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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 04/ 2/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: 'Secret of Kells' filmmaker TOMM MOORE

By Michael Cavna

kells3.jpg (GKIDS)

The sod that TOMM MOORE calls home is Kilkenny, city of twin historic cathedrals. Now, though, the gifted Irish filmmaker is calling from a world away and apart -- Sunset Boulevard -- where he's set to celebrate one of the time-honored religious rituals in all Hollywood:

He's about to take a meeting.

With DreamWorks.

For the 33-year-old animator now pitching his next project, it's yet another reminder that so many of his filigreed dreams born back home are rapidly being realized in America, too.

If it's possible for a voice to sound illuminated, Moore's is. There is lightness in his brogue as he describes his surprise journey-- from rubbing shoulders with fellow top animators to his recent red-carpet date with Oscar. After his many months of social media and spreading the word and film festival-going, the Academy Awards pulled his name as a nominee -- the pluck of the Irish -- and his Celtic gem of a film was suddenly thrust into such company as "Coraline" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and the eventual winner, "Up."

Moore's debut feature film, "The Secret of Kells" (opening in wide release today), was last month's upstart Oscar contender for animation, the mostly hand-drawn dark horse that back on St. Patrick's Day 2009 wasn't even a certainty to be exported much outside Ireland.

"A year ago, I was happy just to be finished with the film," says Moore, several days before this past St. Patrick's Day. "I wasn't expecting much beyond [its release] and hoped for a long cult life. It's been really amazing -- going festival to festival -- and the competition was insane. ...

"In such a banner year for animation, we thought we'd disappear."


Spoken like a man too humble to draw parallels to his own film's story-line. "Kells" is the tale of a bold and creative lad who, gifted with curiosity and a natural drawing hand, leaves his fortified home-base to venture into a perilous unknown -- all to discover the key to creating an artistic treasure of truth.

"Kells" is based on Ireland's Book of Kells, a national treasure of an illuminated medieval manuscript of the Four Gospels. This elegant animation -- rippling with ideas that draw on both medieval Christianity and paganism, from St. Patrick to serpent gods -- lured audiences gradually till after several months, Kells took the audience award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the first animated film to do so.

"The Edinburgh was a massive surprise -- that's such a huge film festival," says the chin-whiskered Moore. "We thought that would be the height."

Spoken like a man who must be reminded of an early line from his own film: "I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places."

As "Kells" gathered momentum heading toward Oscar season, that was one aspect of the film that critics and audiences especially praised: Its lavish, ravishing animation is a rare form of cinematic beauty. The film's style inventively mirrors the Book of Kells's flat perspective circa 800 A.D., as well as its eye-popping natural tints and hypnotic sense of ornate design and Celtic knotwork.

"I came to the Book of Kells backward," says Moore, who grew up a big fan of comics and animation, notably Disney's "Mulan" and Richard Williams's unfinished masterpiece "The Thief and the Cobbler." "We learned about it in school, and some of the artists I was inspired by were referencing it."

kells5.jpg (GKIDS)

Moore first had the idea of a Kells-inspired film about a decade ago out of Ballyfermot College in Dublin, as he and a friend formed Cartoon Saloon, their animation company in Kilkenny. Some five years later, "Kells" began to become real when the animated film "The Triplets of Bellville" received an Oscar nod -- and its European producers backed Moore's project. "We kind of got the financing from that Oscar nomination," Moore says. "That was a big boost for us because they signed us as the follow-up."

Another boost was getting acclaimed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson to do voicework -- the filmmakers' first choice. "Brendan was a really early supporter," Moore says. "He'd agreed years ago -- he was making 'Gangs of New York' at the time -- and he probably thought it was never going to happen. But then we went back to him and he said yes."

Gleeson voices the grim, towering Abbot of Kells who's intent on fortifying his scaffolded abbey against marauding Norsemen. The abbot's nephew is the boy who's determined to learn the art of illuminating the monks' manuscripts. Moore's story (screenplay by Fabrice Ziolkowski) and style (art-directed by Ross Stewart) tap so much lore and myth -- a wise fairy wolf-girl is especially winning -- but it took some time to get there.

"In a much earlier version, the look of the characters was more Disney," says Moore, who co-directed "Kells" with Nora Twomey. "The producer wanted us to go further in the [Book of Kells] style, so we worked a lot on that" -- as the film's characters became less rounded visually, yet utterly rounded emotionally. The balance of character and background -- decorative scenes pulsate with unfurling tendrils and billowing blood-red smoke and slithering scrollwork -- is evocative of Tartakovsky's "Samarai Jack."

After years spent on the film, all the tumblers seemed to click into place once "Kells" was released. Yet amid his whirlwind year, Moore says he has no illusions.

"Just being nominated is by far enough pressure," Moore says. "I don't expect to get this kind of recognition again for at least two or three more films."

Moore's planned next project is "Song of the Sea," an animated tale about the last Irish selkie, a human-seal creature. He's drawing on more of his country's lore. From Sunset Boulevard, a world away with Kilkenny, he hopes Hollywood will again be receptive.

When it comes to illuminating cultural fairy tales, after all, Moore has a knack for turning myths into a certain narrative reality.

By Michael Cavna  | April 2, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  | Tags:  The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore  
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Very nice! 'Kells' is playing at E Street sometime in April...maybe right now? I forget. anyway, hope to catch it while it's here!

Posted by: RKaufman13 | April 2, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

>> RKaufman13:

Many thanks. "Kells" not only opens today @ E Street, but also: the first showing is in, oh, about three hours. Let's hope DC filmgoers turn out to appreciate it.

-- M.C.

Posted by: cavnam | April 2, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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