Profound drama My Life as a Courgette is emblematic of just how important word of mouth can be. Naturally, a French, low-budget stop-motion animation for adults, directed by a first-time filmmaker – and with a run-time of just over an hour, may be a somewhat tough sell. But it’s absolutely brilliant.
It’s not just us who think so either, for this Claude Barras production was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe this year, and now has finally made its way to UK cinemas. But it’s a journey that started a long time ago – as the aforementioned director explained to us during an exclusive interview in Paris earlier this year.
“I read the book 10 years ago and in the meantime I made six short films,” he said. “I developed the script and worked on it, which lasted six years, and I was looking for producers. It was difficult because it was a realistic subject and had violence in it, and yet was for children, so it was difficult to find people to produce this.”
He’s not wrong either – My Life as a Courgette, based on Gilles Paris’ book, focuses in on a young boy who is sent to a foster home, where he becomes acquainted with fellow orphans, as they learn how to fend for themselves, and emotionally progress, moving away from the tragic circumstances they have each left behind. It’s imperative that Barras can strike a balance that allows for the film to remain accessible for both parents and their children alike, which is where the esteemed screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17) came in pretty handy.
“I was put in contact with Celine, and since I knew her films it all went very quickly and very well,” he said. “Celine’s difficult, but great work, was to simplify the storytelling. To become a child, to be in the skin of a child, and tell the story as a child would. We have a wide audience, but our wish is to tell an adult story to children, so it’s accessible. But what came as a surprise to us is that it’s still a story for adults as well.”
It’s not just the writing where this indelible picture comes into its element either, for the design of the characters is essential – and Barras explains to us some of his decisions concerning the specific, unique look of the protagonists.
“I was told I was doing similar things to Tim Burton, but in colour. Maybe it’s the big eyes. But what’s important is the head because I wanted to convey emotions, which is why I concentrated on the head and made it big, to be the centre of the emotions, with the big eyes as well. For the arms and legs we tried different things to find a balance, we wanted the arms to be long enough so the characters could place their hands in front of their eyes, but we didn’t want them to drag on the floor either, it was a tough balance,” he continued.
“As for the colours, since the story is quite dark, realistic and harsh, I started to create the characters with darker colours, but I thought that bringing colour to them showed the hope that they had inside.”
We were lucky enough to be given a demonstration into the nuance of the endeavour, as Barras had with him a Courgette puppet, and by subtly changing his facial characteristics, with eyebrows and eyes and a mouth which can all be physically altered by our hands, we saw the process that went behind capturing this emotion. It’s a technique that Barras, however, cannot see American studios imitating.
“There is a magic working with a real puppet, it’s not a cartoon,” he began. “We showed the film to studios like Pixar and Disney and the simplicity of the whole process really surprised them. But to be simple, you need small budgets. With bigger budgets you always look for more complicated things.”
Thanks to the fact Americans say ‘Zucchini’ instead of Courgette, Barras said there had to be two seperate English-language dubbed version, but he felt confident the essence of the character had remained in both.
“There had to be two versions, one for the USA and one for England, because apparently in the UK they say Courgette and in the USA they say Zucchini,” he laughed. “I was afraid about the dubbed films, but I heard the English versions and I still recognised my character.”
My Life as a Courgette is released on June 2nd. You can read our review of the film here.