Capone Talks with CORALINE Director and Wizard Master Henry Selick!!!
Published at: Feb. 2, 2009, 10:42 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
When I think of Henry Selick directing a movie, I don't so much envision a man and his animators working tireless for months and years posing and re-posing tiny figures as part of the next great stop-motion feature, or coming up with ways to avoid using CGI to complete his vision and do as much as possible using practical, handmade techniques. No, when I think of Selick at work, I see a wizard concocting potions and chanting spells all in the name of making tiny dolls and animals and plants and other creatures come to life. All he has to do is point a camera at them and shoot. Seriously, after seeing works like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, and his latest and greatest work CORALINE (which absolutely must be seen in 3-D), I don't see how mere humans can actually create something so lovely, fluid, scary, and wondrous without having some form of magic at their disposal.
And here's what else I love about Selick, he seems to get the greatest thrill out of putting his child characters in mortal danger. I can appreciate that, and more importantly, so can kids who see his films. Sure they get scared, but they also get a great thrill watching characters they can relate to be put in great peril. Kids aren't as fragile as everything thinks, and they love a good scare as much as anyone, maybe even more so.
I met with Henry here in Chicago a couple weeks back, and I was his first interview of the day. His assistant walked into the room with him with a very secure looking briefcase that seemed like it should have handcuffs attach to it. My heart started racing just a bit because I knew there was something special inside. Henry cracked it open, and inside the extremely well-padded case was an actual Coraline doll, one of the ones actually used in the film. I immediately noticed a black line that ran around her head and through her mouth. "Her faces come on and off to change expressions," Henry explained. Well, of course they do. She stood slightly less than a foot tall, and I started moving her arms, legs, fingers, clothes (she's was wearing the outfit made by her Other Mother in the film), even her blue hair was posable. I could almost feel the magician's dust rubbing off on my fingers as I handled this work of art. That moment is absolutely one of the highlights of my time doing this job.
Then I placed Coraline on the table between Henry and me, and she stood their quietly watching our half-hour conversation. Enjoy…
Capone: Last night, I saw the film for the second time, and it struck me, especially looking at the Cat character, one of things that has been a real touchstone for computer animation is how realistic they can make hair look. That seemed to be a big landmark moment for Pixar and MONSTERS INC. But I always remember one of the real joys for me growing up watching stop-motion animation is that it doesn't look that real, going all the way back to the original KING KONG, where you see his hair shift from the animators touching him. I noticed that in the Cat as well. I love that. That's more charming than it looking real.
Henry Selick: We like that. We have different names for that, but often we call it boiling, or chatter. Yeah, you see the hand of the artist right there, our reshaping and reposing of the creature. They have to touch the fur, and it gets to move a little bit.
Capone: With Aardman's work to, you'd see the fingerprints in the clay.
HS: Oh, yeah.
Capone: I want to talk about the opening sequence, which for younger audiences is going to be the real proving group. You see a doll being basically gutted and restuffed, but it looks like a form of infant surgery or something. That's pretty severe and freaky.
HS: You might be right. I felt like I needed to give a strong hint of what was to come, and not give away whose hands are doing this. It was a delicious scene to animate, and the animators really want to do stuff like that. It sets the bar at a certain level for creepiness and mystery.
Capone: There were a few women in the audience last night who are big into crafting. There were a few even knitting during the movie, because they love the idea that the film is a celebration of all things handmade--thread, needles, buttons. Tell me about why you love that so much.
HS: In the short novel, Neil Gaiman wrote a perfect story. In that realm, you can get away with insinuating things and you don't need to connect dots; that's just part of the form. In the film, I needed to understand how things connected and some of that backstory that you fill in does often seep into the movie. The things that ties it all together is the handmade quality of everything, that the Other Mother has made this Other World by hand. The buttons for eyes, well, they're living dolls. And in fact, we handmade the film--all the props, every tree, every leaf. It's the thread that holds everything together. And sewing seemed to make the most sense, although clearly not everything is sewn together, there may be other means of attaching things, but that's the backstory that enveloped the whole process.
Capone: What is the "jerk wad" reference at the end of the credits. It said something like "For people in the know…" I thought I might be one of those people, but I guess not.
HS: [laughs] The people we're working with to do the online campaign, there's a nice site, coraline.com.
Capone: It's a beautiful, fun site. I've been playing with it for weeks.
HS: Oh good. Well, there are a couple things to do on there, like putting button on your friends' eyes or your pets. They have a little contest, and the contest is where you win…something like the first 50 or 100 who have the right clue get a special pair of Coraline shoes, one of kind shoes. So Jerk Wad, as much as I can say, has something to do with that. But you're required to go to the movie to understand how. Jerk Wad just happens to be an expression I came up with when Coraline is really angry at Wybie and throwing her boots at him--of course in the Middle East, we know that would be a huge insult. And I just came up with something that sounded pretty nasty, but doesn't really mean anything. And they liked that expression Jerk Wad.
Capone: One other thing I noticed was that Coraline's Other Father had MONKEY BONE slippers on.
HS: You know, there are a few fans of the film, a small group, he happens to be one of them. [laughs] They are perhaps inspired by MONKEYBONE.
