The co-founder of Cartoon Saloon on teaming up with the A-list star for their Oscar-nominated animation, and using cartoons to help children make sense of the world
Nora Twomey of Cartoon Saloon. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
If Nora Twomey is pretending to have “never been into heels and dresses”, as she puts it, she’s doing a top notch job. Having already walked the Academy Award red carpet in 2010 as the co-director of The Secret of Kells, the Cartoon Saloon animator entirely failed to use her 2018 Oscar nomination for The Breadwinner to secure a steady stream of big brand costumiers.
It fell to the designer Laura Jayne Halton to call her up and drop the hint.
“She said she had some ideas and I said knock yourself out,” says Twomey. “She still had my measurements from making my first Oscars dress. She’s a real artist. It makes you stand up straight and walk proud when you wear craftsmanship like hers. She was a furniture designer at one point in her career, so she knows how to make you comfortable and she knows how to upholster someone in their mid-40s.”
She got lucky with her neighbours, too. The “incredible pendant” she wore on the night – three triangular agate druzes set in gold – was created by Rudolf Heltzel, the goldsmith-next-door to one of Cartoon Saloon’s Kilkenny premises.
“It’s a funny old night,” says Twomey. “You wonder if you should say something to the people you meet, because afterwards people ask you: what did you say to Steven Spielberg or Meryl Streep or whoever. But you’re aware they have people coming up to them for that reason: just to say they said something to Spielberg. So I decided myself and my husband Michael were only going to make a beeline for the cinematographer Roger Deakins. We had been to the Golden Globes and a fair few ceremonies at that stage. So I had already got to meet Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth, which was a real touchstone for me while making The Breadwinner.”
Based on Deborah Ellis’s YA novel of the same name, The Breadwinnerconcerns Parvana (voiced by Canadian newcomer Saara Chaudry), a plucky 11 year old growing up in Taliban-controlled Kabul. When her father, a former schoolteacher, is arrested, Parvana cuts her hair and dons the clothes of her deceased older brother Sulayman, so that she might pass as a boy and support her siblings and broken-hearted mother.
As Twomey notes, Ellis’s book has never been out of print since its initial run in 2000, and has several celebrity fans including the Duchess of Cornwall, who visited Cartoon Saloon with Prince Charles last year.
“I’ve seen kids in schools in the US Skyping with kids in Afghanistan because they’ve read the book,” she says. “I’ve seen how it becomes part of a conversation between children exploring the complexity of the world around them. And that’s fantastic. The book had already been on a journey before it came to me. Two Canadian producers had optioned it eight years ago with a view to making a live action film. And then they saw The Book of Kells.”
Twomey was immediately taken with the character of Parvana and with the many possibilities of the deceptively simple story.
“The idea that we can do it is exciting in itself,” she says. “That an independent studio can team up with other independent studios around the world and pool resources, and that you’re not dependent on merchandise or sales. You’re just telling a story because you’re a mother and you want to engage kids who are like your kids. So they can watch a film that has a bit of truth in it or that maybe has a question in it, a question that they might have the answer to. The animation is a kind of sugar-coating, I suppose. But I don’t like the idea that children should be shielded from the world. We have a duty to try to help our children to cope with and try to understand the world. That’s what I loved about Deborah’s novel. It gently nudges children toward awareness. It’s a way into the world.”
In this spirit, Twomey enlisted the help of two younger consultants, her sons Oliver (10) and Patrick (8).
“They’re bored with it now at this stage,” she laughs. “They were my test audience all the way through. Patrick did some of the voice performance for one of the characters. They’re well used to animation. They’ve been in and out the studio their entire lives. I let them work on my computer and they record their voices and animate their own things. They are my barometer for every script I read. I can see where their interests are and where their interests flag in a story.”
They’re not just a test audience. Her sons have had a profound impact on her sensibilities as an artist and a person: “I don’t think I could have told this story 10 years ago,” she says. “I don’t think I would have been open enough to try it. Something happened to me when I became a parent. I couldn’t listen to the news for six months. I couldn’t cope with the fact that – in two sentences – someone would relate the loss of a life to the loss of hundreds of lives while you are there doing your best to nurture one single baby. The effect of that, that idea of the preciousness of children, has never left me.”
Anti-war activist Deborah Ellis spent months in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in order to create Parvana, a composite of several girls she met. Twomey continued that organic process. Although funding limited casting choices to an extent, at least half of The Breadwinner’s cast have Afghan heritage. The necessarily collaborative nature of animation ensured that details were continually bounced and questioned around the studio and beyond.
