As one of the founding members of the British animation studio Aardman Animations, Peter Lord has watched the company grow from a tiny two-man operation to a full-fledged cartoon factory that produces commercials, TV shows and movies using both computer animation and its signature stop-motion house style popularized in such shorts as Creature Comforts and The Wrong Trousers. Over a decade ago, Lord himself shepherded Aardman into feature filmmaking by co-directing the hit Great Escape homage Chicken Run, and now he's back behind the camera for their latest big-screen effort The Pirates: Band of Misfits, which stars Hugh Grant as a 19th-century Pirate Captain who doesn't let the fact that he isn't the sharpest cutlass in the drawer stop him from leading his crew across the seven seas. Lord spoke with TWoP about how Grant found his voice for the part and whether it's best for cartoon animals to be seen rather than heard.
TWoP: Some of Aardman's past films like Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit have been send-ups of specific movies and whole genres. But Pirates: Band of Misfits is really its own story. Did you find that there just wasn't a strong enough tradition of pirate movies to draw on for this one?
Peter Lord: You're right -- both those films you mentioned do have scenes where you know what they are referring to and there isn't much of that here. Pirate movies aren't a really strong genre, really. Obviously, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies [are big hits] but in the past, it's been a bit of an odd genre and there are some real turkeys out there. I tend to think of the '50s as having had the best pirate movies, but there really aren't that many of them and there's no sort of clarity about what the story or tone is at all. I was talking to an audience about this the other day and I said that the reason Chicken Run was such a great project is because when you say "The Great Escape with chickens," a lightbulb goes off. You can see why it would be funny. But that didn't apply to Pirates -- it doesn't have a pitch like that. But I'm proud that this movie doesn't refer to anything else. It stands on the foundation of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Treasure Island as an idealized version of what piracy is and then it spin off in its own directions.
TWoP: Hugh Grant sometimes gets flak for giving the same performance over and over, but he seems to have been emboldened by working in animation -- the Pirate Captain looks and sounds nothing like the typical "Hugh Grant" character.
Lord: It's a big performance. There are a few intimate scenes with the Pirate Captain and his trusty lieutenant where he sounds a bit more like Hugh Grant, but when he's swaggering about and posturing, he's acting in a big showy way that Hugh isn't asked to do very often. And I think he's marvelous at it! He found a voice that wasn't entirely familiar to him, a voice that has this enormous confidence and charming lack of self-awareness that's so key to the Pirate Captain. He's told me since that it was helpful when he got to see the puppet because he could look at the shape of the character and the way he stands, with his head held high and his great big beard sticking out, and think of how he might sound. It's funny, the Pirate Captain doesn't talk the way that Gideon Defoe [who wrote the screenplay and the books that the film is based on] really imagined, but now that he's seen the film, he said to me that when he tries to write the Pirate Captain, he can only write the Hugh Grant version.
TWoP: Some of the most crowd-pleasing characters in the film are the ones that don't talk -- most notably the Pirate Captain's pet dodo bird Polly and a chimp named Mister Bobo. In the past, you've also made films that feature talking animals, like Chicken Run. Do you have a personal preference between silent or chatty critters?
Lord: I'm pretty happy with the talking animals convention; if nothing else, that's what cartoons are about -- talking animals. But because we also have talking people in this case, there was never any question about having the animals talk as well. In general, silent characters -- whether human or animal -- are always very pleasant to work with. They give you both a freedom and a playfulness; it's like a whole new language that you're allowed to use. Usually when you're making a film, you've got people talking the whole time and suddenly you've got a character whose sole job is to look on and react silently and eloquently. As a filmmaker, I love that.
TWoP: How do you "write" for silent characters versus characters that speak?
Lord: It's an interesting question, because you really don't. Maybe once or twice Gideon would write a line for Polly or Mister Bobo, but mainly not. If it comes from anywhere, it comes from the storyboard artists, because in animation they're very influential in the story process. They can, in fact, be too influential -- they can run away with the story if you let them. But we had a great team who would have the first pass on every scene. So, for example, we'd have a big scene with all the characters and Bobo's there, but he has no lines. The storyboard artists would remember him and say 'Let's give him a reaction here' and try different things. Then the animators will build on that again to fully realize the character's reaction and hopefully get a laugh out of it.
TWoP: You can always count on seeing at least one great action set-piece in an Aardman film and Pirates offers a memorable chase sequence through a London townhouse. How did that scene come about?
Lord: That's mostly the storyboard artists and animators again. That chase was a funny one; we tried it four or five different ways. In one version, it was in a museum; in another, it was across the rooftops of London; and there was another quite elaborate and quite difficult version with the Pirate Captain on a penny-farthing bicycle. Then we decided it would be a good idea to keep it inside a house and the idea of the Captain falling into the bathtub came to us, which in turn led to the notion of turning it into a kind of bobsled chase. So really, that scene is the cumulative result of thousands of hours of creative time with the whole team refining, editing, finding the best gags and then shooting it. There's a rather good behind-the-scenes making-of documentary about that scene that will be on the DVD.
TWoP: There's also a funny running gag about one of the pirates being a woman who is disguised as a man, but the rest of the crew doesn't figure it out. It's a nice touch that her actual identity is never revealed.
Lord: How that character came up was interesting. Right at the end of the film, the Pirate Captain says to one of the other pirates, "You're not a woman disguised as a man are you? Because that happens surprisingly often at sea." And then we see that character -- who is named the Curvaceous Pirate -- step out of the frame so she can't be seen. So that joke was in there from the start, but she wasn't a character from the start. We took her from the end of the film and put her in the crew from the beginning; we essentially retrofitted her into the movie. I love that kind of absurd, naïve cheerful innocence to the movie's humor. She doesn't need a reveal... we'll save it for the sequel. [Laughs]
TWoP: Speaking of sequels, what does Aardman have in the pipeline next?
Lord: I think one of my colleagues will have a go at it next because I need a bit of a rest. Nick Park [the creator of Wallace and Gromit] has a project in the script stage; Steve Box, who co-directed Were-Rabbit also has a movie in the treatment stage; and I'm ready with a storyline for Pirates 2 if it is required. I'm hoping that we get enough box office for this one that they'll want it. We always want to have one stop-motion feature in the works at all times and I will say that we should have had a project that's further along at this point; ideally, there should only be a short gap between films, but it hasn't worked out that way. I can only tell you that developing films is bloody difficult. It's official, you've heard it here first. [Laughs]
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