Producer Charlotte Bavasso and co-director Paloma Baeza throw open the doors on their stop-motion animation which features three different stories set in the same building.
In the 1800s, a poverty-stricken family find their lives changed when they are gifted an imposing house by a mysterious benefactor. In the present day, an industrious property developer — who happens to be a mouse — is pushed to the brink by his thwarted attempts to sell his luxury renovation. And in the near future, a feline landlord finds both rising floodwaters and her fear of change keep her rooted to the increasingly perilous spot.
These intriguing vignettes make up The House, the stop-motion animation produced by London and Los Angeles-based Nexus Studios and directed by four different filmmakers — Emma De Swaef and Marc Roels (Part I), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Part II) and Paloma Baeza (Part III) — which debuted on Netflix in January. The genesis behind such an ambitious project was, however, surprisingly simple: to bring together these creative forces and see what alchemy occurred.
“The primary driver was this idea of getting them around a table and seeing what came out of that collaboration,” says producer and Nexus co-founder Charlotte Bavasso, who first approached the filmmakers, all of whom the company had worked with on previous projects, in April 2019. “They had all tackled similar subject matters in their films — deep, dark and intelligent themes which they have approached through the use of stop-motion.”
Bavasso knew she would have to walk a tightrope to ensure each filmmaker was given creative freedom and that the parts came together as a cohesive whole. “I saw that as my main responsibility on this project,” she says. “What was key for me is that we would completely respect the individual authorship of these filmmakers, and that each film could stand alone. But we worked on an overarching concept, and we talked about the evolution of time. The house is a witness, effectively, of human follies — although some of them are animals — across three generations.”
“It was such a unique experience — you don’t normally get to work alongside other filmmakers in this way, to share different perspectives,” says Baeza, whose directing of Part III of The House comes as she works with Nexus on a TV series adaptation of Poles Apart, her 2018 Bafta-winning National Film and Television School graduation short.
“Charlotte saw the things we have in common — that dark humour and absurdity,” she continues. “We each came up with a synopsis of a story that took place in the house. The different timelines came about organically; we went away to brainstorm and came back with the three stories that naturally fit into a past, present, future structure.”
It was at this point Bavasso approached Netflix with the project, and the streaming company came on board immediately. “We met up in Annecy and talked through the project. I wouldn’t even say it was a pitch, it was really a conversation, and they could see we were so passionate,” Bavasso says. “They knew the directors, and saw their talent. They said it felt like a no-brainer. It was an easy collaboration because the trust they had in us was immense.”
Themes of climate change and humankind’s relationship with the environment have formed much of Baeza’s previous work, but her original idea for The House was to explore a mother-daughter relationship. “Then I was watching a David Attenborough documentary and I saw a flooded road which looked incredible, with single properties that looked like islands,” she recalls. “I wondered who would stay, and why. The idea evolved as I worked with [screenwriter] Enda Walsh, and the house became more of a character.”
Key to the sense of cohesion that runs through the stories is the fact Walsh, who co-wrote Hunger with Steve McQueen, penned all three screenplays, working with the filmmakers to develop their concepts into a 30-minute narrative. “We went through so many different versions,” says Baeza. “We were not afraid to try something, then throw it out completely and start again.”
What was always present, however, was the idea Baeza would tell her story using cats as her characters — that Lindroth von Bahr’s protagonist is a mouse is a happy coincidence. At the centre is Rosa (voiced by Susan Wokoma), the landlord of a crumbling house who refuses to acknowledge encroaching floodwaters. “I like anthropomorphising,” says Baeza, whose Poles Apart tackles similar issues through the uneasy friendship between a polar bear and a brown bear. “It takes you a step apart, and it allows you to be universal in different ways.”
The starry vocal line-up is another draw, with Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Kay and Will Sharpe among the voice cast for Baeza’s story, and the likes of Matthew Goode, Jarvis Cocker and Mia Goth appearing elsewhere. “That’s the silver lining of Covid-19,” says Bavasso. “Live-action was difficult, a lot of projects were cancelled. And everyone could see our ambition, the quality we were trying to achieve, and could understand what they were being a part of. They all jumped into it.”
The directing teams were based in different countries — De Swaef and Roles in Belgium, Lindroth von Bahr in Sweden and Baeza in the UK — so it was always the plan that most of pre-production would take place remotely. This was something the pandemic also made a necessity.
“We had been working for a month that way [prior to lockdown],” notes Bavasso. “We do wish we had seen a bit more of each other, though, and from a producing point of view it added a whole new layer. But I didn’t want to shoot it in three different places; I managed to ensure each of them would be on set [at Mackinnon & Saunders studio in Altrincham, near Manchester], to make sure there was a symbiosis between the three.”
This was also helped by the sharing of some core creatives, including Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) and production designer Alexandra Walker, who created the central house that, although used differently in each of the stories, is recognisable throughout. “It’s the staircase, the Georgian facade, but it’s also about the tiny details like the bug [a key feature of Lindroth von Bahr’s vignette] running under the floorboards of Paloma’s story,” says Bavasso. “It was always about enabling three artists to explore their own stories, and to give them a platform they’ve never had before. Netflix provides them with potentially 200 million viewers.”
For Baeza, the impact of The House is not only its creative achievements, but the fact it exists at all — and particularly on a platform like Netflix. “There’s always the issue between filmmaking as creativity versus business, and you have to be realistic,” she observes. “But when you get people that are brave enough to support something different, it’s life-affirming.”
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