The pandemic has pushed back a lot of new releases from major studios into next year and beyond, which has led audiences to miss out on a year of new animated features from Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks.


But Apple TV+ and the Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, are hoping to sate that appetite with their latest feature, "Wolfwalkers."


The film, which will screen virtually at the 2020 SCAD Savannah Film Festival, follows the tale of Robyn, who is an amateur wolf hunter in the vein of her father who hunts wolves for their British settlement in Ireland. After ending up in the woods, she comes in contact with Mebh, a celestial "wolfwalker" with the powers to transform into the creature, which leads to an adventure for both of them.


Co-writers and directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart speak with Do Savannah about the film and discuss tackling folklore as a way to discuss bigger issues facing the world, what other films influenced this one and what the future looks like for animation with more interest from studios than ever before.


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Do Savannah: "Wolfwalkers" seems to have a much grander scope than both "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea," did you have that goal in mind heading into this project or did it just expand as you worked on it?


Ross Stewart: "I think, yeah. Even from initial story stages, it was clear it was going to be like really dramatic and an action film. Which immediately sets like all the aims much higher. There's going to be more shots, there's going to be more tricky shots and so I think we knew from the very start, (we knew) it was going to be a bit more of a challenge. But having learned so much on the other films, I think everyone was up for it."


Tomm Moore: "I think there was also an excitement that we had a bigger budget, like it's almost double what we had for 'Song of the Sea.’ So we kind of felt you never have enough; we could have spent the same again, but it kind of felt (like) we could try some things that we weren't able to do in the previous movies like big crowds and armies of British soldiers fighting wolves and all sorts of things like explosions.


"It's longer than any other movie we ever made. We were able to sort of imagine making a 100 minute movie instead of 75 or 80."


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DO: Definitely. One touchstone movie for me after watching "Wolfwalkers" had to be Studio Ghibli’s "Princess Mononoke." Was that a film you all were thinking about while making it, and what else influenced this new one?


Moore: "Yeah, it was definitely a touchstone. But it's actually interesting. I was chatting with the screenwriter and something we haven't been talking about much in interviews is that some of the early influences were this movie called ’Son of Rambow’ that I hadn't seen that Ross told me about and it's great. It's about two boys (in) modern times or 80s, but it had so many parallels (with ’Wolfwalkers’), like kind of a Puritan religious kid making friends with this kind of bad boy.


"We looked at that for reference, and then the other thing we watched was ’The Witch.’ Remember that movie came out and it was like totally a horror and terrifying, and not at all the tone of what we wanted to make. But just like the clothes and the time period, and everything was really interesting."


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DO: That’s interesting that ’The Witch’ would be an influence because for those who have seen it -- it is not a kids’ movie in the least. But I can see where they connect also in just the pacing and how methodical both ’The Witch’ and ’Wolfwalkers’ is.


Stewart: "Yeah, (it was) more kind of a like almost like a psychological thriller, really. It was a huge influence for us in terms of like the costumes and language, and all that kind of stuff. And we even wrote a version of the (’Wolfwalkers’) script with old English, which we immediately realized was a really bad idea, and we had to throw it out. But there's a couple of shots in the film of the scary forest, and when Robin has been taken away from the forest by Bill; we always used to do that sound effect that was in 'The Witch’ whenever they see the scary forest.


"And I think when we first got some people on to work on the film, we sat them down to watch ’The Witch’ as a reference. Afterwards, they were like, ’what kind of movie are we making?’"


Moore: "Yeah, because then suddenly I made everyone watch ’My Neighbor Totoro’ and 'Into the West,’ an Irish movie, and they were both like really sweet kids movies, but like, (’The Witch’) was a different kind of creature."


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DO: In ’Wolfwalkers,’ it has this narrative centered around civilization in transition, so you have the British settlement and the cracking down on other spiritual beliefs, which also plays into ’The Witch’ but also a lot of movies that are currently popular such as ’Hocus Pocus,’ which is doing well in theaters, and ’ParaNorman,’ which I know Ross worked on.


