Avast, ye Aardman! Peter Lord returns to directing with 'The Pirates!'
Since its creation in 1972, the British animation house Aardman has produced celebrated stop-motion shorts and feature films starring such distinctive creations as a menagerie of zoo animals complaining about their habitats, a cheese-loving inventor and his mute but resourceful canine sidekick, and a flock of talking chickens looking to bust out of their pen before they’re all turned into tasty poultry pies. With that kind of track record, why would the studio opt to base their latest film around a more familiar (and, some might argue, overexposed) group of characters, namely pirates?
“It’s an obvious question, but I haven’t got an obvious answer,” laughs Peter Lord, Aardman’s co-founder and the director of the movie in question, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which sails into U.S. theatres on April 27. “Like most mature adults, I love pirates. And as a filmmaker, they’re visually attractive—the period, the boats, the hats, the swords, climbing up the rigging, all of that. It’s a fun world to play in. But above all, it was the books that appealed to me. They had this combination of pirates and an extremely funny comic tone.”
The books he’s referring to are a series of four comic novels written by British author Gideon Defoe that are popular in their native country but less familiar on these shores. While not technically children’s books—the fact that the third installment is entitled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists tells you that they’re aimed at a slightly older crowd—Lord says that both kids and their parents can enjoy them.
“Defoe is coming from a very eccentric place comically, but there’s a delightful childlike innocence in the books. Naturally, they acknowledge from time to time that piracy requires running people through with a cutlass, but it never seems dangerous or real. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that the pirates profess that makes them very appealing. The Asterix books are a good reference in the way they play for both children and adults and how the Romans get beaten up all the time but it’s never fatal.”
When the Pirates! series first landed on Lord’s desk at Aardman’s Bristol-based headquarters, he responded so passionately to the material that he did something he hadn’t done in quite some time: He told his colleagues that he intended to direct the film. Although he helmed many of Aardman’s early shorts and co-directed its first feature, 2000’s Chicken Run about the aforementioned hens that plot a Great Escape-style prison break, Lord had stepped away from the director’s chair in the ensuing decade to assume a managerial and producing role in Aardman’s expanding empire, which has grown to encompass TV shows and commercials in addition to shorts and features.
Lord says that his prolonged sabbatical from hands-on filmmaking was not intentional—“It just happened. It was never my choice to do it, but it was a position I found myself in. I’m a filmmaker, really, but I tried hard to do my best in the producer role and did quite a lot of writing too, actually. At a certain stage, though, I realized, ‘My god, if I don’t jump in there, I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing what I don’t really want to do.’ So when this project came along, I felt so strongly about it that I put up my hand and said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ much to the surprise of my long-suffering partner [and Aardman’s other founder] David Sproxton, who now does all the stuff I’d been doing. But I’m happy I did it. Directing is the best job in animation, particularly stop-motion animation, because you’re at the heart of this wonderful world.”
Having announced his decision to make The Pirates! his directorial comeback, Lord then set about transforming the novels—which are driven by humor first and storytelling second—into a more traditionally plotted, family-friendly vehicle. “My job was to put in the story that wasn’t there,” he explains. To aid in this process, Lord enlisted the help of the original author to translate his books to the screen. Working together, they devised a narrative that finds Defoe’s boisterous but slightly bumbling Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) squaring off against longtime competitors Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) to be named Pirate of the Year. In the course of his quest, the Captain and his crew run afoul of a villainous queen (Imelda Staunton), befriend a scientist (David Tennant) and visit such far-flung locales as Blood Island.
Once the story was in place, Lord then brought in a team of storyboard artists to build on what was in Defoe’s script, finding places for great visual gags and large-scale set-pieces. “We took from the books a gleeful sense of fun and this colorful world and then worked to add in a character-based story. You need that for a film because people have to believe in the characters and believe in their motives. However comic they are, however absurd their actions, it’s important that we understand what their motives are and why. Like our lead, the Pirate Captain, is deeply flawed. He’s vain, selfish and doesn’t think of other people’s needs. He’s also got amazing tunnel vision for his own concerns, doesn’t anticipate things coming and he’s not the brightest guy in the world. These are all faults. But I still like him; I like him and I find the fun in him and make him vulnerable so that the viewer also gets him. Then, they understand how he got that way and laugh with him indulgently and are prepared to go on that journey with him. At every stage of the production, I was also urging everyone who worked on the movie to up the comedy and up the fun. My job at the center of it all was to hold it together so that it makes sense, the characters stay where they need to stay and the right jokes make it into the film. We had so many sorts of jokes, so I was editing them and selecting them with the help of the very talented team around me.”
