Richard Phelan and Will Becher • Directors of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
“We made 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Monolith into a burnt piece of toast”
by Marta Bałaga
- Cineuropa caught up with Richard Phelan and Will Becher, the masterminds behind A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, accompanied in Zurich by their cast in figurine form
In A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon [+see also:
interview: Richard Phelan and Will Bec…
film profile], the sequel to 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie [+see also:
film profile], screened at the Zurich Film Festival in ZFF for Kids, it’s time for close encounters of the furry kind, with Shaun and his flock suddenly joined by an alien named Lu-La. Predictably, mayhem ensues, this time peppered with references to sci-fi classics, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Chicken – sorry – Logan’s Run.
Cineuropa: There are so many references to sci-fi classics in the film. How do you decide what to spoof?
Richard Phelan: Everyone at the studio is a huge sci-fi fan. Will and I grew up around the time when Steven Spielberg’s films were just massive, but there are also references to HG Wells and Doctor Who. It’s always about the same thing: where is the comedy? It needs to be funny for us to put it in the film. And so, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Monolith is now a burnt piece of toast. We try to push it into the realms of the absurd.
Was the idea to have these characters mostly silent, save for some sounds, mostly a practical decision?
Will Becher: In Wallace and Gromit [+see also:
film profile], Shaun appeared as a sheep, making sheep-like noises. When Richard Starzak took this character and developed it for a TV show, it was partly due to the economy. It’s very complicated and time-consuming to make lots and lots of mouth shapes. But also, he had this great love of slapstick and silent comedy, and could see the potential in keeping it without words.
Everyone here, no matter how brief the screen time, has his or her own characteristics. Like the man who discovers the spaceship, always munching on chips.
WB: He triggers the whole UFO mania! We saw more opportunities to bring him back, all the time with his chips, because it entertained us, I guess. We work with such a big team, so everyone needs to know what these characters represent and who they are. We are very rigorous about that.
RP: After a character shows up and “does his scene”, we would often allow them to grow organically into the story. Take the old lady with the stack of cakes in her hair, for example. She has this one scene, but it’s a really good one. With the sheep, on the first film we wrote biographies for all of them. People on set and in the studio can identify them and say: “That joke would be perfect for Nuts, or for Timmy’s Mother.”
People always seem so clueless in these stories. It’s the animals that run the show.
WB: That’s the brilliant dynamic about Shaun and the way Richard developed it originally – it’s a family. Shaun and the rest of the flock are like siblings, and the farmer is like a dad who has no idea what’s going on. He just can’t keep up.
It’s funny how the film coincides with the “Storm Area 51” initiative. When did you first decide that this otherworldly character could be a nice addition to the universe?
WB: It was developed straight after the first one, and once it had been proven that we could make Shaun the Sheep movies, the ideas started to fly. Everyone loves sci-fi at Aardman, and yet we had never done a sci-fi before. But it actually fits within this farm environment. There are all these films like Signs that always take place in the middle of some cornfield or other.
RP: For some reason, intergalactic visitors always choose the most obscure, mundane towns to visit. Shaun is such an iconic design, so we knew we had to make Lu-La seem like she lives in his universe. Her body looks like a rocket about to take off, and once we’d found that shape, we started to wonder how vibrant her personality and colours could be. When Shaun sees that, he goes: “I want to hang out with her!” She is more chaotic than he would ever be, and that’s when he learns to be more responsible for someone else.
The humour is understandable for kids, but it’s not too broad. These characters react very naturally to what is going on.
RP: That’s what we do – we tell stories to each other and see how we behave. You need to believe this is genuinely happening to them. People talk a lot about this “British humour”, but I think it’s all very universal. People see elements of themselves in these characters, and that’s what they are laughing at. They are laughing at themselves.
WB: We do try to make each other laugh as well. We looked at a lot of funny clips of children in supermarkets on YouTube. Also, I have two kids, so I know exactly what it feels like to be out of control. But it’s lovely to see it with the audience again, because after years arguing about jokes, some of them really don’t feel funny any more.
That’s a long time to wait for a punchline.
RP: Everyone wants to add jokes – there is a package in the supermarket with a reference to The Martian and a message board in the canteen referencing Logan’s Run. As long as the story sits on top and you can follow it, then you can start appreciating how much work went into every detail. We had this great meeting early on in production, where everyone was supposed to share the worst things their kids have ever done. Lu-La does most of them in the film.
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