Director Nora Twomey discusses the making of Cartoon Saloon’s powerful and beautifully animated feature The Breadwinner.
In the past few decades, animation fans have been lucky to experience several award-winning animated features that tell poignant stories about people going through harrowing times and political turmoil in their countries. This year, director Nora Twomey’s acclaimed feature The Breadwinner joins classics such as Grave of the Fireflies, Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir in telling an animated story that resonates far beyond the confines of the movie theater.
Based on the award-winning book by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner centers on a resilient 11-year-old girl named Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), who is growing up under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. After her father is wrongfully arrested, she disguises herself as a boy to help buy food for her family and to survive under the wartime conditions.
The film is directed with a delicate touch by Nora Twomey, one of the co-founders of Ireland’s acclaimed studio Cartoon Saloon, who also co-directed the Oscar-nominated 2009 feature The Secret of Kells with Thom Moore. As she tells us during a recent phone interview, the beginnings of the project go back more than four years ago, when producers Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen of Aircraft Pictures brought the book to Cartoon Saloon and asked if they’d be interested in developing it as an animated movie. “I read the book in one sitting,” says Twomey, “I was captivated by the character of Parvana. She is so real, and is both flawed and very strong. I knew we could latch on to her and tell her story for the big screen.”
Twomey and the film’s screenwriter Anita Doron (The Lesser Blessed) worked with many Afghan cultural and historic consultants to keep the story’s authenticity and socio-political resonance. “The book was published in 2000, and many things have happened since then, such as 9/11, the formation of ISIS, etc. And for us, the big challenge was making a film that respected all the gray areas,” says the Irish-born director. “We tried hard to acknowledge the political complexity of the situation and to respect that history of that country before the events that we’re portraying in the movie.”
She also points out some of the universal dilemmas that Parvana deals with in the movie. “The simplicity of a girl’s love for her father, the need for approval from her parents, her complex relationship with her annoying older sister, and the necessity to fill your body with food every day—these were all very interesting challenges,” says Twomey. “We were fortunate to have a brilliant team of 300-plus cast and crew that worked on the movie and we mined their talent to put their creative vision on the screen.”
A Star’s Involvement
To help produce the project, Aircraft Pictures and Cartoon Saloon joined forces with Luxembourg’s Melusine Productions (Song of the Sea, Ernest & Celestine), Toronto-based Guru Studios (PAW Patrol, True and the Rainbow Kingdom) and U.S. distributor GKIDS. “There were certainly differences in the way we approached the animation to depict the characters’ experiences in the real world,” says Twomey. “We wanted to get a sense of realism and subtlety and to respect the cultural differences. We also pushed our cast as much as we could to really inhabit the characters. Many of our cast members were either born in Afghanistan or had parents who grew up in the country, so they were bringing their own childhoods and experiences to the parts they played and they spread the knowledge around.”
Of course, Angelina Jolie’s involvement in the project as producer added a bigger spotlight on the movie. The first time that Twomey met the amazing actress in person, she pretended that she just happened to be in town on business, but in fact the director had flown out to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of meeting Jolie face to face.
“She is such an extraordinary woman and is extremely knowledgeable about the situation in that part of the world,” says Twomey. “She has spent over a decade promoting education and equal rights for young women in Afghanistan and understands the complexity of the situation and history of that country. On a personal level, she appreciated the subtlety and sensibility of the story we were telling. She watched every stage of the project as we progressed, and she even recorded a heartfelt message for everyone when we had a Christmas party for the cast and crew, and everyone felt very appreciated. She has the ability to shine a light on the issues facing children and bringing more visibility to an indie film, so her involvement was so valuable.”
The director, who had worked with the animation team in Melusine in the past, says she shared as much information about each scene as possible as they went into production. “It was crucial for everyone to understand why every scene exists and what kind of crescendos we were bringing to the film. This was our third co-production at Cartoon Saloon, and we really value our co-production partners. For a movie of this scale, we had to make sure we had enough production managers, as the flow of communication is very important.”
The Cartoon Saloon team used Shotgun software to go over the scenes with animators at the different studios in real-time. “My assistant director Stuart Shankly, who is an incredible artist and shares my sensibility, helped immensely as he ensured a consistency between all the studios,” she notes.
The production used TVPaint for the animation and Photoshop to incorporate the real-world backgrounds. For the simpler animated segments that represent the fables and stories of the narrative, the team used Moho to rig the characters and Nuke to composite them. “Things have changed so much since we made Secret of Kells,” says Twomey. “Back then, all the scenes were done on paper, and they were literally shipped around the world. I think the hands-on nature of animation is incredible. I love every stage of the process.”
Promoting Empathy Beyond Borders
Beyond raising awareness of the plight of young women in Afghanistan, one of the most important goals for Twomey and her team was to keep the audience entertained. “For a story like this to work, you have to make sure the audience is going on a rollercoaster adventure,” she offers. “Subject matter aside, the film had to be structured in a way that you love the characters and you don’t want to see it end. You have to be able to empathize with all the characters, good or bad. I think it’s so important to be less black and white in terms of how we view the world; bring more nuance and understanding towards everyone, especially in this day and age with all the craziness around us.”
Paul Young, Cartoon Saloon co-founder/CEO and one of the film’s producers, says he loved it when at the premiere of the movie in Toronto, a young Afghan girl stood up and said that, like Parvana, she dressed as a boy to make money for her family and she called herself Genghis Khan! He says he was also quite moved when another young girl asked, “What can we do to help?’ after the screening. “She had really enjoyed the movie and was entertained, but the film had left her with more than just the story to think about,” Young recalls. “She was already thinking about other children like her on the other side of the world living a much more difficult life than her own. Angelina Jolie’s answer was great: That being brave and standing up and asking that question was already going to help.”
GKIDS releases The Breadwinner in theaters on November 17, 2017. The movie also plays at the Animation Is Film Festival on Friday October 21st.