OSCAR WINNER NICK PARK - Wallace, Gromit and Me
Since I made Grand Day Out, I’ve thought how similar Wallace is to my father, because my father used to make things a lot. He wasn’t an inventor but he was always in the shed making things. In Grand Day Out, Wallace builds a rocket and it’s got wallpaper inside and furniture, and it just reminded me after making the film of my dad. There was seven of us in the family and he made this caravan with a trailer and he put furniture inside and wallpaper and stuff, just like Wallace would, and it just struck me how uncanny it is that he is doing things so similar to the way Wallace does it.
How did you come up with the character of Wallace?
“Yeah, well, the way his wide mouth evolved, the way he says ‘Cheese’, was actually the way the actor Peter Sallis says cheese in his very northern English way. I actually animated some of Grand Day Out with a smaller mouth and then it came to the point where he had to say cheese and suddenly his mouth had to go, ‘No cheeese, Gromit’, really big.”
Is he based on an old uncle or something like that?
“Well, since I made Grand Day Out, I’ve thought how similar he is to my father, because my father used to make things a lot. He wasn’t an inventor but he was always in the shed making things. In Grand Day Out, Wallace builds a rocket and it’s got wallpaper inside and furniture, and it just reminded me after making the film of my dad. There was seven of us in the family and he made this caravan with a trailer and he put furniture inside and wallpaper and stuff, just like Wallace would, and it just struck me how uncanny it is that he is doing things so similar to the way Wallace does it.”
Do you think that’s why you have stuck with these characters because there does seem to be quite a strong emotional attachment to them in the way you talk about them?
“Yeah, definitely. I think of them as family, really.”
Do you see yourself in them?
“Yeah. Sometimes I’ve been animating them and I’ve seen members of my family in them. I see myself in Gromit quite a bit.”
The cool one who’s always got the ideas and finds solutions?
“That’s more my dad, I think. I think there is a part of me that wanted to be an inventor, I think. When I was little I used to read Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, inventors, mad scientists. But I guess that is part me, someone who just kind of goes in feet first. I tend to get ideas and just let them move me. Gromit, I sort of relate to him too, because he’s the more cautious side that wants order in the universe, where Wallace is the force of chaos, I think, and gets ideas and just does them. And they always lead to problems that Gromit has to solve.”
In Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Gromit seems quite courageous because he follows the monster into the ground.
“Yeah, he is very courageous in this film. I think at heart he wants a quiet life. Wallace gets him into trouble.”
Can you say something about how Gromit started out as a cat and then transformed into a dog?
“I don’t know if I’ve even got any pictures to prove it but I went back to old sketch books from art school and yeah, Gromit was the name of a cat. I didn’t even think back then that it would be a clay animated film so I hadn’t designed it properly. When I started modelling the cat I just didn’t feel it was quit right so I just made it into a dog because he could have a bigger nose, bigger, longer legs.”
Is a dog a more interesting lead character than a cat?
“You could do it with a cat. I’m sure you could make it funny and entertaining and everything.”
Do you have dogs or cats?
“I’ve never had a dog, actually. I’ve never had a cat. I’ve had other animals. We had a chicken once, actually, which we treated like a dog. It used to come in the house and get food and stuff. We had guinea pigs, stuff like that. Goldfish. Not really very interesting pets.”
How do you see the future of stop motion? And are you happy with the fact that Aardman is now also dipping its toe in CGI with Flushed Away?
“You know, on that particular film it was because there are so many special effects in it that it was more economic. And more effective. Actually that was more the reason, because there’s so much water to do. In Wallace and Gromit we avoid big effects stuff, really; things that can’t be done with plastecine or clay. I think there is room for both, though. I admire all these films like Shrek and Toy Story, all those Dreamworks and Pixar films I do admire a lot, actually. But, personally, with Wallace and Gromit, I just prefer clay and plastecine because I love the feel and texture.”
But is it frustrating the length of time it takes to shoot one single scene or do you enjoy every minute?
“I don’t enjoy every minute. But it’s the cost of shooting a feature film, really; it’s the long haul project. Having so many people working, my time is spent directing other people and training them to animate Gromit’s brow in the right way, Wallace’s mouth, what have you. But CGI films are no quicker to make than stop-frame films. They take the same length exactly. We spent 18 months filming for this one, and it’s exactly the same for CG. The process is different that’s all.”
And the relative costs?
“This is cheaper. It’s cheaper doing Wallace and Gromit, anyway.”
Do you still own the rights to the characters?
Did DreamWorks ask you to give them up, for a special amount of money?
“We spent a lot of time negotiating, you know? It is rare for a Hollywood studio to not want completely everything. We negotiated for a long time and we got a good deal.”
It would have been like selling your family.
“Yeah, I couldn’t give up the rights to Wallace and Gromit. They’re like our Crown Jewels, so we couldn’t give them up.”
Despite all your success, is Hollywood still a strange place for you?
“Yeah, it is. I never thought playing with plastecine, as I started, would lead to such glitz and glamour. And the attention they’re getting, I never even imagined it. I never really made the first films for an audience. I just thought of myself and wanted to make the most entertaining thing I could think of.”
It’s been quite a long time since the last film. Why?
