By PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—For Travis Knight, President and CEO of Laika Studios, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a film that brings back his childhood memory of being in awe of Japan as an eight-year-old tourist from Portland, Ore., when he visited the inspiring country.
Along with that trip, the influence of Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki helped shape the “Kubo” in its style and storytelling.
In this epic fantasy adventure, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) must take a journey to find a magical suit of armor his father wore so he can defeat his vengeful grandfather along with his mother’s wicked sisters.
Helping him in his quest is Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) along with Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) who steer him towards finding the suit of armor. Along the way, Kubo discovers the meaning of independence and even a strong sense of what it means to have a family.
During a recent press conference in West Hollywood, Knight who also is the director of the animated feature, was joined by Theron, Parkinson and McConaughey to talk about the film, their mentors and their favorite animated fantasy shows growing up.
Q: What was it about the screenplay of “Kubo” that became a goal for Laika?
Knight: We started Laika 10 years ago, and we had a pretty simple mandate that we tell stories that matter and that were rich and evocative, and that were thematically challenging and what it means to be human. We always want to do new and interesting stories and explore different aspects of the human condition. And this story really spoke to me because when I was a kid I loved big epic fantasies. That’s what this film was. I was around eight years old at the time I went to Japan for the first time. I was a kid who grew up in Portland, Oregon. Being in Japan wasn’t like anything else that I’ve ever experienced. It was a real revelation for me. It’s a kind of art that’s lived with me for my entire life, so this film really ticked those boxes for me. The great filmmaker Zhang Yimou said that every boy wants either a train set or to make a martial arts movie. And I didn’t have a train set, so this is my martial arts movie.
Q: There are a lot of influences of Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki evident in this film. How much did those weigh in when making this film?
Knight: We draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of different places and probably the two biggest films that were biggest influences were of that of Miyazaki and Kurosawa. For Kurosawa, it was the way he made films—this incredible composition and cutting, staging and lighting (and) his work with shapes. It was not just the way he made films, it was what he made films about. He would always explore something meaningful. Things like existentialism and humanism even and really explored with it means to be human and the human family society we live in and that was an important aspect that we did in this movie.
For Hayao Miyazaki, I’ve been a fan of his for 20 years but the interesting thing for me about Miyazaki is that half a dozen films were either inspired by or set in Europe. I love the way he internalizes, synthesizes and then we use his own art of cultural influences in the same kind of prism he applied to Europe is what we wanted to apply in Japan—that same vitality, and for that culture that we love and apply it in this movie.
Q: What did you think about the film?
Parkinson: I loved the film. I thought it was really just beautiful. It was a very detailed film and one of the key moments in the film that stood out to me was the relationship Kubo had with his mother. The way he brought characters to life with his music and with his art. I like to think I bring characters to life with what I do. So it was really sort of cool to see and have something in common with the character.
Theron: I absolutely loved it. I feel terrible I haven’t had a moment to talk to Travis about this. This is literally the first time. This is kind of like my love song to you (Travis). From the first moment I met Travis was when we started having conversation about this. There was something very clear about what he was trying to set out to do. I think it was finding a way to tell a story through a great character but also through a real sense of world. It was very hard for him to talk about character without talking about the world, and (then) to see the film finally. I have such admiration for the time and the patience and the passion that has to go into that.
It’s kind of like a painting. We actors step in and embody it in such broad strokes. It’s painted with such a small brush, a fine brush, and I sit here today in complete awe of what that is. Of course, on top of all that, the story to me is incredibly moving and layered and conflicted and covers a lot of things that we’re scared to address with children. It’s so true to what Laika stands for and what their films represents. I’m so happy to be a part of it. I never thought I’d be able to do something like this.
McConaughey: Laika before and with this never pandered to kids. There was always considered adult themes but things that children can understand and digest. I got to watch it with my wife and two eldest children who are seven and five. There were tears. I think my wife said she cried at least nine times. And then there’s also laughter. Also for animated film that my kids saw, they had tough questions. They enjoyed the ride but they came and asked. They were scared at the right times. They saw others overcome fears. They got to equate that to things in their own life. You don’t get that in every animated film. As an adult, we all quite enjoyed it and the kids loved it and they were seven and five. I thought it was an impressive work. It seemed impressive when I met with Travis for the first time and loved to see how and what they do. And it’s fully realized in the final film.
Q: Kubo had two special mentors in this film. Can you share your own special mentors in your life journey?
Parkinson: For me, my very special mentor was my mother, and she’s right there in the back (of the room). She brought me up and whenever I was coming up, working in this industry in film and TV, she was my mentor because no one else really was there to teach me how to handle things and my mom is a special mentor in every aspect of my life, whether it be sports or school or acting which she was always very supportive. I think the maternal instincts like the character of Monkey I can relate that to my mother. I also have a mentor in my father because he is a little bit more fun and less strict like Matthew’s character Beetle. And he was like the one in the film that let me use the bow and stuff and my father gave me a bow and we tried archery and stuff like that. I can relate to the character like that so well.
McConaughey: I had the late Penny Lawton who recently moved on six months ago. She was probably the best mentor I ever had in my life. She wouldn’t call herself an acting coach. Typically, I guess that’s what she was. She’s the lady that taught me what my rights could be as an actor.
