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Interview: Aardman’s Peter Lord on ‘The Pirates!’

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After five years of arduous slog, Aardman’s latest feature film (and first long-form stop-motion endeavour in seven years) is soon to hit UK cinemas. ‘The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists’ has been the studio’s most ambitious project to date, with a crew of five-hundred plus headed up by director Peter Lord. Alongside David Sproxton, Lord co-founded Aardman Animations forty years ago as a means to develop their own animated projects (later joined at the helm by Nick Park). In the years since, the company has grown to become the most significant and valuable contributor to the UK animation industry, with its innumerable characters, properties and short films all staples of pop culture and scarcely warranting introduction.

‘The Pirates!’ tells the story of the vainglorious Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his endeavours to win the coveted Pirate Of The Year award. With its long-awaited UK release imminent, Skwigly caught up with Peter Lord at Aardman’s central Bristol studio to chat about the spectacular feat of adapting Gideon Defoe’s cult novels into a big-screen extravaganza.

Peter Lord and the intricately designed pirate ship, a hand-crafted 770lb vessel o’beauty

Aardman’s Gas Ferry Road studio is not, in itself, an intimidating structure – in fact, the interior architecture of its grand reception area seems purposefully constructed to put visitors and newcomers at ease, with its characterful adornments and comfy furnishings on which I sit waiting to chat with the studio’s very own pirate captain Peter Lord finding me quite relaxed. That is, until I fully take in the major addition to the décor of the lobby since my last visit – at fourteen foot long and fifteen foot high, the grand spectacle of the impeccably detailed pirate ship sets my left leg a-jiggling in unexpected nervousness. I am, of course, looking at the vessel on which a great deal of the action of Aardman’s latest film takes place. Designed by Norman Garwood, it’s less the structure itself that sees me somewhat overwhelmed than the full enormity of what it stands for. It encapsulates pretty much everything Aardman and Peter Lord have achieved (by all accounts thus far) with “The Pirates!”, Lord’s first directed feature since 2000’s “Chicken Run”; majestically detailed, impeccably constructed and prevailingly witty (it is essentially two entirely different nautical constructions, shambolically fused together and adorned with a transgendered figurehead).

It is with some relief, then, that I am led away from this behemoth to the studio’s cafeteria, its distinctly less-daunting artwork being a wall of studio employees’ faces charmingly immortalised in thumbprint doodles. It is there I’m greeted amiably by Mr. Lord himself, with a justifiable mix of extreme satisfaction and exhaustion, the kind that brings with it an effervescent energy one has after pulling an all-nighter. Except instead of one night, Lord and his giant crew have been hard at work for half a decade.

As we walk up to his office – a small, inviting room sharing the same fundamental sense of interior design as my own apartment (ie. toys covering every surface), he remarks that this period of time between the end of a major project and its public release strikes him as mildly uneasy.

PETER: One half of me feels this obligation to get on with something else, whereas the other half says, “Bloody hell, you’ve worked for five years, and the last three have been very, very intense, hard work –  you deserve a nice long holiday!” But when it comes to it I have this strange feeling I ought to be getting on with something else. So I guess I’m not very good at holidays, is the truth of the matter.

Do you consider, in some ways, the early stages of a new project to be a holiday of sorts from the project that came before?

Yes – I mean, a feature film is not like a holiday, but it’s like a new life or an adventure. In a sense you gradually enter a different world, and after a while you’re absolutely immersed in it. The world of the movie itself gets to be a whole eco-system, all the different roles and relationships with people on the film. It’s a five-year adventure to achieve something, y’know – which is great! But it does tend to wipe out everything else, you can’t remember your life before. I mean, here we are, here at the Gas Ferry Road studio in central Bristol, but the film was made at the studio in north Bristol at Aztec West. When I was there, I would come to this building maybe twice a year. So all the people that I know here, the relationships that I have here, the responsibilities I have here, all got totally wiped out being up at Aztec West.

