Mr. Beaks Goes Button-Eyed At Twenty Minutes Of Henry Selick's CORALINE!!!
Published at: Oct. 29, 2008, 12:48 a.m. CST by headgeek
For those of you who like to complain that children's literature has lost its edge, might I recommend Neil Gaiman's CORALINE? A dark fantasy about a bored young girl who gets trapped in a heightened version of her own reality (where her "Other Mother" and "Other Father" have sewn buttons over their eyes), Gaiman's tale has much more in common with the discomfiting work of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl than, say, the innocuous ghost stories of R. L. Stine. Actually, taken on its own terms, it's pretty strong stuff for adults, too (New York Times critic Charles Taylor called it "one of the most truly frightening books ever written"). Don't believe me? Carve a few hours out of your day, and give it a read. Gaiman's eerie descriptions, unnervingly enhanced by Dave McKean's stark and colorless illustrations, will have you creeped out in no time.
When filmmaker Henry Selick read CORALINE in galleys nearly a decade ago, he knew immediately that this was a world he wanted to recreate in some fashion or another - be it CG or stop-motion. Thankfully for us, the genius behind THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH opted for the latter. But he didn't stop there: well aware of the advances that were rapidly being made in stereoscopic 3-D technology (thanks primarily to a longstanding professional relationship with Real D's Lenny Lipton*), Selick saw the potential to immerse viewers in the tactile world of a handmade environment. Though stop-motion will probably never flourish as a form of animation, shooting stereoscopically (behind the generous financing of Phil Knight's LAIKA Entertainment) could at least revive some interest in the unique, somewhat antiquated process. If nothing else, it'd give audiences a reason to not wait for Blu-ray.
Since you're an AICN reader, you don't need me to tell you that a new Henry Selick movie is well worth your time. So allow me to add this as an enticement: going off of the mostly finished twenty minutes shown last Friday to the usual throng of entertainment journalists, CORALINE's mix of warmth and creepiness feels as inspired as anything in NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. If the rest of the film lives up to the brilliance of this footage, Selick's got an instant classic on his hands.
The presentation basically broke down into two extended passages: the first segment introduced us to Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), and their strange neighbors - all of whom live in the same peculiar house. Occupying the attic flat is Mr. Bobinski (Ian McShane), a circus tumbler whose idiosyncratic act includes a mouse marching band. In the basement apartment, there's Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Spink (Dawn French), a pair of retired actresses who've decorated their living space with posters of their dubious sounding productions (e.g. "King Leer") and the stuffed remains of their faithful Scotties. Coraline may be mildly amused by these eccentrics, but she's annoyed by the young boy from a neighboring house, who hunts in the low-hanging fog for banana slugs.
Bored with her drab surroundings (and ignored by her busy parents), Coraline goes exploring in their house. It's here she she discovers the door to a small, dimly-lit passageway that, as she enters it, stretches out into the distance (via a push-pull shot right out of VERTIGO or JAWS, only in 3-D). Though most sensible kids would back the hell out of there, Coraline is drawn by a faint, purplish light that brightens as she crawls toward it. On the other end of this tunnel is the same room she just left, but different. It's warmer and more inviting. In the kitchen is her mother, who's cooking a delicious assortment of sausages and other mouthwatering fare. Everything about this world is ideal except for one disturbing detail: everyone has shiny button eyes.
But Coraline's having such a grand old time in this version of reality, which her "Other Mother" has manipulated to her liking, that she's okay with button-eyed freaks (though she's a little more put off by the bratty neighbor, whose mouth has been sewn shut). After all, she gets to check out an elaborate theater performance from Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (attended by hundreds of tail-wagging Scotties) and take flight with her gardening father on a planter-turned-helicopter. There's also a Busby Berkeley musical number put on by Mr. Bobinski's mice. It's a world that caters to her every whim. Why would she ever want to leave?
Then comes the trade-off: to remain in the other-verse, she, too, must thread buttons over her eyes. Suddenly, "uneventful" sounds awfully appealing.
Stylistically, Selick's take on Gaiman's world isn't nearly as harsh as McKean's, but I like the way his variation gradually goes from lush and inviting to utterly horrifying; imagine BEETLEJUICE without Michael Keaton's clowning, and you're not far off. After the screening, I got the chance to briefly chat with Selick, and I did my best to press him on the differences between his CORALINE and Gaiman's. Clearly, there's been a mild toning down (and, to be honest, I didn't realize this until I read the book for the first time this weekend), but Selick's CORALINE is still plenty fucked up; I could definitely see the MPAA hitting him with a PG-13. Here's hoping Phil Knight has the same pull with the ratings board as Spielberg, Lucas and Disney.
Q: How does it feel to see the almost finished product?
Henry Selick: It feels great! I'm very pleased with the end result. I've been carefully going through the whole movie with my glasses on, hour after hour. We still have some visual f/x work [to finish]. Most of the main characters, we do replacement animation, like Jack Skellington or Speedy Alka-Selztzer or the Pillsbury Doughboy. On CORALINE, we wanted to have even more [range of expression], so we put a big split in her face so you can change her eyebrows and her upper face shapes, and the bottom. A lot of people actually wanted to leave it in, but it is very striking so we decided to paint it out. Maybe we'll have midnight screenings to show all the rigs and all the stuff. Some people love to see that.
