Our guest today: Will Collins
Will Collins (@WillumsFillum) is the screenplay writer for the Irish animation Song of the Sea, about a young Irish boy named Ben, and his little sister Saoirse, a girl who can turn into a seal, go on an adventure to free the faeries and save the spirit world. Like other Cartoon Saloon films, Song of the Sea was hand-drawn. The film began production soon after the release of The Secret of Kells (2009), premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. According to Wikipedia, “the film had a limited release in certain countries, but received overwhelming acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 87th Academy Awards in 2015.”
I discovered Song of the Sea on Amazon Prime. When the theme music came on for just a few seconds, I was completely absorbed by the film and had to put everything I was doing on hold.
“Phenomenal” is the word that comes to mind for Song of the Sea’s animation, music and writing.
Immediately after the film, I reached out to Will Collins, the screenplay writer for the film. Will took me on a journey of his own, from the inception of the idea for Song of the Sea, to how Will was introduced as a writer, working closely with Tomme Moore, co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, director and illustrator for the film.
Will Collins: There has to be in your story painful truths that is going to be exposed and that painful truth has to fuel everything is a thematic truth and as to fuel your characters and it has to fuel the problem of your film and it has to be the thing that brings everything to a head. As soon as I locked in on that for myself as a screenwriter the entire thing became quite clear. I used to use myself Richard Linklater who I absolutely admire. I think he’s a wonderful filmmaker. And I said to him I just introduced I said hey I will call this song and see the animated move and he says oh my god I just watched that and we were like kids two nights ago it was absolutely. I love that movie and I was like I just said I’m happy I’m OK. That is a moment. I think becoming a parent has changed my attitudes towards life and my career and all that sort of stuff and I become a lot more focused on just happiness. I don’t frame my work in college anymore. I just enjoy what I do. I’m a creative person and I take pleasure in working with creative people and seeing things being made. Listen to your internal voice and focus and be creative if you want to be creative. Be creative. Don’t make your goal. The Oscar. Failure is your best friend. Failures tough and then you will actually become stronger you become stronger and your spine will get a bit tougher as well. So that’s important.
Fei: Hi everyone. This is your host Fei Wu and you are listening to the feisworld world podcast. My podcast was created to delve into the meanings of our lives. among extraordinary people you can relate to including artists musicians authors doctors and more and still I’m constantly searching for authentic souls to connect with one voice at a time. So thank you for joining me in this movement to celebrate sung and unsung heroes. Today I have a very special guest his name is Will Collins. Will is the screenplay writer for The Irish animation film called Son of the sea which is about a young Irish boy named Ben and his little sister saoirse a girl can turn into a seal go on an adventure to free the fairies and save the spirit world. Like other cartoon saloon films son of the sea was hand drawn. The film began production soon after the release of their other very successful film called The Secret of Chaos release in 2009 and premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. According to Wikipedia the film Son Of The Sea had a limited release in certain countries but received overwhelming acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the eighty seventh Academy Awards in 2015. I discovered the sea on Amazon Prime one day completely unexpected and I remember having to set just everything aside and I was doing completely be absorbed by the film. Since the beginning credit phenomenal is the word that comes to mind for its animation music and writing. Immediately after the film I reach out to Will Collins the screenplay writer and Will took me on a journey of his own. From the inception of the idea for sound of the sea to how well was introduced as a writer and working closely with Tom Moore who is the co-founder of cartoon saloon also director and illustrator for the film.
Fei: When son of the sea was nominated to win an Oscar. Will was invited to join a luncheon with the world’s greatest filmmakers and artists. He sat down next to Richard Linklater the incredible director for the movie Boyhood a moving 12 year epic that isn’t quite like anything else in the history of cinema but who will surprise Linklater had to share a family story of his with Will onto the more difficult questions. What was the writing process like. We’ll speak to six or seven drafts of the story. At least he lost track of the revisions and effort that went into each step in turn. The film have a different ending. Yeah. And you’re going to find that out directly from well. After years of working on the film. Will Collins Tom Moore and a team of animators editors musicians release a masterpiece to the world not knowing what to expect or how people from different cultures especially are going to react. That’s one tough hurdle for creators and creative work in general running phase where podcasts at a much much smaller scale is similar in a way that I would never know which episodes storyline will resonate with listeners some of the feedback isn’t only difficult to track down but also hard to measure and qualify behind the scenes interview is one of my favorites from the feisworld podcast series. So I hope you have as much fun as well and I did while recording this episode from oceans apart without further ado let Will Collins unveil the creativity hard work and never heard before stories of song of the sea
Fei: So Will Collins. Thank you so much for joining me on face world I’m absolutely thrilled. I think you could probably hear that in my voice.
Will Collins: I just thank you for having me.
Fei: Thank you for carving out a very important. You know I know right now it’s still working hours for you and I know you’re working on a new film. We get to expose some of that towards the end of the podcast but you are. Will you were the writer and actor and discover your work through watching song of to see. And that is basically my latest obsession for animation and song of the sea. I must say received an eight point two out of ten on IMDB. Not very crazy about scores in general but I must mention that I received an 85 on metacritic as for it.
