“It’s always relevant,” Irish director Norah Twomey says, reflecting on the treatment of women in society. Indeed, in light of myriad sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Hollywood over the last several months, it feels like there is no better time to see her animated feature The Breadwinner than the moment that’s transpiring right now.
Based on a best-seller by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner follows Afghani adolescent Parvana, who sees her father unjustly torn from her, and is forced to dress up as boy in order to provide for her family, living in a highly conservative and unjust society. Reminiscent of Disney’s classic Mulan and myriad tales from all cultures, the film depicts life in Kabul in 2001, demonstrating once again the power of storytelling to help heal, even in the midst of difficult and traumatic circumstances.
The Breadwinner was personal—in its universal themes—not only to Twomey, but also to her young star, Saara Chaudry, who read Ellis’ book as a young girl and felt deeply connected to the character she would go on to play. Below, the pair discuss the film’s unique blend of 2D and cutout animation, their collaboration and Angelina Jolie’s involvement as an executive producer.
What was it that compelled you to adapt Deborah Ellis’ novel into a feature film?
Nora Twomey: My partners Paul Young and Gerry Shirren were at an animation market, and they met Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen of Aircraft Pictures. They had the rights to Deborah Ellis’ book for several years at that point. They’d seen The Secret of Kells and really liked the film, so they thought that maybe we could work together on The Breadwinner.
Paul and Gerry brought the book home to me. I read it in an evening and absolutely loved the story, and the character of Parvana, and the whole nature of the way Deborah had written this book. It was primarily aimed at young people around the ages of nine or 10, all the way up to adults. It was written in such a matter-of-fact way, in a way that didn’t talk down to its audience. It was such an evocative book that I immediately started seeing what it could be like if we made a version for the screen.
The Breadwinner is evocative of Disney’s Mulan, and tales from Greek mythology. What inspirations did you bring to the telling of this story?
Twomey: Absolutely. Even in Irish culture, there’s a doctor, James Barry, who was a surgeon in the British army in the 19th Century. She—he—dressed as a boy, all her life. She had guardians who took her to medical school so that she could practice as a doctor because she was so talented. Only on her death, it was discovered that she had been born a woman. These stories are through every culture, and I think any culture where you have inequality. Certainly in all our cultures, that, at a certain time, was the case. That’s the only way women can survive in lots of cases. For me, that was very interesting.
The character Parvana is quite unique, but at the same time fairly universal. Honestly, Deborah gave us a lot of freedom. She had written a version of the screenplay early on, when Andrew and Anthony had been looking at doing it as a live-action film. She left us to discover it ourselves and to find the material in the book that we could transform into something else for the film.
How did you go about designing your main characters?
Twomey: Reza Riahi, the art director, he’s a Persian short-film director. In one sense, it’s very simple, the way he draws. He manages to evoke so much character in so few lines. I knew that this was going to be something that was wonderful for our animators, to take those designs and add a subtle animation to that work. For the real world, we wanted a very naturalistic performance where you could express a lot with just Parvana’s eyes darting around, as she looks around the marketplace, or the simplest of expressions. We wanted to get so much humanity in those things. The nicest compliment somebody said about this film is that you forget it’s animated. Sometimes, people intellectually see animation as a barrier to feeling a story, but in a very real way, I think animation has a way to pull you into a story.
For you Nora—and for you, Saara—what was the collaboration like on this project?
Twomey: I’d worked with a young actress before in Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Every personality is completely different. Saara is probably the most experienced actor, at the age of 11, that I’d worked with. There is such an intelligence and sensitivity and depth to Saara’s performance. I think that is just incredible.
We recorded all of the actors separately. Especially with the younger parts in the film, I felt that we needed to pull energy out of our characters, in a way. I was very mindful that a characters like Parvana, somebody who is working 16 hours a day, their nutrition might not be the best. We wanted to get the sense that she was tired in one way, but in another way, that her spirit kind of rose up through that.
That’s a very difficult brief for an actor. It’s such an unusual thing to be that adaptable and to be able to take that material on and make it your own, and just carry the film.
Saara Chaudry: Nora was definitely key in creating this character. I remember every single line we would go through, she would talk to me in a certain way, where I was able to shift and change and try things in different ways, and squeeze every little last drop out of each of the lines.
