SPOTLIGHT STORIES: NORA TWOMEY
Interview conducted by Tracey Miller-Zarneke
Women in Animation (WIA) is pleased to present the first in a regular series of “Spotlight Stories,” and WIA is honored to launch this series by shining its light on the amazing Nora Twomey. Co-founder of Cartoon Saloon and now serving as its Creative Director, Twomey is also currently touring the world with The Breadwinner, the first feature length project she has solo-directed.
Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel of the same name, The Breadwinner portrays the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up in Afghanistan in 2001 under the Taliban regime. After her father is wrongfully arrested, young Parvana must become “the breadwinner” for her family, which she can only do when disguised as a boy. Parvana exhibits perseverance and strength as inspired by the stories her father told her, and she ultimately risks her life to find out if he is still alive. The Breadwinner not only portrays the story of a heroic young woman, but also the universal and transcendental importance of stories themselves, and how they harness the power to unite and heal everyone.
Nora presented The Breadwinner in its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017 and she also appeared with the film as part of the inaugural Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles in October 2017. On October 26, 2017, Nora was honored with one of the first ever WIA Diversity Awards, presented at SPARK Animation in Vancouver. As described by WIA, this award is given “to those who have made a significant impact in expanding the diversity of voices in the art and industry of animation, either through their own creative work, by fostering the work of others, or by leading diversity initiatives that enrich our industry and society: The Breadwinner not only depicts cultural differences, but also shines a light on gender gaps in today’s world.”
Prior to her work on The Breadwinner, Nora directed the award-winning short films “From Darkness” and “Cúilín Dualach” and then served as co-director of the Academy Award®-nominated animated feature The Secret of Kells. She worked as Head of Story on Song of the Sea, which was also nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature, and then transitioned into developing The Breadwinner.
In between her whirlwind travels, Nora took the time to share her insights and advice with WIA.
Think back to the earliest moment in your life when you realized you loved art and telling stories, and please share it with us.
Growing up in the 70’s in Ireland, buying sketchbooks or blank paper for kids wasn’t really something parents did, so when school would break for summer holidays, I got to use all my unfinished copybooks for doodling. My copybook would be half-full of math or spelling exercises and the other half was full of crazy sequential drawings of characters and stories. There is nothing quite like drawing as a child, getting completely lost in the world you create. I’ve often tried to get back to that mindset, rather than the self-criticism and pressure that comes when drawing as an adult. I love how children process the world around them with pencils, crayons and paint. It is such an innate need at an early age, some of us hang onto it as a means of communication.
What about The Breadwinner stood out to you as an important story to tell?
Lots of things. Firstly, the character of Parvana is wonderful, imaginative, honest, flawed and determined. The idea that we could get a character like that onto the big screen in front of older children and adults was exciting. Secondly, I am in a privileged position, as an independent filmmaker with access to likeminded studios around the world who want to tell stories with the potential to communicate something out of the ordinary. I want to use that privilege to help tell stories that don’t often get the ‘big screen’ treatment. Thirdly, the whole experience was a huge education for me. Getting to hear so many Afghan stories during the production and making sure the film respected the specific and the universal made it a great highlight of my career.
What do you hope the story of The Breadwinner says to girls around the world?
I have no right to say anything to a young girl who might put herself or her family in danger if she uses her voice. The fact that girls are treated like property instead of people in many ways around the world, some subtle, some not so subtle, is a complex issue for which there are no easy answers. In my home country, Ireland, arranged marriages, forced adoptions, the use of psychiatric institutions for ‘difficult’ women, control over women’s reproductive systems were and still are, deep scars in our culture. The Breadwinner is an acknowledgement of the hope embodied in people like Parvana and the healing power of storytelling around the world.
What, if any, adversities have you faced in your career or life in general, and how did it shape the leader you are today?
I have always overthought everything, to the point of almost incapacitating myself. I’ve had to quiet my brain quite a bit to be able to direct a film. I also admit weaknesses more readily than strengths so convincing myself to move ahead has sometimes been difficult. I notice this with some of my crew too and try to make an extra effort to put my hand to people’s backs and nudge them forward when they’re hesitating. Finding time to have children when our company was going through a rough period financially, finding time for myself when stretched between home and work. And I suppose the biggest one for me recently was trying to comprehend a breast cancer diagnosis while directing The Breadwinner. A year on from my first chemo session, I’m still not able to fully comprehend what’s happened. Someday it will sink in and I’ll scream at a pedestrian crossing or some other inappropriate place. Thankfully, I’ve returned to health but o look back at a time where I would walk into the restroom at work to discover I had rubbed off one of my painted eyebrows or painted on a quizzical expression unintentionally. I drew from the support and strength of those around me to finish the film with my team.
Was founding Cartoon Saloon ever a challenge to you because you were female? If so, how? If not, what was one of your greatest challenges in making that happen?
Being female was never an issue, it was all about what each of us could do, our strengths and weaknesses regardless of gender. The early days were difficult in ways but it was just because we weren’t sure what we were doing or how to do it. I find questions like this hard because I just see myself as ‘Nora’, I don’t really think of myself in terms of my gender. I do remember showing some visitors around our first studio space back in 1999 and someone saying that the place could use some curtains and how that was ‘your department, Nora’. Now as it happens, I do know how to make curtains but it did shock me.
Can you describe any gender parity issues have you faced in your career? Do you find that the balance has shifted in any way over the course of your career in the industry?
Seeing the percentage of young women coming through the colleges is heartening. But I do think there comes a time when those women could potentially disappear from the industry, if forced to make choices between kids and careers. I and my colleagues really try to support families and a healthy life balance in the studio, because we can tell better stories if we live better lives. For too long the job of directing has been linked with being a workaholic. Crews sometimes have to make up for unrealistic expectations or projects that were badly planned. If we correctly identify problems in animation pipelines, rather than just forcing crews to make up for the shortfall, more women will feel confident in vocalizing their needs and being valued by the system.
Why is an organization like Women in Animation important?
Because light must be shed on the problems in order to transform them into solutions. Part of me resents being asked about my gender at every turn, having directed The Breadwinner. Why can’t I just make a film and talk about the film? But the answer here is very important; if my niece is to grow up and not be asked about her gender after accomplishing something, my generation needs to shout out every situation where women are either sidestepped or they fade away from every industry. I am aware I was privileged to create my own work environment from early on and often wonder how I would have fared if I went into the studio system.
What advantages are there to having a diverse workforce when producing an animation?
The depth, nuance and wisdom that the stories we tell are imbued with when they contain the talents and skills of a diverse workforce mean that we can create animation that is more than the sum of all its parts. Working on The Breadwinner, with people from different countries and backgrounds, all putting their skills and care into this film for a multitude of personal reasons made me realize how animation can express hope. There are few things more hopeful than putting our skills together to create something new and for our audiences to be exposed to diverse creative voices.
How do you keep your artistic spirit refreshed, even when under the pressure of production deadlines or life challenges?
Every night I tell stories to my children. Sometimes they are from a book, sometimes they are from my imagination. It is the quietest part of my day and a beat that I revolve my life around.
Any other thoughts or advice you wish to share with our membership?
Speak up, when you’re not feeling good or there is something wrong with your work place. It’s what keeps work environments healthy and can transform our creative culture for the better.
WIA greatly appreciates the time and energy Nora Twomey worked into her busy schedule to share some of her history and experience with our membership, and we wish her all the best with The Breadwinner and all her future endeavors.