Fei: It’s unbelievable because I’ve used Metacritic for years and they’re known for crushing filmmaker sold by giving out these terrible scores of times it’s unnecessary back. Clearly it’s one of the top players out there. Yeah. Have you seen metacritic yet.
Will Collins: No I haven’t. Actually no it’s just I don’t look it I don’t look at Metacritic just by pure habit. But it’s good to know that that’s great to know that it’s doing so well there.
Fei: Yeah that’s funny because I realize that that’s one place sometimes I even avoid because any film I want to watch and critics basically directed me the other way. But this one I was really impressed with in a way you know the plot of the film. Sense there may be a mix of listeners out there who have and I have not seen the film. Some of the seeds of this mythological creature story from Ireland. But I guess my first question will be how were you introduced to Song of the Sea. How did this project come about?
Will Collins: Well as the genesis of stagnancy it came from the director of Tom Moore who is a fantastic creative minds and a wonderful filmmaker and just an all around great guy. And Tom had made his first feature film called which is called The Secret Kells and he took him 10 years to get that film made and kind of came up with the story or the idea the genesis of the idea of the story for Song of the Sea, and basically when he was in the middle of making Secret of Kells he went on holiday with his family to the west coast of Ireland and he encountered this basically a massacre of SEALs and they are caught on one of the beaches there was a huge calling of this family seals and it turns out yes person he was renting the cottage. What happened here. And she said like you know the local fishermen you know have come they’ve called the seals and she said it’s a real shame because you know back in olden days fishermen would never touch seals because they believe that seals embodied the souls of those you know ones who’ve been lost.
Will Collins: So you could if you’re killing a SEAL you could be killing the soul of someone you loved or someone not somebody you know loved and they would never have done it. She said since we had our kind of like a Celtic Tiger boom in the 1990s kind of we had stepped away from our culture and our heritage really had lost touch with our kind of mythological storytelling. And so Tom that’s what Tom was inspired to he was inspired to say and secondly that he wants to embrace the story of seal of this silkies and seals. And he discovered that you know the mythology of silkies were you know mythological creatures who spend Hafter when winter in the water to become SEALs and when they’re on dry land they’re human. There’s so many different origin stories for the Silkie you know.
Will Collins: And we kind of appeared on our own and how we got involved so I had actually my first feature film was it was a live action feature film. It hadn’t gotten into production of that stage but it was being supported by the Irish Film Board. We’re really good at supporting filmmakers and creative people you know to help them develop their work. And Tom knew from his experience working on the Secret of Kells that he wanted to work with a writer as early as possible in the story process on some of the sea. So he asked the film board so you know to suggest some writers that might be suitable to work with. And my name was on the list and it just turned out when I met them I’d never even heard of song is actually Italian serendipitous they’ll miss the long story. So it is a long version of the story so basically when I finished the script for that film I was still working a day job and I’d sent the draft into the phone board into the executive in there and he absolutely loved us and said Look are we we want to make sure this thing gets made it’s beautiful. So as a result like got a lot of attention a lot of traction with you know different production companies were wanting to meet me and see if they can get onboard. So help produce the movie and I used up all of my holidays taking meetings effectively. So I had came to a critical point where I had to make a decision of OK I’m going to have to quit my job and try and do this writing thing full time. So I literally quit my job and it was a week unemployed supposedly in inverted commas a professional writer at the stage with the film actually going to go into production with anyone yes.
Will Collins: And I said I had spent so long working on this first live action feature film that was kind of a gritty kind of kitchen sink road movie type story that I knew the next thing I wanted to do was the exact opposite of that which was basically an animated movie you know that kind of harkens back to the 1980s Amblin movies that inspire me and Studio Ghibli stuff which I absolutely adore. Like you know I adore my neighbor Totoro and I was telling my partner might who was not my wife. I said like I was telling her that morning. So that’s what I wanted to I want to do be cool animated movie. You know that’s really beautiful got the Studio Ghibli thing and I literally check my email and I had gotten a random email from cartoon saloon saying oh we’re developing this new feature film. We’re looking to talk to writers and we’re finishing up our first film called The Secret Kells and my first reaction was I don’t really like this title secret of kells. I looked them up on YouTube when I saw the conceptual trailer for the sequel girls and immediately I went to that’s it! Exactly this is what I want to do. This is this world. Whatever they are creating that’s the tone of what I want to do and then I met with Tom and the gang cartoon saloon. Pretty much it was such serendipity it really was some sort of tongue. I was stopping him and as long as a resource for instance. My first feature film was set over Halloween weekends 1987. And as Tom had said Song of the sea and over Halloween weekend 1987.
Will Collins: So and that weekend a particular storm happens in Ireland and a kind of most of our consciousness or some in some ways shape or form. And it was obviously made a significant impression. So it kind of were basically working around the same kind of mythology we are around the same age and it was really kind of a perfect serendipitous pairing. And yeah that’s kind of how I got to work start working on that. That’s the long version.