The animation wasn’t fully complete—we didn’t have a video to go off of. I think that was very special because we had the ability to go in every direction possible to really build this character right from the bottom, and add different layers. To be able to collaborate like that as an actor, you don’t always have such creative input. That was so special, that I was able to do that on my dream project.
Nora, can you talk about your visualization of Kabul—a very gritty, naturalistic world—and visualizing the storybook world we see in cutout animation?
Twomey: We didn’t want to put a style on this film. We wanted to make sure that the characters in the story led the look of the film. I was always aware that I didn’t want my audience to emotionally detach from a film like The Breadwinner, with such a serious subject matter.
I needed to get some contrasts in there. The whole film is really about contrasts, characters moving out of shadows and into light. It’s about the contrasts between that one room where our family spends a lot of their time and the expanse of Kabul. It’s about Parvana’s interior life, her understanding of her history, her stories, the connections she makes with people, how she works things out with people through story, and how we were going to juxtapose that with the real world of Kabul.
We looked at the real world, first off. We didn’t go to Kabul; we worked with a lot of consultants who talked about what it was like at the time. Even if we were able to go to Kabul, it’s quite a different city now than it was back in 2001. We talked to an Afghan-American artist called Aman Mojadidi, who talked us through what Kabul was like, the quality of life at that altitude.
Our art directors were able to then translate that into a style. It was an emotional way of coming at the visual style of the real world. We were also really aware that we wanted it to be a very physical film—we were aware how much food was on the plate at all times. If Parvana’s running away from a character, we understand the distance between her and the characters that are chasing her. With all this stuff, we wanted to make sure that the vulnerability of life was very apparent in the real world.
By contrast, the story world is just a joy of imagination—a lack of physics, and all the things that we were doing the opposite to in the real world. The same with the color design. We wanted to make sure that it felt like it was a meal, that you were continuously cleansing your palate all the way through, so that you could appreciate the color in the story world, versus the cinematic expanse of the real world, where you have a much more pared-back palette.
How large of a team were you working with? For how long?
Twomey: All in all, it was over 300 people who gave their voices, their hands. We worked between Ireland, Luxembourg and Canada. We did the pre-production and all the design work in Ireland. We did half the animation, half the backgrounds in Luxembourg.
In Toronto, we recorded all our voice cast. We did all our compositing with Guru Studios there. They were incredible, especially with the story world, helping us figure out a way by which the story world could have that distinctive look. We wanted it to look like cutout animation but we didn’t have the budget to do the expanse of cutout animation that we needed for that, so we worked with a cutout artist who shot a lot of cutout animation practically with our designs that Reza had created.
How did Angelina Jolie come on board as an executive producer on the project? Has she created extra visibility for the project?
Twomey: We have two executive producers who made a documentary called The Square, which documented the uprising in Egypt. They were working with Angelia so they managed to get an early draft of the screenplay and some artwork that we had done in front of her.
She took the time to read the screenplay and really understood what we were trying to do. She asked to meet me—I was in Ireland at the time and I pretended I was in Los Angeles. I flew over specifically to meet her. I was very nervous, and she was so down to earth and so understood the type of film that we were trying to make, and was so knowledgeable about Afghanistan. She had been there several times, she had supported girls’ schools in Afghanistan for over a decade now.
She helped guide everything. She wanted to make sure that where we could, we cast Afghan actors, and where we couldn’t, that we found people who had a depth to them, a story to tell or some kind of a link with the characters. We didn’t do stunt casting. We chose our cast carefully, with her guidance.
She watched all the animatics, all the way through.It meant a lot to our crews to have that hand on their shoulders. Now that the film is coming out, it makes such a difference for a film like The Breadwinner to have someone like Angelina Jolie’s support.
Can you speak to the political relevance of this film at this point in time?
Twomey: It’s always relevant. I think even since Deborah’s book came out in 2000, it’s a relevant issue, how women and young girls are treated. In areas of conflict, women and children are always the first to suffer. I’m a feminist, but I really feel that inequality hurts everyone. In an unequal society, the world is not as good as it could be. It’s not as compassionate as it could be. People are not as empathic as they can be when we don’t have everybody’s voice being heard. For all of this to be discussed now, it’s an interesting time for a film like The Breadwinner to come out, for sure.