You adapted the story for ‘Pirates!’ from a book by Gideon Defoe, that’s not really common practice for Aardman…

No it’s not, you’re right. I personally don’t have any instinct to adapt a book into a film – there are books I love and wouldn’t dream of turning into a film. The idea flashes across my mind and I think “Ooh, no” (shudders) “No thank you”. Then there are books that could be adapted with a lot of effort. The American studios tend to do this, when you think that ‘Shrek’ was a thirty-page kids’ storybook, or “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” was a major picture book with not many words in it. There are many, many examples where they take things which are very slight and then completely transform them. ‘The Lorax’ apparently is from a picture book with very few words, with very few pages, but adapting those things is kind of massive because you have to flesh them out so much, which doesn’t interest me at all. Having said all that, I have done it with ‘The Pirates!’ and maybe, if I’m honest, one detail of that is because the ‘Pirates’ books have a very enthusiastic cult following, but they’re not very well known so I didn’t feel an obligation to an existing set of readers. Adapting, as such, very seldom occurs to us, it doesn’t happen very often, y’know? But ‘Pirates’ was, to me, so dramatically attractive, it made a huge impact on me, I picked it up, read it, thought “By God, this is brilliant!” Not for a very long time had I read anything that made me laugh out loud so much, so often. There’s a copy of it, somewhere, but God knows where (laughs) somewhere in the studio there’s my first copy, where I’d just underlined funny bits – and the book is covered in underlines, there are so many good ideas in it. In the case of ‘The Pirates!’ it was the world I wanted to adapt, rather than the story, I wanted to try and capture that extraordinary sense of humour that Gideon has.

As the books are a growing series, do you have any plans to carry on adapting subsequent stories?

Well, whether there’s a sequel or not is, while not completely outside of our control, defined by the worldwide box office success; If it’s enough of a success, then we will be ready to do a sequel, because I like the idea very much. And the idea we’re working on for the sequel is not one of his other books, it’s an original thing that Gideon came up with. He really is a very clever guy.

So the relationship between Defoe and the studio was consistently strong throughout production?

Yes, absolutely, because he wrote the screenplay, and for a while there was a period when four or five of us were doing the development, with that group we effectively wrote a new story. I think really almost everything is changed from the book, and Gideon was absolutely part of that. He’s been on it the whole way through, like me, so that’s been great, it’s been very, very involved. In animated features you keep writing for various reasons but he kept going for a long time, and initially some of those rewrites are structural – introducing new characters, changing people’s motives and stuff, big changes to start with. Then, in my experience, the next thing you find is you’ve written far too much, so you have to trim it down to make it play within ninety minutes. There’s a great tendency to over-elaborate things in script form. Finally, Gideon ends up doing line-by-line adjustments and tweaks to make it perfect, before going into the recording studio.

The quality, I think, that’s really bound all the Aardman features together – and the shorts – something that I think is shared with studios like Pixar, is a real consistent charm. Like every character – the heroes and villains alike – are all sort of inherently likable; the Salma Hayek character or the Jeremy Piven character, you’re rooting for them as much as Hugh Grant’s, as far as the sense of personality you get. Is there any element, or characters or scenarios within the film that you feel a particular affinity with, or fondness for?

I do think that liking the characters – for myself and for Gideon – is extremely important, there’s something in everyone that you should like. Although I do like all the characters, care for them and try to present them with some sort of sympathy, I think probably the Pirate Captain I feel very close to, of course.

Sony/Aardman

The other one I rather like is Charles Darwin, because he’s so hapless, he has such a hard time in the story, he’s only very briefly ahead of the game, otherwise he’s always on the back foot, tagging along behind the Pirate Captain, who’s so much more stupid than he is. I think that’s what I find amusing, the guy who’s very clever, kind of privileged, posh, ends up being wrongfooted and fooled and made to look like an idiot by this guy who’s actually far, far less intelligent than he is. I think that situation does charm me, and I love it whenever they’re on screen together. I did all the way through, and their relationship goes through several passages – initially the Captain is such a fool that he completely loves Darwin at first, and thinks what a splendid fellow he is, because the Captain is beguiled by a new face, so he falls for Darwin completely. Then when Darwin thinks he’s getting what he wants, the Captain sort of cools a little bit, because he now feels very superior to Darwin, wiser, a man of the world. He thinks that pirates are way better than scientists – which, of course, they fundamentally are – and so he feels very superior, and that’s a very funny situation.

Was the dynamic between the characters informed much by the cast performances themselves, or did they stick rigidly to the script as written?

