The latest film from Cartoon Saloon is “My Father’s Dragon” and we had the chance to chat with director Nora Twomey and star Jacob Tremblay. It’s based on the Newbery-honored children’s book from Ruth Stiles Gannett and follows Elmer (Tremblay) as he struggles to cope with a move to the city and a massive change in circumstances. Along the way he crosses paths with Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) , a young dragon seeking his own place in the world.
[Interviews have been edited for clarity.]
DHK: I am going to dive right in. Logistically, what do you think was the most challenging thing?
Nora Twomey: The most challenging thing with “My Father’s Dragon” logistically was certainly trying to navigate the fact that at a point in in the filmmaking process, our entire crew had to move out of the studio and move to their bedrooms and kitchens, and wherever they could find a corner of a table and work from there,from their own homes.
I think that was, that was probably the most difficult part of this entire production in ways that had opportunities attached to it too, though, because we were, you know, we we made sure that we communicated in ways that our entire crew every Friday, you know, got together for today, and we went through the work that had been done that week, and how things were going, so we communicated a lot more than we usually do.
And it was really nice for people in different departments to get more of a window into other departments that they might not necessarily always get. And we had wonderful things happen like Gaten Matarazzo, who plays the part of Boris, for example, he came on a call one Friday and just talked about his processes are as an actor.
So you know, some of our crew who might want to become directors at some point or have interest in acting, they were able to really access I guess, people’s stories that they might not necessarily have had before.
So we tried to make a good experience of things that were actually a bit challenging.
DHK: Yeah, that is a big logistical challenge. I will narrow down the question slightly and change it to what sequence do you think was most logistically challenging to get right?
NT: Oh [laughs] what sequence in the film was most logistically challenging.
Early on, I guess about 20 minutes into the film, we have a sequence where the island is sinking. Crocodiles are chasing after Elmer and Boris. Boris is afraid of water, so he’s holding on tight to a vine in order not to fall into the water. There are there’s an angry gorilla and a really fearsome monkey chasing after them. And Elmer is, you know, trying to entice Boris with a lollipop to manage to get them across the river.
We really wanted our film to be fully immersive, to be very epic, to have a sense of weight and balance and scale and drama about the whole thing. And so that was probably the most difficult sequence that we had to navigate in terms of even recording our actors as well.
Having them imagine what the sequence would eventually look like, was something that required a lot of imagination from them. Because we had some scrappy storyboards. We had some design work, but really, it was up to them to try and imagine the physicality of what their characters were going through. While we put that into production, while we recorded our actors, and when while when our crew got to work on that sequence.
DHK: Similarly, what do you think the most emotionally challenging scene to get right was?
NT: Oh, the relationship between Elmer and Boris is very nuanced. So on the surface, it looks simple enough and that, you know, Boris seems like a comedic character and the straight guy, but there’s layers to that in that Boris is somebody who says, you know, don’t take me seriously. I’m not feeling confident in myself, I don’t think I can do the things that I feel I should do or I ought to do. So can you take control from me?
There’s a layer of complexity to a character like Boris. I identify with them strongly myself, but as I do with Elmer, who, you know, is almost the opposite. He feels like he wants to take a sense of control over things in order to feel safe. So there is an arc to their relationship.
That is, you know, really carefully considered Meg LeFauve our screenwriter, Giovanna Ferrari our Head of Story, Richie Cody our Editor, along with Darren Holmes, we all worked really hard to get that arc working as well as it does. So that relationship although it might appear simple when we first kind of when we first come across it, there’s there’s layers of depth to it and where it goes eventually Gaten Matarazzo and Jacob Tremblay when they recorded their parts, we managed to get them in the same room together to record together for a lot of their work.
But they were willing to both bring, you know that the comedy of you know, kind of situational comedy, all the way through to really heartfelt raw emotional moments between those two characters that I’m really proud that we managed to get that onto the screen because I think it’s not only is there kind of an epic adventure in the film, there’s also that really heartfelt from emotional moments that I think I think audiences will really connect with.
