INTERVIEW: Nora Twomey and Saara Chaudry Discuss ‘The Breadwinner’

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As the new animated film, “The Breadwinner,” expands to theaters nationwide, it is beginning to accumulate recognitions, nominations, and awards.

Earlier this week, the film was nominated for 10 Annie Awards, and was selected by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as the Best Animated Film of 2017.

“The Breadwinner,” based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, tells the story of Parvana, a young girl living with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan in the days preceding 9/11. When her father is arrested, Parvana takes it upon herself to provide for her family during the days of oppressive Taliban rule.

Fourteen-year-old Saara Chaudry voiced Parvana in the film that was directed by Nora Twomey. Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with them and discuss their exceptional film. The respect and admiration they have for each other was palpable, and their mutual love of the film shone throughout our conversation.

KP/Awards Circuit: Congratulations on this remarkable film.

Nora Twomey and Saara Chaudry: Thank you.

AC: I know you’ve been answering a lot of questions about the film, but, to start off, what is something no one has asked you, that you wish they would?

NT: Saara, I would love to know…There are scenes in “The Breadwinner” where you have to give it your all. How do you go there? How do you get to that place?

SC: I’m not really sure. I never really thought about it. It’s kind of one of those things where it just kind of happened. I think having experiences in my life where I’ve gone through rough times…I think that’s the main thing that helped me to go to those places. And having you [Nora] right next to me, always trying to push in different directions was very helpful. We filmed this right after I’d gone through a rough patch and we had recorded everything. I think I was able to go back into that sad, harsh place because I had gotten stronger through different life places. That’s why I was able to shake it off.

AC: What was the experience like for the both of you working together? How collaborative was it?

NT: I was extremely collaborative. This is the third time I’ve directed voices, so I’m very aware that the voice performance is the gold which your animators beat into different types of ornaments. If the gold is not precious enough, is not pure enough, it will just fall apart. So, for me, that space in the recording studio is such a sacred space. And to have an actor who is both talented and trusting of a director and doesn’t hold back is so…Saara is able to change a performance. I might have an idea that maybe we can do it another way and then Saara can adapt like that.

It must take a lot of energy out of [her], but it never showed. There’s something universal in Saara’s understanding of the character of Parvana that’s just there now, trapped in amber and it’s precious gold to me and to the animators.

SC: The process was extremely creative, especially as an actor. I’m given a script and go on set and that’s the character I am. I’m told ‘move that way’ and ‘use these props’ and there we go. But, the fact that we didn’t really have much to go off of and I wasn’t shown much of the animation before we started recording, I think that was a really smart thing to do because it allowed me to be creative in a way I’ve never really been able to before. And I think it was so special to have an input and to be collaborative…We were able to build this character right from the bottom and add different layers.

AC: Was “The Breadwinner” always planned as an animated film?

NT: For me, it was always intended to be animated. But before I came on, it had another life with Aircraft Pictures in Canada. They had the rights to Deborah’s book for years. Eventually, [the producers] had seen “The Secret of Kells” and decided it would work as an animated feature. There is a feature film called “Osama” about a girl in Afghanistan in similar circumstances to Parvana, so I guess what animation brings to this project is a paradox.

In one sense, you can get closer to a character like Parvana the simpler she’s drawn. But at the same time, animation allows you to distance a little bit because it’s not a real girl going through real things. In one sense you emotionally disconnect. There’s also something timeless about animation because a film like “The Breadwinner” is not going to date in twenty years time.

So, for me, animation is the perfect medium for expressing so many of the things you see in this film. It’s a perfect way to explore her family and her life. You can get close to Parvana, while also exploring the limitlessness of her imagination and the world that she inhabits in her real world existence.

AC: One of the things I liked about the animation was the decision to use a different style for the story-within-a-story. What was behind that decision?

