Interview: Coraline Writer and Director Henry Selick
by Alex Billington
February 5, 2009
What goes on in the mind of a brilliant stop-motion filmmaker? Well, why don't you find out! Last week I sat down with Henry Selick, the writer/director behind not only the upcoming Coraline, but also Nightmare Before Christmas. After seeing Coraline in 3D just the day before doing the interview, I can't even begin to tell you how excited I was to spend just a few minutes talking with Henry. It's taken him years to craft the world of Coraline and the result the end is something so visually astounding and beautiful that it's hard to appreciate every last detail in one viewing. So without any further ado, let's get into this!
Watch our interview with Henry Selick:
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I shot the video portion of the interview using my Flip Mino camera. I've also included the full transcript below for those who wish to read rather than watch. With Henry Selick in particular, I think there is something very unique to be gained from actually watching him answer the questions via the video rather than just reading them. While he has plenty of fascinating things to say either way, I think there is so much more insight found in actually watching this as if you were there in-person. Hopefully you've enjoyed this interview as much as I did! Don't forget, Coraline is in regular and 3D theaters this weekend!
I just want to say nice to meet you. I'm a big fan of your work. I really love everything you do, especially Coraline -- loved it, saw it yesterday.
Henry Selick: Oh well that's music to my ears, great. Thank you.
So to get into this, obviously, starting at the very beginning -- how did you first come across Neil's book, and how did you get into it and what interested you?
Selick: I was somewhat aware of Neil through Sandman. I knew that graphic novel. I didn't know he'd already written other, more old fashioned novels, without lots of pictures. I was introduced to Neil through an agent, a very creative guy named John Levin. And this was back in 2000. Neil had been working on and off for almost ten years on Coraline. He sort of first started writing it for his first daughter, Holly. And it was always a side project. She kind of grew past it and he put it aside, but his second daughter, Maddie was in the picture and so he finished it for her. When I read it, it was basically the first draft, and it wouldn't be published, it wouldn't be out for two years. So I got to see it very early and I just -- in reading the story, I just felt like I'd found a true collaborator, a lost brother in Neil, with a sensibility. And I come much more from visual storytelling. He's a wordsmith of great talent, and just -- instant connection. By the time I was halfway through the book, I could see a movie. And I could go on and on, but you have more questions.
Next question, I have to get into the technique and the processes. Where do you begin with this? So you have the script. What's the first thing you do? Do you start building models and going from there, and then just flesh out the worlds?
Selick: In this case, I convinced Neil. I took the project to Bill Mechanic, who is someone I had worked with. He was a former head of 20th Century Fox. He'd started his own company, Pandemonium, and I convinced both Neil and Bill -- "Give me a shot. I want to write this. I don't want to have to wait for another screenwriter and then change it." And they both said sure, you know, we'll support that. But the first draft I did, it was awful. It was too faithful to the book, and it basically was as if you'd put the book in a machine that just put it in a screenplay form and it didn't work. It didn't feel like a movie. It didn't have the right pacing, so I had to tell Neil, "I'm going to go away. Let's see what happens." And during that period is when I was -- I found my voice.
I made some fairly big changes, set it in the US, simply because I was more comfortable writing American English. I introduced this other character, Wybie, to give Coraline someone to kind of go up against directly and other changes. And that was the screenplay that everyone liked with the adjustments, Neil, especially. Now this project was not -- I didn't get it off the ground right away. We couldn't. It was unusual, scary. Bill had a deal where he wasn't allowed to make animation at first, because he was with Disney and they didn't want him competing. So there was the early period of time, and we ultimately could not get it going where it was discussed even as a live action film. And then it sort of went on the back burner. I kept writing it and working on it for a long time.
It was not until four years ago that I found the right home and support. But I never stopped rewriting the script and thinking about it, so mentally, I imagined every detail in the movie, just because it was like my hobby. I'd go back and write something. I'd think about it. And so in the journey from the first original creative time thinking, I imagined quite a lot of the film. And that ultimately, from the script -- what normally -- what happens from the script, you start casting voice talent, you storyboard the movie, you sketch. Do you know what storyboards are?
Yea, of course.
Selick: Okay. Storyboards are, you know, integral to animated films because you kind of edit the movie before you make it. It's a less expensive way to explore. So I worked with a great team of story artists. We came up with every possible imaginable way to depict a scene, we sort of tried and figured, I'm a big part of that. I used to be a storyboard artist. That becomes the blueprint for the film. You're casting voices. You're designing characters. There's sculpts of them being made. It took four different sculptors -- me working with four different sculptors to finally get her. She's our lead, so it was a very long time to get her right.
The voices come in. You're growing the characters with puppet fabrications to make them. From the storyboard, you get a sense of the sets and the space that you need, and the art department grows. You start to build the worlds that these characters will inhabit. You're recording voices. You start to select the takes. And eventually, you know, the lighting crew comes in, and these puppets are taken out onto the set. And I worked with the animators as the actors, just like you would. You sometimes do poses for them. You do sketches. They might act out their idea, or I'll act the idea. And then they do rehearsals, and ultimately, you launch the shot and hope it works out.
