Interview: Producer Geoffrey Wexler talks living in the shadow of Ghibli in Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Earlier this week I caught up with Producer Geoffrey Wexler, who talked about Studio Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Comprised of ex-members of Studio Ghibli, we talk about creating the film in the shadow of the iconic Japanese animation studio’s legacy, creating strong female characters and working with an incredible English cast. We also ponder why Ghibli founder Miyazaki didn’t attend a screening of the film…

How have you found the reaction to the first feature from Studio Ponoc? I imagine you’ve kind of got the pressures from the established Studio Ghibli audience, but also the chance to start fresh. How has that balance been in releasing this film?

I think there’s been a lot of interest in the film, both from Studio Ghibli fans and from fans that just love beautiful animation and good story telling. There was a lot of interest in what would happen after Studio Ghibli announced that it would shut down production. I think because some people were disappointed. They liked the films they’d seen coming out of Studio Ghibli and there was a lot of interest in what this would be. This is the first film for Studio Ponoc. You mentioned a new start. I think that Studio Ponoc, the name Ponoc comes from the Croatian word “Ponoc”, which means midnight, the start of a new day. And it was chosen by the founder, Yoshiaki Nishimura, to really signify a new start and a fresh start. And we talk now how every day is a fresh start, every day’s a new day here for what we can do.

That being said, I think there was a lot of interest here at the studio to create a film that would be kind of a segue film from Studio Ghibli fans enjoy to what’s the kind of films Studio Ponoc hopes to make. So it does have a good number of Ghibli style on it, but also has it’s own style and it’s own character, I think. I hope you’ll agree.

Ponoc is going to take a step in its own direction. And we’ve got a younger team than the leadership at Ghibli now, and there’s a different energy. The opening couple minutes of the film is super high energy, and I just think that’s something the team really wanted to do to make a statement about Ponoc and what Studio Ponoc will be.

So is that sort of the tone that’s going to be carried through in future films?

I don’t think we know yet. I think the higher energy … I don’t think it’s going to be necessarily like, “Ponoc, the high energy studio.” I don’t think that’s what people are going for, so please don’t quote me on that. But what I say is, I think Studio Ponoc is looking to do a variety of films just like Ghibli did. If you look over Ghibli films over the 21 films of the studio, there’s a real variety of films there. The last few films, I think tended to reflect the life stage of the founders. And so, if you just kind of use that same idea here, we’ve got a lot younger team, a younger crew, who grew up at Ghibli, professionally, grew up professionally at Ghibli. And so, they’re going to bring over the quality and that kind of story telling, the background art, the animation style, and the music, but also their own energy. So I think that energy might show up in different ways. It won’t always be a high energy adventure, but I think you’ll see it coming from the studio just kind of a little bit … I don’t know, maybe a bit of a younger feel. Not necessarily meaning we’re aiming for a younger audience, but just feeling the energy of the team.

I feel that comes through in the film. But one thing that carries over so much is the beauty of the animation. I mean, every still just is a piece of art in itself.

Yeah, I agree.

And especially this film, the lighting of the flowers and just the effects in the Witch’s school. There’s just so much to take in. How much time is spent on every little detail from an animation point of view?

You’ve noticed lots of things, Larry. I appreciate that. You’ve got the background art, and then you got the animation, which are handled separately, but obviously were all coordinated together. How much time? Basically, every minute of every day for about two and a half years. I think that everybody’s always working. I mean, these are truly hand-painted. You have people with paintbrushes, with water colours and pastels, with oil and charcoal, and really everything need to create what’s a beautiful painting. And as you said, every frame is a piece of art. We talk about how you could put them up the wall, and we do. I think the audience really notices that. They may not realise that.

I noticed I’m producing the English language dubs, there’s always a moment with every actor, and it comes with every single actor, where mid-line while they’re recording a line they’ll stop and just their jaw will drop and they’ll say, “Wow, that’s really beautiful.” I think we get that from the fans as well. They really feel the beauty of the film. Everyone hopefully gets carried away in the story, which is what we’d all love, but you’re kind of gazing in the beauty of this art and this attention to detail.

I watched the film over and over and over as we’re preparing the subtitles and the translation scripts, and then there’re dubbing scripts and then we’re actually recording, and then we’re mixing. I’m watching this so many, many times and I’m very lucky that I never ever get bored. I have the opposite problem. I get distracted by what I’m seeing and I forget that I’m supposed to be editing something or working on a script, because I’ll see something, I’ll see a moment in a frame or in a scene that I never saw before.

Just the other day, I was watching it, I noticed something that I probably subconsciously noticed but hadn’t really thought of. There’s a moment when Mary’s leaving a house and it’s lit by these little flames. And the moment the sun comes up, the light of the sun washes across the room, the flame extinguishes itself magically. It’s a very brief moment, but it’s right because you don’t need the flame anymore when the sunshine’s coming in. And somebody thought of that, and somebody made sure it was drawn and in the film. And those details, people feel them, even if they don’t recognise them the first time they watch the film. I think it really lends a lot to the quality of the externals.

When it comes to the film as an adaptation, you’re looking at The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. What was the process of tailoring this film for that adaptation, compared to something like The Tale of Princess Kaguya which is an adaptation of a distinctly Japanese story.

So The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is Japan’s oldest story. And the focus is on a man who finds a young girl in a bamboo thatch. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, as you can tell just from the title, is her story. And there’s much more in there than that was in the original story. It was something that Isao Takahata worked on for almost all of his career. Similarly, The Little Broomstick starts out … And I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the book, it’s a pretty slim novel.

