Peter Lord of Aardman Animations | Interview
Peter Lord, one of the minds behind beloved British duo Wallace and Gromit and fowl-filled adventure Chicken Run, sat down with me ahead of the release of Aardman’s swashbuckling new adventure, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Between charming, childlike fits of laughter, the film’s codirector discussed working with Hugh Grant, the timeless appeal of “clueless” heroes and more.
Let’s start by talking about the film’s timeline. Stop-motion features tend to require a very meticulous production process, spanning many years.
Well it all starts more than five years ago, so there you go right there. I was shown the book and it was incredibly funny—the funniest thing I’ve read in decades, really. I laughed out loud, more than I think I’ve ever done. And I thought “Well, that’s a good sign then, isn’t it?” And then we worked on the story. This would probably amaze people because you think, “Well how long does it really take to write a story?” The answer is: more than a year, just to get it right.
It’s Gideon Defoe’s first screenplay.
It is, that’s right. It was really quite amazing. He wrote the book and he had done a little bit of TV work—just very little—so he wasn’t experienced, really. But he is really smart.
It’s also your foray into mixing computer-generated and stop-motion animation. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Wallace and Gromit [in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit] and Chicken Run were both fairly small worlds…a more limited world. And I love both those films. But a pirate movie wanted to be bigger. It needed more scope. And I think the most obvious thing was the sea, the ocean. You cannot do that in stop frame. Well, you could… [Laughs] But you wouldn’t want to. No—you can’t do it. [Laughs] So that was the first decision.
And then I wanted lots of big, wide shots. Let’s take an example: We’ve got these London street scenes—beautiful sort of “oldie worldie” London. The houses are about six-foot high. Put them in a big line [and] they stretch for about 30 feet. That’s a big set and you need a big studio for that. But then, the camera sees over the tops and past the edges of the houses. We can’t build all of that, so we started putting in CG rooftops. And then we wanted all the rooftops to be smoking, because all of London was very smoky back then. So we started adding all of that in CG. We used [computer-generated imagery] to make the world bigger, basically. I had a great sense of freedom as a filmmaker.
Speaking of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Aardman seems to be drawn to stories starring somewhat clueless heroes, repeatedly rescued by loyal sidekicks.
[Laughs loudly] Yes, I’d say that’s very accurate.
Why do you think you’re drawn to such stories?
[Laughs] What does that say about us? I wonder. [Laughs] Uh… [Long pause] Here it is: People who think they’re one thing, when we as the audience can see that they’re something else, that’s a really funny situation. That’s a charming situation. It’s true of probably everyone in life, isn’t it? Because we all have a self-image of who we think we are, and that’s one thing. And then the world sees us in another way. Luckily, we don’t really know how the world sees us. But anyway, it’s slightly different. Film just dramatizes it more so. So in the case of the [Pirate] Captain, he’s pretty dang clueless. He’s clearly deluded and he thinks he’s great. And that’s just comedy right there.
And yet he’s adored by his crew.
In a very charming, straightforward way. It’s a bit like The Simpsons in a way, the fact that Homer is completely clueless the whole time. And even though Bart is a bit rude to him, his family sticks together because they’re a family. In spite of all [Homer’s] ridiculous, bad behavior, they stay together. And the fact that [the Pirate Captain] has a smart sidekick, that’s not just us. That’s a classic comic idea that’s been used for centuries.