Last week I sat down with Torill Kove at the NFB and had a conversation about her latest film, "Me and My Moulton".
GL: You were born in Norway, but you moved to Canada when you were twenty-three. Why did you choose to come to Canada, of all the places to go?
TK: I moved here for a boy. I was young, and in love. It didn’t work out, but I stayed anyway. I like it here.
GL: When you first moved to Canada you were studying urban planning, but then decided to switch over to study animation. Why make the shift?
GL: With “Me and My Moulton” being so closely based around your childhood, would you say the creation of this film was more for yourself or for an audience?
TK: I definitely made the film for an audience. My childhood was not that problematic, so I didn’t do this as therapy. I think many people have a very strong desire to want to think well of their family, even if their family is not perfect. It’s also very common to compare one’s family to other families, and to idealize the image that the “perfect” family projects.
GL: How long was the production process on this film?
TK: I worked on it in spurts over three and a half years. When I was about half way through Moulton, I got an offer to direct the Norwegian animated feature “Hocus Pocus Alfie Atkins”. It meant that I had to put Moulton on hold for a bit, but it was an offer I just couldn't turn down. “Hocus Pocus” was a very different experience, because it wasn’t my characters or my story and the design was very tightly tied to the design concept of the Alfie Atkins children's books. But, it was a really interesting and great experience. And, “Hocus Pocus Alfie Atkins” became one of the top ten Norwegian movie ticket purchases in 2013.
GL: In general, indie animators aren’t able to make a living entirely off the income from their short film work. Is that a challenge for you as well?
TK: Yes. I also have a “sideline” of illustrating books. They make a little money, but it’s not an obvious way of making a living.
GL: There is a beautifully animated scene where the children are at dinner and they’re constantly tipping off their chairs, which happen to only have three legs. The scene perfectly illustrates how design and functionality collide, especially when children are involved. Did the furniture in your short - the three legged chairs in particular - exist, or was it only a visual metaphor?
TK: Oh yes, they existed. My childhood was full of furniture that would tip over or fall apart, constantly. My dad had this one chair that you couldn’t even sit in, but it was a part of the room’s decor. As children, we knew you couldn’t sit in it, but guests always had to be told.
GL: And the numbers on the clothing representing the chronological order in which the children were born. Was that something directly from your childhood as well?
TK: No, no. The numbers are totally obscure; just my own in-joke. Many years ago I remember reading a Psychology Today article called “Stop blaming your parents, your siblings made you who you are.” This idea, that regardless of the relationship you have with your parents, your siblings, and the sibling order, shape who you are, stuck with me. I’m not sure I’d say they are the sole factor, but I think it’s an interesting way to look at it. I think your whole family shapes you, for better or worse. At least I find that’s my experience.
GL: On the topic of design, I noticed the tree foliage was very unique. How did you decide on that particular style for the trees?
TK: I’ve always had such a problem with trees. I know how to draw one kind of tree now - I’ve learned. But my standard tree didn't look right in the background design of Moulton. So I went back to my storyboard and noticed that my tree sketches were just a vertical line with some scribbles on top. So in the end the final trees were inspired by a combination of storyboard scribbles, architectural sketches and Marimekko fabric designs. I’m pretty happy with these trees, which makes me afraid I may stick to using only trees like this from now on.
GL: I want to touch on the humour in your films. I enjoy how you’ll hold a pose/keyframe, leave room for anticipation, and then immediately hit with the punchline by jumping directly to the next keyframe/pose, usually with something awkward, bad, or unexpected happening. Was that something that came intuitively, or something you developed over time by watching other animations you found funny?
TK: I think it's just a habit. One of my favourite films like this is Richard Condie’s “Getting Started,’’ where the main character is basically just standing around waiting. It's like the humour lies in the anticipation and timing of something happening more than in the action itself.
GL: The family upstairs is fairly closely modelled on your own personal family. Was that the same for the more standard family downstairs?
TK: No, I deliberately made the downstairs family a bit different. I needed that family to play the role as the object of my envy, and to show how difficult it is to know what is happening in other families, - that you can’t tell what's going on just by looking at them. But it wasn't important to me, or to the story, that this family was based on the real downstairs neighbours.
GL: All the children in the family seem to have a somewhat ambiguous feeling about being from a family that obviously deviates from society’s view of a “normal” family at the time, but the middle child has an anxiety attack because of her misgivings. Was that something you also experienced as the middle child in your family?