How do you balance the story-- I mean from your point, being the director-- and making sure the story's intact, and the technique, and making sure the scenes are looking correct and that the puppets are correct. How do you balance that from your standpoint?
Selick: I think that one of the things that I can do is I seem to have the ability to zoom in super tight for very small details, but then jump back for sort of that big picture perspective. And I think that ultimately, that's one of my strengths, because you have -- every detail matters. You have to be able to go in and explain, you know, how the tea leaves look in the cup, and how that animation has to be believable.
I guess what it comes down to is I lived so long with the project, every shot in the movie, I kind of -- I know this is what has to happen in this shot. It won't matter how good the animation is, but if you know Coraline doesn't show that she's disgusted, or she doesn't show she's disdainful, or some physical action, that has to be perfectly clear. If that didn't happen, then the shot doesn't work. So I know about all the details, but I really -- I've learned to like what are the essentials. Any type of animation, it could be really super crude or very sophisticated, it doesn't mean anything if we don't make this point in this shot, this one here and this one here. There's the saying one shot, one thought. It's pretty much a true way to go.
How do you feel you've grown with your technique over your four films? I imagine that from the beginning, it was sort of an experimental learning process. But now that you've got four mostly animated films at this point, how do you feel you've progressed? How much have you grown?
Selick: I don't look at the earlier work and think of it as crude. It's really -- I think I've grown for each film. What were the needs of the film? In the case of Coraline, we're doing humans. They're stylized, somewhat cartoonish, and they're odd shapes and different proportions, which I like to do. But ultimately, in this film, we needed to make them very expressive, that we needed a range of facial expressions and body language. I was looking for this place between cartoon and live, and it's a pretty precarious, delicate place to go, but that -- for this film, that's where I've grown. We were able to get more expressive nuance performances from our lead characters.
How was it working with 3D? I think I have to compliment you, especially with this film in that for me, with 3D, I find that it's all too often used as a gimmick; whereas, with Coraline especially, it was used to just enhance the atmosphere and the space. And is that something you were really going for? Was it a challenge for you to achieve shooting with 3D this time?
Selick: I've had a longtime interest in 3D. I shot a cheesy 3D rock video 20 years ago. It was for View-Master, the people who make those little wheels with pictures you put in. I still love them. I still think they're amazing, because you're looking at 3D. And so I met the guy whose technology was behind it, Lenny Lipton, who from then until now, he's the guy that's perfected the modern cinema 3D systems, this company called RealD that he hooked up with.
So I was exposed to it and intrigued, and then I would check in with Lenny every few years to see where was he at, what stage was he at. Going back to Nightmare, there were a couple of hobbyists who would shoot stills, and they'd come back from the special lab, mounted in cardboard, a left eye and a right eye. They would shoot 3D stills and we'd look. We had this longing to share what we could see in those stills with an audience. It seemed it stopped motion. It shows it off like nothing else does.
And ultimately, in the story of Coraline, I was looking for what can I use to enhance this idea of this other world being better, richer, a place of freedom. And 3D, just the timing of 3D and it being in the -- coming into the theaters, the technology was there. It just sort of all came together. And the number one thing was to write a script for the 3D through the film that sort of kept it under control. And it was more about drawing the audience into the screen, rather than coming out and bringing it.
Going back, it seems like there was never those moments -- except at one point at the beginning with the needle poking out-- but there were never those moments where it was like jumping out at you. Like I said, I think it's just fantastic to see you drawn into the universe, as opposed to otherwise.
Selick: Thanks. Yeah, we -- I had to work hard to get people to keep it calm. We're saving it for here. Everyone wants -- look, this is my shot. This is my chance. No, we've got to not wear out our welcome.
Do you see 3D as a filmmaking element that's going to be used a lot more as time goes on?
Selick: It certainly is happening in a big way in animation. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks is a real proponent pushing for more 3D systems to be put in. Pixar is remastering some of their older films in 3D. This last film from Disney, Bolt was 3D. It's happening. I'm not sure if -- I don't think every film needs to be in 3D. You know maybe The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke doesn't necessarily need to be 3D. I hope it doesn't get overused. I think it's a really great technology, and for the right film, it can really enhance the experience. But if people expect to make every film 3D and crank it up, that's going to say to the movie business it's not going to work out that way.
Are you, per chance, working with Tim Burton again on Frankenweenie?
Selick: You know I haven't seen Tim for a couple of years, and I would love to work with him again, but you know I'm not -- right now, I don't see that happening.
Okay, is there anything else that you have coming up?
Selick: I've been buried so deeply on Coraline that I've talked about various things, but you know I'm still -- I'm in this world now.
Yea, I understand.
Selick: What really comes next is I've got to stoke the fires on those things, but there's nothing quite happening yet.
Thank you to Henry Selick for this interview opportunity! Also thank you to Claudia Paris of Focus Features for setting this. Coraline hits theaters everywhere this weekend!