Spielberg, Bell & Frost on the Joys and Pressures of Tackling Tintin
Joined over the weekend in New York City by The Adventures of Tintin stars Jamie Bell and Nick Frost, producer Kathleen Kennedy and Weta digital visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri, legendary director Steven Spielberg spearheaded a discussion of the film’s nearly 30-year journey, interpreting Hergé’s comics, sequels, and the choice of motion-capture animation over live-action.
“This just happened to be the right medium for the proper message in order to honor the artwork of Hergé,” the filmmaker told a group of journalists. “I did not want to shoot a live-action movie and have Jamie come in with a big red coif and extraordinary strange clothing and then have to get, you know, Andy Serkis to have a prosthetic nose and prosthetic chin, prosthetic ears … the only way to tell the story and still honor the origins of Tintin was to do the whole picture in the medium of digital animation.”
When asked if they could pose any question to Tintin creator Hergé, who died in 1983, Letteri said, “How old is Tintin?”
Bell, who plays the ageless reporter, nodded and continued, “I’d just generally ask questions about the character – like, who is he? Why is his only friend a dog? Why does he hang out with someone who has terrible control of his vices? Where are his parents? I trolled through all 23 adventures, in preparation, just to try and find all these answers … and it’s impossible. I think that’s because Hergé himself is also an enigma … even his name isn’t real. That’s his initials, reversed. His real name is Georges Remi. I think that the allure of Tintin is the mystery of who he actually is.”
On the similarities and differences between Tintin and himself, Bell said, “I’m not a particularly adventurous person, really – I’m more of an armchair traveler like Hergé was. Hergé was a guy who didn’t really travel the world that much at all … he would buy Nat Geo magazines and sit in his armchair and just draw it.”
Bell went on to explain the takeaway for the film’s younger viewers, saying, “The spirit of Tintin is really the thing about him … he’s a beacon of excellence for children. He’s also a character who relies on nothing else other than his own great, natural, fearless heroic instinct. And that’s a great message. You can be great just by being yourself.”
Spielberg chimed in, calling the movie an “odd-couple story.” “The thing that I was excited about … with this story is how important it is to know who your friends are,” he said. “And to remain loyal to your friends – despite what you hear, despite the mistakes that are made in friendships. So this really is a story about trust and friendship and fidelity to each other.”
When asked to compare his experience working with Tintin producer Peter Jackson with that of working with George Lucas on the Indiana Jones franchise, Spielberg said, “Well, the big difference with George and me is George gets very involved – he’s the one that writes the stories. He comes up with the MacGuffin, the concept, then we all work together on the script – so it’s a big collaboration. Then, when I start making the movie, George goes away and I don’t see him again for maybe six, seven months, eight months, until I show him the cut of my movie. With Peter, he was on my set every day – but not physically. His head was on a TV screen, and he’d be in Wellington, New Zealand, at four o’clock in the morning when it was eight o’clock in Los Angeles, and he appeared for 31 days of motion-capture photography, just to be there to lend his advice, to make suggestions from time to time, and sometimes I would just walk over to the monitor to ask Peter a question and I would find Peter like this [mimics Peter with his head down, eyes closed] And I’d go, ‘Peter? Peter? Peter?’ And he’d go [mimics Peter snapping head up, eyes open] ‘Yes, about the last take.’ So I had a real collaborator on the set with me for the whole motion-capture experience. and I felt so safe with Peter there.”
Bell spoke to the pressures of taking on such an iconic role, saying, “I grew up with Tintin in Europe. It’s hard to grow up without seeing that ginger coif … it’s just a generational thing that’s handed down to you. It’s engrained culturally. Being a massive fan before this film, and now being in the film, it’s a very massive responsibility. The books have sold over 200 million copies, been translated into 50 languages, the readership is from like ages 7 to 70 – lots of people internationally all have an ownership over this character.”
Fellow Brit Frost was in agreement, saying, “I think for me and Simon [Pegg] it’s a chance to play two very iconic characters in the Thompson twins. And to have a chance to work with Steven, Kathy and Jamie and James Bond [Daniel Craig, who plays the film’s antagonist] … it was great to be on set every day to try and bring to life these two bumbling Interpol police officers that Hergé created.”
On the subject of the Thompson twins, Spielberg divulged, “They have a much bigger role, by the way, in the next Tintin movie that Peter Jackson’s going to direct.”
Frost added, laughing, “Tintin’s not in it, is he?” Spielberg countered, chuckling, “We’re calling it ‘Thompson and Thompson’ – we’re going to capitalize the T’s.”
Letteri spoke a bit about being on the technical side of transferring Hergé’s vision to the big screen, saying, “We looked at what Hergé drew and we went back to his references – the estate was really gracious, they opened up all their archives. As far as the performances, it really comes down to the actors. Hergé didn’t give us much guidance there, he didn’t draw Tintin with very much detail at all – so we would just look at Jamie and we would look at our Tintin character … and it becomes a very emotional response … with what Tintin is doing, do I feel the same way watching that as I feel watching Jamie do it? And if you don’t, you go back and keep refining and refining. And the refinements can get very technical … but we tried to stay true to what would be a human performance.”
Kennedy interjected, asking, “You did almost a thousand different views on Tintin, didn’t you, before we settled on him?” Joe nodded, and Spielberg added, “Tintin had to be photorealistic – and that’s what took the most time. And [Tintin’s dog] Snowy, believe it or not, took the second-most time.”
When prompted to give more information about the sequel to The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg said, “It’s being written right now and Peter’s going to direct it after he does The Hobbit, and I’ll produce it with him as he produced this with me, and we have the stories and we have the book we’re adapting from Hergé and we can’t wait to get started.”
Spielberg also took time to note that making a film is a collaborative effort, and proceeded to individually thank everyone on the panel, citing them as ambassadors of the different branches of his creative teams.
“I could not have made this movie if Kathy hadn’t been with me for 28 years trying to get this thing off the ground back in 1983 when we both went to Belgium two weeks after Hergé’s death to meet the widow, Annie,” he said. “And has been tenacious in getting me not to forget Tintin all these years. I mean, Kathy kept the fire lit under me.”
“And then, you know, we couldn’t have made this movie at all without Joe Letteri’s team at Weta,” Spielberg continued. “I mean, they had just come off Avatar, they had taken motion-capture animation to its highest form of success and artistic achievement. So without Joe’s team we wouldn’t even be sitting here talking.
“And then, on the other side, my invisible partner … Peter Jackson. Peter’s got a sense of humor – we laugh at the same things. Without Peter I wouldn’t have had any fun on this movie at all. And then, when we cast the movie, the greatest contribution – I think – that Peter Jackson made to this movie was to cast Jamie Bell as Tintin. They had worked together on King Kong, and Peter came to me with this idea, which I had thought was inspired, and I was just pissed off that it wasn’t my idea. It was my producer’s idea!”
The Adventures of Tintin opens Wednesday in North America.