Interview: Director Rémi Chayé and Producer Henri Magalon talk ‘Long Way North’

Animation director Rémi Chayé and producer Henri Magalon are no strangers to awards season, having worked on nominated films “The Secret of Kells” and “Ernest and Celestine.” And with Chayé’s debut feature “Long Way North,” they may have another contender to add to their filmography. In this progressive female-centric film, an aristocratic Russian girl defies conventions by embarking on a perilous adventure to the North Pole in search of her missing grandfather and his ship. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Chayé and Magalon to discuss the film, their upcoming Calamity Jane project and how hard it is to impress kids. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Shane Slater: As French filmmakers, how did you decide on this Russian story to be your debut feature?

Rémi Chayé: At the very beginning, the first screenwriter had in mind that the character would be from an aristocratic background and goes to the North Pole. She had loads of admiration for Russian novels and for tactical reasons, because Sacha had to travel from her palace to the North Pole. If she was Italian for example, she would have to cross the whole of Europe.

SS: So this is a completely original story.

RC: Yes, it is completely written for the movie. At the beginning it was two screenwriters and me, and we were looking for a producer. We invented the story and design of it and pushed it. At the very end with the help of Henri Magalon, we hired a final screenwriter for the final story that you see on screen. That was the work of the final screenwriter Fabrice de Costil.

SS: There’s a general hesitation to produce original stories today. As a producer, were you worried about the risk of developing a story that people weren’t already invested in?

Henri Magalon: Well, before this film I co-produced “Ernest and Celestine” with Didier Brunner and there were some short comic books done on “Ernest and Celestine” years before, but we never approached it as a licensed product of something already existing. For the films I produce I never look for licensed or already existing material just to make sure it’s reassuring for investors. I’m more into original stories that have never been told. I think the audience is willing to discover something new. So for me, that was not a problem. I’m more into looking for regional things that will surprise the audience. That was one of the reasons why I joined the team for “Long Way North.”

SS: One of the most notable aspects is that strong central female character of Sacha. She’s not the typical princess type. Did you always have a clear idea of how that character should be portrayed?

RC: Sacha evolved a little bit from the original script to the final script. For us the main thing was to create danger and challenges for her to get through, to give her courage and for her to able to show her value. So it evolved a little bit. But definitely we had the idea of a female character not acting like the usual princess looking for a prince or looking to be pretty. The goal was to create a courageous female character.

HM: For me as a producer with some distance, my vision of Rémi’s work is that I think he’s a feminist. One anecdote is that I discovered in the middle of production that we had an equal number of women and men working on the film. Equal salaries and equal jobs to make it well balanced. It was a desire that Rémi enforced in the production without actually telling us or asking us to impose it. It was not a strategy, it was the way he wanted things to be done.

So in the script when we wrote the story, six months before entering production we decided that it had problems. So we decided to rewrite everything to make sure that we had the strongest story to enter production, instead of discovering problems while we were in production. And those questions were really about defining the way Sacha is moving. I think Rémi’s vision and way of thinking about society and the way girls and boys should be equal was a big influence in the choices we made. It’s a story that could have been told through a boy’s eyes and it wouldn’t change much. The fact that she’s a girl is really important but she’s not acting in the stereotypical way of female characters. She has goals and her way of thinking about her family and how she wants to live her life.

Our next project together is another strong female character. It’s about the childhood of Calamity Jane and the same topics are discussed…

RC: She’s 10 years old and she’s doing the Oregon Trail with her father. As a girl in a pioneer convoy, she’s attached to the wagon. So she has to wash the dishes and the clothes, take care of her siblings. She doesn’t move that much from the wagon. But her father has an accident. So as the eldest sister she is obliged to drive the wagon, learn how to ride horses and bring the cattle to the river. She discovers the “boy’s life,” she has to dress in a more practical way and she shocks the community. She discovers the freedom that comes with the “boy’s life” and when she has to go back to her traditional female status, she refuses.

And that drives her on an adventure. So we are talking about gender and about how you can choose to be what you want. We want to talk to kids about that in the simplest way possible with funny situations and an adventure.

long-way-north-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-in-the-north

SS: And this will be hand-drawn as well?

RC: It’s going to be the same style, with the same artistic team. We had such a good experience working on “Long Way North.” We had a flat in the middle of Paris with about 40 people working and it was really enthusiastic. All of them said they want to go back and do another movie.

SS: You’ve taken this film to many film festivals since last year. How have audiences responded?

RC: Very well! Very often after the screening, the people are very enthusiastic. We can feel it in the questions. People are very happy with it, really emotional sometimes.

HM: In festivals, we now have a number of awards and great reviews. Even in Japan, Isao Takahata said he loved the movie and is introducing it to people there.

But for me, the hardest critics are the kids. It was incredible to see the kids asking questions. One of the good things that Rémi is bringing is that he’s not taking kids for fools. We’ve been told that we’re telling the story like a live action feature, not animation. “It’s done like a real movie.” And the kids are really clever, they notice everything. They were the hardest to convince and they love the film. Even small kids, 4- or 5-years-old. The kids are asking really fundamental questions and it’s always incredible to discuss with them. They never stop asking questions. We’re glad to get lots of awards in festivals but the kids are the biggest, warmest response we had.

SS: I get the sense that animated films are trying to bring in more thoughtful, serious topics. Do you sense that change in the animation world?

RC: I think there are more movies, so that opens the spectrum of possibilities.

HM: Personally, I think yes. Of course, the budget we raised was quite limited. We had a full budget of about $7 million, way less than what other people have to make movies. So it gave us a lot of constraints to make sure that we do the film in the right way. We wouldn’t be able to do it twice, so we had to make sure we were doing the right thing.

But also, it gave us some freedom and some responsibility for the story. Because we didn’t have 20 or 30 investors that put millions of euros into the film. When you have that kind of economy, you have lots of people there making sure they recoup their investment and you have 20 different people talking about the script. We didn’t have that. We had lots of partners but they trusted us. And we were able to self discipline ourselves to make sure that the story stayed strong instead of becoming like everything else.

But there are some big films that I love like “Finding Nemo” where the mother dies, or “Big Hero 6” where he lost his brother and the whole film is structured around that. Some people in the industry tell me “you’re doing kids stuff, so it’s easier.” But I think it’s exactly the opposite. The kids are so demanding, if it’s not done well they will know and they will tell each other to avoid it. They are definitely not seduced by beautiful drawings, it’s not enough. They need everything to be perfect.

“Long Way North” is now playing in select theaters.