In animation I have to say it’s fairly rigid. The exception is probably Jeremy Piven as Black Bellamy. We only recorded him in one session – it’s a relatively small part – and he really got into it in the most amusing fashion, he was kind of improvising more than the others. We didn’t have Hugh Grant with us at the time, and so when we went to LA we took with us a guy from Britain, Ben Whitehead, who attended every recording session. He was the read-in artist, the unsung hero of the film, he helped me so much in raising the emotional temperature, or the tempo, or slowing it down if I wanted. So Ben came with us to record with Jeremy Piven, and Jeremy really kind of needled him – I mean, jokingly, he really got into mocking and teasing Ben in the room, comically. It was great! He really just got the part, got the idea and went with it, and the detail of how he’d phrase a lot of lines would be his own improv.

At a recent talk of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, you mentioned that Aardman has pitched a pirates-themed concept a few years back, which wasn’t really considered because the studio didn’t feel it was something people would want to go and see…

Yes that was funny, the studio’s response – and I literally can’t remember which studio it was, but the reaction was “Haha, no, that’s not gonna work is it?” Basically their take was that you couldn’t make a family movie about murdering brigands; An interesting take and, actually, pretty stupid at the time – as proved by the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films. Now it’s considered virtually a truism, wherever I go people say “Oh yes, kids love pirates, don’t they?” Which they kind of always do, it is a perennial favourite. There is a slight tendency in the American business to be very, very straight-faced and politically correct, so you daren’t present anything remotely challenging to children. I think the film is quite audacious compared to other films, the fact that we have a bit of comic murder in it, comic grog-drinking, drunkenness, general badness. If you listened to the moral majority in America, you’d end up with the most bland films imaginable that had nothing provocative or difficult in them at all. Happily, we’re not in that category.

Do you think it may be that the medium of animation affords you more free rein with that kind of subject matter?

In our case it’s quite specific, actually, because I’ve seen the same thing from Dreamworks and Sony, that if they’re making a mainstream family film they are really quite shy about offending…mothers, particularly; if there’s one category of filmgoer that scares them, it’s ‘moms’, the fear that they’ll disapprove of the film and not recommend it to their friends. Pixar get around it very well because the films that they want to make are very family friendly, contain positive messages with nothing to scare the horses, but with ‘Shrek” – which, God knows, is hugely successful – it’s not ‘mainstream family’, because it has adult themes.
We’ve recently made ‘Arthur Christmas’ for Sony, they considered it absolutely middle-of-the-road mainstream, so were quite keen to not have anything too challenging in the material, but with ‘The Pirates!’ they were happy to be a bit more mischievous, a bit wild. Which is good, it’s suits me very well.

I have to say, I was very enamoured of ‘Arthur Christmas’. I didn’t figure I would be it’s demographic, but it again had a real strength to it, a sort of universal warmth….

And very good writing in it, very intelligent, extremely well made…

And as a CG feature do you feel it was a step forward from ‘Flushed Away’?

Oh yes, it was, certainly. The quality of the CG, the lighting, the camerawork was amazing. Also, ‘Flushed Away’ was, by any standards, a bit of a hybrid because it started out as a stop-frame film and then, for various commercial necessities we jumped horses midstream, so ‘Arthur Christmas’ had the advantage of starting out from a much purer place, a blank canvas.

I also quite liked that, in visual terms, it didn’t scream ‘Aardman’, it carried itself on a stylistic choice that was its own thing.

I’ve always thought that, for me, Aardman has never been a design thing at all. If we have a style, our style is a style of spirit rather than anything else, not of look, not even of comedy; The comedy of ‘Arthur Christmas’ is very different to the comedy of ‘Wallace & Gromit’, and both are different to the comedy of ‘The Pirates!’, I think. That’s probably the same with Pixar as well, I think, that’s what you like with their films – very different films in every way, except you kind of know the confidence, the spirit behind them, which in their case is fantastically American and in our case is fantastically British.

I’m fascinated by the way the stop-motion processes have evolved, implementing tools like the 3D printers and the way the figures are constructed nowadays. Is it all silicone-based at this point or do you still use clay animation at all?

There’s not much plasticine – there’s some, for old times’ sake, but the puppets are largely silicone and latex. They were in “Chicken Run” too. Plasticine is a wonderful, glorious material which we love, but usually in its pure form it brings all kind of design issues: You can’t have anyone with a stripy shirt, for a start! I always thought from very early on, if there’s one thing I’d assumed about pirates wasn’t that they said “Arg”, like they came from the West Country, but that they had fancy clothes. As soon as you talked in terms of buckles and gold braid, sword belts and seaboots and stuff like that, I knew they weren’t gonna be made of plasticine, that was for sure. But of course they were all sculpted in plasticine in the first place, we go from drawing on paper to sculpting in plasticine, and then when we’re happy with that we cast them in the latex, silicone stuff.