Angelina Jolie, as a UN goodwill ambassador, has built schools for girls in Afghanistan, and was uniquely placed to talk Cartoon Saloon through Afghan culture
“With animation you include hundreds of voices in the film,” says Twomey. “Not just Afghan voices, but artists from all over the world. One young woman on our painting team in Cartoon Saloon left Iraq as a refugee. Her perspective is there, informing the tapestry of the film. Every question begged more questions. You ended up hearing stories that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard, and bits of those are incorporated. At one point we wanted Parvana to post a letter in the film. So we ended up having a big debate as to how this might happen. If you posted the letter at the central post office in Kabul, the Taliban would have intercepted it. So what you would do is find someone going to the place that the letter was going to.”
She laughs: “Eventually the letter disappeared from the film.”
The Breadwinner was lucky enough to land a rather well-known adviser. Early in production, Twomey got in touch with Angelina Jolie through mutual friends Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, the Egyptian filmmakers behind Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Jolie, as a UN goodwill ambassador, has built schools for girls in Afghanistan, and was uniquely placed to talk Cartoon Saloon through Afghan culture, and to lend her not inconsiderable marketing clout as an executive producer.
“We had less than $10 million [€8.3 million] to make this film,” recalls the director. “We knew we weren’t going to have millions to spend on publicity. She came on board very early – we just had a first draft of the screenplay written – she understood the film we were making immediately. She knew we were after some kind of truth, that we didn’t want to tell a story about one ethnic group in Afghanistan. We wanted to tell a story that would connect with people all around the world.”
The story and Twomey’s work with Cartoon Saloon resonated with Jolie, who ushered in the first trailer for The Breadwinner with an impactful statement: “I know [Cartoon Saloon] will do justice to the richness, creativity and strength of Afghan culture and to little girls like Parvana. Millions of young girls like Parvana are growing up today under oppression or conflict and helping their families to survive in those conditions. This story is a reminder of the immense value of their contribution.”
Jolie was more than a brand and brain to pick, insists Twomey. She listened to tapes during the casting process so that they might get closer to the “soul of the character”. She gave feedback on early designs and musical cues. She organised for Twomey to screen the film for the First Lady of Afghanistan and for an Afghan educator who also dressed as a boy in order to attend a secret school.
“She wanted to help and she helped shape the sensibility of the film,” says Twomey of her A-list fairy godmother. “She wanted it to be hopeful in its sensibility. It would be easy for a film like The Breadwinner to be extremely dark, but we wanted to show the strength of young girls. We wanted to show courage, not fairy-tale courage but real courage. We wanted to show how much love was in the family in the film. She helped guide all those things and she also encouraged us to get as many Afghan voices as we could.”
The Cork-born film-maker is a huge fan of Jolie’s own directorial output. There’s Angelina Jolie, she says, and there’s Angelina Jolie.
“When you watch First They Killed My Father you can see her hand as a director and storyteller,” says Twomey. “You can see that she’s a listener. There’s not an ego sprawled all over the film. The reality of Angelina Jolie and what you see in the magazines are two very different things. She’s a thoughtful person who tries to use whatever influence she has to make a real difference. She came to The Breadwinner as a mother and a storyteller.”
Aesthetically, The Breadwinner brings Cartoon Saloon full circle. The studio’s first feature, The Secret of Kells, was heavily influenced by Richard Williams’s unfinished 1993 feature film, The Thief and the Cobbler, which, in turn, was influenced by Middle Eastern artworks. Reza Riahi, one of The Breadwinner’sart directors, studied Persian miniatures while designing the film alongside Ciaran Duffy. It’s a beautiful, textured animation.
“If The Breadwinner was live action it would be very easy to emotionally disconnect from the film and to try to protect yourself,” says Twomey. “I think that’s the power of animation. It draws you in. You stay with the artist’s hand.”
Last year, ahead of Twomey’s second Academy Award nomination, Varietynamed her as one of the 10 top animators to watch. Implausible as it sounds, we have blackened frozen vegetables to thank for Twomey’s glittering career and Hollywood connections.
As a teenager, she left school in Midleton, Co Cork, before completing her Leaving Certificate. She soon found work making porcelain reproductions of antique dolls. The work excited her, she recalls. “I loved making things. I loved that something existed at the end of the day that didn’t exist when you started in the morning.”
Her first job that paid a living wage, however, was in a vegetable factory, where she stared at the conveyer belt for three years.
“I worked on the night shift,” she says. “My job was to sit there watching frozen or dried vegetables on the conveyer belt and pick out the black bits. Because you had earplugs in and earmuffs over that to block out the noise of the machinery, you couldn’t talk. You couldn’t listen to the radio. You had to keep your eye on the belt for 12 hours. It turned out to be the most amazing training for my imagination. Because I’d tell myself stories, from beginning to end, to get through the 12 hours. I couldn’t have learned as much about storytelling in college.”