So there is some of that going on: rig removal and f/x, like smoke and fog, are still being done. But it's getting there. The music's all been recorded [by] the Budapest Symphony and our composer Bruno Coulais. The [preview footage] was a demo; it's a real score, but not with the real instruments. He's got all the real stuff. He's coming over on Saturday, and we'll start throwing it all together. In three weeks, we'll have our dance with the ratings board; we're hoping for an edgy PG.
Q: That leads directly into my next question. How far are you able to push the "creepiness". A film like this should give kids nightmares; it shouldn't scar, but it should leave a mark.
Selick: We're trying to send a signal with the trailer that it's scary and only for brave children of any age. It's not for little kids under eight. There might be a few. I think the balance is there. It's not all dark, all the time; we're not doing THE DARK KNIGHT for children here. It's got sweetness and some dark, scary shit. But Coraline beats it. She wins. That, to me, is what allows us to go there. We wanted to bring that world that Neil Gaiman wrote to life. It's a great book. Why would I throw out what's great about it, which includes darkness, creepiness, spookiness, inventiveness?
Q: Did you have to cut anything out of Gaiman's book because it pushed too far?
Selick: In terms of screen time, I might've shortened something that lasted longer in the book to give the film an overall balance. But, honestly, just about everything in the book is in the movie. And there's more. It's a short book.
Q: What's Gaiman's response been like?
Selick: He's been wonderful. It was more difficult early on because I was an untested screenwriter - though when you're a director, you're always rewriting stuff because you don't have the writer available to give you dialogue. The first draft sucked because it was just like the book; I was too faithful to the book. I told [Gaiman], "I can't talk to you for a year. Let's see what happens." And that's when it started to turn into a movie. He's never been over my shoulder. I've sent him over drafts of the screenplay; I don't send him footage all of the time. Every once in a while we give him a peek. He's come to the studio a couple of times, and he's just great. He's never about, "Oh, that's been changed. That's not like the book." He's always a great joy with lots of positive energy. He always points out two or three things to change or adjust that are doable things, and... they're always right, and they make the movie better. It's been phenomenal to work with him.
Q: Regarding the stereoscopic 3-D, I was told that you made that decision early in the process. Why go with that?
Selick: Lenny Lipton, who's actually now here in this building, is the President of technology at Real D. He's the guy who invented modern 3-D technology. He had a little company called Stereographics, and I happened to meet him and kept up with him over the years to see how that was going. I was desperately looking for that WIZARD OF OZ moment, going from one world to the other. And that was it. I knew nothing would show off stop-motion better than shooting it originally [in 3-D]. It's not a gimmick. The "other" world feels better; it's deeper and there's more oxygen. It took a while for our Hollywood producer, the first guy I took [CORALINE] to, Bill Mechanic... he's been great, but he was against it because it hadn't quite happened yet. But as soon as he saw what it looked like, everyone got on board.
Q: As she's passing into that world through that tunnel that looks like a birth canal... that's where you begin to feel that immersive quality that 3-D gives you.
Selick: Look, over the years... when people have come by [the set] for a visit, they love what they see. But they always say, "I wish I could see that on the screen." That's a big part of shooting in 3-D: it takes you there, and brings that feeling that those are real things. Everything in that movie was handmade; every leaf was hand cut, placed and aligned.
Q: Any chance you'll tackle THE GRAVEYARD BOOK next?
Selick: Well... Neil sent it to me early on, but he also sent it to a lot of people. It's with Sony, and I'd love to do it. I think it's possible, but I think his vision right now is live action. We'll see what happens with CORALINE. We had some Sony people come to the studio, and they loved what they saw of CORALINE. It's not like we're headed there, but there's a chance that could happen.
Q: Is there anything else that you'd love to tackle in stop-motion? Any dream projects?
Selick: This and NIGHTMARE have been the dream projects in my life thus far. There's an earlier Philip Pullman novel that we've optioned, that's pretty exciting, that means a lot to me. I've already done some work on it.
Q: What's it called?
Selick: It's called COUNT KARLSTEIN. You know, before he did the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, he did a lot of shorter, more kid-friendly books. This would need a lot of work, but I've already done some of that work. But I'd rather not talk about it. If I say something, it'll all fly away. (Laughs)(Returning to the point about the tone of CORALINE)You know, that whole thing about darkness... kids love it! My kids love it. I've got an older son who just turned seventeen, and my younger son is ten, and seeing what they've responded to over the years... I'm a little more worried about the parents than the kids. The classic fairy tales, which have lasted hundreds and hundreds of years... children are eaten and people have their feet burned off by iron shoes heated in the oven. Come on! That's who we really are! So let's embrace it, and try to make it entertaining and beautiful at the same time.
Someone really needs to let Selick go all the way one of these days. Until then, I'll take one masterpiece per decade.