Are there any other modern processes or digital processes that you feel are a particular boon to filmmaking?

I must say, the whole digital thing I loved on this film. I hadn’t directed for a long time so with a great team it was very liberating for me. Because I’ve got lots on my plate, my mind’s completely rammed with stuff, it’s very hard work and very full-on work, but the digital pipeline was so strong and well worked-out. For example, there are some CG characters in the backgrounds, and you could take a scene where I, as the director, would sign off on the stop-motion action in the foreground, and then six months later I’d see it again, suddenly with these CG characters populating the background. I loved it! It was amazing because they look absolutely right, they move very well and enhance the stop-motion. To put in a crowd of spectators is a right pain in the arse, because you need them but they don’t contribute to the scene, they’re like extras in a film.

Do you think that the 3D component of recent film releases such as this one will keep going for a while or is it a more ephemeral trend?

Well, there are problems with 3D films, which we all know, and there are great things about 3D films; whether it continues is out of my hands. As a director I was very happy to have had a go at it, because it seems intriguing, because it is another dimension. The funny thing is, because our films are literally three-dimensional, we always think in terms of space and depth, it’s very important to us. So filming it in 3D was – what can you say? Extending the world, I suppose. It’s down to audiences whether they think it’s worth the extra money. Because I know the film so well, when I watch it I don’t watch the action at all, because I know every frame, so I can indulge myself by looking around the set. Which look great in 3D, especially when you’re in the Captain’s cabin where, because of the sound you’re surrounded by the creaking of the timbers and the lanterns swinging from the roof. It’s a small set and full of detail, so as a viewer in 3D it is rather wonderful to just glance around it. But there isn’t so much time for that – that’s why people will have to go and watch it twice!

Aardman in general has a pretty strong reputation for nurturing new talent, are there any particular names that come to mind as far as people to look out for, people with a really strong future, either within Aardman or outside of it?

Crikey. Well, funnily enough, the writer Gideon Dafoe, he’s the guy whose career might be most transformed of all by this. When he talks about his books he’s rather dismissive of them as small, quirky things with a small, quirky audience. Now he’s written a very bloody good screenplay, which is a talent he can take anywhere else. As for the animators, I don’t like to name one because that’s invidious, but I’ll say that half of them were known to me and within the half that weren’t known to me there’s been a series of amazing revelations, how good some of these people are. We tend to be a little bit parochial at Aardman, that only our people are good enough, our ‘established’ talent. I think it was very interesting to get in different people who came from different backgrounds with different CVs. People whose work I had never seen before would come along and amaze me with their animation. Everyone steps up and it’s lovely to work with new people with a great sense of comic performance.

As far as the future, for features and projects in general, is there anything that can be talked about at this stage?

I fear not, really no. “Pirates” I’ll talk about speculatively because there’s definitely a sequel idea. I’d like to do it, a bit like adapting the book, in that I’ve not wanted to do sequels in the past. What happens, if you’re working on a film, is you get to the end and deliver what you want and you’ve told the story. That’s how I think, or how I used to think – that story’s told and it’s a great surprise when somebody says “Have you got another idea in mind?”. This happened with “Chicken Run” and it was quite a major problem – “Crikey, a new story! Where do we start?” But ‘The Pirates!’ is, in this sense more like ‘Wallace & Gromit’, because it feels like one in a series of adventures. It’s written that way, and very often you don’t need to radically change the world at the end – probably you’ll have your world, it’s threatened by some outside force, you have an adventure and you fight off that threat, that kind of thing. And then you do it again. I don’t think it’s easy, because it ain’t easy, but ‘Pirates’ was such a very amusing world to be in, for everyone I think. There was something about it, as if we had a license to be comic and silly and play around and stuff like that, which was a very nice license to have.

‘The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists’ opens in cinemas March 28th in the UK, and April 27th in the US with the alternate title ‘The Pirates! Band of Misfits’. For more information on the film visit thepirates-movie.com and Aardman’s official site at aardman.com

 

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  • Thanks Ben for such a great in-depth interview … from an animators perspective. 


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