Capone: Was this always intended to be a 3-D film, or did you consider it after you saw how successful the reissued 3-D version of NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was playing?
HS: We were already in actual production when that was being done. We had already gone that route, it goes back 20 years ago, I did a cheesy little 3-D video with this guy Lenny Lipton, he's the guy behind this modern 3-D revolution, and he's part of Real D. But I did something with him for View-Master--they thought they might get into 3-D videos at one point. You know View-Masters, right?
Capone: Hell, yes.
HS: Those things are still little miracles. I would just check in with Lenny every couple of years to see how it was developing. And as it was coming into cinema was when we got the funding and distribution for CORALINE. I'd pushed for it a few years earlier with out producer, Bill Mechanic, but it just wasn't viable. For two reasons, I was interested in it. In that, with stop motion, it's all real stuff. The experience of coming to visit us while we're making it is amazing, people love it. Maybe we don't have the best movie, but we sure have the best tour. [laughs] It captures the place, the feel, these things exist. So there's always been an interest in sharing that experience, and 3-D's the way. And then it naturally fit into the story. I didn't want to punch people in the eyes with the 3-D. I wanted to draw them into the Other World as Coraline does. While there's 3-D all the time, there's a stronger use of it in the Other World. But it opens into the space, rather than out. It's a more subtle equivalent of Dorothy going to Oz.
Capone: There is one punch in the eye at the beginning with needle coming through the button hole right at the screen, and it gets a great reaction from the audience.
HS: We have a few. That's the strongest one, but we do have a few. I didn't want to try to bring the whole 3-D experience out into your laps. That way those more gimmick moments have their value.
Capone: I remember reading an interview with you five or six years ago, when you were still working on the script for CORALINE, and it sounded to me like you'd intended this to be live action with some animation mixed in. What changed? Or was that something you were never really intending on doing?
HS: You'll get different answers from myself, from Neil and from Bill Mechanic on this one. By my version of history on this is, the first time I read the book, I could see the movie and stop motion is what I wanted it to be. I took it to Bill Mechanic, who I had a good relationship with--he'd been head of 20th Century Fox, he started his own independent company--he got it. I convinced him and Neil to let me write it, but Bill had a deal with Disney, and he was not allowed to do animation. So it was one of those, let's pretend it's a live-action film, and somehow or another I will eventually get it to where it's supposed to be. It just took a long time, and then CG films had become so huge. There was a lot of pressure to do it as a CG film, and that's where [lead animator] Travis Knight came in--he's one of the world's greatest animators of stop motion and CG--and the funding was through Laika Entertainment, which is sort of the old Will Vinton company transformed into this feature film company, with funding, for the most part through Nike. There was this moment when Travis said "If I'm going to animate on a feature, I want it to be stop motion." And we got to where we were supposed to be, and the 3-D was in the theaters, so all this delay seems like it was meant to be.
Capone: I'm sure you get this question a lot, but how involved was Neil in this?
HS: Neil's been fantastic. I couldn't imagine asking for a better partner in making this film. There was his incredible loyalty through the rough times, trying to find a way to get this movie up on its feet. We both understood and faced the dilemma of people saying it's too scary for kids, it's not scary enough for adults. Early on, though, we kind of figured out that working too closely together didn't work. I was in awe of his writing abilities, and my first script was too close to the book. I needed to go off and do a bunch of stuff on my own, and then do regular check-ins with Neil.
The first draft sucked [laughs]. It was like taking the book and putting it through this crude machine to put it in screenplay form. And I just had to go off for almost a year to get a draft that I felt was working. I introduced another character, I made some changes, I didn't know if Neil would hate them or not. I set it in the U.S. because I was more comfortable with the dialogue. Lots of adjustments. But that's the draft Neil loved, and then there's been many drafts since. I send him the drafts, I'd send him character designs, but I would very rarely would I go to him with one thing. I'd rather present him with a body of work, and Neil would always have two or three notes; they were always right and they were always doable. And there's only one thing I didn't go along with, and I think he's okay with this now. He didn't like the cat's voice very much. At one point, if the cat had been kept as a British character, I would have cast Neil to do the cat. So I think I hurt his feelings a little, but in shifting the film to the U.S., that change had to happen.
Capone: But Keith David has such a great voice.
HS: It's great! You might tell Neil: it's okay; people love the cat. It works.
Capone: Wybie is a character that is not in the book, and if I remember correctly the Other Mother was always sort of freaky looking, and you made her transformation more gradual, which makes much more sense visually.
HS: Right. Yeah, Neil was incredibly supportive and he rolled with it. I'm pretty amazed at how supportive he was. And he made some important tweaks and suggestions. But mostly he was like, "I've got my book; you've got your movie. Let's see what you can do."
Capone: One of the most rattling things about the film is that weird choir music. Did I see in the credits that you used a children's choir from Hungary?
HS: The composer of the music was Bruno Coulais. Most Americans don't know his music yet, but they do know him if they ever saw WINGED MIGRATION.
Capone: The documentary about birds?