Fei: No it’s not. Not at all. First of all I must say that I have seen the film at this point twice. I was captivated during the first 30 seconds I must say and you know there films you see say OK let’s give it five to 10 minutes because there’s so many options out there today. And with this particular one within 30 seconds and just hearing the little boy’s voice and mom’s voice and I had to kind of give up everything I was doing and say you know what let’s put the podcast project on hold for so many other things on hold and let’s watch this and what you just described made me feel like it wasn’t just a partnership but it was exactly like the story you’re telling me something very mysterious about this partnership itself. There’s that energy. And I know the films as I have drawn that I want to kind of get into that is something really emotional that captivated hope. It’s not just me because people within my network start replying. It really surprised me I must say. That’s lovely to hear. Yeah. What are some the feedback you have heard. Well that kind of surprised you.
Fei: You know family friends are completely people you have never known.
Will Collins: Honestly never know if something’s going to work until it’s out there and you’re getting kind of positive feedback or negative feedback while you’re doing it while you’re like you know a song. The journey of doing Song of the Sea was you know I started in 2000 and I think that’s when I came on board in November 2008. The film wasn’t released until 2014. Yeah it was a really long protracted process. No that wasn’t like continuous development. Basically we were had a feature film produced in that period. Tom and the gang were finishing up secret cables. They were also developing things so we would the development would stop start so we would do a draft and maybe six months would go by. When they’re there we’re doing a pilot or something like that and then we would reconvene and have OK we need to go back and do the next draft. So it was a very very long protracted process.
Will Collins: Honestly there were times when we had drafts where I would think is a disaster. This is not going to work we’re never going to pull this together. And I suppose a lot of filmmakers have the same feeling you never know until it’s like rip from your hands. You’re not even like you know with the finished film like you know you’re always I always have things that are kind of niggling me you know the young seeing the young writer you know and the mist. I would say mistakes but the decisions that we made as you know the version of me and decisions they made back then that maybe I would have done differently with the feedback. It’s so lovely to get such positive feedback because I think once what stands out to the film is the kind of emotional truth of the film and how it seems to resonate with audiences. You know universally across the globe and one of the most kind of profound encounters with people I was invited to a film festival in Qatari in the Middle East in Doha. And as soon as I got off the plane I had a driver Take me to Kunas screening screening and it was a screening with local kids like you know local Qatari kids from national school and I went in and away the place was just jammed with these kids all you know maybe five to 10 years of age.
Will Collins: And the film with subtitles and they are absolutely enthralled by it. Like you know I was going wow this very specific Irish film you know would love a very very specific references to 1980s Ireland like you know it is resonating with these kids from a complete. First of all a different generation and from a completely different cultural background to us. And then after the movie what really fun powerful was. After the Q and A session I had like you know female teachers coming up with their female students and thanking me and saying thank you for making this movie it’s so important to see strong female characters and you know being and being empowered in a movie. They were really really you know grateful for the films. There was a kind of a response that I could never have possibly imagined while making the film.
Will Collins: Whereas we were making a film just kind of like make the movie for ourselves that would entertain us and yes so that was one.
Fei: You just reminded me of a question I’ve been thinking about since you agree to come onto the podcast. I absolutely watch that. I believe it’s called the DFE Q&A And I’m going include video also with the blog post that this podcast as well. I was really touched you know with the film. I mean the recording of the Q&A was it was done very well. And I see like you describe these kids with you know with accents and I was wondering where they came from. And they were so engaged asking you some of the questions which exposed and really helped me organize my thoughts. My neighbor Totoro. I mean there is when I was growing up and I was 9 or 10 years old I was the first time for me to watch. And I think that film actually came out before I was that age. I was like a few years behind. And as an 18 20 year old and studying in the United States I remember thinking not only there was not a single Asian kid who did not grow without watching this film ever. But they’re now discovering all these America you know Caucasian the way kids of any kind of ethnical background have seen this film and that’s a lot of impact yet that happens to be one of your favorites as well.
Will Collins: So yeah yeah I think that’s my favorite studio movie. Absolutely. And maybe the reason they work is because they’re really specific to a specific point in our lives really specific to childhood. And there’s an honesty and there’s a truth that’s in my neighbor Totoro about like what I love about my neighbor Totoro is that you know you have these kids going on this really whimsical adventure but it’s all frames you know in the backdrop. They have a mother who is really in the hospital and we’re not really sure. It’s never kind of pushed in our faces really until the very end. And you always said these are kids and but then I realize because I grew up when I was a kid my dad was really ill when I was young. You know I was able to transport myself back to my way of thinking back then. And when you were in this you’re not really focusing on all my dad’s sick. You’re really kind of still concerned with being a normal kid. It’s kind of affecting you don’t what you don’t realize the crash is going to happen later. You know. But at the point you’re kind of getting on with it and I kind of totally relate to that and my neighbor was just kids being fun despite this family trauma that’s happening on the parental level you know and it’s really specific you know the filmmakers Miyazaki would love to get a juicy you know documentary about like you know what references he used and how much of his own life does he put into his films. You know his own childhood because it feels real you know it feels really real. Yeah.
