The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is rapidly becoming one of the best looking and funniest films of this year. But when we spoke to star Isaac Hempstead-Wright and directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, all insisted that the look and the humor was secondary to the film's commitment to telling an emotionally true story.

First we spoke with Hempstead-Wright, who told us about his character Eggs and gave a brief synopsis of the film:

This film has a lot of comedy, was that something that made you agree to do it?

Comedy's always appealed to me, I've always really enjoyed comedy movies. There's a lot of very funny Monty Pythonesque humor in it, which is right up my street.

The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

You play a character who doesn't know that he's human, how does that play out?

So, my character Eggs goes through a pretty profound identity crisis. Because he's an orphan who's raised by Boxtrolls and he's kind of one these mythological feral children who grows up with wild animals in isolation from society. By virtue of that he has a deeper connection to them.

Because he's been raised away from the poisons of society. He's unbiased. He's been raised caring creatures and he can really look at humans quite objectively and see their faults and benefits just as he can with the Boxtrolls. And that's what he does. He kind of gets the best of both worlds with the Boxtrolls and the humans. The Boxtrolls are very cowardly, timid creatures but also very caring. He takes the caring aspect of them and leaves aside the cowardly side and takes on the brave side of the humans. And using that combination, he's able to lead the Boxtrolls and lead them out of their shells. And bring them out of their boxes and lead them against Archibald Snatcher, who's clearly very insecure and he's a bit of a narcissist who never felt very accepted in society. And he's desperate to become a part of the Cheesebridge.

The Cheesebridge is sort of a town which is filled with wealth and class struggles and an unhealthy obsession with cheese. And the White Hats are the pinnacle of this. They're the aristocrats who sit there all day sort of ignoring the world's problems and are obsessed with cheese, which is kind of an emblem for anything that in this world people become obsessed with. Whether that's what kind of car they have or how much money they have.

And Snatcher thinks that the Boxtrolls are horrible creatures, when really they're not. And he promises the mayor that he'll exterminate the Boxtrolls if he can get a White Hat. Sorry, that's a very wordy way of giving you the plot.

No problem! Does he really not know he's not a Boxtroll?

No he doesn't. He has no clue. He kind of thinks that "I've been raised by these people, so I must be one of them. And that's where Winnie, she's a pretty exciting prospect for Eggs because she represents a feisty side that Eggs has never been privy to. Cause he's just lived with these cowardly custards that'll jump and hide in their boxes at the site of a mouse. And Winnie is this feisty, tough girl who's great at bringing Eggs out of his box.

Did you work with anyone else or was it all recording alone?

No, I did get to do some sessions with Elle [Fanning, who plays Winnie], and Sir Ben [Kinglsey, who plays Archibald Snatcher], and Simon Pegg [Hebert Trubshaw], which was good fun. And we really noticed that, even though you always have a reader, when you do it with the actor you know you'll be conversing with on the screen it certainly comes alive that much more. Because this is exactly how it will feel when people watch it, so you can really get that chemistry right.

What's the world of this film like?

It's a sort of mock-Dickensian/Victorian town. And it's kind of a little bit like how you'd imagine a sort of snobbish Victorian town would be in the old days. Although it is sort of glorified, there's no diseases or anything that you'd expect in Victorian times. And it parallels a lot of things. So the cheese obsession reflects the class obsession.

You've mentioned class and materialism themes, are there any other themes in Boxtrolls?

There's this kind of theme of not judging a troll by its box, of not judging a book a by its cover. Because everyone just believes, because Snatcher said it, that these trolls are horrible, murderous creatures. And it's saying, "Challenge the received wisdom. Don't just listen to what your mate at the pub has to say. Go and see it for yourself and form your own opinion."

The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

Of course, we also had to ask one Game of Thrones question of Hemptead-Wright, who plays Bran on the show:

You're growing up faster than the show is going through years, how will the show deal with that?

Bran is growing up, too. So it's not too much of a problem. But if I start getting like seven-foot tall and talking with a really deep voice, then they're in trouble.

Or you are!

[Laughs] Yeah, they'll get straight rid of me.

The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

Next we spoke to directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi about the pros and cons of stop motion animation, what they had to cut from the original Alan Snow book Here Be Monsters!, and the movie's steampunk aesthestic:

How does the directing process change for stop motion as opposed to traditional animation or even live action films?

Stacchi: Production is very different. The actual production of the stop-motion is very different but a lot of the beginning stuff is trying to work on the story, making sure the story is real, working with the cast and recording the voices is the same in all three. It's when you get to the actual medium of delivery that it starts to change.

Annable: We've been saying that stop motion seems to combine all the worst aspects of live-action and animation and really gives you none of the benefits. You can't shoot extra coverage or multiple takes.

Stacchi: In traditional animation, you can work on the scene over and over, and hone it.

Annable: And whittle down and refine it. Animators in stop motion really have to give a performance and we only get one chance.

Stacchi: And it's captured. It's captured over many days, but it's still the character walking across the room. In slow motion. But it's a performance. If a mistake happens, you can't just do a cut, you have to re-do the whole scene. It's not like CG where you can just refine it and keep refining it until it's done.

