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Photograph: Apple TV+

Oscar-nominated Wolfwalkers’ creators on reimagining Irish folklore for a global audience

We chat with the directors about the animated film, colonialism as the villain, and their favourite folklore ahead of the European Film Festival

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid

Who doesn’t love good folklore? Here in Singapore, we’re obsessed with age-old tales of Sang Nila Utama, Redhill, as well as Badang and the Singapore Stone. And we’re not curbing our appetite for stories beyond the Lion City either. When Apple TV+ dropped its first animated film Wolfwalkers in December 2020, we were quick to get sucked into Irish folklore as told by Ireland’s answer to Pixar, Cartoon Saloon.

The Oscar and BAFTA-nominated hand-drawn adventure takes you to Kilkenny, Ireland in the 1600s where characters like a young apprentice hunter named Robyn Goodfellowe and a shape-shifting ‘wolfwalker’ known as Mebh come to life in technicolour – or rather, honeyed autumnal colours. It follows the unlikely friendship of Mebh and Robyn whose dad is tasked by the malevolent Lord Protector to kill the last wolf-pack. After promising to find Mebh’s mum, Robyn realises that she has bitten off more than she could chew.

Besides introducing non-Irish viewers to Celtic wolf-mythology, Wolfwalkers also casts a magical spin on real history. It revisits a grim era in Ireland where the English were the baddies, and deals with topics like man's relation to nature, environmental destruction, and colonialism. “Some of the most horrible ills of human history have been done under colonialisation, and we're still feeling the effects of that,” director Ross Stewart tells us.

Along with Tomm Moore, the Wolfwalkers directors chat with us more about the film, including using old-school hand-drawn animation, wolf mythology, and colonialism as the real villain, ahead of the Oscars as well as its European Film Festival screening in Singapore at The Projector on May 9. They also share with us their favourite folklore, next project, and thoughts on online streaming and theatrical release.

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Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore, Wolfwalkers
Photograph: Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore

Hi Tomm and Ross! Firstly, congratulations on your Oscar nomination.

Both: Thanks!

Tomm, I heard you used to frequent Singapore.

Tomm Moore (TM): I used to spend a bit of time [during the holidays] in Singapore because my parents were there for five or six years. And it was a great spot to get a lot of Japanese animation stuff that you couldn't get here. 

Speaking of Japanese animation, I heard you’re a big fan of Studio Ghibli which uses the traditional hand-drawn technique. And this is also used for Wolfwalkers instead of CGI which can be seen in most of the Oscar-nominated animated contenders. What inspired you to use the classic technique?

TM: We’ve been quietly plugging away doing hand-drawn animation here in Cartoon Saloon in Ireland for 22 years now, so it's kind of our first protocol. Ross and I had worked together since the very beginning and had loads of ideas we hadn't done yet. We wanted to see how far we could push hand-drawn animation. I think we’re lucky we got away after Klaus, Into the Spider-Verse, and How I Lost My Body – lots of really interesting animation that was combining CG and hand-drawn that had come out lately. And so, I think it came back into fashion and just the right time.

Animation audiences are becoming more and more interested to see traditional animation, of course. In Singapore, when I visited, Japanese animation was still so popular there and that's been hand-drawn for a long time. They didn't go CGI as everyone else did in the West. I think, internationally, hand-drawn animation is having a little bit of a mini resurgence.  

I think for this story (Wolfwalkers) in particular, it really helps because it's got a fairy tale quality and it feels like a picture book, which makes it a little bit more timeless.

...hand-drawn animation is having a little bit of a mini resurgence.

Why wolf-mythology?

TM: The starting point of the story was local folklore here in Kilkenny (in Ireland) where we grew up, kinda like a werewolf.

Ross Stewart (RS): But also, kind of anti-werewolf in that they didn't become monsters, they just became normal wolves. One of the unique things in exploring was that we discovered that there was so much folklore around wolves back in the time when wolves lived in Ireland. But then with the extinction of wolves in Ireland in the 1700s, all of the folklore and all of their beliefs and customs connected to wolves vanished too, so it was quite an eye-opener to figure out that with the extinction of the species, you don't just lose the animal, you lose all human connections too.

The Lord Protector is clearly the villain in the film. Is he the embodiment of colonialism? If so, does that make colonialism the real villain?

RS: The reason why we call him Lord Protector and not Oliver Cromwell is that we didn't want to be too historically accurate, as to one kind of villain in Irish history. And really, what he represents is a destruction of the environment and subjugation of people, ruling by fear. And this “taming of the land”, as he calls it, has taken place in lots and lots of different countries, and usually under colonialism. Some of the most horrible ills of human history have been done under colonialisation, and we're still feeling the effects of that. 

Today, a lot of the environmental destruction that happens now is under the same mindset that rich, powerful people have the right to go and destroy environments to use the earth for financial gain, not thinking about the native people and the native environment there. So, it is kind of an anti-colonisation theme with the Lord Protector.

Some of the most horrible ills of human history have been done under colonialisation, and we're still feeling the effects of that.

What are some of the key takeaways from the film that viewers in Singapore can learn from?

