My father’s dragon is now streaming on Netflix and we managed to ask Oscar-nominated director Nora Twomey some of our questions about what it was like working on the adaptation and what it’s like working with Netflix.
You should have no more excuses not to watch My father’s dragon on Netflix, but if you’re still undecided, check out our review of the new animated feature, where we gave it a Playing rating.
Nora Twomey has been in the animation industry for two decades and was a co-creator on the animated series Dorg Van Drago and worked as a creative producer on Puffin Rock. More recently, she directed the Oscar-nominated 2017 film. 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 did you notice about the book?
Back in 2008, writers Meg LeFauve & John Morgan and producer Julie Lyn decided to buy the rights to Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beautiful book. They had all read it as children, as a bedtime staple, and then read it to their own children years later. First published in 1948, the book has brought joy to generations of families as they explore Wild Island and the friendship between Elmer and the dragon Boris.
They had seen the first Cartoon Saloon feature film and asked to meet. On the way to Julie I read the book and really connected to a certain page where the main character Elmer has been giving milk to a stray cat and his mother gets really mad at him. I felt like this moment had so many layers; Why was a saucer of milk a big deal? What was really going on? I imagined what it must be like to be Elmer in this moment, looking into his mother’s face and not being able to process her reaction. I felt that if we could overlay a feature film with a fantastical adventure on the surface and themes of fear, control, truth and empathy underneath, we could create something very special. So we started working together and assembled a brilliant team of like-minded creatives to help bring this story to the big screen.
WoN: How was working on this film different from working on previous Cartoon Saloon films?
The biggest difference 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 jobs, we brought our computers and gear home over the weekend and on Monday we began working from the corners of our kitchen tables while attempting to overcome our individual challenges. While it was really difficult, it’s a testament to the entire team of artists, production and support crew that it didn’t fall apart. Working with Netflix has given us a little more leeway to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.
WoN: Were there any themes or sequences that you thought would be a challenge to adapt in animation?
I think I’m always aware that at a certain level our animators just draw a series of lines on the screen and their skills make the audience believe that these lines form characters with thoughts and feelings. Our artists build worlds out of brushstrokes and invite audiences to enter these worlds and experience their wonders alongside our characters. Wild Island, the place where Elmer rescues Boris, is sinking. This was a major logistical challenge for our team, especially since we weren’t in the same room to figure it out. How do we convey a sense of weight, gravity, size and danger within the art direction design parameters? Luckily I got to work with so many brilliant people from so many departments, they figured it out together, everyone solved problems so the next department didn’t have to. It is a privilege to work with such a team.
WoN: Can you talk about your relationship with Netflix in the film? How did you work? How are they different from other distributors?
When Netflix came on board in 2017, they encouraged us to do our best. Given the challenges of the production, the added support of a large organization like Netflix has meant the past few years have been a less trying time than would otherwise have been for a production like My Father’s Dragon. I really love the idea of My Father’s Dragon being in so many homes around the world at the same time. That’s a potential reach that Cartoon Saloon hasn’t seen yet, 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 translate such a language performance into animation?
With brilliant entertainers! There is such a pool of qualified, experienced entertainers in Ireland, France and across Europe. Cartoon Saloon has always had a great relationship with incredibly talented animators, either at Cartoon Saloon and often in collaboration with FOST Studios in Paris. Animators have been described as “actors with pens,” and they are. They understand the potential of physical performance and are able to work together so that thirty animators can all work on a character and his mannerisms remain consistent, nuanced and personal. It’s something that’s taken for granted when it looks right, but feels odd on screen when done wrong. Having a performance like Gaten’s means the animators have absolute gold to work with. Animation takes a long time, and complicated shots take weeks to animate. When the actor is fully committed to his performance like Gaten is, the animators have an absolutely golden foundation.
WoN: Finally, what have you been watching on Netflix lately? Any other recommendations besides My Father’s Dragon? Anything to look forward to?
Wendell and Wild is a brilliant, beautiful film from animation legend Henry Sellick! I would recommend it to anyone who likes good movies, lovingly narrated by stop motion animators of the highest caliber. Then I would watch My Neighbor Totoro, it’s one of the most beautiful films in the world!
My father’s dragon now streaming worldwide on Netflix.