is a filmmaker and co-founder of Cartoon Saloon
, the twice Oscar-nominated animation studio based in Ireland. Having co-directed “The Secret of Kells
” with Tomm Moore
, Twomey went on to head the story team for “Song of the Sea
” and was creative producer on the Netflix preschool show “Puffin Rock
.” “The Breadwinner
” is her first solo-directed feature.
” will premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Nt: This is the story of a young girl called Parvana, who is growing up in Taliban controlled Kabul in 2001. Parvana helps her father in the marketplace but when he attempts to sell her best dress because they have no money, Parvana acts out, insulting her sister and refusing to apologize.
Soon afterward her father is arrested by the Taliban. The family doesn’t know if they’ll ever see him again and Parvana is left with a child’s guilt. She can’t forget the look on his face. She has to find him, to tell him she is sorry.
Her family cannot survive without a male relative to earn a living for them, so Parvana cuts her hair and dresses as a boy. Kabul opens up to her as she walks through the city in boys’ clothes and she finds a freedom she had never known. But she cannot forget her father and risks her life to see him again.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Nt: I read Deborah Ellis
’ book “The Breadwinner
” very quickly. I had seldom experienced a character as solid, as wonderfully flawed and real as Parvana. In many ways, she was different to me, but in other ways I understood her on a very deep level. I knew she could move mountains. I knew she could lead me to explore her story through animation.
Animation is a very unique medium which allows complex ideas to be explored through multiple conscious layers, yet it can appear simple. The thoughts of basing an animated feature around this character, this environment, this complex set of circumstances, felt like something I had to take on.
There are few times in my career I’ve felt so certain about something — this film is quite special to me. And it’s special to the crew who worked on it, too.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Nt: I didn’t set out to leave the audience with a message. I think if I had taken that approach, I would have failed miserably. A filmmaker doesn’t make messages — they make stories and audiences interpret those stories. I think how each member of the audience experiences a film or a story can depend on what they bring to it.
As we worked through the story process, I thought of every character in this film as my child, my husband, my brother, myself. The film says different things to different people, we layered the story in a way so that children would be aware of different aspects than what adults would be aware of.
I think that approach has been successful and adults are often upset about what they think children will feel rather than what the children actually experience watching a film. During the making of the film, we did test screenings after which the children generally came out chatting while the adults were red-eyed and silent.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Nt: I had three big challenges: I didn’t get to go to Afghanistan so I had to rely on frequent consultations with Afghan people to try to be as authentic as possible to the subject matter. I had to do a lot of research and a lot of back and forth, trying to understand a culture, a history, and a people who were not my own.
At the end of the day, I concentrated on the things every culture has in common; we all worry about our children, we all find rituals in our day that give us a sense of normality, we all do what we can to get through life in one piece. That makes the story universal.
I also wanted to make sure that the characters and the drama of this film felt epic, that the beauty of the animation would make the film hard to turn away from. I wanted the character to feel more real than if they were live-action. Having an incredibly talented cast and crew made this second challenge a huge thrill — I can’t believe the beauty of the animation, landscapes, score, and sound design they all achieved.
Thirdly, I found out I had breast cancer in the last year of four years of film development and production. I went through chemo, surgery, and radiation while working on the film. I couldn’t give the work up, it meant too much to me, so I hung on and I finished treatment two months before the final mix was completed.
I had the support of the team behind me, they didn’t bat an eyelid when I walked into meetings with painted on eyebrows or muddled up my scene numbers because of “chemo brain.” The crew made it possible for me to work with an unorthodox approach to the final year of animation production.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Nt: Ok, you asked: The film was funded by the film boards of Luxembourg, Canada, and Ireland, a number of tax breaks from each of the co-producing countries, investment from Bai, Gaia Entertainment
, Shaw Rocket Fund, Artemis Rising Foundation, Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Harold Greenberg
Fund, RTÉ, The Movie Network, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Gkids.
This is what my creative partner Paul Young
calls “Franken-finance,” where you scrape every cent together from the least amount of sources and try to build the budget. We are lucky in Ireland, Canada, and Luxembourg that our governments support projects like “The Breadwinner
” and encourage co-productions between our countries. Producers on a co-produced Indie really have to earn their crust as you can imagine how much coordination goes into closing a film with this many partners.
From the U.S., Mimi Polk Gitlin
came on as an executive producer for this film. She produced “Thelma and Louise
,” which was a formative film for me, so having Mimi’s support on “The Breadwinner
” meant a lot. Angelina Jolie
also came on as an executive producer and her guidance was a great help throughout the process.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Nt: Toronto is where we found our cast, where we recorded them at Wanted
! Sound + Picture, where we did all the film’s compositing with Guru Studio, our grading and mixing at Technicolor. Aircraft Pictures
, our co-production partners, are based here and I have such a strong connection to the city because of this film.
It is the most fitting premiere for “The Breadwinner
” and I’m truly delighted. We premiered “Song of the Sea
” at Tiff a few years ago and that was very special. I absolutely love Tiff, and the Tiff Bell Lightbox theater where I recently saw the brilliant “Lady Macbeth
” by Irish producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Nt: I hate being told I can’t do something. Even if I don’t want to, I’ll be compelled to do something if someone says I can’t. I left school at 15 and one of the teachers tried to scare me into coming back by listing all the things I couldn’t do without that qualification.
I have qualified in many areas since school but never got my graduation certificate. If you’re determined, you’ll make your own way in life.
My husband gave me the best advice (after I kept nagging him for his opinions) and that was to trust my instincts. I tend to undermine my own decisions by looking at things from every conceivable angle, so I try to remember to listen to my gut.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Nt: Don’t ask for permission and don’t wait for the “right time” for anything.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Nt: I love “Archipelago
” by Joanna Hogg
. It’s a film about a dysfunctional family on holiday and, honestly, I keep referring to it when I’m trying to work out how to be subtle about human relationships and about letting your audience come forward and fill in the blanks on the screen. She’s a phenomenal filmmaker who does things on her own terms and is incredibly talented.
I also love Lotte Reiniger
, a German animator who made the world’s oldest surviving animated feature, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” — which is featured at Tiff this year.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Nt: In animation at least, I think there is great hope.
I recently gave a lecture at a French college where in a class of 20 animation directing students, only two were male. I asked the tutors why this was the case and they said the standard of work from young women coming up was such that they struggled to include young men.
I think animation in particular, being a medium whereby one might direct a project for a number of years rather than a number of months, means these women coming through will change the culture of the workplace. Making more space for women and men who want a better work/life balance.
I have also noticed that young women coming up through the ranks in animation are more confident than I would have been at their age. I have been door-stopped by young women asking questions about directing and I think this is a really positive change. It didn’t happen 10 years ago, and I didn’t do it 20 years ago.
Tiff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Nora Twomey
— “The Breadwinner
” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.