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Interview - WOLFWALKERS Screenwriter Will Collins

wolfwalkers
We chat with writer Will Collins about his new animated adventure film Wolfwalkers.

Interview by Musanna Ahmed

The latest acclaimed feature from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers is another tale which has its roots in Irish mythology. Hailed by many critics as the standout animated feature of 2020, Wolfwalkers follows a young wolf hunter who befriends a young girl who may possess the ability to transform into one of the animals at night herself. We spoke to the film's writer, Will Collins, about the awards-tipped animation.

wolfwalkers poster


Let’s start from the beginning with the genesis of the project. Where does the journey of Wolfwalkers begin with you?

It actually started before Song of the Sea, the film I wrote the screenplay for, which was directed by Tomm Moore, who co-directed Wolfwalkers with Ross Stewart. That film’s journey started in 2008 and it was eventually released in 2014. But once the voice recording is done on an animation feature, you know that most of the film is kinda locked so there was very little I could do as a writer after a certain point - it would be a two-year wait before I saw the finished film.

In that period, Tomm was already thinking about his next film and he had collaborated with Ross on The Secret of Kells - Ross was the art director on Kells. They’re longtime friends, since childhood, and the two of them hit upon the local legends of the wolfwalkers, known as the Werewolves of Ossory, which is a localised myth in Kilkenny, which is where they are based in Ireland. There was a really interesting Irish documentary made about wolves in Ireland, how we had a pretty vibrant wolf population up until the 17th/18th century, and how the Cromwellian army came in and did a number on them. That was the seed of genesis for the lads to create this story.

The most potent illustration of the idea came when they saw - I’m not sure if it was in the documentary or elsewhere - a real-life piece of propaganda that Cromwell’s forces had issued to all of their mercenaries. It was an image of a wolf that was standing on its hind legs and was wearing human clothes. The text of the pamphlet was essentially, “Those Irish people that live in the woods are actually shapeshifters who change into wolves.” They were directing their mercenaries to kill any Irish person they saw in the woods and would give them the same bounty as if they killed an actual wolf because they believed they were the same thing.

So Tomm and Ross had this idea of following an English wolf hunter and his kid who come over to Kilkenny. It was a one-page idea and they asked early on if I would come on board to help develop the story and write the screenplay. I joined in March of 2013, which is a long time ago (laughs). When I came on board, we hashed out an outline of the story and when we were at a place that we were happy with, I wrote a draft. We tore that apart and rebuilt the whole thing and that cycle continued. With each draft, there became less and less to tear apart and, as it went on, more and more people became involved, such as the storyboard artist, and once we were happy with the script, they spent six months making an animatic of the screenplay. We looked at that cut and saw what was and wasn’t working and kept iterating from there.

 

In my review I wrote about how there were several layers to the story, and I’m sure there’ll be more interpretations as the film is more widely seen. One of them, which you just beautifully explained, was the film as a historical allegory, about Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland. Another layer that was so key to me was the focus on familial bonds, how the film is so strongly a parental-child relationship movie. Could you speak about developing that emotional core? Does it come from a personal place for you, Tomm, and Ross?

As a storyteller, the more I’ve worked on my craft, the more I’ve mined personal experience and specific painful, emotional truths to bring life into characters and drama. I’ve always been fascinated by coming-of-age characters and how, when we’re children, our parents are like our gods, the absolutes in all our decisions and beliefs. But there comes a point in our life where we have to forge our own path and find our own identity and principles, the things that we believe we’re willing to stand up for and against and which may be in opposition to our previous belief structure. If there’s a disconnect, that’s a goldmine for drama.

For me, regarding familial bonds, if your parents are good people at their core, the odds are that you’re going to be a good person yourself. I think that’s the case with Wolfwalkers protagonist Robin in the sense that her father Bill is a decent man and knows what’s right and wrong. Bill has to navigate this social conundrum that he’s found himself in and Robin’s moral compass points in the other direction to where he wants to go. I find that both of the girls in the story have good compasses due to morally strong parents. As a result, they have a commonality despite being from totally different sides of the tracks in a really awful time and place of history.

