Druid; a kind of continuation of a pre-Christian matriarchy that I think wouldn’t have been as powerful like would have been more just like a rumor than reality.

RS: Yeah. I think one of the reasons why we latched on to the Wolf People of Ossory folk tale is we came across this idea of the hunter becoming the hunted and how that might change a person’s mind. It may make them have empathy towards the enemy towards, the people that they hate, or in this case the animals that they hate. That if you were to walk in their shoes and walk, live a life of theirs for a day, then you might understand them a bit more. And you might not see them as the enemy. So that was the parts that we kind of thought, well, maybe if a hunter becomes a wolfwalker then they would have to change their minds.

TM: We knew that in the history there was that time period where Oliver Cromwell was determined, we try to extinguish the wolves, exterminate the wolves as a way to show he had tamed the country. And we thought, well, what if a kid who comes over with their dad and your dad is one of the hunters who were being given land and reward for killing wolves. And so for them, it’s a new life under this kind of Puritan colonies in Ireland, but they meet the original inhabitants and they’re wolfwalkers. Then they are kind of in the middle between the two different worlds. It seemed like a metaphor for so much polarized encampments in society over the years over history and even today.

SLP: The film has a beautiful look to it, an expressive, unique style. How did you develop that style?

RS: Well, it was a continuation of ideas that were in The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. We always tried to show the two contrasting worlds and often we use a certain geometry, kind of flattened things out and look medieval. But for the time we were going for that woodblock prints style from that time period. There were a lot of pamphlets and stuff printed really quickly to kind of spread propaganda about how awful the Irish were. And, we kind of wanted to English encampment English time to look like woodblock prints and kind of show their inner world a little bit too – much more black and white, much more strict and kind of geometric and cage-like.

And then we thought, if the characters inhabiting that world also had that thick line, maybe the characters that inhabit the kind of wishy-washy watercolor scribbling sketchy lively world of the forest would have that same feeling to them. And that’s what we were kind of really pushing into. We tried it before, but we had never gotten this far. You know The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for example, the Ghibli film, it had like really loose rough pencil drawings and we thought that was really inspiring because we could have characters that were expressive. And the idea that you could go from being really strict and uptight in the town, and then the more you became part of the wolfwalkers’ world, the more Robyn would become scribbling and scratchy and watercolor. So, how she’s drawn changes as she changes goes through her emotional arc.

SLP: By not choosing to use CGI, as you’ve done with your previous films. How did that make the process more complex and your life more difficult?

TM: It is never a conflict. There’s no comparison because we don’t do CG so we’re not thinking what we were doing this in CG on the time, but we have used computers to help us make the process of it easier. Like you were talking earlier about your early work shooting on film. Like with Secret of Kells we drew on paper then we scanned all the drawings in order to color them. And for most of Wolfwalkers we were drawing on Sinti tablets, so we drew the characters straight into the computer. That was a lot easier to manipulate.

The hardest thing, I suppose, is when we see the world through the point of view of the wolves and that wolf-vision. That was probably the trickiest and we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. We worked with a guy called Evan McNamara, who’s is a director based in Dublin and he’s really good at kind of mixing new media and old media.

We knew we wanted to find a look to be paper and pencil and we wanted to look hand-drawn, but because we wanted to be in the wolf’s skull, looking at the world and seeing sense – black and white world because their vision is quite color blind. That sense and sounds are so important to wolves we wanted to represent that visually – kind of translate the experience of being a wolf for a visually dominant species such as homo sapiens.

We were like, kind of building a CG fly-through of the forest and then printing out every page. Then drawing over that CG on paper with pencils and charcoal and stuff. That was probably the most difficult part of the whole movie. I kinda think hand-drawn animators are kind of some kind of masochists or something. You know yourself. You kind of like go, ‘yeah that’s so hard! Oh my God! He worked so hard to do a second of automation, that’s badass!’

RS: There are advantages and disadvantages to hand-drawn and CG. Obviously, the things that we found challenging that would have been so easy in CG are those fly-throughs and those moving backgrounds. Once you have an environment built you just put a camera through there and it’s really easy, while it’s really hard for us to do that. But then in CG if we’re making a CG film and we wanted stuff to look like watercolor with all the scratchy lines, then that would be the hard process. So it’s much more easy. We’re trained in hand-drawn. It’s what we love doing. So, naturally, we would make the films in hand-drawn 2D animation.

Maybe if we had gone to college and studied CG and ended up starting a studio that just did CG, we’d be making CG films and going, ‘how do we get it to look like watercolor paintings and stuff?’ So it’s really hard to know. I think we just chose this path and the path that we’re on and you just have to roll with this.

SLP: What would you like people to take away from the film?

RS: We have quite a few themes running through it alright. And, one thing that Tomm and I are both really passionate about is the environmental message and about stopping species extinction and trying to conserve what wilderness we still have in the world. And but I think, on a personal, human level, I think it’s about working together to do that. Not seeing other humans as the enemy all the time. You know, like, especially in certain countries, including your own, there’s this polarization and it just seems to be pushing these people, these two groups of people further and further apart… while there’s a pandemic on. You know?

TM: While there’s ecocide! Yeah, we need to come together to heal the ecosystem that we rely on to exist to live. And while we’re getting lost in seeing each other as the enemy, we’re losing the fact that our home is on fire. You know, sometimes literally. So I hope people kind of see that it’s possible to see past the differences that separate us and that we can come together too, hopefully, try and save what’s left of the wilderness that’s being destroyed.

RS: Yeah. And also, Robyn is only told to hate the wolves. She doesn’t like them. She’s just been told this message that the wolves are our enemies. She’s able to learn through experience that they’re not. She is able to come to that understanding herself. So, I think, in a lot of social media people are just being told stuff these days, and they just accept it based on their own bias.

TM: It’s perceived wisdom, they need to go out and get experiential wisdom.

RS: So, stop believing all the stuff you see and hear.

TM: Stop believing all those hastily printed pamphlets by Oliver Cromwell.

SP: Now, in the form of tweets.

RS: Yeah, exactly.

SLP: Thank you so much for speaking to me today. I loved the film. I expect to hear a lot more about it throughout the year and awards season because I think people will really attach to it.

TM & RS: Thank you.

RS: Fingers crossed.

TM: Nice to chat with a former animator.

Wolfwalkers is in theaters now and will premiere exclusively on Apple TV+ in December.

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