You probably know director Andrew Adamson from the hilarious animated film SHREK or you may know him from THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE & THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN. In his new film MR. PIP, he adapts the 2006 novel by Lloyd Jones. MR. PIP is a war drama that takes place in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and follows the story of a young girl named Matilda during the civil war on the Bougainville island in the 1990’s. It is a story about war, but is also a story about imagination and the effect of storytelling on a young mind. When I had the chance to talk to the film’s director Andrew Adamson I had to ask what made him want to stray from the fantasy world we all know and love him from to this world of intense and harsh war.
AA – “It was a book I read when I was finishing “Prince Caspian” and I just really fell in love with the book. I had a personal connection with it because I grew up in Papua New Guinea, but beyond that it was a story about storytelling. It was about the power of imagination, about the power of story telling and on an intellectual level it was a very interesting study of how our literature can effect a culture when we come in, we go in unknowingly to any culture our education system and our literature influences that culture. It was a very non-judgemental study of that. On an emotional level it was a very personal story of a girl learning the power of imagination and the power of story and it was personified in obviously in a very extreme way as this book that has been so important to millions of people it was the thing that saved her but it was also the thing that almost destroyed her and I really liked all of those and as a storyteller I liked the aspect of being able to make a movie about the power of storytelling.”
TMC – I love that when we see Matilda escape into her imagination that colors are vivid, but Pip and the surroundings are similar to her own village but grow as the film progresses. Was that done in the book as well.
AA – “In the book, Lloyd’s book, it doesn’t really deal with the visual side of things obviously, but he talks about how she was sort of surprised to find a friend not up a coconut tree but in the pages of a book. That is what led me to really thinking about how when we read a book we put ourselves into the book. I had this experience actually when I was starting this adaptation, somebody sent me a manuscript of another book and as I was reading it I thought it was set in the Uk just by the settings and everything and I was reading it and then at some point it pointed out that it was set in New England and suddenly everyone’s accents changed. I hadn’t even noticed that I was reading it with English accents but I was and it made me realize how much you inform what you are reading. It was sort of an extension of that, she (Matilda) has no experience in London she has no experience of a city so how is she going to be informed. In the movie you will notice that the world sort of develops. The first scene is in a graveyard that is not unlike her environment it’s a natural environment but with gravestones as its described in the book. The next scene is on a beach but it is different from her beach and as she moves further into the book the Victorian world fills out a little bit more but it is always influenced by her world. I was really trying to capture visually that experience of how one puts themselves into a book.”
TMC – There is a quote that I love that says “What nourishes me, also destroys me” and I think this film was the perfect definition of this quote. There were moments in the film that I escaped with Matilda into the pages “Great Expectations” a book that is so cherished by so many. Then there were also moments that I literally stopped breathing. There are so many different ways to see and experience this story. As a director what do you hope people take away from this film that you hold so closely and are so passionate about?
AA – ”
“It’s interesting because obviously I finished the film a little while ago and I have had some distance from it and I have had the experience of watching it with a number of audiences and like you say that moment of extreme tension in the movie, which creeps up on you as it does in the book. The book when I read it, it really reminded me of this moment in the ice storm where the kids wandering around and he sees a diving board and an empty pool and he keeps being in these very treacherous situations and as an audience member you keep holding your breath saying something terrible is going to happen and then it lets you off the hook and the kids walking home and the power line breaks, he’s electrocuted and he is killed really suddenly and it takes your breath away because it just happens unexpectedly which is how things happen in life. Some people could say the violence sort of creeps up on you, violence does creep up on you otherwise you would run away from it. So had this similar experience when I was watching it with an audience and seeing that moment when everyone just held there breathe and the theatre goes quite and then you hear a little sniffling and you know that people are very emotionally effected by the story. I think as a movie maker that is what I want to do. I want to be able to touch people in whatever way that is. In the case of Narnia it’s about a nostalgia and childhood and that kind of thing, in the case of this film it does work on a number of different levels and I think you can take a number of things from it. To me the biggest message, it is a very layered film its in many ways the most layered film I have ever made, but I still think the strongest message to me is about the power of imagination, is about the redemptive power of imagination and story which I think is integral to the way we think. Story has been with us through thousand of years across every culture. Storytelling is a huge part of the way we think, the way we live, the way we communicate. So the power of story is the intellectual thing I think I would like people to take away.”
TMC – I am an avid reader and the thing I love about reading is the escape to another place, becoming part of the story and experiencing it wholly. I also love that everyone that reads it will experience it different due to our imaginations. When you open a book you escape, your imagination runs wild. So few filmmakers are able to get that feeling across when they are making adapting a book to film. This was one of the few adaptations where I hadn’t read the book first and it made me want to. experiencing the story through your eyes made me want to read the book immediately because you were able to give us both an experience and a wonderful story with so much imagination and heart.