DHK: Yeah, I really enjoyed their journey to self awareness and introspection and the process of meeting other people in order to unlock that in yourself. I’m curious, Which character do you admire the most?
NT: Which character do I admire the most? I tell you, the one I identify with, I guess the most. So I think there’s a little bit of myself and all the characters but sure.
DHK: I would hope as the director, yes!
NT: [Laughs] The one who has to pretend that they know what they’re doing next, even if sometimes they don’t, the one that has to appear calm, even though their insides might be screaming, that’s Saiwa. The one who cares, but might not necessarily always get it right. I really enjoyed Saiwa’s performance. Ian McShane brought so much to the character of Saiwa and the sense of the sense of responsibility, the weight on his shoulders and the ultimate humility kind of thing. For me that character is, you know, the one that I certainly identify with.
DHK: But is it ultimately the one you admire the most? For me, the unsung hero of this, I think, is Elmer’s mother. Just gonna throw it out there.
NT: Yeah. So yeah, I was just about to say that I’m very proud that with Meg and with Giovanna, you know, myself that we managed to get like a real mom on the screen. So one that’s not, she’s not perfect, and certainly, there’s a moment in the film where she is really real with Elmer.
As a mom, myself, I’ve flashes of that, and I understand this. Giovanna as well, as a single mom, was really wanting to make sure that we put somebody who had real depth even though she’s an animated character, she’s a bunch of drawings.
But there’s a real depth to her. Golshifteh Farahani, who voices Elmer’s mom, just did such an incredible job with her as well. So even though there’s real raw emotion there, and you can feel the moments where you feel the pressure on her as well, and that, how much she’s trying to protect him from and how much he’s trying to do.
That was a difficult character to cast in ways, because we needed to make sure that that there was a warmth to her, always, you know, so even though she loses it, as we all do in life, at some point, that there was a, there was a real depth of humanity to her, and Golshifteh just managed to pull it off really, really spectacularly.
DHK: Yeah, I absolutely love all of her themes, it felt very real.
NT: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, Meg, Meg said, you know, that when we were writing her, and, you know, she said that this doesn’t happen in family films. Moms have to be in a family film, they have to be big mama bears, you know, and that they, they have to be able to, like, lift everybody up and never kind of show any real vulnerability.
So I’m really proud of the fact that we managed to get that vulnerability into Elmer’s mom.
DHK: I would say not just moms, but just female characters in general. We don’t get a lot of depth to them, or they’re villainized for emotional outbursts.
NT: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
DHK: I’m really curious. What was the biggest change for you from the first iteration of the story that you saw to the one that we got on screen?
NT: I guess working from the source material of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s book, we wanted to make sure that the narrative structure fitted Elmer’s emotional arc as well as we could make it. Even from the first time I met Meg back in 2012, we were, you know, discussing that, what is it about this island that kind of mirrors and reflects Elmer’s emotional state. And so the the idea that the island was sinking was something that John Morgan, who Meg’s writing partner from the early days, he was the one who kind of told us that the idea that the island sinking, and so that really transformed the way we all thought about the film, and how it mirrored kind of Elmer’s emotional arc.
A number of years ago, I went to visit Ruth Stiles Gannett in the village of Trumansburg in upstate New York, to ask her about Elmer, what was it about his character that she really connected with. And she said, it was that he thought for himself, he was autonomous, he wasn’t going to be told by somebody else. What you know what was happening, he was gonna figure this stuff out for himself. He’s not a superhero. He doesn’t have magical powers. He’s just a kid who’s trying to navigate the world.
I think that was extremely relevant in 1948, when the book was first published, and it still is, you know, and so that’s the heart of the story. It’s the same. It’s a kid trying to navigate the world realizing that the grown ups don’t have all the answers, and having to find those answers themselves and having to find real connections themselves.
