Focus Features Previews Coraline

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It’s getting harder and harder to make it to Coraline‘s February 6th release date with every bit of new footage screened. I’ve gone from a die-hard no-one-can-get-it-right fan of Neil Gaiman’s original and wonderfully creepy young adult novel to a point that I can say — with wondrous certainty — that what’s on its way is something even better. Equal parts Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick, Coraline looks destined to become a modern classic, retaining every bit of the source material’s edge while offering a completely new experience.

Just a week before Halloween, I suppose the good people at Focus Features are aware, was the perfect time to show off a good thirty minutes of completed footage, part of a small Hollywood reception that brought Selick and his LAIKA Entertainment crew to answer questions about the film. Production fully completed, the crew now enters a short post-production phase with the final product expected in about a month.

The footage we saw overlapped a little bit with footage that has been screened for press in the past, but the addition of a musical score added tremendous depth and fluidity to the scenes. My overall impression from these thirty minutes was that Selick has nailed the genuine creepiness of the novel.

The first scene has young Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) sitting at the breakfast table with her parents (John Hodgman and Teri Hatcher) before deciding to go visit her neighbors. First she goes upstairs to Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), an eccentric Russian acrobat who is secretly rehearsing a mouse circus in his apartment. She then heads downstairs to Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, respectively), a pair of elderly former-actresses who talk of the good old days in the theater and look after their three Scottie dogs (and keep former pet Scotties stuffed on a shelf).

Outside, Coraline comes across Wybie (Robert Bailey), a new character created for the film and his pet cat. The boy is Coraline’s age, but she doesn’t quite like him, finding him creepy. Still, she goes with Wybie to hunt for banana slugs in the fog.

That night, Coraline moves through a small door she finds behind the wallpaper in her living room, entering another world that seems, at first glance very familiar. Here, though, her “Other-Mother” and “Other-Father”, like everything else in this world, have buttons for eyes. The effect that Selick manages to achieve with 3-D is really incredible. While the earlier parts of the film are still shot stereoscopic, the levels of depth are altered as Coraline passes through the door. The other world manages a unique cinematic transformation that is both subtle and astonishing.

Talking with her Other-Mother, Coraline goes outside to find her Other-Father, working in a bizarre otherworldly garden and riding an enormous, praying mantis-shaped tractor. Here, the score really makes the scene, capturing the wonder but still retaining an overall darkness.

Coraline is introduced to the Other-Wybie who, in this world, has had his ability to speak removed. Together, the two head to Other-Bobinsky’s mouse circus, a grand, choreographed performance within a tiny circus tent.

Moving on, Coraline and Other-Wybie enter a theater filled with an audience of hundreds of Scottie dogs. They bark their approval as Other-Spink and Other-Forcible take to the stage and perform a sea-themed musical number.

Back with her Other-Mother, Coraline is told that she could stay in this world forever. All she has to do is let her Other-Mother sew buttons to replace her eyes. Coraline is horrified and tries to escape, but finds the door back is blocked.

Another scene has Coraline walking with Wybie’s cat (who, in this world, can talk and is voiced by Keith David) as she tries to walk away from her other-parents’ house, only to find that no world exists beyond her yard.

Back in the house, Coraline tries to tell her Other-Mother that she wants to leave but she becomes enraged, transforming into a more-horrific version of herself and throwing Coraline through a wall and trapping her in a small, dark room.

After the footage, we got a chance to chat with both Henry Selick and animator Travis Knight about the film and what they might be working on in the near future.

Q: How does it feel to finally be done with the production part of the project?
Travis Knight: We just finished our last shot last week. So it’s all still fresh. But it feels good. It has been long process to get there, but we’re in the last phase. We had a long production phase. It took about a year and half to shoot. But we’ve got a truncated post- production phase. We kind of did post all along, removing rigs and seams as we went. But about three or four more weeks and we’ll all be done.

