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Interview with Eva Cvijanović (“Hedgehog’s Home”)

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A graduate of Concordia University, director/animator Eva Cvijanović’s independent film work includes 2010’s Once Upon a Many Time and 2013’s Seasick. Her work with the National Film Board of Canada began with her participation in the seventh edition of the Hothouse apprenticeship scheme, for which she made The Kiss (2011). Since then she has created the micro-short Survival of the Fittest (originally produced in 2014 and released this year as part of the NFB’s Naked Island series) with her most ambitious film project to date being the stop-motion adaptation of Branko Ćopić’s children’s book Hedgehog’s Home, which will see its premiere this week at the prestigious Berlinale festival.

In a lush and lively forest lives a hedgehog, respected and envied by the other animals. However, his unwavering devotion to his home annoys and mystifies a quartet of insatiable beasts: a cunning fox, an angry wolf, a gluttonous bear and a muddy boar. When they set off to Hedgehog’s home to see just what’s so special about it, what they find amazes them―and sparks a prickly standoff.

Produced by Jelena Popović of the NFB and Vanja Andrijević of Bonobostudio, the film interweaves Eva’s distinct directorial approach with exquisite animation by Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, set to a compelling score by Croatian musician Darko Rundek.

With Eva’s films often emphasizing character and environments, the lush, needle-felted world of Hedgehog’s Home and its attention to detail in terms of the subtlety and nuance of the character performance has proved a perfect fit for this emerging director’s style.

Can you talk a bit about your background and eventual involvement with the NFB?

I was born in Sarajevo, which at the time was Yugoslavia. I’m of mixed background, my mom is Croatian, my dad is Bosnian and during the Balkan war we were refugees in Croatia, then we moved to Canada in 1996. My dad used to be a film critic and he knew about the NFB so we moved to the French part of Canada – although none of us spoke any French. Then after a few years we were in Quebec City, which is the capital of the province, and after high school I decided I needed to be in a bigger city so I moved to Montreal where I studied animation. Eventually I ended up in the Hothouse program that the NFB puts up, where every year they produce a one-minute film with emerging artists or filmmakers. That’s where I met Jelena (Popović, producer) and Michael (Fukushima, exec producer) and ever since then I’ve had a relationship with the National Film Board. Then a few years ago Jelena and I talked about this childhood story that everyone in the Balkans knows – that was the beginning of Hedgehog’s Home.

How did you initially come to hear about Hothouse as a scheme?

Oh, everyone knew about it, Michael even came to our class. The headquarters of the NFB are in Montreal and Concordia is quite tightly connected to the NFB, we have a lot of artists that come in and talk, and animators, so we all knew about it.

Did you learn quite a lot from being involved?

Yeah, it’s a very short experience, it’s very intense, but you learn a lot. I think most of it is teamwork – as a student you tend to do everything yourself, where this had many people involved so you learned how to make films within that structure.

Was your film Seasick also produced with the NFB or did they just help fund it?

They have this thing called the Filmmaker Assistance Program where they help you mostly with post-production and all the stuff that’s quite expensive. So that was was a huge help, and it pushed me to actually finish the film. Y’know, when you get the grant you’re like Alright, I guess I have to do this now!

And where did that film come from initially?

Seasick was just a series of sketches I did on a train once, it’s a bit of a sea-nostalgia movie. Of course it was me in November in Canada thinking about the sea in Croatia, and the sketches were a bit like a storyboard so I thought OK I could just try and make a little film with this.

Hedgehog’s Home, being animated in stop-motion, is quite different from your preceding films – had you worked much in stop-motion beforehand?

Well I had tried it in school. We had a really great professor who now runs the Stop Motion Film Festival in Montreal, Erik Goulet, so that’s when I tried it but I hadn’t touched it since. The reason I chose stop-motion for this story is that it’s a pre-existing story and the illustrations for it are really gorgeous, very iconic. I wanted to force myself to not copy them, in a way. By doing it in stop motion that was already a step away from them, and also it was really something I enjoy doing. I’m a bit heavy-handed and I feel to be a good stop motion animator you really need to be into the precision, and you need to be a bit obsessive about it, so we chose to work with two really great animators, Thomas Johnson and his wife Ivana Bošnjak, who live in Croatia now.

You did do some of the animation as well, didn’t you?

I was there every second of the shoot and I made the puppets, but I did very little animation. I was kind of guiding the performances and I did some cleanup in the end, I did more like computer-based things and I let them do all the hands-on animation stuff.

One thing that definitely does shine through, and it sort of goes back to what you were saying about embracing more intimate little details, there’s a very strong grasp of nuanced character animation. Is that something that has to be considered when you’re constructing the puppet itself, to enable that kind of performance?