That helped them find meaning and helped them find a way forward. So that he knows that even though he doesn’t know what’s around the corner from him, and even though he’s not going to get everything that he wants, he’s going to be okay with that. And that’s something that I’m very proud of that we managed to get into the film.
DHK: These are gonna be some broader or possibly more existential questions. But how did you meet your most unlikely friend? For example the friendship between a child and a dragon on a magical floating island is unlikely so I’m curious do you have any unlikely friends that you’ve met along the way? Or also the idea of somebody who is possibly polar opposite to you, that is now a deep and loved friend that you never would have thought would have been like a close person in your life?
NT: Well, you know, I do seek out people that we’re not just going to be nodding at each other though, the entire time. Like, the creative team here, in terms of Meg and myself, we both have very, I think different ways of looking at story and different ways of looking at characters. But there was a really positive kind of friction.
As we develop the story, and you know, Meg is such, she’s so big hearted, but really direct, and I’m probably less direct. But finding people in your life that are going to give you that are not going to just nod at you and say what do you know, whatever you think is the way forward or whatever, that are going to really challenge you.
That’s something that I do seek and certainly in creative collaborations, finding those kinds of connections with people where you’re both, you’re both pulling something. But between you, you’re managing to get the best out of what it is that you’re both pulling out. I think that those are the best situations.
As a director, if you find everybody’s nodding at you, you’re in a really dangerous space.
So I look for those kinds of really scrappy, honest, creative relationships that really push you forward as a director and as a creative, healthy approach.
DHK: It feels like a healthy approach! Growing up, who was your favorite fictional character?
NT: I love Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. When I was very young, yeah, when I was very young, I watched the Wizard of Oz. And I was just aware of the feeling in that film. It was before I understood that you know how that film was shot. And you know that the idea of a soundstage and all of that I didn’t really understand any of that he just had a feeling about it.
And I just wanted to be there. I wanted to climb into the screen and live there. And so as I grew older, and then I realized, oh, wait a minute, that’s not like, those aren’t real plants, those, you know, those are props. And, you know, that’s a set, it’s not a real place. And you know that I understood the idea of what a matte painting was.
A little bit of the magic was taken away from me. The more I understood, and I realized I couldn’t kind of go back to that innocent state where I thought this was a place that existed, and that Dorothy wasn’t an actor, you know.
And so I think my career has been trying to recreate that, that kind of feeling that that little bit of sense of magic where, where it feels real, when you work with actors, and animators, and designers, and they all are striving for that sense of a distance of those fleeting moments of believing the stories that you tell are real. And so that’s why I’m really drawn to working with them. My fellow players, you know, as they all are, you know, because they, they all, they all want to just create a story. And that’s what I love most about working in film and working in animation.
DHK: So, related question, do you remember the first film that you saw in theaters that you were the person in your family who was like, I want to go see this movie? Like, we have to go see whatever this is?
NT: That’s a complicated question for me, because I didn’t actually go to the cinema at all until I was well into my teens. So I was used to seeing things on a small TV in our kitchen. And I just love that my mother said that, like from, you know, from when I was a little kid in our kitchen, I would just stare at the screen with my mouth open and my eyes kind of wide open.
And so I was always drawn to that kind of storytelling. But it wasn’t until I was well into my teens. I grew up on a farm, we were very practical people. My mother you know, loved poetry it was never a sense that there was there was never that much importance placed on on the screen, you know, it was something that that that that that
I never saw it as something that I could aspire to, like to be a director or filmmaker or anything like that. And so my big experiences with the screen were actually on a really small little screen in our kitchen.
So I remember watching Cinderella, Disney’s Cinderella, and just loving that the sense of design, which I can kind of probably put my finger on now that I’m you know, much older and looking back, you know, whatever, 40 more than 40 years back into looking back into my childhood, but I just loved the, the feel of it, and the look of it.
And I think I could even understand from back then that this was you know, people’s hands, you know, draw people drawing, you know, I remember straight away afterwards, just going and just finding pieces of paper and trying to draw what I’d seen so that I could recreate and remember the feeling of watching that film, but it was just pure magic. I loved the effects in it.