Fei: It’s there’s so many questions I accumulated during this past two minutes just thinking the possibility that you’ve created with Tom to kind of give children peace of mind and that’s really hard. And I think all of us grew up with some love of hardships myself included. And whenever I have this conversation with my peers today you know I’m in my 30s now and everybody kind of said something along the line of OK if it’s not this it’s something along that line. But as a kid it’s hard for me to dissect your own emotions and say and break it down and you cannot drive. You need to schedule play time with your friends. There are a lot of constraints. But first of all I feel like the film is not only made for children but also for adults like myself but when kids immerse themselves in the film there’s that relief and there’s that space that you create for them. It isn’t otherwise possible if you know what I mean. I feel like we could probably do a separate podcast for a Tortoro. I was 9 or 10 years old just coming out of a door harshly that was describing and the film I enjoyed very very much but at the same time left me with a lot of confusions as well. But I didn’t quite get it in the end I didn’t know quite what happened. Whereas with Song of the Sea like yes you know it’s you. I get it. I feel like you know there’s some level of closure too. I was wondering about you know.
Will Collins: What I can do to help you shine a light on what some of the kind of fundamental kind of big breakthroughs we had to develop that story were for Song of the Sea was for us. Let’s say I think I don’t maybe total how many drafts for Song of the Sea I wrote. We we made so many different iterations. They were it was at least you know maybe five maybe seven drafts. I’m not really sure. I don’t really know where you are official drafts been the result of official drafts and then there would have done a version of the of the film where we were he would basically storyboard the movie and there were still sequences even in that storyboard which we hadn’t really nailed down which I think a critical moment into a critical point in the development story was maybe on the third draft. For me it was I had this. I was fortunate enough to have a revelation in my first feature about like you know what some parts integral to a feature story if I wanted to. One of the integral things is that there has to be in your story painful truths that is going to be exposed and that painful truth has to fuel everything. It’s a thematic truth you know and it has to fuel your characters and it has to fuel the problem of your film and it has to be the thing that that brings everything to a head. You know ends with something to see because we’re dealing with Celtic mythology. We kind of had too many options and it dazzled us almost like you know it was. There was such a wide and varied Catholic mythology and that it was overwhelming you know and you knew we were trying to figure out what angle we should take in which stories we should use to try and bolster our story.
Will Collins: And it wasn’t until I kind of hit upon like the emotional truth of this boy and his sister and this boy who blames his sister for the death of his mother. And as soon as I locked in on that that became the most important thing in the entire story. And all of a sudden sequences just fell away big set pieces just fell to the side because they weren’t in relevance to that emotional journey. And everything about everything it was about the journey journey was there to sort of that particular emotional you know resolution and emotional closure where these kids has to realize that he’s mother didn’t die because of his sister. Something that happens and he has to forgive her It’s not her it’s not her fault you know. And as soon as I locked in on that for myself as a screenwriter. The entire thing became quite clear you know and I think that’s I think that maybe there’s the thing that people relate to when can kind of follow. They kind of lock in on that emotional journey. And more than you know the kind of the mythology and kind of all that are kind of like that delightful stuff around that you know maybe that’s what it is that kind of people click into
Fei: Yeah I’m glad you brought that up because we can slowly unveil some parts of the story as well. But I was really touched by the boy which even had some real life situations that it’s hard to have siblings even though we portrayed it as a walk in the park to have you know many kids and a family they get along and course will be best friends BFFs for life right? Whereas in real life you know I do think especially when kids are younger and when they see another baby get brought to the house or when they go to a restaurant together it’s always the baby who gets all the attention. And you see that very natural jealousy. And kids probably spend years dealing with that. I wouldn’t know that because I’m really only child. Part of me makes me kind of think back to what my parents even showed affection towards other children and praising them that I felt really jealous for that. So and then there’s that typical moment where you turn around he was trying to do everything he could to protect her and really like a big brother like a guardian. And I was touched by that.
Will Collins: Yeah I have. I grew up with a group of two older brothers and we have completely different personalities. And so I grew up in an environment where there was always conflict. I was the youngest so I was kind of getting beaten up more than anyone else. But then I was also using my kind of manipulative young baby skills on my parents to try and use that kind of get there. So it was always a push there was always a power play dynamic going on in my house growing up and I very clearly remember us I remember from memory the memory of fighting quite clearly and I think that’s very true to me the most are witness you know I have a 2 year old I have a two year old son and I have a newborn and I’m witnessing from day one.
Will Collins: I can already see that the jealousy emerging in my mind. My first my first born. I mean he’s struggled with he’s struggling with it you know. You know when you trained as a parent you’re trying to keep the balance but you know you can’t help what people feel people are wired to where they are wired and they’re going to feel the feelings they feel. And it’s just about trying to … but you know it’s a part of life. You know we’re all of different percentages and you know jealousy is a big thing you know that can happen between siblings.
