Shane Acker, Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly Talk 9!

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Shane Acker's post-apocalyptic animated feature 9 is one that we have been anxiously awaiting around these parts and with the release date coming in just a couple weeks the writer-director has been on the road, talking it up with the help of his lead voice actors Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly. Diva Velez caught up with them in New York and has been good enough to share here interviews with us here.

Jennifer Connelly

The Lady Miz Diva: I understand your children were kind of your agents when it came to 9.

Jennifer Connelly: Yes, my kids saw the short film and they loved it. They really loved it. There was no saying no to this. They were very excited.

LMD: Kids aside, what was it about the character 7 that called you to the part?

JC: I thought she was a really fun character. You could never ask for a better character introduction than her opening scene. She's so fierce and cool. And I liked that she was this fierce warrior, but that she was very protective of her clan. She was independent and making her own way and not gonna hide out in the sanctuary, but she was sort of always keeping an eye on them and coming in to try to look after them. I liked that about her. I think {playing a live-action role like 7} would be really fun to do. I could only hope to have my moves be half as cool as hers; she's a pretty accomplished martial artist.

LMD: Was this your first voice acting role?

JC: Yes.

LMD: What were some of the challenges of doing voice work as opposed to regular film acting?

JC: I will say that it was peculiar for me. I was sort of like, "We're starting now? Aren't we gonna sit around and have rehearsals? Get to know each other a little bit better before we start working on this thing?" {Laughs} You get your script, you get your materials and then you dive in. I think I talked to Shane {Acker} over the phone, but I met him for the first time when we did our first recording session. So, that was strange for me, feeling like you're really invested in something and yet you're apart from it. You're sort of on the outside. That was strange, but really I trusted Shane and a lot of this for me was just about supporting his vision. I admire his work and I think he's very talented and he seemed to want me to be in it. I was very happy to do what I could to try to make his project go well cos I think he's a really, really talented filmmaker.

LMD: One thing that 9 has in common with so much of your career is that you're known for appearing in innovative projects and being selective about your roles. Is it your primary goal as an actor to choose interesting projects over things that will be a big box office success?

JC: I don't try and make a point of, ‘Ooh, I think people will think this is cool.' I kind of just go with what I find intriguing and interesting. It's sort of a combination of things; I guess I look for a script that I feel that strikes me, that's being made by someone who I think can pull it off in an interesting way and who else is involved in making it. I sort of try and look at all the components, but just try to make films that interest me that I feel like I want to surrender to and throw myself into. I never really think about it in a calculated way. Of course, I want films to do well, but I think about it more from the film itself.
People weigh in their opinions and often I ask people their opinions, but I really, really try just to make sure I've made my own decisions, because it never works out for me if I do something cos someone else says, "Oh, you really, really, should do this." I mean, I have done it in the past; it's never been a good idea. It's always when you go, ‘I'm effing miserable and this is not working. This is a nightmare. I don't know how to make this work.' So, I really try not to, y'know? I have to take responsibility for my own work and my own life and my own career, so I welcome people's suggestions, but it's always my choice at the end of the day. For better or worse, I've always made the decision.

LMD: Can you talk about some of your upcoming choices and future projects?

JC: The last thing I did was a film called Creation, which I did with my husband, Paul Bettany. He plays Charles Darwin and I play Emma Darwin.

LMD: You didn't act in any scenes together in A Beautiful Life, so what was it like to create Creation as a married couple playing a married couple?

JC: It was amazing and it was appropriate for that film. I think it was the right kind of film for us to do together, I felt so at home working with him. So at home at work, which was sort of disarming. Besides husband and wife, they were first cousins, so they grew up together, so that degree of intimacy and ease and familiarity I think really gave us sort of a head start.
I have a film that I will be starting in the end of September, a little independent film I'm going to be shooting back east that I am not supposed to elaborate on yet. {Laughs}

LMD: What do you think people are going to take away from 9?

JC: I think it's more an action movie than what we'd consider an animated film, or we're used to thinking of when we think animated film. It's certainly not a young kids' film. I think it's a high-paced, kind of edgy action film. Sort of an artistic, innovative, artsy action film, you know? {Laughs} I think it's beautiful. I mean, so much that I'm looking at, "That's a painting. That's a painting. That's a painting." You know, the light is incredible. How do they get light into a computer? It's incredible, the textures, the colours. To me, I think it's really beautiful.