It beautifully depicts the English countryside, the school, but it’s pretty slim and we had to grow it, with the blessing of the Mary Stewart’s estate. We grew the story a bit, combined a character, rearranged it, so a few things, really trying to stay true to the original story. And so, you’re basically turning a slim volume into a film with several acts. I think it all comes down to what the film makers believe the story is about, the message they’re trying to tell. Once they’ve discovered that in the original, it’s easier I’d say to create the story you want to put up on the screen. And luckily, with this book, they found the core story, the core idea that they really liked. They really liked Mary and her adventure and her growth, and that helped them adapt it into something they should put up on the screen.

The actors that have been assembled for the film as well, you mentioned that some of the wonder that they may have had while recording. Wonderfully casted here, but particularly Jim Broadbent as Doctor Dee. Big fan of him and he’s beautifully cast here. What was the process of choosing the right actors for these roles?

Well, it’s really a combination of knowing the character that we’re trying to voice, and then looking at the kind of the whole cast or the team. What kind of cast do we want? What kind of sound are we looking for? Just in case we want to go with a British cast reflecting most of the novel. The novel takes place in Britain and the history there, we thought it would be appropriate to use a British cast. And then you come up with lists of possible actors. And then you start also doing the timing. Who’s available? Who’s in town? Who’s interested? You never want to say you prefer somebody over somebody else, so we ended up having several first choices, and then we started to talking with the agent to see who’s interested.

We’re quite lucky because of the Ghibli heritage in our film. And in Mary, we had actors who really wanted to be in the film. And we’re honoured that Jim Broadbent was one of them. He really responded positively quite quickly and we were going to have him in the film. He was a pleasure to work with. He’s just, as you can imagine, a confident professional. And he would sit in his chair in front of the mic and just act his heart out. And we were all very moved and impressed, as you can imagine.

I imagine it was the sort of recording process where everyone was doing it separately as well, so it’s always a challenge to get those performances. So when it does happen, it must be pretty impressive.

It’s really magical to watch it come together. I think that we envy the actors who come towards the end, because they get to act through their fellow actors in English. And we build it … There’s a moment with each character, sometimes if you’ve only been recording for a day, they’ll have it quite quickly. If it’s a fuller few days, maybe a bit longer. Then I’ll begin to forget the Japanese voice while we’re recording and really start to hear the character coming from our English language actor.

So we do record separately. We’ve toyed with the idea of bringing them together, but the logistics are tough. I really don’t want to have someone waiting around while someone else is acting. We’re syncing up every syllable and every sound, and sometimes that takes several takes. Sometimes it happens right on the first try, but we wouldn’t want someone waiting. The actors talk about how much they enjoy really being able to act. They’re not waiting for lights, camera, and makeup, and sets, or anything. They’re really there acting and performing, and you can see it in their performances. They’re standing behind the mic with their headphones on, and they transform into the character before our very eyes. It really is terrific. It’s a really terrific experience.

Over the years in cinema, we’ve seen many problematic portrayals of female characters, particularly out of Hollywood. But in the case of Ghibli and Mary’s, that never happens, all the characters are portrayed as independent, willful, flawed and human. Where do you think that the strong influence for such characters comes from Both from this film and the history of Ghibli?

I can’t say with the very original, but if you look at the history of the Ghibli films, I would say it starts with Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the founders of Studio Ghibli. It’s hard for me to imagine that they sat down one day and said, “Let’s make films about girls, with girls.” I think they started writing good stories and accounted good stories that they really wanted to tell, and I think it was a natural evolution. Not every film out of Studio Ghibli has a female protagonist, although many do. I think it’s … You touched on something that … And even more important is that we have characters that are human, and with that, we often say they’re flawed in a good way. They’re not polished and rounded, and their flaws aren’t kind of manufactured flaws.

Sometimes I feel like characters in some films, they’re perfect except for this one flaw, which becomes their downfall. It’s clearly created to create their downfall.
Here, you have kind of an evolution of the character. Mary is impulsive, but she’s also very generous in the beginning of the film. But it’s the combination that gets her in trouble. But no one’s really can get angry with her, she just can’t quite find her feet in her new community. And then her impulsiveness takes her into a situation where she creates her own problems trying to make everything okay. And trying to make everything better makes it worse for her. She grows that process and is able to summon up her latent courage to solve her own problems, and not using magic. I think that was a key part of this film, is that Mary solves her problems and face the challenges without magic, just as Ponoc had to make this film without the Ghibli magic, the magic of the Ghibli name. Ponoc was off to a new start. There was no one here when we started. It was empty, the whole space, and then within the course of years, you had several hundred people working on the film. So we really kind of facing your own problem, just as we all do every day.

And finally, now, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I read that Miyazaki was invited to watch the film, but he declined. What do you think the reason for that was?

I heard the same thing, and I wasn’t surprised. During my time at Ghibli, there were many times when Miyazaki did not go to screenings that the rest of us went to.

Yeah.

I think my personal prediction or personal reasoning is … There’s two things. One thing, I think he was supportive of the filmmakers and the making of the film, and he probably thought that was what he could contribute to the film. And also, he was focusing on his work. He was working on a film for the Ghibli Museum, and it’s been subsequently announced that he started to work on another film. I think that’s what he likes to focus. I don’t know if this was any different than other screenings at Ghibli. He gives his support in different ways, and that’s the way he did it this time.

Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And congratulations on such a beautiful film, and can’t wait to see what comes next from the studio.

Oh, please look forward to it. We’re cooking up some nice films. I hope you like them. And thank you for your support of Mary.

 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is in cinemas now.