Fei: Yeah. Well congratulations. I had no idea you have two young kids and the second one is a boy or a girl.
Fei: Oh wow. So yeah I can only imagine that now being a parent and I know this the film launch in 2014 and you are a new parent and I can imagine how does parenthood and what you will learn where you have learned so far we’re really fuel into the future films that you’ll be working on as well.
Fei: You know if it’s family related if you don’t mind I have several questions. Before we get to your childhood too. Because I think that we naturally kind of just have gone in there and it’s really interesting. I want to learn more before we do that. I think a lot of people actually don’t have a very kind of a vivid idea of what a writer or screen writer actually means and I want to preface this by saying that I personally have exposed myself to a number of friends who are now living in Hollywood and you know they’re writers and I get to learn a lot of them. But even even then we have not sat down like this and having a very detailed one on one conversation. And as you know I live in Boston and there’s a school called the Emerson College and hopefully you get to speak here. You could get to come to visit us now. Craig Emerson is really known for it’s a film school of filmmaking and I have several friends who attended there that had a blast. So it’s a I guess it’s a multipart question one is I notice with writing there’s that exclusive assignment. There’s something called a pitched assignment. Depending what they called the property in which case some of the season existing property. I believe the story by Tom Moore but then you’re given this opportunity to do maybe elaborate a little bit on how this works in general.
Will Collins: Yeah. Well as a screenwriter does is they have to develop a come up with story or take an original story that they have developed the story into a screenplay and in this screenplay you know basically as a blueprint for the film that you see that you see your that people go off and make. So in that script you have basically the action you have what basically the audience will see you have the dialogue that you’re the first person to make the film he’s in your head. So you have to figure it all out then. So that’s let’s say if that was a project that I would say that’s an original or a concept then there are adaptations or you have assignments where someone gives you a book or gives you an existing kind of outline or something like that or a concept even it might be very very vague or might just give you a toy line or something then do a story about them and you have to try and fit. You basically have a brand and you have to figure out a story within this universe. And again that can happen to.
Fei: So I wonder what you have to work with? I notice Tom Moore is more of an artist and maybe a little strict illustrator. So what are some initial materials you have to work on. What do you have to dream up imagine?
Will Collins: in the case of a song is he to be specific. Thomas head a he had a say he had a setting. He has their characters. He had this family who lived by the sea. He had obviously the Silkie wanted to be around the Silkie mythology and he had a bit again of kind of he had an outline for a version of a story which we didn’t really kind of stick to we kind of had to figure out the story ourselves between us. So we kind of had or we are the characters and we had the setting and myself and Tom.
Will Collins: Over the course of the various drafts came together and we bashed out like you know what the story could be. First of all and kind of an outline form and then I go and write and go and write the actual screenplay itself and kind of the heavy lifting. So it’s you know to try and figure out diversional that I can see in my age and then because. Because you’re the writer you’re the person you are making in your head and you’re kind of coming up with your version of it. And then you indicated honestly I would have passed the script over to Tom then and Tom then would have done storyboard past where he would like to take the script and do black and white drawings and create a kind of an animatic animatic which temporary voices where you could see a version of the film like in real life. After that. Then after he did he’s passed they say are Voya animatic I would come back in and we would again as a kind of like it’s just not. Not just me and Tom. There were older people like you know in this in the studio who would like to have their say as well would kind of give notes and stuff like that. So it was a very collaborative process but the actual the actual script writing is a very solitary kind of for me and something to see a you know it’s me going away for a couple of months and writing that draft.
Will Collins: Coming up the best family dinner film in my brain and whatever. Like you know when it goes back to Tom and whatever kind of resonates with Tom stays you know and then if something doesn’t resonate with Tom he will give his notes to say I think there’s something about this that doesn’t work for me. So we would iterate basically. And that’s kind of like what it’s like as far as working it because filmmaking is a collaborative medium and you’re not a lone soldier. So you know throughout the process you’re going to be collaborating with a lot of people. It’s you just have to accept. And you have to enjoy being able to work with creative people and also recognize good ideas and kind of like to be able to kind of like draw your ideas in the brain you know and accepts better ideas you know. And that’s kind of fun. You know it’s a lot of fun when you going to someone else and come and crack something for you. It’s crazy like you know. Yeah.
Fei: So how big was the team that you collaborated or worked with on a regular basis. I don’t know how long that was out of. Let me see that the six years that all of you devoted to the film.
