Outtakes Online: ‘Shrek’ director brings ‘Mr. Pip’ to HIFF

Oct. 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

BY MIKE GORDON / mgordon@staradvertiser.com

New Zealand producer and director Andrew Adamson is best known for the fantasy worlds he brought to the screen — “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” two films based on “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Puss In Boots.”

But his live-action feature film, “Mr. Pip,” which marks its U.S. premiere Saturday, Oct. 12, at the 33rd Hawaii International Film Festival, is a gritty departure. Adamason adapted it from the best-selling novel by Lloyd Jones, who helped write the screenplay.

1011 mr pip

‘MR. PIP’

New American Filmmakers

United States Premiere

Screens at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, and 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18

It’s set on Bougainville Island during a largely unnoticed civil war in the 1990s. The lead character, a teacher named Mr. Watts (Hugh Laurie) helps a young girl use imagination to survive the violence. When Watts reads from his favorite book, the Charles Dickens novel “Great Expectations,” the young girl is transported to a Victorian world filled with friendship and hope.

The 46-year-old Adamson was in Honolulu to attend the Oct. 12 festival screening and lead a special question and answer session afterward. He was excited to describe the many layers of his film, particularly what he called “the redemptive power of imagination.”

He found much of the truth he sought to put on screen in the very location he chose as his backdrop — Bougainville. Adamson said he initially considered filming “Mr. Pip” at other, more convenient locations than the tiny village he settled on.

HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER: Why did you feel it was important to film on Bougainville?

ANDREW ADAMSON: This was a story they suffered for and that they really wanted to get out there in the world.

A lot of time we are re-enacting some significant trauma that they lived through,  which also made for that documentary like authenticity. There were times where it was like shooting a documentary. We set a church on fire — which we built — and then filmed it effectively like a documentary. I would run up to people and say, say this line and inject drama into it. And because of that we created a very lifelike situation.

SA: What was that like for the Bougainville islanders?

AA: They would get quite caught up in the emotion of it. Fifteen or 20 years ago they would be living through this very experience.

So you got this very emotional performance which was almost like trauma therapy. It was people re-enacting these very traumatic events but re-enacting them in a very safe environment. It was very, very cathartic.

Often we would sit around afterward and they would sing and pray and tell stories. It was a really amazing experience for everyone involved.

SA: You’ve done a lot of animation. Could you have made “Mr Pip” as an animated feature?

AA: I don’t think so. It doesn’t lend itself to that. There is a very gritty underbelly to that film. What I wanted to capture was a documentary type of authenticity. Sure you could tell that story but it would be a very different film and it wouldn’t be the right way to do it.

SA: How much influence on your work has Dickens had, if any?

AA: When I came to this the first thing I connected with was the foreground story, which was the story of this young girl identifying  with this fantasy character in a very brutal and war-torn world. As a storytelling it was really fascinating to find a story that was about the power of story.

But I had studied ‘Great Expectations’ in high school and even though I hadn’t read it for a while, it stuck with me. Dickens wrote that book as a serial. He had to write several pages a week. At some points you can really tell. And reading it you slog through the process that he had writing it. And then you come upon some poetic gem that has an amazingly clear comment  on life. That is what I went back through and drew a lot of those things out and found ways to relate them to Matilda’s story. They exist in the film as a voiceover read by Hugh Laurie, who has a beautiful voice for reading.

SA: What are the strengths of an animated story that convince you to direct a film in that medium and not as a live-action feature?

AA: The process of animation allows a very intricate way of telling a story because you keep working on it and refining it. You keep re-telling the story and perfecting it where in live action you have a script, you get the actors together and there is a lot more spontaneity and you structure the film a lot more in editorial after you shoot it. In animation a lot of the editorial process happens before you shoot it.

So the process of storytelling often makes animated movies a lot more deliberate and a lot tighter.

But really, to me, it’s not a big difference. Emotionally as a director you go through the same arc. You face the same challenges of telling a story. It’s just the process and the order of things is a bit different.
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Mike Gordon covers film and television in Hawaii for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at mgordon@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter. Click here for more coverage of the 33rd Hawaii International Film Festival.

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