Q: Were you a fan of the book before you came onboard the project?
Knight: Yeah. In animation work, a lot of people are fans of Neil. It has this really odd, peculiar kind of dark quality, but it’s also charming and funny. It’s got so many elements of the classics. It’s kind of a modern fairy tale. It’s very unusual for modern animation, but I think that when it’s all put together there’s going to be something really special about it.

Q: What the hardest sequence for you to animate?
Knight: Oh, god. They’re all hard. None of it’s easy. Even the most mundane thing; a character having a reaction to something. It’s all tough. The biggest parts in the film that I worked on was the beginning stuff and the ending. It kind of bookends the stuff with Coraline. A lot of characters getting established and then a climactic scene was the main stuff that I worked on. But, god, it’s all hard. There are times when you’re climbing up the set and you’re wrenching all this metal stuff. You’re sweating and it’s a 100 degrees in the warehouse. It’s odd because you experience it on that level but then watch it and you have some sort of detachment where you don’t really feel like you made those things come to life. They feel like living things on their own. Which is amazing.

Q: Do you know what you’re going to be moving onto next?
Knight: Oh yeah. We have quite a few projects in development. Our big thing is stop motion and, in all likelihood, our next project will be stop motion. There’s a handful of things, but we’re not exactly sure what it’s going to be next.

Q: Any chance of more Neil Gaiman adaptations?
Knight: Oh yeah, it’s possible. We had such a great experience working with Neil and, of course, Henry and Neil have a great report. So yeah, it’s certainly possible. Though there’s nothing planned right now.

Q: How has Neil’s reaction been?
Knight: Well, obviously as writer when someone else turns your work into a film it must be strange thing. Originally, Henry’s script was very, very true to Neil’s book. In fact, it was too close to the book and he felt that he had to get some distance. It’s a film rather than a book. So that’s when we started seeing diversions and it really started to evolve as a film. But Neil’s been very supportive. He seems like he really enjoys the stop-motion process. It is a weird, wacky world. He seems like he’s really happy. You never know. We’re sort of butchering his baby. But it’s our baby now.

Q: You’re in the final steps of this long process; How does it feel to bring everything together?
Henry Selick: It feels great. I’m very, very pleased with the end result. I’ve just been carefully going through the whole movie with the glasses on hour after hour. We still have visual effects work. Coraline, as you can see in the puppets around here, and most of the main characters we did replacement animation like Jack Skellington or Speedy Alka-Seltzer or the Pillsbury Doughboy in order to get a big range of expressions. In Coraline we wanted to have even more so we put a big split in her face so that you could change her eyebrows and upper-face shapes and the bottom. A lot of people actually wanted to leave it in but it is very striking. So we decided to paint it out. Maybe we’ll have midnight screenings and show all the rigs and all the stuff because some people love to see that. So there’s some of that going on. Removal of the face-seams. Then there’s some smoke and fog. Certain things like that are still being done. It’s getting there. Music has all been recorded. The Budapest Symphony and composer Bruno Coulais is over there.

Q: Was this the final score?
Selick: This was a demo done with synth of the real score but not with real instruments. So he’s got all real stuff and he’s coming over Saturday and we start throwing it all together. Maybe three weeks. Then we’ll have our dance for the ratings board. We’re looking for an edgy PG.

Q: How far are you able to push in terms of creepy before you can leave a mark but not, say, a scar?
Selick: We’re trying to send a signal with the trailer we cut that we let people know that it’s scary and only for very brave children of any age. But definitely we want… I mean moms still say which movies, at least for very young ones. It’s not for little kids under eight. There might be a few but it’s… I think the balance is there. I mean, if it was all dark all the time, it might be a little relentless. We’re not doing “The Dark Knight” for children here. But life has got both things. It has got uncertainness and it has got dark, scary sh*t. But Coraline beats it. She wins. That’s, to me, what allows us to go there. The other world — what Neil Gaiman wrote — we wanted to bring that to life. We sort of gradually go from another world where it’s just button eyes to one where we actually transform the mother. Well, it’s that way in the book. We just did it a little more obviously. It’s a great book. Why would I throw out what’s great about it? Which includes darkness, creepiness, spookiness, inventiveness. It’s a witch. It’s a Beldam. But not like any that we’ve seen before.