Will Collins: I think mostly it was really myself and for let’s say the core drafts and then we would get let’s say Nora who is there is Nora Nora told me and Paul Young are also the co owners of fat cartoons saloon and they would have come in with their notes and an Nora was Grace know if we came up an idea I would go down to Tom. It’s a cartoon saloon and we have to like you know story meetings where we would share what ideas and myself and Tom will come up with a great idea. And then Tom would knock on the window and called Nora in. We pitched the idea to Nora and see how Nora react and or is just fantastic she’s a great barometer like you know she can really kind of like you she she knows when something’s where you are with when something’s not working. So initially it was a really small tight group of people. And then on the other side then Tom also as we’re doing Tom was also starters the visual kind of development so you know we’re working with Adrian Mayhew who is the art director and the amazing art director and song is the end. So Tom was also in tandem kind of beginning ti developed the visual language and visual style of this world as we are progressing with the you know the story will say.
Will Collins: So these things were happening in tandem and it wasn’t until quite late base that the actual group of people starts to expand and and basically visual side of things starts to group started to grow. But from a narrative point of view from the actual kind of story development is always stayed very very contained and very very ties you know what we would have like you know different junctures of the story of say that about the story we would send the script out.
Will Collins: So let’s say a trusted kind of group or a brain trust and we were kind of send it to kind of a network of people that were friends with and get notes back from people so we kind of correlate those notes and see how things are working and we’re kind of modeling ourselves a little bit on the Pixar model. That’s all Pixar do I think Pixar kind of pitch them you know there are projects and you know constantly to their co-workers and constantly kind of like people giving a creative input constantly into or into different projects. So we kind of said that’s a we were you know they were so we there were a great model of us. And they were making such fantastic movie strictly in the mid 2000s and that was that if there was for them so we should try it ourselves. That’s kind of how we it worked for us.
Fei: I love that I recently interviewed a very young high school designers and one of them said that the best lesson they’ve learned in that design class is hold your ideas lightly loosely. And I felt what you had described… I worked in digital advertising agencies for 10 years and I noticed just how difficult sometimes it is really for true collaboration to happen because all of us you know are you know specialized in one area where the other and sometimes making changes can be really painstaking out here. I wonder. And it’s been. I know it’s been a while. There may be many scenarios but do you recall one that you know that’s kind of changed the story arc slightly we’re drastically after you’d gathered feedback.
Will Collins: That’s a good question. I think at one stage in the story I don’t it’s actually to do with the end of the story so I’m gonna be bringing up spoilers so anyone who’s listening and you know and you want to see it will be maybe stop and watch the movie in a comeback and sort of you will see the movie. And I think one of our original endings is that you know of the little girl left. She left she went with the fairies.
Will Collins: She went with her mother and it was devastating and myself and Tom are so convinced that this is the right thing, let’s go for it, like let’s see we whispered. I was actually a producer I was all young. That is great. Paul was like, It’s too much. Kids can handle it. It’s just too much and it was totally right. Incomplete. And actually it was an interesting serendipity that The Tale of Princess Kaguya came out of the same pretty much the same time and we saw that same day. Premiered in the Toronto Film Festival 2014
Will Collins: Actually The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea have a lot of parallels in it. Actually they had their ending in detail. The Tale of Princess Kaguya kind of like reminded us of the original ending we would think of for Song of the Sea. So that was one big change we made that I can think of right now.
Fei: Even when you’re saying that part of me is getting jittery because when I was watching the end. Now you’ve shared. I was just thinking what’s gonna happen. You know and I shot with a bomb set because saoirse is half human and you know she should stay to them part of me is like but what about mom is she gonna stay. What Is she gonna come back. And this guy she ever. Got back
Will Collins: Unfortunately she’s going and she’s going to turn a note and she has she’s effectively already deceased she’s gone already. Unfortunately it’s just her spirit he shows up and how people actually it’s that thing that people do get confused with that’s the thing. You see things going back you know retroactively or saying oh I should or I could have done something just make that clear you know or something like that.
Fei: You know I think like all the films I mean to read even you know a lot of the TV shows especially at think that it’s interesting to have leave up to the audience imaginations. And I’m thinking about some of the very extreme scenarios like the Sopranos or like what. And that’s certainly not the situation with the film I feel very I feel very satisfied. And I think like you mentioned the animation team did such a phenomenal job. It really is amazing this gorgeous story and so captivating. And on top of that I just want to say shout out to the artist the animators and the musicians who really try to like hit home and just you know everything came together.
Will Collins: Oh yeah I want to definitely the art team are amazing and they’ve been you know lauded and deservedly so. And the music was so fundamentally important because Keillor or the bands collaborated with the composer of bruno coulais we are actually before I even started on the song. Working on the script for song of the sea Tom had actually started work on a conceptual trailer for the film as an industry kind of promoting you know so he could pitch to you know Production companies and stuff like that are investors. And he had worked with them disappearing already on the Secret of Kells and they had allowed him to use a particular song called Daesung for the promo and that particular song was the kind of musical theme that he would constantly refer to when writing the script.