Theron: With me, there are so many. I’ve been fortunate to have so many to have come into my life in very different ways and very different places, some much younger, some much older. My life has been consistently kind of blessed with people who have been great teachers to me. If I had to bring one to the play right now, I’d have to join Art in the fact that my mom was consistent through my entire life. I was just really really lucky to have had a parent that was a great teacher and still is a great teacher. I’m 40 and I’m like, “God I thought this would end some time,” and it just doesn’t stop. I’ve had people you wouldn’t know that have come into my life who are not here now who really kind of changed and molded me and my character in tremendous ways. I’m very grateful for that.
Q: Travis, with all your movies getting Oscar nominations, how do you top your previous works?
Knight: I don’t know if we really think of it that way. There is a really a restlessness at Laika where we’re always looking for that next challenge. We always want to challenge ourselves as artists because we want to grow, and the core team at Laika has been together for about 10 years now, right from the start and we’ve grown as filmmakers, artists and as people. It’s almost like a family there.
The thing that excites us is to do something new and original. To explore new ideas and so because we stay together, each artistic and technological innovation that we come up with on any film then we can apply to the next movie and focus our energies on with coming up with something new. That, we haven’t tried before.
When we started working on “Kubo,” it represented a seismic shift for us because we never really taken anything on that scale. This is big epic fantasy. If you come up to our production studios, our set is just a big warehouse, a slab of wood that has been gussied up. The idea of making a stop-motion David Ling film where it’d look like this big majestic vista set on a tabletop is kind of absurd on its face. But we’re excited by that challenge. I think it’s a testament to the creativity and the passion of the artist that they were able to pull it off. What I will say is when I know it’s coming down the pike, that’s what gets us excited. Our next film is the same way. We love to tell new stories.
Q: When you were young which type of animated movie did you go and see and which did you love?
Theron: The first kind of cartoons I can think of were the Looney Tunes. Television only came to South Africa in ’75 ’76. So we were a little late to the game. We only had about two hours a night of it. So it was very very special when it’d come on. When I was about 10 or 11, we got VCRs and that was a game-changer for us. I remember getting the little Beta tapes. God, I’m so old. Whew. Beta! I remember they were only short eight-minute runs as a kid.
It was kind of like I could watch this over and over again and kind of not get bored and laugh at the same jokes and discover something new every single time. Ironically, they still play them on the Collective Children’s Channel on cable and every time I see them with my child while I’m trying to look for something to watch, I secretly pop it on because I kind of want to give him a little bit of what I had, and he loves it. It’s changed as to what access he has now is so enormous. For me that was my first experience with animation.
McConaughey: Maybe before Beta, I had to get up because we didn’t have remotes. Turn the three channels on the Zenith TV with the ears up with CBS, ABC and NBC. It was long before Fox. I didn’t watch much media growing up but I do remember first time seeing “Land Of The Lost” on a Saturday morning of that world and the opening. I remember the opening credit and they’d go off the waterfall and the world they would end up in. That opened me up quite a bit. The other one would be “The Incredible Hulk” with Lou Ferrigno. You know you were going to get big and green hulk twice in an hour at 7:22 p.m. and about 7:41 p.m., near the end. It was going to happen twice. There was an oxygen tank that would happen to magically be around. He was going to throw it in slow motion and that was going to be awesome
Parkinson: When I was growing up, it was more like “The Lion King” and things like that—“The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book.” I loved those. I’m not just saying this because Travis is here, but whenever “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” those kind of films came out, I was a little bit older, of course, but it was the kind of film that I could go back and watch even as a 14-year-old. My 18-year-old brother and my mother would go and watch that because it was a kid’s film but it was dark as well. When I got older, I watched that.
Q: Did the actors learn about the stop-motion because I know the actors for “The Boxtrolls” knew how to move the characters and how the things work?
Knight: Are you asking me if it’s a requirement as actors to know how to do stop motion?
McConaughey: That’s two months of boot camp.
Knight: This would be a much different panel if that were the case.
Q: Was anyone interested in learning the process?
Theron: I think we’re all somewhat fascinated by it. And Travis was kind enough to share. I remember seeing some footage of Boxtrolls,” and kind of how they went about doing it. I asked a lot of questions. I mean the first time I came in I knew nothing about it. I was like “So, is it like clay?” I was so naive to the process and that was what was exciting. I’ve been doing this for twenty years or longer and to do something that I knew logistically nothing about was so refreshing. I mean the part of the job I had to bring to it was I was a little worried about and he was encouraging. I didn’t want to **** this up for you (Travis).
It’s a testament to why they’re so successful in the storytelling that they create and go after because it’s so grounded and real. Travis was constantly encouraging me of finding the truth and being a truth seeker in the whole process, which was even quite long. I wouldn’t see him for several months then I’d see him again. You kind of felt like you were picking up from where you left off. But, I didn’t really see the animation stuff until there was a making of. I worked with some of the sketches. More than anything, I working from his brain and he was my fountain of information and I was really getting my inspiration of what’s needed to kind of paint the canvas from him.
He’s very good at articulating that. So watching if for me was kind of like you watching it, I saw it for the first time. I think the moment at the end of the credits you see them with a really incredibly powerful moment. What they do is so seamless.