Director Shane Acker

The Lady Miz Diva: What is it about these characters and this story that kept you with them for ten years?

Shane Acker: That's an interesting question cos the short took about four and a half years to make and I didn't imagine it being a feature beyond that. When I was done there was going to be a director's piece and give me other work. Then when I was approached to turn it into a feature, I was a little apprehensive, how can I spend more time? But it was really the possibility to explore the other characters that we didn't see in the short. We only see two in the short and it's suggested that there's 9. So, that's what got me reinvigorated and got me excited again to try to explore who these other personalities and these characters are. Then also where they came from, their back story and what happened to the world that they lived in. So, all those things just started fueling my imagination and got me excited all over again.

LMD: So who was it that first approached you about turning the short into a feature?

SA: It was independent producer, Jim Lemley, who approached me first. I was on this kind of circuit where I was meeting all these producers at the studios in Hollywood, you know, meet and greet and "Whaddaya got? What's next?" and I just came off making the short, I had no money, so I had nothing else. But he chased me down the hallway after meeting and said, "I really love the work that you do and I wanna try to figure out a way to do something together." So, he was the one guy who sort of stepped up to the plate and put money on the line and we started working on developing it into a feature.
Jim had a relationship with Tim {Burton}'s agent, Mike Simpson, so he got the short in front of Mike and asked if he had any interest in this. Does Tim have any interest in this? Mike said, "Wow, this is really interesting. What do you wanna do with it?" So I pitched the treatment to Mike and Mike's like, "I think Tim would really respond to this." We sent the short to Tim, Tim loved the short, and then I ended up doing a phone pitch to Tim and he told me right there at the end, "I really love this. I wanna be a part of this project any way that I can. How can I help?" So, he really set the ball in motion.

LMD: There is a definite Burton-esque look and feel to 9. Were you influenced by his work at all before you made the short?

SA: I was. I was inspired by a lot of stop-motion filmmakers; a lot of Eastern-Europeans like Jan Švankmajer, and then the Brothers Quay, who studied with Švankmajer and took a lot from him. The Lauenstein brothers made this amazing short called Balance, in the eighties that I fell in love with. So, I was really drawn into that world and Tim's a part of that world and I think he probably gets some inspiration from those filmmakers, as well. I think there's a lot of overlap in our taste and our design sensibility and I think that's what drew him into the short and he saw something in it maybe that he responded to.

LMD: Did he give any creative input or advice as one of 9's producers?

SA: More in sort of the global/big picture ideas. I mean, he wasn't that intimate or hands-on, wasn't giving specific notes on design, or anything like that. But it was great, cos he was a person you could take a cut of the film to and have him watch it and it gives you the critical distance, cos he's seeing with fresh eyes and you get his feedback and you could see the larger issues that are at play. Cos you know when you're making it, you're down and you're looking at every little thing and getting everyone to work and it's hard to see the forest from the trees. Both him and Timur {Bekmambetov} allowed me to kind of step back, see with fresh eyes through them, kind of strategise and so when I went back in, I could start pushing from the inside out affecting the story.

LMD: What were the differences in the notes or guidance you received from Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov?

SA: Tim had really strong, aesthetic, global notes, like "I don't think they should be talking," or, "We need to show how they get their voice." These big bomb-dropping notes. You're like, "Wow, okay." Timur is amazing, he's full of so much energy and it's like a rolodex of ideas unedited come out of him. So, he was great, cos you were like, "Timur, I'm really having trouble with this," and he'd be like, "Oh, oh, what if you do this?" And you're like, "Ahhh, I dunno if that fits," and he's like, "Okay, okay, okay, how about this?" Sometimes you'd be like, ‘These are crazy, terrible ideas,' and then you think about it and you're like, ‘Wait, I think he's on to something there.' So, it was great to have that, he's just such a positive, creative force. And then later on, when we were doing final cuts of the film, he was intimately involved and it was really good to work side-by-side with Timur. He was actually pushing me out of the way in the editing room, so like, Timur's editing my film and I'm telling him what to do. It was pretty amazing. It was good cos it's interesting to see, even at the editing stage how much you can push and pull and trim and reorganise things to bring about more of the characters or change the dramatic thrust of the scene, so it was really great.