 
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I think one of the things that’s so key to communicating all these themes is the art style of the film. What’s your perspective of the art style? I saw that Tomm had refuted criticism on Twitter from people who described it as “jittery” or any other adjectives that didn’t really align with the purpose of the art direction.

My humble opinion is that the art style is exquisite. What I love is that they were thinking of the art style from the very beginning. They were thinking about how the art supports the writing from the get-go - Tomm and Ross shared an office at the studio and every time I went in, the walls were populated more and more with world designs and character designs. They had a very clear idea with woodblock print and squared angles for the city and fluid autumnal colours for nature. I don’t understand how you call it “jittery”, I don’t know where that sort of criticism is coming from, not sure if it might be about the number of frames the animators are using...

 

I think it might be from an audience who’s too used to a certain type of 3D animation format.

Right. Everything was done with absolute intent, even the sketchiness of the character design when they’re out in the woods, like you can see the outline of some pencil strokes and the colouring of the character bleeding outsides of the lines. When I was writing the screenplay, I knew with complete and utter confidence that I had an idea of what the world was going to look like. The only time I wasn’t sure of what to expect was when it came to the wolf vision sequence. I remember coming to that point in the screenplay and thinking, “Okay, this is going to be really impressionistic” but we had no reference point within the existing Cartoon Saloon films. However, what was a touchstone for us was Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya wherein there’s a beautiful charcoal sequence of where the princess flies. It’s very dynamic.

When I actually saw the finished sequence of the wolf vision and saw how they embraced 3D, I was blown away. It was a ballsy move to go from the 2D form to this first-person perspective in 3D. I remember writing suggestions in the screenplay like “We get a blue smell of the rabbit running ahead of Robin” and I’m delighted that they did a fantastic job at visually articulating what I was trying to picture. I also loved how, in the final battle scene, which is laborious to write because you have to keep track of so many things, that they used triptychs to keep the energy high and keep the audience attuned with the geography of the scene. So, yeah, I think they did an astounding job with the art style. It far exceeded my imagination.

 

As a writer of family films, how did you keep this impeccable tone where you’re not condescending to either the parents or the children watching your film? I don’t want to diss any films in particular but I often find that the genre has to rely on broad humour in the form of a talking animal sidekick or something else that distracts kids from the core story.

I think I’m quite lucky because I have a vivid memory of my childhood. I can remember how I felt in different situations at different times and how I thought about the world. I was a very internal child who had a great relationship with my own siblings and remember the potent sense of drama and dread I had about certain concepts. I remember how open I was to meeting people and making friends. As we get older, we start having certain views of the world, creating stereotypes and prejudices, but as youngsters we’re all innocent. Having a vivid memory helps me write dialogue.

Kids are smart and emotionally intelligent and I can empathise with their perspective. I think why Cartoon Saloon’s films are so good with younger characters is perhaps that we have a bit more autonomy as an independent studio - Tomm is one of the owners - so there’s less interference and notes on how to craft the characters. One of our influences was Son of Rambow, where the kids had this naive relationship which is thrown into a whirlwind. That film had a lot of truth which we applied to the narrative here - we all knew a kid who was just a little bit dangerous and could get us in trouble (laughs).

 
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You have a history of writing films from the perspective of children with Wolfwalkers, Song of the Sea and 'Angela’s Ashes' adaptation Angela’s Christmas. Assuming you do more in this genre, do you have any dream stories you want to tell?

Oh golly, it’s a tough one. All of the films I’ve written which have been produced are indeed from the perspective of children but it’s not something I intended. Most of my own writing is from an adult perspective but I find that I’m just adept at writing from a child’s POV. There’s no major piece of work out there that I’m dying to adapt, really. I’ve been blessed to collaborate with the people at Cartoon Saloon and tell stories that have resonated with audiences far beyond what we imagined - we just thought a few Irish people would get Song of the Sea. My joy has been in the creative collaborations I’ve had along the way and what I truly want to do is simply continue to work with creative people to tell creative stories in all sorts of genres.