While Twomey kept an eye out for black bits, there were exciting developments in Ireland’s nascent animation sector. With an eye on new Irish tax incentives, former Disney animator Don Bluth and businessman Morris Sullivan founded Sullivan Bluth Studios near the Phoenix Park in 1985.
At its peak, the studio, which produced The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time, would employ some 300 people. Eventually, Sullivan Bluth helped set up the Ballyfermot College Animation Course to train prospective employees. Twomey had returned to education and was doing a foundation course in art at Cork city’s Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa when she heard other students talking about Ballyfermot.
“So that’s how I got into it,” she says. “And it was joyful because I was surrounded by people who just loved drawing. The Sullivan Bluth Studios were the beginning of everything here. When Don Bluth left, so many little studios started up. Brown Bag Films. Monster Animations. And that coincided with the digital age so it became cheaper to create content for TV or cinema.”
Irish animators are a breed apart, she insists: “I think there’s something odd about the Irish animation industry. Maybe it’s because we’re such a small country. But we’re not competitors. When you go to the big animation markets in Europe and the US, you can see the Irish all supporting each other. If someone is pitching a project, the other companies will go and ask questions and clap. It’s a small, solid, supportive industry with great government supports like Section 481, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the Irish Film Board, the IDA, and Enterprise Ireland. It has to be some sign of health that they feel that they can invest as much as they do.”
After graduating, Twomey worked at Brown Bag Films, the Dublin animation studio behind the Oscar-nominated shorts, Give Up Yer Aul Sins and Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, before leaving for Kilkenny to found Cartoon Saloon with fellow Ballyfermot alumni, Paul Young and Tomm Moore.
“There were 15 people in Brown Bag and we celebrated its fifth anniversary while I was there,” recalls Twomey. “Now there are 300 people and it has celebrated its 20th anniversary. But I never wanted to stay in Dublin. I loved being near the galleries and the National Concert Hall. But I grew up in the countryside and couldn’t deal with the traffic and waiting for buses.”
Her Cartoon Saloon co-founder Tomm Moore has noted that its burgeoning ranks has precipitated an increased demand for vegan and gluten-free foods around Kilkenny. The studio has long had an impact on the Marble City’s snack scene, notes Twomey.
“For the first few years we’d grow and shrink and grow and shrink depending on whatever projects we were working on. I remember someone from a local sandwich shop coming in and asking how our schedule was looking because they weren’t sure whether to change premises or not. My husband Michael says he can spot the Cartoon Saloon people in Kilkenny. Usually by the colour of their hair. But we’re not alone. It’s a great city for art and artists. We have the Butler Gallery and the National Design and Craft Gallery and festivals running for most of the year.”
Level playing field
The Breadwinner marked Cartoon Saloon’s third trip to the Academy Awards. These days, in the aftermath of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, the awards season is under rather more scrutiny than it was when The Secret of Kells(2010) and Song of the Sea (2015) received their Oscar nods.
The animation sector is a noticeably more level playing field than live action. Five men and five women were attached to this year’s Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature Film, including Darla K. Anderson (Coco), Lori Forte (Ferdinand), Dorota Kobiela (Loving Vincent), Ramsey Naito (The Boss Baby), and, of course, Twomey (The Breadwinner). Forty seven women (other than actresses) were nominated at the 90th Academy Awards. Of these, only four won Oscars. Meanwhile, 151 men (other than actors) were nominated and 32 took home Oscars.
Looking back over her earliest days in Brown Bag Films, Twomey recalls that, even back then, founders Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell maintained a great gender balance in the building. The live action sector will just have to catch up.
“I get asked about being a woman in the industry almost every day,” she says. “It’s odd. Because you don’t get up and look in the mirror and think I’m a woman in the industry. Obviously, we need to see more films being told by women. Too often there are female characters in films and things just happen to them. But with more women making films, female characters will have greater agency. That’s a big thing. Changing that passive narrative will change the stories we tell to boys and girls for the better.”
Twomey was coming to the end of The Breadwinner’s four-year production in 2016 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, having just returned to Dublin from the Chinese premiere of The Breadwinner, her hair is growing back. Still, she’s understandably reluctant to use phrases like “all clear”.
“I don’t mind talking about it,” she says. “It’s something that has happened. It’s the truth. I’m a storyteller and it’s part of my story. Sometimes I can joke about it. Sometimes I’m close to tears about it. I’m sure I’ll be dining out on it in 20 years if I get there. But it’s just so recent. I had surgery. I had radiotherapy. I had chemotherapy. But this whole notion of all clear? There’s no going back. It can jump up and bite you at any time. I don’t think of it as a fight I won. All I know is that the doctors gave me back time, and that’s amazing. It’s like magic.”
The Breadwinner opens on Friday, May 25th