Was there something in that story, and how it relates to current events, that made it a natural fit for this film?


Stewart: "So think in terms of Irish history, when the Puritan mindset of dominion over nature came in with the Cromwellian invasion, it really dramatically changed not just the Irish culture, but the Irish landscape. So many of Ireland's native woodland was chopped down, the trees were used to build boats for the English Navy and there was a huge species extinction drive. The wolves were literally tried to be hunted to extinction, and so in terms of the story that we wanted to tell, with a very strong emphasis on the environment and animal rights as a backdrop, it seemed like a perfect time.


"There was such conflict and a lot of modern environmental problems seem to go back to this idea that was spawning at that time that man has dominion over nature; nature should be controlled. It's almost like our God given duty to control nature, and that wilderness is a thing to be used and turned into productive land, and also a lot of our modern problems can be kind of stemmed back to that time. But there's such an amount of conflict there that it seemed perfect setting for our story."


Moore: "I think it's an interesting worldview that grew up out of a response to what was perceived as a kind of going out of control in terms of corruption within the Catholic Church in the Puritan worldview, which became the basis for American society. America, like the Europeans, replaced the Indigenous Americans, (which) was also the same as the British worldview that came into Ireland and there's amazing parallels to me in how right now there's lots of environmentalists like Paul Kingsnorth, for example, and Native American biologists who are talking about how the Indigenous worldview that this Puritan worldview replaced is actually what we need to look back towards, as we kind of head into the climate crisis.


"And it was only like true making the movie and investigating all this that I saw there was such parallels all over the world, a colonial mindset, wherever it came from...they always saw themselves as good. Like they always saw themselves as doing something that needed to be done and that they were saving the world. They weren't going out deliberately, you know, twisting their mustaches and laughing about destroying forests; they thought they were doing something really positive. And I think we're all still recovering from that mindset where we think it's a positive thing that we kind of dominate nature. And it's so difficult thing to unlearn, you know?"


DO: Yeah, absolutely. To bring back Hayao Miyazaki, I know he always said he made the stories he did because it was easier for children to process these large ideas through folklore rather than making it into some sort of dramatic, adult fare. I feel like y’all do that at Cartoon Saloon as well, is that something you strive for?


Stewart: "Yeah, I reckon it naturally makes it more accessible if it's told in a fairy tale manner. And the fact that we're making it for a family audience, like the kids will be following the story of Robyn and Mebh, and hopefully the environmental themes will be almost subconscious behind this story of friendship.


"In terms of an environmental message, you really can't be too preachy because that turns people off. People don't like to have a message hammered down and so it has to be kind of just, I don't know...I think in terms of other things I've done with an environmental message, maybe, Tomm, you might agree with this, that if you just posit a situation, or a premise, and show that this is the outcome of that, and let people make up their own minds about it – it seems to have more of an effect. Rather than saying, ’this is good, this is bad.’"


Moore: "There's like a micro and macro with all this stuff, you can talk about the big themes, but the kind of intimate theme of what's going on inside Robyn, how she's kind of pulled between the security of what she knows and what her dad expects of her and wanting to fit in and her attraction to the other thing, it's kind of like a mini version of that big macro thing that's going on in the world that we all feel pulled between. So a lot of times, we had to go back through drafts and versions of edits of the movie, to focus in on that inner world that was going on for Robyn in that transition time because her arc happens early. And then she kind of drags Dad after her and we kind of have imagined that's kind of the way it works with any change of mindset; any kind of consciousness raising young people can make the leap first and see the world from another point of view. And then the others come later."


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DO: Absolutely. That’s something I’ve been thinking about often, and that’s the use of folklore to explore and make sense of current events. There’s almost a comfort in the fact that it seems like most battles between good and evil have happened before and folklore helps explain that. And so it becomes such a useful tool for understanding history.