Q: Was there ever anything that you thought might be going too far?
Selick: I think that there’s certain — just by the scale — point where I might have shortened something that may have been longer in the book to give the overall film balance. But honestly just about everything in the book is in the movie. And there’s more. It’s kind of a short book.

Q: How has Neil’s response been?
Selick: He’s been wonderful. He’s been incredible. I mean, early on it was more difficult because I was an untested screenwriter. When you’re a director, you’re always rewriting stuff because if you don’t have the writer available, you do dialogue. The first draft sucked because it was just like the book. I was too faithful to the book. I told him, “I can’t talk to you for a year. Let’s see what happens.” And that’s when it started to turn into a movie. He’s never been looking over my shoulder but I’ve sent him all the drafts of the screenplay. I don’t send him footage all the time, but every once in a while we give him a feast and he has come to the studio a couple of times. He’s great. It’s never about, “Well, that was changed. It’s not like the book.” It’s great joy and positive energy. He just points at two or three things to change or adjust that are doable things and they’re always right and they make the movie better. So it has been phenomenal to work with Neil.

Q: How quickly was the decision made to shoot in 3-D?
Selick: It’s because I’ve done most of my work in the Bay area. I started at Disney, but I was up there for “Nightmare” and for “James and the Giant Peach.” Lenny Lipton — who actually now works in this very building — is the President of technology for Real-D. He’s the guy who has invented modern 3-D technology. He had a little company called Stereographics. I happened to meet him and did a little rock video and I kept up with him over the years to see how that was going and it just seemed that, at a certain point, I was desperately looking for that “Wizard of Oz” moment, going from one world to another. That was it, I knew. Nothing would show off stop-motion better than shooting it originally in 3-D. It gives the perfect sense of it. It’s not a gimmick. The other world feels better. It feels deeper. There’s more oxygen. So it took a while. Our Hollywood producer — the first guy I took the project to — Bill Mechanic has been great. He was against it because it hadn’t quite happened yet. But then it started happening in cinemas and he saw what it looked like and got behind it. They all got on board. Over the years, I’ve done stop-motion, mostly so it’s all very slow. When I say “all those shows” it’s not that many. But when people come for a visit, they love what they see. They always say, “I wish we could see that on the screen.” That’s a big part of shooting it 3-D. It takes you there. It brings that experience. Those are all real-things. They were all hand-made. Every little leaf. Everything is placed. It’s just a nice way to capture it.

Q: Any chance you’ll tackle Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” next?
Selick: Well, Neil sent it to me early on, but he also sent it to a lot of other people. It’s with Sony, I believe. I’d love to do it. I think it’s possible. But I think that, right now, the vision is live-action. We’ll see what happens with “Coraline.” We’ve had so many people come to the studio and they love what they saw with “Coraline.” So it’s not like we’re headed there. But I’d say there’s a chance that could happen.

Q: Is there anything else you’re really hoping to do?
Selick: This and “Nightmare” have been the two dream projects in my life so far. There’s an earlier Philip Pullman novel that we’ve optioned that’s pretty exciting. That means a lot to me. It’s called “Count Karlstein.” You know, before he did “The Golden Compass” and the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, he did a lot of shorter, more kid-friendly books. And this one needs a lot of work, but I’ve already done some of that work. But it’s too early to talk about it. I may say something and it’ll all fly away. The whole thing with the darkness is that kids love it. My kids — my older son just turned 17 and my younger son, 10 — I’ve seen what they respond to. I’ve got a niece I’m very close to. I’m more worried about the parents than the kids. Classic fairy tales have lasted hundreds and hundreds of years. Children are eaten. Their feet are burned off with iron shoes heated in the oven. Come on, that’s who we really are. Let’s embrace it and try to make it entertaining and beautiful at the same time.

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