“Yeah, well we’ve done some short pieces with Wallace and Gromit just before this, sort of ten one-minute pieces, called Cracking Contraptions, and I was just supervising that, really. We had a bit of downtime in the studio and I let some of the animators have a go at these short Wallace and Gromit clips and that acted, actually, as a good training ground for them in the future.”
Would you describe this as a horror film?
“Yeah, in a Wallace and Gromit absurd way.”
Why the horror theme?
“I just think the idea was appealing, really, of using rabbits. It all came from this idea where Wallace and Gromit’s vegetable patch is attacked by rabbits and they have to do things to keep them off, keep the rabbits away, and it all developed from there. At the time it was an idea for BBC Books that they rejected, and it was called Wallace and Gromit and the Veggieburglars.”
Did you want to say anything about animal rights in the film or similar themes?
“Well there are themes that run throughout the film. For example, their way of catching rabbits with the BunVac 6000 is a humane way of catching rabbits.”
Where do they release them?
“Well that’s part of the story, really. What do they do with them is a question in the story. That then leads to another problem, so they hadn’t thought of that. But yeah, the reason why Lady Tottington likes Wallace is his humane way of treating rabbits and her kind of evil suitor is a blood sport fanatic. So yes there is a point of view. But I don’t like to put the themes very high, upfront, really, but the underlying themes are Gromit is trying to get his master to give up cheese, and I think he realises it’s a bad idea by the end of the film. You can’t change anybody. If there is a theme I think that’s the real message of the film.”
You began as a little company. What have you gained and what have you lost in your relationship with DreamWorks?
“Well, I think it’s just been gain really, so far. We are a small company but we really treasure what we have so I don’t feel we’ve given anything up. Like I say, we treated these [Wallace and Gromit] as Crown Jewels, really. Any Hollywood studio, if they’re doing a deal with somebody else, would want to own characters and that’s why they do the deals. But we have managed to get a good deal where we’ve kept hold of them. I feel we’ve got a good deal because Jeffrey [Katzenberg] is signing the cheques to make the movie but he is staying fairly distant to it as well. He does come over to England. He sees the movie and comments. He’s very sharp, I really appreciate his comments. We’ve been quite cautious to not just play to the Hollywood tune, you know? We’re very aware of that to not lose the spirit of the early Wallace and Gromit films.”
Chicken Run has Mel Gibson but this film doesn’t have a big box-office grabbing star. I’m surprised.
“It doesn’t, no.”
Was that a problem for the studio?
“It hasn’t been. Yeah, in a way Mel Gibson in Chicken Run was a very good way of selling the film to an American audience particularly. But it’s as far as we wanted to go, really. We weren’t interested in stars for this at first. Probably, I think, Jeffrey would have wanted bigger stars, if he had a wish list. But he was quite happy. I mean they are big: Helena [Bonham Carter], Ralph Fiennes. . .”
Yeah, but it’s become a big thing to get stars and model the characters on them. DreamWorks did it with Shark Tale.
“We’ve not been concerned to do that, really. Wallace and Gromit are the stars and we don’t want to detract from that too much. I think Ralph and Helena are known enough in the States. Jeffrey was reasonably happy with that.”
Did you have concerns about how Americans would respond to the characters’ Britishness?
“Right, well, when we first sold the Wallace and Gromit shorts to America, there were people who suggested we dub them, get rid of the strange of British accents and put clear American voices on them, and we held out. I think Jeffrey would agree that, you know, anybody would be shooting themselves in the foot. Because since then we’ve had so much response from Americans that like the voices, it shows that if you respect the audience enough, they can take onboard things that are not native.”
Are you making fun of the British upper class with the Fiennes character?
“Yeah, in a funny way we were. The classes in Britain don’t exist so much in the same way but we were playing with, I guess, a kind of older view of the UK, Britain, and the class system.”
Some people think before they meet you that you’re this old duffer because there’s something very nostalgic and sort of 1950s about the world of Wallace and Gromit.
“Yeah, well, I love all that. With this, partly, we wanted to keep the strange, quirky, British, slightly uncool feel to the whole thing. They have this new Austin A 35 van in the movie; I’ve actually got one myself. That sounds fairly old. I’m into collectors cars. I just thought if Wallace had a car it would be that one because it’s round and has lots of character.”
Did you have to fight for this uncool atmosphere against other ideas coming up?
“Um, well, yeah. You have to guard it, definitely. But it’s not big and overt. Jeffrey’s not coming in saying, ‘Make your characters into teenagers’, anything like that. He knows the shorts and he seems to respect them and stuff. But it’s more subtle things, really. There was a discussion about why don’t you get some younger, trendy actors in to play Victor and Lady Tottington. But we said we didn’t want to and it was fine. So it’s not a big pressure. But I think there’s a natural move towards the teenage.”
It’s a culture clash.
“It is a bit but we kind of live with it, you know? I felt kind of privileged that someone was willing to do this film.”
DreamWorks never divulges its budgets which seems ridiculous. What do you, as the director of this film, think of this policy?
“To be honest I don’t always know what the budget is, actually. But it is very labour intensive, so you need a fair budget for this kind of movie. But it’s cheaper than CGI.”
Which part of the moviemaking process do you enjoy most?
“I like designing the character but I also like the storyboard stage because it’s like writing. It is writing, really. It’s formulating the film and visualising how it’s going to look. It’s the ideas stage. I like being involved and coming up with ideas and expanding ideas, thinking of a character.”