HS: Yeah. He's done a lot of European films. When I was searching for a composer, it was difficult. You just sample a whole lot of other movies. Things actually were too scary or too sweet and sugary, and Bruno is sort of in tune with what I call "true childhood," the true terrors and beauty and wonder, but the sort of childhood where if a kid comes across a dead animal, it pokes it with a stick. They want to understand. So he uses a lot of chorus, children's choirs, soloists. He recorded most of the orchestra in Budapest and a choir there, but also some soloists. And this is true, the main soloist, a young girl you hear singing in several parts of the film, her name is Coraline.
Capone: I swear to you I noticed that in the credits. I thought it was another in-joke.
HS: Bruno said that it's the rarest possible name for someone, but she's the lead soloist in the background.
Capone: So what language are they singing in. To me it doesn't sound like a language I know. It sounds made up even.
HS: [smiles big] It is! It's all nonsense words. You might hear a little accent, and you're not sure, but that's something Bruno likes to do. He uses sounds. It's all sung nonsense.
Capone: That's remarkable. Last night at the screening, there were a lot of Goth kids, art students, and young animators who all wanted me to give you their cards, because they all want to work for you. Do get a lot of that when you make an appearance?
HS: I just did a screening in New York, and the way the screening was held, they did invite a lot of students. There'd done an early screening--when there was only 20 minutes to show--a while back, and then some of those same students from NYU's School of Visual Arts were invited back. I take the cards. If we get another one of these going, there's always going to be some fresh talent needed or interns, things like that. There were some blue-haired girls too, kids into Goth and emo, what you might expect.
Capone: And that goes all the way back to NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The image of Jack from that film is a classic Goth image. You go into any comic book or collectors store, and you're going to find dozens of action figures and masks.
HS: Yeah. There's a young woman who has got intense tattoos. I've met her a couple of times. When they first took NIGHTMARE and did a treatment to make it 3-D a couple years ago. And I went to the premiere with Tim [Burton] and Danny [Elfman], and there was a woman whose entire body was covered in tattoos, and she'd left a place for me to sign my name that would be tattooed on her leg, and she had Tim and Danny already. It's great to be part of anything that has a life beyond the first few weeks.
Capone: And the Blu-ray has now come out, which you have to be happy with.
HS: They did a nice job. I did some commentary, some interviews, but I didn't artistically shape it or anything. They really know what they're doing at Disney in that division.
Capone: Are there things we're going to see in a high-def version that we didn't see on the screen or on the previous DVD releases?
HS: It's hard for me to know because I know, even in the crudiest VHS tape version, what everything is. It's hard for me to know what you can't see. I think you'll find with Blu-Ray that it's a big boost for stop motion. If it was shot right in the first place, it just enriches what's already there.
Capone: CORALINE is your first screenplay since your SLOW BOB short. How important was it for you to take control of this completely?
HS: When you're a director, you usually end up doing some writing. Quite a lot of the memorable lines in NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS are mine. It's simply a case that when you do these animated films, you have your script, you might have songs, but as you storyboard it, it forces changes because you're editing the movie before you make it. So there is this need for rewrites, and sometimes you can't even get the original screenwriter because they're not available. Along the way, I've done a fair amount of writing and adjusting. In this case, I figured these chances don't come along every day to do these stop-motion features; the money goes to the CG. So this time, I wanted to do it…I don't know about "right," but I wanted to take control. I felt that I was certainly ready to be in charge of that step.
Capone: Which means taking credit for mistakes as well as successes.
HS: Right. I wanted to own it. I won't name names, but there have been some writers I've worked with in the past who…I saw things differently. And directors can certainly have an impact on that, but this is one where I wanted to own it, and if it fails, that sucks, but that's okay.
Capone: In terms of your cast, I know that with most animation work, you record your cast members separately, but I can't imagine that you'd pass up the opportunity to record a reunited [Dawn] French & [Jennifer] Saunders at the same time.
HS: And they were [laughs]. A little story about Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders is that originally they were cast to do the other's part. It was one of those things, and I asked one of their reps who did she think and how did it work, because originally Miss Spink was Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders was doing Miss Forcible. So I was in London to record them for two days, and by the end of the first day I thought, "It's good, but it's not French & Saunders; it didn't happen. And I told my producer, "I'm going to ask them to switch parts." And she almost fainted, terrified. They were a little stunned for a split second, but they agreed it was worth a try. Within two minutes they realized it was a whole better thing. They're really funny, great to work with, and there are a lot of other actors that would not have been a flexible.
Capone: That's great. We'll spread the word on that for sure. We're getting the cut sign. Thank you so much for chatting with us, and for bringing Coraline with you. You know, this just popped into my head, back at the end of 2007, I spoke with Wes Anderson, and he mentioned that for the animated film he's working on now, FANTASTIC MR. FOX, that he'd originally asked you to be a part of that. Obviously you were busy.
HS: Yeah, he's doing stop motion. He's directing from Paris through his iPhone, shooting movies of himself as the characters for the animators to work with.
Capone: It seems like it would have been a natural fit for the two of you, since you'd worked with him before [Henry created the rare fish species in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU].
HS: Oh, I was very interested in doing it and working with him, but when CORALINE got green lit, I had to go with it. This is my baby. [laughs]