The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

There are a lot of comedy heavy hitters in this cast. Did you ever have to reign in the jokes to get the balance you wanted?

Stacchi: We don't do sort of pop culture, contemporary jokes. We don't have jokey sidekick characters. We always knew we could get much more out of the relationship between Trout and Pickles, who are Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, then just the comedy. We actually have a wonderful relationship between the two characters, and they have a great relationship to the plot of the film. They start the film thinking they're the good guys, doing the good job. And little by little they begin to realize, as the movie goes on, that they're the villains working for the bad guys. So they have an arc. They're not just comedy characters.

Annable: There's a real story behind their characters. We certainly didn't shy away from them being funny. We wanted to bring that to the film. But it's always a balancing act. At its core this film has a very emotional story with Eggs, our hero, being raised by the Boxtrolls. Lots of funny moments within it, but we wanted to make sure we felt emotionally connected to the characters. And like Tony said, we didn't want to get too caught up in a lot of pop culture kind of jokes and diminish any of the emotion.

There's a steampunk element to this film, did you worry at all about running into steampunk fatigue?

Stacchi: It's not overwhelming. There's a steampunk element, but it's not so much anachronistic in Alan [Snow]'s book [Here Be Monsters!]. Because Alan loves history. He's obsessed with history, so when he finds out stuff like, cardboard was invented in the 1830s or something. Much sooner than you thought. He likes to incorporate that. There are some anachronistic steampunk-type technologies in there, but a lot of times they're out of Alan Snow's head. They're very fantastical.

Like, in the book, there's a machine that shrinks somebody and it retains their extra size, as if the size was a material. And you can put that size into something. So you can say the book has steampunk elements, but it has a lot more Alan Snow elements.

Annable: And it's always a question of making sure that, no matter what the setting, that the substance stays on top of the style. And the style of steampunk and all the rest of it brings all kind of incredible things and surroundings to it, but the substance of that story and caring for those characters, that's got to be the main thing you always pay attention to.

Did that happen naturally in the process of adapting the book into a movie?

Annable: Yeah, and we talk a lot about how Alan Snow's book is so imaginative, and so creative, but it's huge.

Stacchi: Cast of thousands. We say it's like the War and Peace of subterranean steampunk novels. And we can't make War and Peace in 85 minutes.

Annable: Yeah, 85 minutes for us was not going to work with the amount of characters that Alan had come up with, so we really distilled it down to that story. Of that boy raised by the Boxtrolls. Out of all the incredible creatures that Alan created, the Boxtrolls just always felt like the greatest of all of them.

What got cut that you really didn't want to see go?

Stacchi: When I got on the job, I made a presentation to the whole studio, like what my name is and I'm working on Here Be Monsters!, some of you may have read it. And there's this giant War Rat, and I just loved this thought of the giant rat with armor, marching through the city. And I said, "This armored war rat will stay in the movie or it'll be cut over my dead body! YEAH!" And within three months, it was out of the movie. It just didn't make sense anymore.

Annable: It was one of the first things cut.

Stacchi: And there are other creatures that live underground that are neighbors to the Boxtrolls called Cabbageheads. That were these fascinating characters that we loved and they were sort of a female version of the underworld characters. And they were in the story for a long time, but they just didn't work. There was too much to set up.

The Directors and Star Explain the Heart and Soul of The Boxtrolls

Annable: It's a real balancing act. I storyboarded on Coraline and ParaNorman, and unlike those two previous films, our cast was a lot larger. Everyone has an arc in the film, and to balance all of them, you really had to keep what was essential and painstakingly remove the things that just wasn't going to support what the main story was.

Stacchi: And you know in these fantasy worlds, you need to set up the world and rules of the world. And you need to set this stuff up relatively quickly. In the novel, Alan can introduce new characters, new themes, and new rules later in the story. But for us, you can't keep doing that or people can't get their footing and they start to think there are no rules. It gets lost and there's no credible logic to the world and people won't hang with it. We'd have screenings of the story reels and people would go, "We're forty minutes in and we're just meeting the Rat Pirates who live aboveground and go around speaking English?! In a movie where they don't like the Boxtrolls because they're weird? It doesn't make sense!"

Annable: It's tricky because those parameters sort of defined the film.

You've said you wanted this stop motion to be more realistic. When you make that choice, do have to be careful not to hit the Uncanny Valley?

Stacchi: I don't think realistic is the right word. I think we want to be credible and have real jeopardy. I don't think we have to worry about the Uncanny Valley.

Annable: With how stylized our characters are, it wouldn't be a worry.

Stacchi: With stop motion, what's great is when it mirrors human movement and you can feel the character thinking, and there's something that the animator put nuance into. And there's something that's so human in the moment. But I don't think I'd worry about it looking too realistic.

Although, philosophically we did make the decision that sometimes in stop-motion animation, they do these practical effects like cotton for smoke. And that can throw you out of the movie because it's such a conceit We chose rather to have rain that looks wet and smoke that looks like smoke and fire that looks like it burns. And you feel the jeopardy and the credibility of the world.

The Boxtrolls is released September 26, 2014.