TK: Yes. I was a very anxious child and I had very bad undiagnosed stomach aches. I remember one time I had a panic attack. I was in grade four, and I felt the room was caving in on me. I told the teacher that I had to leave, and I walked a few blocks over to my father’s office. When I got there I was surrounded by adults, and they gave me a blanket, and then one of my father’s colleagues came over and said, “you know, you are a very sensitive person, and that is a good thing”. I believe my anxiety was tied to the Cold War and “the Russians”. I worried about that a lot, and I also refer to this in the film in the scene where the pacifist dad tries to defend his home.
GL: No one has moustaches in the film, except for the father of the main family. But when our protagonist goes in to see the doctor, the building beside the doctor’s office is a barber, and they have a poster up showcasing the various moustaches they can provide. Also, when our young protagonist is describing her father’s moustache, she says it looks like Salvador Dali’s moustache, which it doesn’t. Were you trying to illustrate selective perception on our young protagonist’s part with these references?
TK: Oh no, not really. The buildings are actually an architectural representation of her sources of anxiety: bike shop, doctor’s office, barber with moustache options displayed. I studied architecture for awhile, and I like to use architecture to help tell the story. I like mapping out house interiors for my films as well.
GL: In the film, the grandmother paints an unrealistic portrait of how other children never quarrel, and then encourages her granddaughters to be like these other fictional children. She also seems to subtly subvert the parents’ wishes behind their backs. Where were those characteristics drawn from?
TK: My grandmother, was a total, 100% sweetie pie. She moved in with us when I was six, and lived there for close to ten years. And yes, my grandmother would subvert my parents; she tried to impose her own child rearing ideas on us. She hated arguments, and wanted us to always wear white shirts. Sometimes she bribed us to have good table manners and to not pick at the serving platters: “I’ll pay you a dollar at the end of the week if you don’t.” I don’t think my parents ever knew about the bribery. It was our secret.
GL: When you were working on this film, were you able to see the patterns that you’ve illustrated in the film from both sides – as in, while this is based on your childhood, you are now also a parent?
TK: Yes, and I keep trying to impose my taste in books and movies on my daughter because I'm pretty sure she'd enjoy what I choose for her, - well, maybe she wouldn't. It feels like a basic and very enjoyable part of parenting, to be able to have some kind of influence on your child's cultural taste. My daughter's taste in many things is different from mine. But she chooses wonderful books on her own, and I’m starting to see patterns emerge in her choices and through her growing collection of books. It's a way for her to express who she is. Maybe if I had forced my taste on her, those beautiful patterns wouldn’t have emerged. I don't want her to pick certain books and movies just to please me.
GL: I found myself feeling torn at the end of the film. I wanted a perfectly happy ending and instead I felt a little let down. Not personally let down - it’s a beautiful film - but let down in what I wanted for the children. I wanted the bike to become the perfect gift because of its differences. Instead, the film ends with them feigning happiness to try and recreate the perfect balance of giving and receiving that was set by the gift of the skis they received one Christmas. While they are smiling and goofing around with the bike, the dad takes photos which capture a moment that shows the appearance of complete happiness, but which doesn’t actually represent how the children feel about the bike. I guess maybe it also just hit too close to home for me initially, because while growing up I received similar gifts from my own parents and feigned happiness as well. And, even though I felt that pretending complete happiness was the best choice at the time, I've always felt conflicted about it because honesty is one thing I've always highly valued. Even looking back, I still feel ambiguous about whether it was the right decision and I guess this film brought those ambiguous and uncomfortable feelings back.
GL: This also film re-awakened my own desire to vicariously experience the perfect experience of giving and receiving through the girls in the film. Then, after building the anticipation up for that perfect moment with the gift of the bike, the audience is shown that the girls are happy that it is a bike, but have mixed feelings because it’s not quite the type of bike they wanted. All of that made me want to ask: why end the film like that? Why revisit that kind of uncomfortable feeling and then close the film with it?
TK: I know what you mean. That moment is important though, because it is when we have a face to face confrontation between the parents and the children. But there is also resolution, empathy and forgiving. The Moulton is a metaphor for the parents: it’s a cool, functioning bike, just not exactly what the children wanted. At the end of the day though, it’s a perfectly good family, perfectly good parents and a perfectly good bike. The ending shows how the children are protective of the closeness and happiness that they know is possible in their family. But it also shows that sometimes this happiness is carefully choreographed. The children have an image of what they want, and they strive for it. The whole idea is that it’s better to be grateful than resentful; better to choose to be happy than to choose to be disappointed, if you can. That's a happy ending, with a bit of an edge.