Although Aardman rose to prominence as a purveyor of exceptionally crafted stop-motion entertainments, in recent years the studio has followed the industry’s lead and moved into computer animation, most notably with the 2006 feature Flushed Away and last year’s Arthur Christmas. (The latter film was also Aardman’s first foray into 3D, a process that they’re repeating on Pirates!) In fact, Lord reveals that The Pirates! was originally intended to be a CGI affair as well, largely because that approach seemed more suited to the movie’s large cast and nautical backdrop. (The lapping ocean waves are easier to replicate via the computer rather than the frame-by-frame technique of stop-motion.)
It was Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, the heads of Sony Pictures—which has financed and distributed all of Aardman’s features since 2007—who ultimately recommended that Lord take the company back to its roots with Pirates! Not that he needed much persuading. “I’ll fess up,” Lord says, laughing. “CGI is great and I’m open to any way to get the film made. But for a filmmaker, stop-motion is better. It’s such a fun world to work in, one where you can be surrounded by tangible objects—puppets, boats, beautiful sets, castles, cannons…all of these things.
“I love the reality of stop-motion,” he continues. “It’s extraordinarily immersive, particularly in 3D. When you’re in the Pirate Captain’s cabin on the ship, you see all the walls around you, as well as the beams and the rims of the ship and you can hear the creaking from the surround sound. You can see that it’s real and tangible. In the modern age we see some fabulous films with fabulous CG images, whether it’s a Pixar film or Spider-Man film. The design is great and the camerawork is great and the images are great. But you know it’s not real, that it’s all done on the computer. So even though it’s beautiful and clever, I don’t think it’s magical anymore. Whereas I think with stop-motion, it’s still magical. You know that you could reach into that set and pick up that little cannon or sword. It’s alive, in that sense. And, for me, that’s old-style movie magic.”
Beyond bringing old-fashioned movie magic back to cinemas, Lord’s proudest achievement with The Pirates! may be helping Hugh Grant give his least Hugh Grant-ish performance in quite some time. “People don’t immediately guess that the Pirate Captain is Hugh, which is great fun,” he says. “And, of course, he’s not playing Hugh Grant here—he’s playing the Pirate Captain. He’s an actor and he inhabits his role. I wanted a comic actor for the lead, and while there are a number of obvious suspects for British leading men, there aren’t that many of them that specialize in comedy. That’s what Hugh had to offer above all. People think he’s a romantic-comedy actor, which he largely has been, but I was interested in the ‘com’ bit, not the ‘rom’ bit. And while some of the bits of the character are familiar to him and us—for example, there are aspects of the selfish guy he played in About a Boy here—his ability to swashbuckle, for example, is certainly very new to viewers and new to Hugh.
“I didn’t audition for many of the other roles; Martin Freeman, for example, was perhaps slightly typecast [as The Pirate with a Scarf] because he does often play the straight man and he’s fabulous at that, so he was an easy choice. And Imelda Staunton was irresistible as Queen Victoria, because she’s got such a great, regal voice. I was looking for comedy above all when I went to cast the actors and all of them came in ready to flesh out their roles and find more comedy.”
Now that Pirates! has reignited his passion for directing, Lord confirms that he’ll be shifting his focus from overseeing Aardman’s slate of movies to making some of them. “Running a business as a manager is not what I do—I’m not good at it. I think filmmaking is where I’m most useful and do what I’ve learned to do best. It’s also where I’m happiest. I felt hugely confident while making this movie and I think that’s the result of the passage of time. If I have a tip to young directors, it’s to be good at making judgments. Because that’s ultimately what directing comes down to, making a string of endless judgments and you have to be confident, because the choices you make will be your film. Also, depend on the people around you, because they’re all experts. As I’m talking to you right now, I can dimly hear [“Wallace & Gromit” creator] Nick Park through the wall working on his next project. And down the hallway, [longtime Aardman animators] Steve Box and Richard Goleszowski are working on their next projects. So there’s now a very strong team of experienced guys working on their own projects and we always meet to critique each other’s ideas. That’s the way we work and I’m delighted by it. And as a business, I’m amazed by where Aardman is now. It’s all been very good—I have no complaints about life at all.”