 

You mentioned the development of Wolfwalkers started in 2013. How did the studio manage the development of Wolfwalkers and The Breadwinner at the same time?

You’d have to talk to Tomm and Ross about that but I know that the films were in different stages of development. They were also doing TV shows too - it’s a pretty big studio! The Breadwinner was a separate team, Nora Twomey and a whole group of people worked on that and did an amazing job on it. When that was close to release, Wolfwalkers ramped up in production and the cycle has continued as now Nora is working on My Father’s Dragon, which is deep into production and should be released by Netflix in 2021.

 

Wolfwalkers is being distributed by Apple TV+. I’ve sung the praises of Apple TV+’s original programming so much and think it’s a great player in the streaming game. Do you have any insights into working with them?

Honestly, I’ve had little to no contact with them (laughs). But yeah they have been important and so have GKids, who are our theatrical distributors in the States. From my development viewpoint, though, I’ve had no interaction with them. Tomm could give you a better answer but could I ask you, since I don’t have a subscription yet, would you compare the content to Amazon Prime or Netflix, or is it quite sparse at the moment?

It is sparse at the moment because they’re focusing almost completely on originals rather than repertory programming. They seem to target select audiences at a time with each original…

You’re answering the question for me (laughs).

There seems to be a higher quality control compared to the other streamers, in my honest opinion. I have to imagine they paid careful attention to Wolfwalkers and said “This is a great film, we should get this” rather than picking it up just because cinemas had closed down and it needed a new home.

I believe they came on board in the later stages of development so they likely would have had both the animatic and the script and would have bought it based on those two materials. We didn’t really get notes either, we were largely left to our own devices. I certainly wasn’t bombarded by studio or executive notes. Cartoon Saloon is an umbrella that protects its creatives.

 
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All of Cartoon Saloon’s feature films have received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. What would it mean to you if Wolfwalkers continues the streak?

It’d be brilliant. Every nomination is a glorious acknowledgement of the team’s accomplishment. For the level of artistry that’s achieved here, I would love for the incredible work to be acknowledged this way. I don’t want this to be the studio’s first film that doesn’t get nominated (laughs). Of course, that could happen and if it happens, it happens. But I would love an Oscar nomination because the recognition puts a big spotlight on this independent Irish studio. The Oscars are a brand known by virtually everyone, so a nomination can go a long way into making a career. It gives us huge exposure and creates opportunities to make more films. If Secret of Kells wasn’t nominated, we wouldn’t have been able to make Song of the Sea. If Song of the Sea wasn’t nominated, the process of making The Breadwinner would have been much slower.

 

What is it that you ultimately want audiences to take away from Wolfwalkers?

Well, there are a lot of themes (laughs). What I want is for audiences to connect with any one of the themes that resonate with them and fall in love with the film. Of course the ecological message is a very important one, how we have to look after the world more from our own doorsteps or it may not survive. Plus the idea that we all have to discover our own moral compasses and be true to our own convictions. And to be kind to each other. The world could do with more compassion between humans and nature.

 

Final question, is there anything you’re working on that you could tell us about?

Probably not, unfortunately. Everything I’m working on is in an undisclosed state but I’m developing multiple projects that I’m passionate about and working with wonderfully talented people. I’m not trying to be coy about the details but the simple fact of working in this industry is that projects can disappear at any time. It’s not until something is ready to go that we can start talking about something as a real thing. I’d be afraid to tempt fate by speaking about something too early. I’d love to continue my collaboration with Cartoon Saloon but we don’t know what that will be, as this is the end of the Celtic mythology series.

 

Wolfwalkers is in Irish cinemas from December 4th and will be streaming on Apple TV+ from December 11th.

Read our review here.