TM: Besides Irish folklore and history? Hmm, if you think about sedimentary rock, there's been this like building and building of culture and belief systems. So underneath everything, there’s an ancient Pagan way of looking at the world that's quite animistic. It saw the whole world as being alive and everything being worthy of respect. We didn't have the notion of this hierarchy and were much more matriarchal. We kind of just wanted to speak to that because that has somehow survived colonialism from England and globalisation in recent times, so with that aspect of the culture, we're just trying to remind everybody it's still there, buried underneath all the other sediments that were built on top. 

Photograph: Apple TV+

Wolfwalkers also marks the final instalment of Tomm Moore’s Irish Folklore Trilogy. Does that wrap up the Irish folklore theme, or will there be more? 

TM: Maybe but everything that's in the works right now is focused on the different cultures and different folklore. I think maybe in the future we'll come back to Irish folklore, but with a different angle, but I suppose. 

RS: There are new directors in Cartoon Saloon and they have their own unique vision which they might decide to tell a story based on Irish folklore, and put in their own style. It’s very open-ended now. Anything is possible.  

Any takers on telling Asian folklore?

TM: I've always been very interested in folklore from around the world. But I think the next film that's inspired by folklore is drawing on, um, like Guadalupe and Caribbean folklore, and how we mixed in with other folklore in New York. It’s very interesting because I feel like we all know since the time Joseph Campbell wrote [The Hero with a Thousand Faces] that folklore everywhere has similar themes. And I find it all so fascinating to see that, for example, a lot of Japanese folklore that we saw in Ghibli movies had a lot of parallels in Irish folklore. 

I've been looking at a lot of Native American folklore mythology, and we have [an upcoming] series that kind of mixes Greek myth with Irish myth with all sorts of different mythology from around the world. It's still a really rich source for all our movies, so who knows where we'll go after that? 

Do you have a favourite folklore?

RS: I grew up reading Greek myths, and so they always have a special place in my heart. Just recently I listened to an audiobook of the Norse mix, and they're really, really interesting, like they were kind of Savage and really primal. I also started listening to an audiobook of Indian myths. I just love how in nearly all of those early mythologies, they mix up magic with realism so easily. And the fact that gods are mixed with humans, and human hero gods are made. It’s just fantastic because they didn't really have any limits on their imagination, and a lot of time they were speaking to some really primal human instinct that we can still respond to today. So it's amazing that you can read a story or listen to a story that's two or 3000 years old, and they can still resonate with you.

It's amazing that you can read or listen to a story that's two or 3000 years old, and they can still resonate with you.

Were there any challenges faced while working on the animated film during the Covid-19 lockdown?

RS: There were challenges. But we were lucky in that we recorded all the music and did most of the things that required people to be together just before lockdown – it was just before Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland last year that lockdown happened. Some people had to work from home for the last four months of production, but we were lucky in that we just got the tail end of the lockdown.

One thing that did suffer is that we didn't have a chance to have a big crew party when it was all finished. But we still have that plan for when we can do it.

Nonetheless, you pulled through! How does it feel like to be the first Apple TV+ animated film? 

TM: I think it’s great! We're getting a lot of attention and a lot of focus. There's a lot of responsibility you don't want to mess up later because it's like the flagship, but I'm really happy [Apple TV+] trusted us and that they put so much work into the marketing. [Plus] we're also part of them building an audience – like they're catching up or trying to catch up to all the other streaming platforms – so I think we're getting a lot more focused than we might have if we were just part of a big library from another platform. 

I just keep on trying to remind people that even if they don't just sign up for Apple TV+, they can watch it for free on a free trial. To me, that means that more people can watch it legally in good quality for free, which I think is very positive. 

What's better – online streaming or theatrical release? 

TM: I love the cinema experience and I love supporting art house cinemas that are dedicated to showing different movies. And one of my favourite cinemas in the world is the Stella Cinema in Dublin which is just an amazing experience. 

When I was in Singapore, I used to love going to cinemas. They had big seats, blankets, and we had a glass of wine. And even if the movie wasn't so good, the experience was great. I think the cinema experience is really special and really important.

But what can be frustrating when you're an independent studio making an independent movie is that you feel like only people who already love this kind of movie would be able to see it. And so the fact that we're on streaming as well means that people might give it a chance that wouldn't spend a lot of money to go to a specialist cinema. I like both. 

RS: If it wasn't for Covid, [Wolfwalkers] would have been the perfect release because we’d have a short theatrical release so people could go see it on the big screen with amazing surround sound and have a communal sharing of watching this new film. And then it goes on to a streaming platform where everyone in the world literally can watch it as part of their subscription or free trial as Tomm said, so I think that's probably the best way to release them. 

What’s next for you? 

RS: Well, personally I'm going to go back to painting and I'm just in the process of doing up my studio. But I do have some ideas for a kids book or a short film, and then another idea for a feature film, so I don't necessarily want to jump straight back into animation. I might take a year off and then just focus on painting.

TM: Yeah, I'm just trying to draw a lot and I'm looking forward to taking some time to help the other directors in the studio with the projects they're doing because there are lots of really exciting projects at the moment in the studio. I think after the Oscars ceremony, it'll be time for a little bit of recuperation. It's been a long journey, all through the lockdown.

Wolfwalkers is available to watch on Apple TV+, and will be screened as part of the European Film Festival at The Projector on May 9 at 2pm.

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