The Oscar-winning actor and Laika CEO, lead animator and producer talk about family feature The Boxtrolls.
The Boxtrolls is Laika’s third film after Coraline and ParaNorman and takes place in the mysterious world of Cheesebridge.
Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning star in the voice cast, aided and abetted by Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost, Jared Harris, Toni Collette and Simon Pegg.
Focus Features releases the family film in the US on September 26.
What is The Boxtrolls about?
Travis Knight: The Boxtrolls takes place in the town of Cheesebridge, which is a hierarchical town. It’s like an upside-down ice cream cone: at the bottom of the society you have [Archibald] Snatcher and his men, who are pest exterminators, and as you go up through the strata of the town you get to the peak, which is the aristocrats.
At the very, very bottom of this society – underground it’s so low – are the Boxtrolls, who live in this cavern. They are blind and this suppressed group of creatures who are made to look like monsters in order for Snatcher to try to climb the ladder of society… It’s really about exploring who these creatures are, what makes them tick and ultimately how they make those connections they have into forming this incredible surrogate family.
Who is pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher and what does he want?
Ben Kingsley: He’s socially ambitious to such an extent that he almost poisons himself with this acid ambition in an almost Dickensian sense or Shakespearean sense. There’s something classic about him. He’s desperate to join the club and the club wont let him join, so that becomes a complete obsession. He wants to get into the inner circle of guys that run the city, that wear white hats and eat special cheese. It’s a kind of elite, very cliquey, snobby collection of guys that run the town of Cheesebridge. So the only way he feels he can get into the centre of power that he craves for is by inventing a complete myth.
What is this myth?
BK: He invents an enemy that he then says he will destroy in order to save the town. It’s a classic political trick – one that we’re all quite familiar with. So he puts the word out that the Boxtrolls – he knows this is completely untrue – will kill your children if you let them near your children. He cites the example of a baby that was kidnapped and of course the baby [Eggs] is played by our hero, Isaac [Hempstead Wright], and he’s alive and well.
So the Boxtrolls aren’t evil child abductors?
BK: They’ve looked after him. They’ve found an abandoned child and looked after him. It’s a little bit like The Jungle Book in that sense. So in order to join the club he’s vowed to save the town from an enemy that doesn’t exist. They exist, but they’re lovely, charming benign creatures that live in boxes and make things.
Eggs is very different to the other child in the piece, Winnie, voiced by Elle Fanning. What are their functions?
TK: We approach it from two perspectives: one is from Elle Fanning’s character Winnie, who is the Mayor’s daughter. She is someone who has been lavished with gifts but starved of affection and doesn’t have this connection with her parents that she would hope [to have]. On the other end of the spectrum we have our hero, Eggs, who is given all the love you can imagine in this weird, strange world, but he has nothing else. So it’s about these two characters finding each other, finding out what matters and their place in the world and ultimately how they can make society be a place that nourishes [them].
I hear you used a few tricks when creating the voice for Snatcher
BK: I was reclining for a lot of it. Because these aren’t quite human voices, all the actors slightly distorted their voices. I stretched the vowel sounds and used certain consonants and put the letter ‘H’ in front of words where it shouldn’t be. It’s the voice of a desperate social climber and I decided to do it reclining so that physically I was very relaxed and could play games with my voice that I wouldn’t normally be able to play in a conventional, character-driven live-action film.
What was different about acting in an animation film for you?
BK: When I work in a conventional film I’m very influenced by the rhythm of the other actor and what he or she offers me in the scenes. I am reactive and responsive as an actor and to have the absence of that magic stimulus – the other person in the scene – and just have a microphone and people listening with their headsets and giving me occasional notes… I realised that it was entirely up to me. I couldn’t react, I couldn’t bounce back because there was nothing coming at me. It was freeing in the sense that I was on my own and not dependent on the other guy. I like working with other actors very much – don’t get me wrong, I love it – but to be independent of that provocation from the other guy as very interesting, very freeing.
The movie took a long time to develop, didn’t it?
TK: With The Boxtrolls, which is based on a novel by British author Alan Snow called Here Be Monsters!, there was such a rich tapestry of things and ideas. It had hints of Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl and Monty Python. It was this crazy world with all these incredible, wonderful characters and yet it was also this massive tome. It was about 550 pages and you somehow have to find a way to distill that down to a 90-minute film and the question then is what is the core film story that is going to sustain this thing. That was something that took us a good long time. We started developing Boxtrolls at around the same time we started developing Coraline [which came out in 2009] so it’s been around since the inception of the company and it took us this long to get right.
Was it a huge script?
TK: The script tends to be fat because when you’re writing for animation oftentimes you’re writing visually on what you want the world to look like because you need a blueprint for the film. It starts with a script and ultimately that ends up getting transformed into the storyboards, which become a template for the film. In order to guide the storyboard you end up putting in a lot of additional screen direction that you wouldn’t normally see in another film.
What size are the teams that worked on it?
TK: The production team at its peak can be 300, 330 people, but the development team came down to a few people. When we started working with Tony [Stacchi, director] that was when things started picking up speed. Tony came on board about eight years ago and became the lead creative on the film and he had done Open Season and is a very experienced director, artist and character designer. Trying to lure him from the sun-soaked splendour of southern California to the grey, dreary skies of Portland, Oregon, required a little bit of patience and tenacity but ultimately he fell in love with the story.
His son was just born and he was commuting up to Portland and it was in that connection we found the core story, which is the connection between fathers and their children and how they end up forming who we are and ultimately what makes a family. As parents we all struggle with that, which is balancing family with meaningful work.
How productive were the animators?
TK: Each animator in a team of anywhere from 20-30 produces about four to five seconds of footage a week on their own. When you aggregate that for the entire team it’s anywhere from one to two minutes for the whole production floor, so it takes about a year-and-a-half to shoot one of these things.
You’re very funny as Snatcher in this movie and have shown your comedy chops before in Iron Man 3 and Sexy Beast, to name a few. Any plans to do more comedy?
BK: There’s no strategy to my career other than the films I’m helping to produce. I was in Night At The Museum 3 earlier this year and my role in it is an absurdly pompous pharaoh and I think it’s very funny. I had a scene with the great Robin Williams and he found it very amusing too, so yes, I love comedy. I did a lot of comedy on stage earlier in my career and love doing it.
What is the Laika aesthetic?
TK: One of the things with Laika is we do not want to have a house style. Visually and aesthetically we want each film to be its own statement, it’s own visual statement, which means we can’t rely on a bag of tricks or a formula to bring these things to life.
But more importantly than that, it’s about what the film is about: what kind of story are we telling and what is its point of view in the world. We draw inspiration from the kinds of films we loved growing up. Things that had a nice balance of darkness and light, intensity and warmth. Things that had something meaningful to say about the world.