AA- “The book is beautiful. When I read the book I saw it very cinematically, Lloyd writes it so beautifully and when I started to adapt it I called Lloyd and said “you deceived me” His writing is so beautiful and poetic that you don’t realize how he is sort of jumping around all over the place in different times and different spaces and when I started trying to figure out a more linear structure to that for the sake of the movie it was very, very challenging because his writing is so poetic it just draws you in. If you haven’t read it you should.”
TMC – I would love to know what your casting process was like. I fell in love with Matilda ( Xzannjah Matsi) she was absolutely brilliant and how do you pronounce her name it is beautiful and I don’t want to butcher it.
AA – “Her mane is pronounced ‘XZania,’ she goes by x’y sometimes, her mother named her after a Russian Olympic gymnast. We were looking all over, the people of the of Bougainville are very specific looking, there is really no-one anywhere else in the word that looks like them and they have been settled on that island for forty thousand years. So we had to cast from a total population of about 100,000 people, which sounds like a lot until you are starting to try and find a specific character. Also it is in a place that was developed in the late 80’s but during the late 80’s and 90’s when the terrible civil war crisis happened the country was decimated, the education system was demolished there is sort of a lost generation of about 10 or 12 years of kids that didn’t get to go to school and there is no movie theaters or anything like that there. When we were shooting there were no flushing toilets so finding someone that can act was obviously a big challenge. Our casting director basically put on her backpack and traveled around papa new guinea just looking for kids and X’y came out somewhere near the end. She was staying with her grandmother who persuaded her to go on for the audition and she just had this real sort of natural ability. One of the things that put me on to her was when I talked to her she said when she gets depressed or sad or lonely she goes up the tree and writes stories. That’s who Matilda is, X’y is incredibly bright and then the other lucky thing we had was when we started casting for her mother. At one stage I just kind of said well what’s Xzannjah’s mother like, and we met her and it worked. Her mother in the film is her real mom, Healesville Joel. She is actually a gynecologist and I asked her if she would be willing to go on tape the dynamic between them of course was fantastic. She had never done any acting, she spent most of her life trying to suppress her emotions and not show them so for her it was a huge learning curve to be able to open up. She did it largely because she wanted the story of the plight of her country told, she wanted people to know what they had been through. It was a labor of love for her. The stretches and reach that she had to get to in some ways are even more amazing than what X’y had to achieve.”
TMC – You worked with a lot of children in this film, did it make it more difficult dealing with the intense nature of the story?
AA – “I like working with kids, kids are open and they are easy. Their imagination is very present, it is very enjoyable and easy to get kids to places that you can’t get adults to. Hugh also did a really good job as well as far as stretching himself to a very different place.”
TMC – How did your process of filmmaking change for this film?
AA – “It was interesting so much of the film, for me it was sort of a very different process, some of the films I have made before I mean in animation they are very technical and even the big effects films tend to be very technical and structured and planned out this was a different experience because it was more like inserting drama into a documentary. A lot of these people were reliving experiences they had been through, reliving the atrocities they had been through and x’y and Healesville for instance didn’t spend a lot of time together because her mother had been working so much and she was away at school so they were kind of trying to re-getting to know each other throughout the process as well so there was all this sort of natural chemistry that was happening”
TMC – Most of your cast came from the island where these things really happened. What was it like filming some of those intense war scenes?
AA – “When we put the villages in the scene with the army coming in I didn’t really know what would happen because the last time it happened they were really being shot at. When we flew the helicopter into the village for the first time I felt the energy change because the last time a helicopter flew overhead they were shooting at people. So there was a natural thing that happened that I can’t even take credit for as a director, because it was kind of almost like trauma therapy. We were reenacting experiences that people had gone through. This is about the power of story-telling , they have an oral history so a large part of their life is storytelling, they remember their ancestors that way so again it was relatively easy for them to be present in a performing way because it is part of their life and part of their culture. A lot of it I was able to really take advantage of and I can’t really take credit for that as a director.”
TMC – I think you can most certainly take credit for that as a director, you were able to give them a wonderful gift by choosing to make this story. I remember when I was chatting with some of the Sudanese Lost Boys that where a part of THE GOOD LIE and almost all of them talked about how healing it was to be able to face this, these fears and this war in a safe space and just how healing that was. You were able to give that same gift to the people of this island and that is a beautiful thing as a director to be able to do that. If you hadn’t chose to make this story, they may never had been able to experience that sense if healing.
AA – “It was interesting it was a very cathartic thing for everyone involved and I was a little unsure, I was unsure when we brought Papua New Guineans in with guns and had them shouting what could happen and so the first army scene we shot was quite terrifying but it was a very cathartic thing and afterwards when we wrapped for the day everyone just sort of sat in the village for hours after just talking. One of the young guys who was playing a soldier after one of the scenes started crying and he wasn’t involved in the crisis in any way he just felt the responsibility of his people and it was really interesting there was a really healing process going on that was great to be part of.”
MR. PIP is currently available to check out in limited theatres and on Video On Demand, Check out the trailer here and don’t miss this profound war drama. It is an emotional film with extremely intense moments but the payoff and life lessons learned are a gift in itself. You do not want to miss MR. PIP.