Peter Lord co-founded Aardman in 1972 and has since seen his passion project change the world of animation. He’s a twice Oscar-nominated director for animated shorts and has enjoyed box office success with Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last winter’s Arthur Christmas. Lord is visiting with Movie Fanatic for an exclusive interview to talk about his latest effort, the visual marvel The Pirates! Band of Misfits (landing in theaters April 27).
Lord seeks inspiration for his Aardman work everywhere, but rarely is it from the page. Yet, the genesis of his Pirates movie came from a popular British book that followed the story of a gang of pirates who are less than equipped to succeed at their jobs. He, for one, was surprised that his latest project became a page-to-screen effort. “I’d never seen it before in a book. I’ve looked at lots of books and ideas for films and never been moved by them in quite this way,” Lord said.
“Sometimes you look at an idea, and you think, ‘That’s a good set-up, that’s a good world to investigate. There has to be a good movie in there.’ That’s quite the common feeling. But the feeling of ‘wow’ is not common at all.”
By default, he felt that his stop motion animated pirates would immediately draw the humor he seeks as one aspect of his tales. “Who doesn’t love pirates? Pirates are almost comic characters by definition -- you can’t quite take them seriously because all the associations of pirates are cartoony,” Lord said.
“Instantly, your mind goes to the spectacle, to the colors, the costumes, the ship, all that stuff which I loved. And then, there’s an extraordinarily funny style in the books. We’ve used the same writer for the screenplay as wrote the books so we’ve kept his style. He’s a comic genius, that boy. He can write funny dialogue, funny ideas. He has a great instinct for absurdity and surrealism. Although he doesn’t write visual scenes particularly, his thinking is so bold and brave that he leads me into all kinds of places that I would never otherwise go. So, pirates plus a very funny book and I was hooked."
Casting for The Pirates! A Band of Misfits scored a coup with one of the biggest actors in the British Empire, Hugh Grant. “He brings a wealth of professionalism, a skill, a talent to take words off the page and bring them to life -- but you expect that. Hugh engaged in quite a different way,” Lord said. “For example, Hugh would rehearse at home on his own, which I don’t think people normally do. Because he really cares, he rehearsed at home. He’d say to me, ‘This sounded fine in front of the bedroom mirror, but I can’t get it today.’ I appreciated the commitment of that. And his instinct to hone a joke was very good. Because comedy is what he does best! He’s a very good comic actor with his voice and his face. He knows what joke works and what doesn’t. If it works, he’s the first to laugh. He laughs a lot when he’s recording. And if it doesn’t, he worries and worries. He improvises quite a bit. Quite a lot of his charming little asides were improv.”
When Lord founded Aardman decades ago, he was building on a passion that began in his youth. “As a schoolboy, then as now, it’s a way to make a whole world. That’s the attractive thing -- even if that world is only a foot square and in the background there’s Legos. You can make your own world and be a god and dictate everything that happens,” Lord recalled. “You take your Transformer, your G.I. Joe, you play with them, and you tell the story through these toys and you make your own world. You’re the god and you call the shots. That’s what kids love to do and that’s what I loved to do and in a way still love to do.”
If one had told him that he would be sitting across from Movie Fanatic at Sony Studios in Los Angeles years later discussing a big budget picture, he would have thought it preposterous. “I don’t think it was imaginable then, except as a fairy story. We forget that Disney ruled the animation world. I remember someone from Disney saying to me a long time ago, ‘We’re the only game in town.’ They were for the longest time,” Lord said. “I wouldn’t have dreamt that you could take puppets and make a film out of puppets. In the past, people have said to me in a kindly way, ‘It’s a lovely technique, but you’ll never make a feature film this way.’ Also, back then, I didn’t know anyone who was doing it. It seemed like a very tiny world. And now, we’ve got 300 talented professionals working with us.”