DHK: I was going to say I can see a little bit of the influence in My Father’s Dragon and your other work.
NT: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Again, it’s just pure magic. But yeah, I wish I had seen that on a cinema screen. back then. But, but even my little window in the kitchen. You know, the TV in the kitchen was enough for me to just, you know, absolutely transport me and mesmerize me.
DHK: But so I would imagine that that does make going into the cinema, either a really big experience or not? Do you remember what the first time you went to a theater was more or is it just like, you know, it’s so melted into your past?
NT: It kind of is yeah, that I don’t remember the first one that I saw in the cinema. And (the film) it wouldn’t have been my choice. I think for me, yeah, for me the small screen was my way into that kind of magic reality.
Now of course I love you know, going to the cinema we were actually just, you know, we had the North American premiere for My Father’s Dragon at the Chinese Theatre just just a couple of days ago. And the scale, the score, you know, everybody’s drawings are blown up on the big screen like that. It’s just, yeah, it is pure magic.
DHK: So my last question is, how do you define personal success now? And how has that changed from earlier in your life?
NT: So, personal success, I really don’t look at things in terms of being successful. I think if I can be a storyteller, if I can continue to work with people that love exploring story as much as I do.
That’s, I guess that’s success for me.
You know that that is something that if I continue doing that, that’s working in Cartoon Saloon and the company that I work with, and have done for over 20 years, that’s what certainly draws us all together is just getting to tell good stories together. So as long as I keep doing that,
I’m really happy.
Early on success. I, look, I’m somebody who left school at 15 with no prospects, certainly couldn’t see a way forward in terms of ever getting to work in something as wonderful as film and animation. When, you know, when I, when I whatever, go get a bit older. So at the time, I wasn’t sure that there was a way forward for me at all, in terms of, like, what I was going to do with a career if I could have one.
I didn’t have a huge amount of expectations. Honestly, I wasn’t an academic, academically minded child and I couldn’t kind of work through that as a as a, you know, as I kind of grew.
So the fact that I got to go back into education, to learn filmmaking to find a lot of, you know, people that that I could work with in a studio that we you know, we set up together I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s for me, them that was just, like winning the lottery. So yeah.
DHK: I mean, yeah, I think a lot of people would call that successful. Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on the film. I thought it was beautiful, lovely and sweet.
DHK: I want to kick things off with what do you admire most about Elmer?
Jacob Tremblay: I would say I admire his ambition. He’s easily the most ambitious character I’ve ever played. I love how he has this pretty stressful struggle in the city to this immeasurably stressful struggle on Wild Island. It’s crazy how he managed some stuff.
DHK: What is something that you personally feel ambitious about that you haven’t gotten to explore yet?
JT: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve been so lucky to be able to explore my main passion, acting. Ooh, it’s got to be filmmaking. I want to get into behind the camera as well.
You know, directing, and you know, screenplay writing as well. It’s something I’ve always been ambitious about. I’ve been creative writing in school since like, grade two, you know what I mean? Like always, I always love that creative writing piece.
DHK: That’s very cool. Emotionally, what do you think the most challenging scene to get right was?
JT: Ooh, I think um, I think for me, it has to be I think there’s a scene where Elmer, it’s where there’s the tigers in the forest. And they’re, they’re trying to eat Elmer and Elmer has to kind of convince them that they shouldn’t eat him. They should have this lollipop instead.
Or no, sorry, solid lollipop. It’s cinnamon flavored of chewing gum. And he and he has to like convince them to do it, to go for the chewing gum instead. And I remember recording that, Nora is such a fantastic director, she really pushed me to reach for that kind of salesperson kind of mentality of you know, how this chewing gum is the greatest thing in the world.
DHK: I like it. It’s not like the friendship trauma stuff or the mother relationship. Selling a little piece of gum is the hardest thing for you to get right [laughs]. What do you think you would carry around in your backpack or knapsack? Like what are the goodies you take with you?