Stewart: "It kind of reminded me in quite a few reviews I was reading they were saying that the story structure is really simple like a folktale. But I've been very interested in storytelling for the last couple of years and (even went) to a few storytelling festivals. And it's amazing that if you find a good storyteller, they'll tell you a story that everyone knows, everyone in the whole crowd knows, so they know exactly how it's gonna end. But it's the journey of the storytelling that they can bring so much more to it that they bring like an environmental slant, or like a personal kind of like revelation into it.


"And so it's the whole kind of journey along that is the enjoyable factor. It doesn't really matter that there isn't like a plot twist at the end or that you don't sit up and go, ’oh, wow, I never would have expected you know that to happen.’"


Moore: "It's the thing Joseph Campbell talks about, there's a language to myth, like there's a structure to it that transcends. Like you can read Greek myths or African stories, or North American and Native American (stories) and they have a lot of similar like language, structures and stuff."


Stewart: "What's funny is that if you read a story when you're a teenager, and then you read the same story when you're in your late 20s, you can get something very different from it, too. So, even though you know the plot, you're still figuring out things using your own intuition."


DO: Yeah, that’s why folklore is really fascinating because that language carries over to cultures that would’ve never interacted with one another. So you have a story in Celtic mythology that is similar to African mythology or Nordic myths, etc. It’s all about the structure and what new thing someone brings to it.


Moore: "That's the big thing that I learned as a teenager from Joseph Campbell. I think he was interviewed by Leonard Maltin, and the idea that like, I loved superheroes as a kid, (and) I love Star Wars and all this stuff. And the fact that they were still working with these structures and these kinds of archetypes that went back into folklore was really kind of blew my mind and made me really excited to rediscover folklore that way."


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DO: Now this film is being distributed by Apple TV+, which is a big step compared to your previous two features. What has that experience been like and are you excited that a wider audience will be able to see your work?


Moore: "Like I've been true to process. Ross too, because he was a big part of the previous movies, but I was sort of out there representing ’Secret of Kells’ and ’Song of the Sea’ and it's like, so strange to me, like we were talking about earlier, that it's this COVID time, because I never had such a machine behind ’Secret of Kells.’ I carried film canisters into cinemas with the distributor in France, and literally had 30 prints that we took from Ireland, to the US and toured around with them on Amtrak trains. G-Kids (the previous distributor) was an office within the Children's Film Festival in New York. Yeah, everything was teeny and really like grassroots.


"It's amazing to have that much power behind it, that more people are going to see it and that it's kind of being hyped up and not just going to end up on Netflix after it's done a run elsewhere. It's going to be on Apple TV+ as a big tentpole. This is our main thing. So I mean, it's exciting and surreal. And I never saw this level of promotion for anything as arty as this except for maybe like a movies that Ross worked on at LAIKA Studios. We were just talking recently about how they always did really good marketing, even though their movies were quite kind of arty and indie. Like the merchandising was always really kind of stylish and LAIKA put a lot of thought into it."


Stewart: "Apple were really great to work with, even during the film production in that they weren't giving us lots of creative notes, they weren't stepping on our toes, they really allowed ourselves to make the film that we wanted to make. Maybe (they) had trust in us as a company. So any of the notes that they gave were really, really minor, like maybe about guns or blood, or things that might affect the ratings. But they weren't asking us to change the story or anything. It was great."


DO: It seems like there’s more of a demand than ever for animation. I saw that the CEO of Netflix said that he wanted five new animated films a year. Have you all seen a growth in interest since you started?


Moore: "Yeah, and a bigger range. We started the studio 21 years ago and it was so tricky to get something made. We were just pulling together little small studios around Europe to co-produce ’Secret of Kells’ and 'Song of the Sea’ was like five studios scraping together five and a half million to make that. Whereas now there's just this audience, which is fantastic, on the streaming platforms.


"The streaming platforms are making it a virtue that they're offering a variety of styles – that's exciting."


Stewart: "Yeah, they're not trying to appeal to the broadest demographic possible. Like they're making films for niche demographics, which is amazing. I think when we were trying to sell ’Secret of Kells’ or even trying to get like funding, one of the main problems were (executives) just going, ’well, this is like a bit arty,’ but it's not Shrek.’"


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