NT: Being aware that the film was a serious subject matter and the character has to go through some pretty traumatic things, we wanted to make sure the audience didn’t emotionally disconnect. I also wanted to make sure we had a kind of pallet cleanser throughout the film so one style didn’t get tedious, or one set of circumstances didn’t get tedious. We spend a lot of time in a small room with just three women and a toddler and that can become claustrophobic.

There were lots of decisions. Even the decision to put it in CinemaScope was a decision whereby which we could get these wonderful breadths across the vistas. We could explore that story world to the degree we did. We knew [the two stories] had to be different, we just weren’t sure exactly how. But we knew the real world Parvana inhabited in Kabul had to be something physical so you could get the sense of dust and distances. There was no playing around with perspective. Then, whatever that world was, the story-within-the-story wasn’t. We went for a different color pallet and a different sense of physical laws and a different look.

 

AC: What was it that initially drew you both to this story?

SC: For me, personally, I read the book when I was nine years old. The librarian had recommended that I read it, so I started reading it with my mom. I fell in love with this character and her determination, her bravery, her positive outlook on life. I fell in love with her. Deborah Ellis became my favorite author. This became my favorite book. I had no clue it was going to turn into a movie and I had no clue I was going to be involved. You know, I was just a young girl with a dream to be just like this character.

I sent letters to Deborah Ellis explaining how I loved the book and how I wanted to be just like this girl. And she actually wrote back to me and sent some books, so I was over the moon. A couple of months later, she came to my school, so I got the opportunity to meet my favorite author. And she was taking some questions from the kids, so I raised my hand. I said, “I really love ‘The Breadwinner,’ and you’re my favorite author. Is there a chance that ‘The Breadwinner’ could be turned into a movie?” And she said it was still in the works, they weren’t really sure, but maybe. And so I waited and waited and, before I knew it, my agent called and said there was an audition for “The Breadwinner.” And all of a sudden, here we are today, and now I’m Parvana.

AC: So you became the character you admire so much.

SC: I know, it came full circle, and it’s absolutely a dream to just be sitting here today. It was so weird because we were signing books today and I had a flashback to when I opened that package from Deborah Ellis with those signed books, and now I was able to sign “The Breadwinner.” It was mind-blowing. I can’t wrap my head around it because it’s such a dream.

AC: Nora, what drew you to the film?

NT: I think, having read the book, I was just so excited by the idea that we could do it, you know? I’m in such a privileged position to be a studio owner in Ireland, who has access to funding in Ireland, and partners across the world who are also willing to come on board with stories we want to tell. The fact that we could do it mean that we should do it. And for me, as a woman, I have a huge amount of privilege, but it’s not something I take for granted. So to be able to tell a story that might express something about the strength of young girls and the vulnerability of life and how precious life is, and something complicated as this. How complicated life is and the strength of family.

All of these things were what drew me to it, and the fact that I could express that with a team of over 300 contributing to it. One of the animators stopped me in the corridor one day and asked, “Wouldn’t it be nice if [Parvana’s little brother] was a little shy when she comes back with her hair short?” And the fact that people were thinking about this story when they didn’t have to. For me, to have that generosity from the people around me just made it a dream to work on.

AC: For several months now, a lot of people have predicted that “The Breadwinner” will make the cut for an Oscar nomination. How does it feel to be part of a film that has that kind of discussion?

NT: I try not to think about it, honestly. For me, the big prize is for people who wouldn’t normally go see a film like “The Breadwinner” to go and see it. Angelina Jolie is a big supporter of this film and one thing she does really gracefully is bring eyes to an obscure indie film that wouldn’t ordinarily get as many people to see it as it does when she supports it. And Academy nominations do the same thing. They put “The Breadwinner” in the vocabulary of people who wouldn’t ordinarily see it. We don’t have a massive publicity budget, so on the one hand, that would be wonderful, of course. But, ultimately, the big prize is for this story to reach an audience.

You can read my official review of “The Breadwinner” here.

“The Breadwinner” is distributed in the US by GKIDS and is now in theaters.