Nearly a year after Ernest & Celestine screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, this charming French animated film is finally being released into U.S. theaters (in the Bay Area on 3/28). I’ve been eagerly awaiting this moment, since Ernest & Celestine was not only one of my favorite films of 2013, but also one of my favorite animated films of all time. At last year’s SFIFF, Benjamin Renner, co-director of the film, was simultaneously exhausted, excited, and relieved that the film was getting such a great response. With his friends waiting to go celebrate over a few drinks, Mr. Renner was kind enough to sit down with me at the Sundance Kabuki, just outside the auditorium where his film just finished screening, to discuss his experience…
Chad: How did you first get involved with this film?
Benjamin Renner: I started working on this when I just left school. I didn’t know anything except that it was an adaptation of the books by Gabrielle Vincent. The producer, Didier Brunner, the one who made Triplets of Belleville and Kirikou and the Sorceress, really famous in France, asked me if I could help work on this film. So I started reading the books, Ernest & Celestine, and I was so impressed by the books, the drawings, and everything. So I said, ‘I really want to work on this. Whatever position you want to give me. Even if I’m making coffee, I don’t care, it’s perfect.’ I really wanted to work on the animation, especially. So I started making him small animations. He loved it and said that I could work on the film. So that’s how I got involved. I was not a director, just a lead animator.
Chad: How close was your relationship with Gabrielle Vincent’s family and those that owned the rights to the book?
BR: Gabrielle Vincent passed away in 2000, so unfortunately we couldn’t ask her anything, but her family had taken charge of her work and everything.
Chad: So you consulted a lot with them?
BR: Yes, I knew that Gabrielle Vincent didn’t really want to make a movie with her books, so I really didn’t want to betray her. I wanted to be as faithful as I could with her books. I did my best to make it — not what she would have made, but what she would have liked. And because we loved Gabrielle Vincent so much, they [her family] said, ‘ok, go ahead.’ And that’s how it worked.
Chad: You had their blessing.
BR: Yes, but we asked for their blessing all the time. Every step of the movie we asked, ‘Are you okay with that?…Are you okay with that?’
Chad: Did you and the team study bears and mice?
BR: [Laughing] Actually, yeah. I bought two mice for the film to use as references. Of course, I didn’t buy two bears because that would be a mistake. One of the mice, actually, was pregnant so I ended up with eleven mice. It was a weird experience making this film. The mice are dead now, because it has been more than two years. We went to a park in France that has a lot of bears and went drawing them. It’s one of the biggest things in animation — you have to have references. Everything you’re drawing comes from reality. It’s like live action but you’re drawing it and trying to put in more expressions.
Chad: How long was the production and how long were you involved?
BR: I’ve been involved for four and a half years. It’s the usual for this type of film.
Chad: And this was your first film?
BR: Yeah, this was my first. I didn’t expect it to be so long, I must admit. I started when I was 24 and now I’m 29.
Chad: It’s a big chunk of your life.
BR: [Laughing] Yeah, it’s my childhood in a way. It was quite hard making it. It was hard becoming a director so soon. I didn’t expect that. I was thinking that I would be a director when I was 30 or 40. It was a great experience because I learned so much in such a short time.
Chad: And right off the bat you get to work with someone like Mr. [Lambert] Wilson. What was that like?
BR: It was fascinating working with him. He’s a really great talented actor. It was my first time working with an actor and I wasn’t always sure what I wanted and he was always giving me ideas. He made it easy. There was a lot of discussion between us. I would say, ‘I think Ernest should be like this’ and he would say, ‘Right and I’m going to try to add this and tell me what you think about it.’ Every time he proposed something it was perfect. I definitely look forward to working with actors again [smiles].
Chad: Maybe you got spoiled the first time around, it was so good!
BR: Yeah, right. Maybe I’ll work with untalented actors. I dunno.
Chad: What was your biggest takeaway? Do you have a favorite part of the production and the film?
BR: Really the whole film. I still don’t believe I managed doing this film. You have to see it as one object and that everything is working together is wonderful. I was worried that people might be disappointed or that there was a betrayal compared to the books. But actually, we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback.
Chad: Iv’e heard that it’s a lot darker than the books…
BR: Right, yes it is. And many people that weren’t raised on Gabrielle Vincent’s books are just discovering them now.
Chad: I know I’m excited to read them!
BR: That’s what I mean. I want children to discover these books and also to start drawing. Since the film I’ve received hundreds of drawings of Ernest and Celestine. That’s one of the greatest gifts I could think of.
Chad: Great, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
BR: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Ernest & Celestine will be in select Bay Area theaters on March 28, 2014.
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival will take place April 24 – May 8. For more info, visit http://sffs.org/