Will Collins: You know I knew when I heard that music I knew the tone of the film you know I knew it was so important so we knew going forward even though that particular piece of music is still in the film. But you might notice that it’s actually when saoirse is actually gets to call the very first time she gets this cold rolled over to the chest that’s in her dad’s wardrobe and she goes down to the sea down to the beach. The echo of that the original theme is in that piece of music and it’s every time I hear it I get tingles. It’s really beautiful. So then we knew as well because it’s song of the sea. We knew the phone was going to with need to her own music. We knew the kind of the central kind of music a theme that gets repeated over and over and over again and ultimately kind of explodes at the end was going to be so important. You know this for this film to work. And I kept saying to Tom My eyes kept saying keep thinking of like you know cause and cause it’s hard going that way you know close counters there’s that. Doo doo doo doo doo. You know no matter how many times you heard that you never got bored of us. But then when it actually comes to the kind of the crescendo in that film and we hear it and it’s full of kind of like you know symphonic kind of majesty it’s really beautiful and that was my reference point. So we need something that’s got that simple loveliness and bruno coulais collaborate with Kila and they send true a couple of versions and they just had a straightaway and I went Oh there you go. And they did it. It is absolutely gorgeous and it’s so important to the actual story of the film.
Fei: I can imagine towards the end when you saw everything coming together at that moment. And with the music I could see tears in your eyes and many other people you know just moments and you and I get that sensation working out like one episode of the podcast because what I try to do is distill three to four of the things that you say and then play it simple slow piano background music and sometimes I just tear up listening to 30 seconds but I can imagine for you visually musically artistically narratively it just everything. So with that said of course you know even though the film has I believe limited release in certain country thank god it’s in the U.S. and that received what people say and quoting directly receive overwhelming acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Film at the 87 which is 2015 Academy Awards. Were you there among the audience.
Will Collins: I wasn’t. No I wasn’t I. There was. And we had so many producers that all the producers got tickets as well. No but I actually got to go to something better I got to go. I was Paul Yong’s date to this thing called the Oscar luncheon which happens two weeks before the actual ceremony and since it’s it was really fantastic. You know they basically it’s like a wedding with all the nominees there’s no press there any anyway that like you know they mixed up all of the nominees so I was sitting beside Richard Linklater who directed boyhood that year and Clint Eastwood was on the table beside him. But the biggest thrill from that was I introduced myself to Richard Linklater who I absolutely admired. I think he’s a wonderful filmmaker. He makes beautiful beautiful films. And I said to him I just introduced I said Hey I’m will call and say I’m really sorry to see the animated movie and he says oh my god I just watched that movie with my kids two nights ago it was absolutely. I love that movie and I was like I said I’m happy I’m OK.
Will Collins: But there’s a cool Elmo and you know.
Fei: I now know which one’s going to be my soundbite at the beginning. What you just told me is so wonderful because you know someone you admire so much then say it back to you. Oh you are the guy. You know instead of saying I was thinking it must be really interesting for you to be sitting on some of the world class producers directors creator directors.
Fei: And yet everybody’s coming coming back to you to say whether I was recently something really special or I enjoyed it with my family with my kids. Bravo. I you know I thought about what you said in terms of kind of transition into a little more about you about career advice for some of the youngsters who were listening to this and you know one question I wrote down and said How do you define success.
Fei: And is this film successful in your mind? And you know like the metrics we often talk about are awards box office records merchandise commercial sales like do any of those truly matter. Like how do you measure your own success.
Will Collins: Each film has its gonna I suppose it defines itself like you know Hollywood blockbusters are defined by how much money they take in and film is like song and see which are you know you know relet relatively low very low budget animated movies. You know they’re never going to play and you’re never going to play in the same ballpark as the blockbusters or even like you know like the Pixar movies. You know financially or not.
Will Collins: And I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten I’ve now become apparent as I think becoming apparent has changed my attitudes towards life my career and all that sort of stuff. And I’ve become a lot more focused on just happiness you know and not getting too bog down waste trying to. You know when I was a kid I dreamed of being at the Oscars I dreamed of. It was genuinely it was like I remember one year Whoopi Goldberg was presenting the ceremonies and she looked at the camera and she said you know there’s a kid sitting there and some sitting room and they’re dreaming of being here. And I’m telling you the kid you’re going to be here. You’re going to be here. And I was like living in a repressed rural Ireland and I was thinking I she’s talking to me I’m going to be there someday.
Will Collins: I was going oh I was literally there there. I was I was in a German facility when Song of the Sea got nominated.
Will Collins: But the thing about the weird thing about it is when we got the Oscar nomination it was absolutely wonderful. It was brilliant. It was like a life highlight. But it still didn’t it didn’t match the value of like you know seeing my first child being born. I know I take great pleasure. I don’t frame my work in accolades anymore. I just enjoy what I do and the creative person and I take pleasure in working with creative people and seeing things being made. And I’ve learned that elements of like you know you need to enjoy yourself and don’t get bogged down and block what you think other people think you should be doing. You know that sometimes can cripple you where you are kind of worried about how people perceive you. You just got to do what makes you happy. I suppose that’s the main thing. You know just focus on what you listen to your internal voice and focus and be creative if you want to be creative be creative. Don’t make your goal. The Oscar.