JT: I love, especially when I’m traveling to a country you know, other than Canada, for a long time. I love to bring snacks from Canada that they don’t have there. Even it’s like cereal. I think I remember I packed like cereal in it in a suitcase once. I think it was Lucky Charms. Because they didn’t have it in England? I don’t think. But yeah.
DHK: It’s a lot of food based answers. Shifting gears, how did you meet your most unlikely friend?
JT: That’s a great question. Um, most unlikely friend. I mean, I think my, my closest friend would probably be you know, my cousin. But obviously, that’s like, we’re cousins. So we obviously know each other so well. But, you know, I’m also very close to my grandfather. We have a lot of similar interests in cars as well. So you know, we talk about that a lot. I love spending time with him.
DHK: So genetics, you met them all through?
JT: [Laughs] Yeah, pretty much.
DHK: What do you think the nicest thing your parents have done for you is?
JT: Definitely supporting me in my career. I mean, I wouldn’t be where I am now, if it wasn’t for them. Ever since I was a little kid. I always was, I mean, everyone at my age, they’re, they’re more interested in, you know, sports and stuff like that. I was never really interested in that, you know, I cared way more for you know, pretending to be Indiana Jones in like grade two, you know, then you know, playing a game of hockey that just never really interested me that much. So, you know, ever since I was a little kid, I really appreciate how my parents would, you know, show me these movies that they grew up with?
DHK: So this is an excellent segue into some of my broader questions growing up who was your favorite fictional character?
JT: Ah, there’s just so many. I have to say, maybe Indiana Jones. Luke Skywalker is obviously up there but I’m really excited for the new Indiana Jones. I always loved him as a character. I think he’s so cool. So unique you know how like an archaeologist you know you didn’t even see that anywhere else but yeah, had to be Indiana Jones.
DHK: Since you’ve done a ton of voice acting in the last few years, what do you think the most under-appreciated part about it is or something that you wish people knew about it?
JT: I guess how hard it is to kind of I think something that when they watch is you know usually the dynamic between actors is something that is pretty interesting because you know, obviously for “My Father’s Dragon”, I was there with Gaten. But you know, for Luca, for example, I wasn’t actually recording with Jack. I was on my own. It still managed to work so well. And I had never even you know, heard his recording before watching the movie.
But yeah, I think that’s definitely an interesting part. How well the the dynamics usually work.
DHK: So you’d mentioned earlier that something maybe you might be ambitious about that you haven’t gotten to yet is filmmaking. So what is one thing that you learned from working on “My Father’s Dragon”, that you would like to apply going forward?
JT: I mean, what I love about Nora as a director is that she really pushed me to kind of reach for that performance like in the cinnamon flavored gum moment and you know, the tiger bit. I hope that I can bring that to my actors. I mean, I guess it’s, I guess it’s for me, if I if I ended up becoming a director as you know, an actor as well, I can kind of understand you know, in you know, an actor’s thoughts or I guess where they’re coming from, and kind of, and maybe use that to my advantage where I can, you know, understand, you know, how they’re portraying the scene.
DHK: This is gonna be the weirdest question I ask all day, but what flavor of gum or what Lucky Charms marshmallow shape would you be?
JT: Honestly, something completely underrated. I really love citrus flavored fruit. Like lemon, people don’t really like the lemon flavor that much. I always go for the lemon and then the Skittles or you know, whatever. Lemon Lime is always my favorite.
For Lucky Charms marshmallow. I really liked the asteroid. I don’t know why I think it’s, it’s like the orange one. My eyes always were drawn to those when they’re in my bowl.
DHK: What a callback back to tangerine flavors and your citrus sales pitches! Thank you so much. Congratulations on the film!
“My Father’s Dragon” also stars Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Adam Brody, Charlyne Yi, Maggie Lincoln, Jack Smith, and Whoopi Goldberg
It’s now streaming on Netflix.