LWLies takes tea with the Pirates! director and Aardman hero.
Peter Lord likes his tea. When asked how he takes it, his unironic, knee-jerk response is: “The English way.” Strong, milk, no sugar. Lord is one of the co-founders (along with producer David Sproxton) of Bristol’s hallowed Aardman Animations. The studio’s world-beating creative portfolio includes Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Creature Comforts, Morph and a dazzling miscellany of shorts, music videos, adverts and TV shows.
Remember the ‘Friday Feeling’ adverts for Cadbury’s Crunchie? That was them. And the amazing music video for Peter Gabriel’s 'Sledgehammer'? Them again. Aardman has become a torchbearer for a quietly receding artisanal enclave within the ranks of British filmmaking, and now sits alongside such iconic institutions as Pinewood, Hammer and Ealing. The studio’s new stop-motion feature, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, is merely the latest feather in an overstuffed hat.
Lord, for whom Pirates! is a first directing gig since 2000’s Chicken Run, slurps at his tea, suffixing each gulp with a satisfied “Ahhhh!” You could imagine one of Aardman’s comic creations being saddled with this amusing affectation, perhaps a walrus talking about his taxes in Creature Comforts, or even Wallace himself. “The concept of Englishness is very important to Aardman,” affirms Lord. “With each new work, it’s a quest to find the right tone.”
Pirates! is a film that suffuses the traditional image of the marauding pirate – as seen in the likes of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 swashbuckler, The Black Pirate, or Errol Flynn’s rum-splashed 1935 Captain Blood – with a strain of quaint, parochial and always surreal humour.
Adapted from Gideon Defoe’s screwball novel of the same name, the film charts the ramshackle crusades of the Flashman-esque Pirate Captain (impeccably voiced by Hugh Grant) and his salty crew as they attempt to win first prize in the always-heated Pirate of the Year competition. Due to the mammoth production period of stop-motion features, Lord has been ensconced in the world of Pirates! for five full years.
As much as Aardman is known for affectionately skewering the genteel concept of Englishness, its barbs are always executed with the utmost kindness. Where Wallace represents a kind of daffy, loveably eccentric middle-Englander whose existence is entirely motivated by the pursuit of home comforts and luxury comestibles, the Pirate Captain seems to hark back to the type of blustery, can-do reactionary most often encountered in patriotic war fiction. For a screen referent, think Graham Chapman’s bullish army sergeant in Monty Python, or even Hugh Laurie’s blissfully defective Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third.
“The Captain thinks he’s great until he enters the public domain and there’s an American pirate who’s a thousand times more spectacular than he is,” explains Lord. Indeed, one of the methods Aardman employs to emphasise the Englishness of its films is by juxtaposing their characters with brash Americans; Mel Gibson’s cocky presence in Chicken Run being the standout example. Pirates! twists Hollywood convention further, casting the American in a dim light. “Any British person who’s watched movies for the last 20 years has probably felt some slight resentment towards the fact that the villain is always English. So this is for all the Alan Rickmans, Jeremy Ironses, Steven Berkoffs and Ralph Fienneses out there.”
When LWLies meets with Lord on a cold Sunday evening in Bristol, his film is still in the final stages of post-production, but the mood is already upbeat. “I’m delighted by it,” Lord admits. “But considering Nick Park’s work with Wallace and Gromit, I have a bloody hard act to follow.”
Park is, of course, one of Aardman’s big success stories, and probably remains the company’s most regularly name-checked filmmaker. Rather than a healthy creative rivalry, Lord sees his directorial style as being merely a different side of the same Plasticine coin: “Nick loves film references, puns and wordplay whereas I just don’t do that.Yet, where our approaches to comedy may be different, I hope that audiences think our work shares the same variety of charm.”
How would Lord describe his own sense of humour? “Well, it’s hard to pin down. One of the comments I’ve had about this film, and which I think nicely sums it up, is that we’ve managed to tell every type of joke. Either by brilliance, or more likely by good luck, with this film I’ve been able to combine slapstick, verbal exchanges, surrealist absurdism, funny ephemera and grand visual set pieces. It’s that broad combination of approaches which I think makes good comedy.”
Considering their output over the last two decades, it wouldn’t be unfair to deduce that the Aardman team has dedicated itself exclusively to the art of comedy filmmaking. But that hasn’t always been the case. At a recent panorama of innovations in the field of animation at London’s Barbican Centre, Peter Lord’s 1981 short, On Probation, was selected to represent the early days of independent British animation. This brilliant film about the quotidian trials of a young offender pioneers many of the techniques that Aardman would later exploit for comic ends, most notably the interplay between animated visuals and dialogue taken from real, unscripted interviews.