Definitely. I was consulting Ivana and Thomas through every step of making the puppets and I made sure that all the facial expressions we were thinking about could be animated. I think one thing that really helped of course is that they’re really great animators, they were very patient with me and pushed the puppets out of this cartooney zone and into something a bit more naturalistic. Also I think working with needle-felted wool, the fact that the face is wool and that we could animate the wool with a needle on top of the wire armature that’s underneath, a lot of the little expressions, the details and subtlety was actually felting.

The other thing that the felt really sells is how it reads as other materials when in motion, fluid materials and very sensate sequences like when they’re eating. Was that tricky to pull off?

Yeah, it was a fun challenge actually, Tim Allen was a consultant on the film so we were asking him what we should do for the liquids and things like that. Tim has a wonderful work ethic and he’s got a lot of neat tricks up his sleeve.
I kept having this idea of like Vaseline and wool (laughs) and at first the animators were a bit skeptical about it but I was like “Let’s try it, it takes a second”. So we drowned this red wool in Vaseline and added a bit of actual wine for colouring and it turned out great, it was kind of this paste that was made with that. A lot of animation is trial and error and trying to find materials that translate well on camera, those were the fun challenges, I think.

I did see on your Vimeo that for older projects, like 2D work, you’d used reference footage for facial expressions and things like that, is that something you still do?

Yeah, I do use reference footage and also in the past few years I’ve learned very basic 3D animation and for 2D I like using 3D references, which we also did for the stop-motion project; I build a lot of the sets in 3D to make sure that they make sense before we actually went to build them in real life. So yeah, I think it helps a lot and it saves you time in the end. I never really do rotoscoping all the way, I prefer to just use references for keyframes if I’m having trouble and work like that.

Hedgehog’s Home (NFB/Bonobostudio)

Going into the story itself, as it plays out in the film the relationship between the fox and the hedgehog is quite interesting, it’s quite brief but it seems very charged. Was that something from the original book or did it come through while making the film?

The writer who wrote the original book is a very well-known writer for mostly children but there was always more to his stories than just the kids’ side of things. When I read the book as a grownup I realized Oh there’s all this kind of ambiguity between the fox and the hedgehog – does she want to eat him? Does she want to be friends? There are a lot of grownups that push it toward more of a seduction thing, and I wanted to suggest all these things but not really push for any specific direction. I think the ambiguity is very interesting, once that’s gone then you kind of lose interest, so I think we wanted to leave it at that.

You mentioned you wanted to distance the film a little bit from the original style of the book, but were there any specific influences on the overall style and feel of the film?

I just wanted to go a bit more into the real animal world. In the book the characters are dressed in clothes, the fox has a dress and the hedgehog has these cool little shoes and Michael Jackson socks (we kept the hat because it’s in the poem and it makes him into this gentleman kind of character).
The choice of wool was that we wanted a bit of folklore, which is also in the original illustrations, we wanted this feeling of warmth and this slight folklore feel that goes with these types of old tales. Our references were just images of animals and the forest, we just kind of looked for ways to translate the wool and to use the wool in as many ways as we could. So there are a lot of these – I could say Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Wind in the Willows, all these animated stop-motion films that use animals, but really all of them, the references are the animal world, right? So I think I just tried to go as deep into my head as I could and then come up with something.

Was the film produced originally in English or French?

What we shot to was actually Croatian, but we had recorded the Croatian actor in English and Croatian, because the translation was already done before we started shooting. We decided to base ourselves mostly on the original, because we tried to follow the same rhythm with the English but sometimes it’s impossible, translations are quite tricky and the poem has a very specific rhythm. So yeah, the original was Serbo-Croatian and then English and then French came last.

Hedgehog’s Home (NFB/Bonobostudio)

It took me a while to place Kenneth Welsh as the narrator until the credits but I thought he did a very good job with all the characters. Were you familiar with his work?

Well I knew him for his work in Twin Peaks, I don’t know that much of his other work but that has my reference. He’s a Canadian actor so that was part of the choice and also he was recommended by my husband, who knows his son. Once I heard his voice I thought it would be perfect for the film, it has this slight darkness to it. I know he often plays a lot of bad guys and I like that about him, I like the idea of this guy who almost has like a Dennis Hopper vibe, telling a children’s story. We were really happy with the result!

One of the nice juxtapositions I like that I guess affects the cultural identity of the film, maybe, is there’s this almost spaghetti western score that kind of adds this Americana into the mix as well. Was that something you always had in mind for the film?

Yes! The hedgehog was this lone cowboy character for me, and that’s one thing I added and the musician who made the music, he’s actually quite a famous Croatian rock star, he had a great band in the 80s and he’s still active, he lives between Paris and Croatia, his name is Darko Rundek. He’s got a great storytelling sensibility in all of his music so we wanted him for those reasons. Of course, music-wise Ennio Morricone was a huge inspiration and that’s what I really, really pushed for.

Hedgehog’s Home premieres at the 67th Berlinale on Tuesday February 14th as part of the Generation Kplus competition.

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