LMD: Do you see yourself spending more time in 9's world?

SA: I think so, we've already had a couple of meetings, Timur, Jim and I, kicking around ideas and I think we've come up with some pretty fun things, like what the next challenge is for these creatures. We leave them as kind of eternal shepherds for the world and we sort of suggest that maybe life will be returning to this planet. So, the next chapter is how do they deal with life coming back to the planet, especially when it starts to encroach and threaten them? Do they intervene? Do they step back? Do they try keep going in the direction that they're machines, but they possess humanity inside them, or do they embrace the fact that they're machines and they should be able to control and do whatever they want with the planet? So, some of these ideas are things that we're exploring or thinking about for the future.

LMD: You call your characters "stitchpunk" and I wonder what that means exactly and does that name have anything to do with the Japanese aesthetic of "steampunk"?

SA: I wish I could claim to have coined the phrase, I haven't. Someone blogged about it and said "stitchpunk" and for some reason, it really fits, because it's sort of like steampunk, except it's like post-Apocalyptic steampunk in which life is emerging out of the fragments. So, "stitchpunk," works in some way. I can kind of see what that person was talking about and I think it fits the aesthetic of the film in some way.

LMD: I understand you did some animation for Lord of the Rings.

SA: I did.

LMD: You called it "animation boot camp." Why did you think so?

SA: I was a young animator and I got on to the last Lord of the Rings film before they were done, so that was a real treat. But I was surrounded by just top talent, amazing animators who had been on all three films and really knew the characters. I was more of a supporting animator doing creatures. I was virtually killing lots of creatures in the film, elephants and flying dragons and things like that. I was working with amazing talent; I would actually open their scenes at night and try to figure out how they animated. I learned a lot of tricks and techniques from the animation supervisors and the animation director of film. It was really rigorous, lots of work and in a short period of time. So, when I came out of that experience and came back to my short I was so much more facile and so quick at animating, I was able to blow through a lot more footage than had I not gone through that experience.

LMD: Is that where you got the idea to make Elijah Wood the voice of your 9?

SA: Maybe. I was sort of working with Elijah, although he didn't know it, because he was in the shot that I was working on, so I felt like I had a relationship with him, but I hadn't met him. Although there were rumours that he was in the studio cos they were doing the ADR and stuff, so we would all peek and see if we could see the stars coming in, but I never got a chance to work with him.

LMD: What is next for you, Shane?

SA: I'm pitching an animated project around town right now, so hopefully it'll find a home. It's an exciting little film. And I've got a live-action film that we're negotiating development money on. So, we'll see what happens.


Elijah Wood

The Lady Miz Diva: So, what attracted you to this small, spunky hero, 9?

Elijah Wood: I think I just fell in love with the journey that he takes. He comes into this world where so much has already been established, we don't know long, but 1 and the others have established a community. It's a community that is ruled by fear and they don't ever leave their boundaries. And he comes in with questions; he has no concept of what he is or where they are, ultimately what befell humanity, what the machines are? So, he comes into their situation wondering why 2 was sent out on a mission and it kind of throws a wrench into their system. I liked that. I liked how he kind of questioned the way that they existed in a way that allowed them to all start to figure out who they were and ultimately what these machines are and how they can sort of combat them: That even though they're small, they can defend themselves in interesting ways.
Also, as a piece, I was extremely attracted in the short. The short was the very first thing that I was introduced to. I was sent a packet of information about the piece, it had some concept art, it had the short, it had the script and I just fell in love with the animation style and these characters that Shane had created. The short doesn't have any dialog, so it's immediately intriguing; you wanna know who these characters are and what this world is and how it all came to be and I loved how this movie fleshed all that out.

LMD: Were you an animation buff before?