“It seems like a lifetime away,” Lord says with a wistful sigh. “But the process is very much the same. And that was a great learning experience. When you really listen to the nuances of these interviews, you learn a lot about acting and movement. It’s so genuine and real. My memory of making it is very vivid. It was on a shoestring budget and we were holed away in the corner of a studio.We had just the one puppet. It’s a very serious film, probably the most serious I’ve ever made. The guiding principle was that none of the characters would smile. I’m very happy that we did this back then. It’s very hard to make a serious animated film now. Political films in general are not particularly inviting to funders.”
Would Aardman ever consider a move back to ‘serious’ stop-motion? “I’ve never been a political person,” Lord replies. “I’m rather soft on all that. To make a film about a serious issue is a good thing, and I love to watch so-called ‘serious’ films. I think the only way I could do it is if I retired and then filmed it in my garage. It’s not an immediate plan, but I sometimes think about it. Then again, if I did retire, I’d probably end up making another comedy. I just like to see people laugh.”
Aardman’s unabashedly populist remit has been central to its worldwide success. But just because it has managed to secure a broad fanbase doesn’t mean we can denigrate the subtle artistry of the studio’s filmmaking. Stop-motion is extraordinarily time consuming, requiring abnormal levels of delicacy and patience. Example: one of the jokes in Pirates! is that the Captain treats his crew to weekly ‘Ham Nite’ – Lord tells of how the models of ham that feature in these scenes were specially commissioned by a Spanish artist who, in order to accentuate the honey glaze, created each slice with a special wax-based compound.
Yet he is also quick to defend other disciplines, suggesting that CG or hand-drawn animation is just as labour-intensive. On that note, the conversation hovers towards the other great modern animation houses: in the West, Pixar; in the East, Studio Ghibli. Lord contemplates for a beat when asked whether he sees these companies as friends or rivals. “We’re all fans of each other,” he says with a chuckle. “We will be competitors some time. Arthur Christmas was up against Cars 2 at the Golden Globes. They gave it to Tintin. No comment. But, luckily, nobody would ever be stupid enough to put the two films up against each other in the same time zone.
“Competing for prizes... for me that’s all just nonsense,” he continues. “I’m good friends with John Lasseter. I’ve known him since Luxo Jr. We met sitting on the front row of a cinema at the Annecy Animated Film Festival. And Ghibli, well, what can you say? The best of their work is just fabulous. My Neighbour Totoro is especially magnificent. I’m honoured to be spoken of in the same breath.”
Lord admits that the path to what he describes as “animation literacy” has been long and circuitous, and that an educational grounding in the old masters is a must. In conversation, film directors usually demure from questions about those that have influenced them, preferring instead to frame themselves as artists untainted by the follies of the past. Lord is refreshingly open and proud of those filmmakers that helped him forge a style and sensibility of his own.
“Tex Avery I loved. The Quay brothers, too. Street of Crocodiles is particularly fantastic. I could never make anything remotely like it ever, but I admire it hugely. I was influenced by a Russian director, Yuriy Norshteyn, and a film he made called Tale of Tales. It’s this beautiful, poetic thing. He started making a film called The Overcoat based on a story by Gogol, but he never finished it. For me, that was interesting because here was an animated film about the poetry of ordinary life. A man and his overcoat.”
He’s quick to add that literature is another of his great loves and that he is a voracious reader. However, he rarely reads with an eye to tracking down the next slab of juicy material for a new film. “The truth is, I have no instinct for adaptation. It’s not what I want to do. When I read books, I actively don’t want to make them into a movie,” Lord explains.
Does he have books constantly thrown under his nose by producers hoping that Aardman will work their claymation magic on them? “I was shown the original book of Shrek in the early days before it was ever made into a movie. It was very pleasant and fun, but I just didn’t see how it would be a movie. God knows they went a long way from the original book to the final film. But I don’t read books that way. When I read Pirates!, I just found everything about it spectacularly interesting. The tone, which is separate from the humour, is this surreal combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the banal and the bizarre. It’s actually the only book I’ve ever ‘gone for’ in that sense.”
Lord is a man who is driven by creative impulse. Yet he is also clearly very savvy about the business of filmmaking and the demands of the marketplace. He reveals that he despises the term ‘family’ when discussing demographics, and that one credo of Aardman is that they make films entirely for themselves and their own amusement.
Nor is he abashed about his hope for a sequel to Pirates! “I would love to do a sequel. But when I first thought that, I said, ‘What are you saying Peter?’ The word ‘sequel’ or ‘Pirates! II’ doesn’t really make people intrigued or excited. In basic terms, we wouldn’t need to do all the prep and all the character design, so that would shave about a year-and-a-half, two years off the process. Part of that time is uncertainty – it’s knowing what to build and how to build it. We spent a lot of time fooling around, and by that I mean ‘being creative’. It’s just what you need to do. I feel so utterly uncynical about this film. I just think, ‘God, there are so many more jokes we’ve got to tell’.”