My Father’s Dragon is now streaming on Netflix and we managed to put some of our questions to Oscar-nominated director Nora Twomey about what it was like working on the adaptation and what it’s like working with Netflix.
You shouldn’t have any more excuses not to watch My Father’s Dragon on Netflix, but in case you’re still on the fence, check out our review of the new animated feature, in which we gave a “Play” rating.
Active in animation for two decades, Nora Twomey served as co-creator of the animated series Dorg Van Drago and worked as creative producer on Puffin Rock. More recently, she directed the 2017 Oscar-nominated movie, The Breadwinner, and was co-director of The Secret of Kells.
What’s on Netflix: How were you first introduced to My Father’s Dragon source material? What stood out about the book to you?
Back in 2008, writers Meg LeFauve & John Morgan and producer Julie Lyn had decided to option the rights to Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beautiful book. They had all read it as children, as a bedtime staple and then gone on to read it to their own children years later. The book was first published in 1948 and has brought generations of families joy as they explore Wild Island and the friendship between Elmer & the dragon Boris.
They had seen Cartoon Saloon’s first feature and asked to meet. On the way to meet Julie, I read the book and really connected with a particular page where the main character Elmer has been giving milk to a stray cat and his mom gets really angry with him. I felt there were so many layers to that moment; why was a saucer of milk a big deal? What was really going on? I imagined what it must be like to be Elmer at that moment, looking at his mother’s face and not being able to process her reaction. I felt if we could layer a feature film with a fantastical adventure on the surface and with themes of fear, control, truth & empathy underneath, we could do something very special. So we began to work together and gather a brilliant team of like-minded creatives who helped put this story onto the screen.
WoN: How was working on this film different to working on prior Cartoon Saloon movies?
The biggest difference in working on this film was that we had to move out of the studio in the middle of production because of the pandemic. Like many workplaces, we moved our computers and gear home over a weekend and by Monday we began working from the corners of our kitchen tables while trying to manage our individual challenges. While it was really difficult, it is a testament to the whole team of artists, production & support crew that the whole thing didn’t fall apart. Working with Netflix meant we had a little more leeway to cope with the challenges of the pandemic.
WoN: Were there any themes or sequences that you saw as going to be a challenge to adapt in the animated film?
I guess I’m always aware that at a certain level, our animators are just making a series of lines on the screen & their skill makes audiences believe that those lines form characters with thoughts and feelings. Our artists build worlds from brushstrokes and invite audiences to step into those worlds and experience the wonder of them alongside our characters. Wild Island, the place Elmer goes to rescue Boris, is sinking. That was a big logistical challenge for our team, especially as we weren’t in the same room figuring it out. How do we give a sense of weight, gravity, scale and danger within the art direction design parameters? Luckily I got to work with so many brilliant people across so many departments , they figured it out together, each one solving problems so the next department didn’t have to. It’s a privilege to work with a team like that.
WoN: Can you talk about your relationship with Netflix on the film? What have they been like to work with? How are they different from other distributors?
When Netflix came onboard back in 2017, they encouraged us to do our best work. Given the challenges of the production, the extra support from a big organization like Netflix meant the last few years were a less difficult time than it might have otherwise been for a production like My Father’s Dragon. I really love the idea that My Father’s Dragon can be seen around the world at the same time, in so many households. That’s a potential reach Cartoon Saloon hasn’t yet experienced, as a team of storytellers that’s really exciting.
WoN: Gaten Matarazzo had such a wild and playful energy in the film. How do you go about translating a voice performance like that with the animation?
With brilliant animators! There is such a pool of skilled, experienced animators in Ireland, France and across Europe. Cartoon Saloon has always had a great relationship with amazingly talented animators, either in Cartoon Saloon and often in collaboration with FOST Studios in Paris. Animators have been described as ‘actors with pencils’ and that’s exactly what they are. They understand the potential of physical performance and can work together in a way where thirty animators can all work on the one character and his mannerisms remain consistent, nuanced and personal. That’s something that gets taken for granted when it looks right, but feels strange on the screen if it is done wrong. Having a performance like Gaten’s means the animators have absolute gold to work with. Animation takes a long time, with complicated shots taking weeks to animate. If the actor fully commits to their performance in the way Gaten does, the animators have absolute golden foundations.
WoN: Finally, what have you been watching on Netflix recently? Any other recommendations beyond My Father’s Dragon? Anything you’re looking forward to?
Wendell and Wild is a brilliant, beautiful film by animation legend Henry Sellick! I’d recommend that for anyone who likes good movies, lovingly told by stop-motion animators at the top of their abilities. Then I’d check out My Neighbor Totoro which is one of the most beautiful films in the world!
My Father’s Dragon is now streaming on Netflix globally.