EW: I do love animation. I think it's a really interesting medium for telling stories. I think at its best it can be really beautiful and it can transport you visually to the worlds that it describes, because it's so much about its visual style more than movies. In movies, we are certainly are dealing with sets and things like that, but in the animated world anything is possible. I think that what attracted me to this as well, is the notion that we're familiar with animation in the United States being kind of strictly a family-oriented medium, whereas in Japan that's not necessarily the case. Movies like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, movies that are pretty adult action and sci-fi movies. What I loved about this was that it was more of nod to that kind of film where we could explore kind of darker, deeper themes, have more intense action and appeal to a different kind of audience. These things don't necessarily have to be just for live action, they can exist in the animated world. I just think it's an interesting way to tell stories. Have you seen Paprika?

LMD: Yes.

EW: It's mind-blowing what they can achieve. It literally is a head trip that you take with these characters. It's so amazing. It's harder to do that, it's harder to believe it; it's harder to go along with it in the context of live action, maybe because you're constantly questioning the effects, with animation you're just in the world.

LMD: Now that you've mentioned Paprika, what are some of your favourite animated movies?

EW: Akira's amazing. Ghost in the Shell is incredible. I remembering seeing Ghost in the Shell for the first time and it was long after the Matrix movies had come out. I saw that and I was like, "Ohhh, that's where they got it!" When I was younger, The Secret of NIMH was a big movie to me. That movie is awesome! I love stop-motion stuff, as well. I'm a huge Pixar fan. I think everybody loves Pixar, that's an obvious choice. I think what they've managed to do in the world of animation, which I think is an incredible achievement, is they;ve really focused on story and character development more than anybody else, I think, with a masterful touch. Stories that you really invest in, you know? It's not just the fun characters and the fun animation style; I saw Up and I cried like three times. And that's powerful, but that also shows you that the real power of any movie or storytelling medium is the storytelling itself. It's the script and it's the character development that ultimately comes together.

LMD: Do you enjoy voiceover acting?

EW: Yeah, I love it.

LMD: When you do voiceover roles how conscious are you of making sure 9 doesn't sound like Mumble from Happy Feet?

EW: That's a good question. I actually didn't think about it with 9, and I think it's largely because the character's so different. The situations that the character finds itself in are very different. So, that already changes things, but also the character itself, like his motivation, who he is. The arc that the character takes is so different, so I never really thought about whether my voice would sound too similar because I felt like the context was so different.

LMD: Is working in animation more of a challenge to you? As an actor you're used to using your whole body to enact a role and with animation you are limited to only using your voice.

EW: It is a unique challenge, you ultimately are oftentimes solitary standing in the booth, imbuing the voice with a sense of action, breathlessness, you know? If your character is running and falling down a chasm, you have to give the voice that kind of quality, which is a unique challenge, but it's also really fun. I do find that I physically move regardless, it's almost like a reflex. Like if your voice knows it has to do something, your body kind of wants to do it a little bit, just to kind of help you out. So, you do definitely move. You can't move too much cos then they pick mic sounds up, like if your clothes are moving and stuff. You can't go in too hungry cos then you'll get stomach gurgles. They never talk about this, this is the real stuff! You gotta drink water so that your mouth doesn't get too dry, things like that. I actually think it's kind of freeing, too. You don't go in there thinking about the setting that you're in or the prop you're gonna use, or any of those things. It's just the voice and it's just the character. And yeah, it certainly comes with its own challenges, but it's definitely fun.

LMD: You mentioned motivation and arcs a moment ago. Do you do the same research into your animated characters as with your live action ones?

EW: I think its very much a character in the same way that it would be a character if it were live action. I think you pay just as much attention to making every moment sound as realistic as possible. You, as an actor have to believe that its a living, breathing character and I don't think that that changes from animation to live action.

LMD: Did you know that you had already worked with Shane previously on Lord of the Rings?

EW: Yeah! How crazy is that? And I never met him. He was in Wellington for a number of months working on WETA digital on Return of the King and I'd go to visit digital because I really like that process. The set is very much separated from the WETA workshop, you kind of have to make an effort to go over there, but it was such a huge part of our movie, I always loved to go over and see what they were working on and see these animators sitting sleeplessly like zombies. They all were so separated, so I always wanted to go and hang out, but I never met him. He said I definitely came by, but I don't think I visited while he was there.

~ The Lady Miz Diva
August 21st, 2009

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