Fei: But if you don’t mind I’m going to just dive in a little deeper because you did briefly mention where you grew up I wonder where your main influencers in life. At a younger age.
Will Collins: Oh yeah I grew up I grew up in Ireland. And you West West is very west of Europe and in Ireland. I grew up in the southwest of our islands in the kind of on the edge of the world. And when I was growing up you know the Irish back in 1980s Ireland we had a very kind of repressed regime but like we a culturally quite repressed and mostly quite repressed and it’s something that shows up in my in my in song and the sea and that in my first movie as a child and there was like you know are rural islands you know the main hobbies were you know sport and work sport and socializing and group consuming alcohol. And there was no the idea of working in the entertainment industry was literally you know.
Will Collins: You know to fairy talk. It was it was ridiculous it was silly so I kind of kept my love. I had a like a deep love for cinema from when I was little and also the first influence big influence on me was definitely George Lucas because I play I played with the Star Wars toys for seven years before I ever saw a Star Wars movie. And I was obsessed with Star Wars and the first Star Wars movie I saw was The Empire Strikes Back which made no sense to me and was completely befuddled me ends when I saw the ending and The Empire Strikes Back, back were Luke spoiler alert like you know Darth Vader says Luke I Am Your Father. I was absolutely … and it kind of changed my perception of the world. So that kind of put put me down the road of thinking that the world is not greater than what it is. And I think my inspiration the people that inspired me were the filmmakers that I loved really like I got it. Spielberg was a huge huge influence. And then as I got older I got into the like so Scorsese and you know all the kind of the classic kind of filmmakers and it wasn’t until until I was in college really I had some good friends who saw that I had creative spirits and encourage dance and I think they gave me the space to film for myself my true self to emerge really. And I don’t think I would be doing this if it wasn’t for the friends that I miss. In college they’re really good friends I miss who brought out that side of me or help that sold me you know group. It was they are inherently but they helped us a lot.
Fei: And so I noticed that you had two paths you’ve taken which is an actor and writer. And I’ve seen that combination in some cases but it also could be appear to be little unusual or for some other people. So do you still feel equally as passionate for both were how did that come and go after the actor thing. I am the anomaly. I don’t know how that happens. I don’t see myself as an actor at all.
Will Collins: It happens basically on my first feature was very very low budget. And then I think they needed someone to play one of the small parts you know and I literally just said they said will you do it. I was like Okay. And I did. I just acted for a day in this one small scene with stress me out completely and then on and on some to see I didn’t like you know a couple of voices you know when we’re doing the voice record and myself and Paul a producer and a couple others went in and just did some like 10 voices some of the background like storms and stuff like that and fairies and stuff that we just restaurant soy do not consider myself an actor at all and that’s just are idea. And I don’t dictate what I NDB says. And I wish I could kind of remove the actor bit because they don’t feel like a fraud when I see that up there.
Fei: So I know we only have a few minutes left and I think a couple of career advice related questions as many of the people who are listening to the podcast are in their 20s. It’s a pretty wide age range anywhere between 20 to 50s or 60s. But I noticed people in the middle that tend to be in their 20s thinking about what can I do with my career still have time to switch around where 30s or people a lot of them reinventing themselves so what are some of the things that you wish you knew before going into screenwriting or writing.
Will Collins: Oh golly. You know the thing about it is I kind of did a career change. You know I didn’t get into screenwriting or are pursued kind of actively until my mid mid 20s anyway that’s for sure. And from I’m speaking from the point of view of being a writer and I think I’m glad that I held off pursuing it until I was in my mid 20s because I think you know being a kind of a storyteller you know you need to formulate your philosophies on the world and how the world works. And you know then pepper your stories with these view points of view on philosophies and I think younger version of me wouldn’t have been able to be able to have the same kind of depth in their in their narratives as the kind of the older version of me really the voice I give anyone who’s thinking about you know changing is you’re torn to or don’t just dive into the deep ends you know make it give it a kind of a nice smooth gradient with transition effuse if you want to be a painter or if you want to be let’s say if you want to try screenwriting and you’ve never done screenwriting before and you’re in a totally different fashion. First of all what I would recommend you do is see if there’s someone who does a part time course in screenwriting to give you a kind of an introduction into their fundamentals of screenwriting and you don’t need to have a mass. I actually got a masters you know and it was brilliant. You don’t need to have a masters you don’t need to have any degrees or diplomas or anything to do screenwriting but if you get someone to introduce you into class you know that world’s great big thing I would say is networks are you know it sounds like cynical but networks are the only word for networks or friends right. So one of the best things I got from doing my masters was not the education I received but the friendships I made when I was doing a masters.
Will Collins: Then as we moved beyond the actual education system we kept in contact to close close friends and we encouraged each other if we kind of lost contact we would have felt adrift kind of daydreaming about or maybe I should do this because if you create a network a support network of people who are trying to do with the same thing or a similar thing then at least it will keep you motivated and keep you inspired and maybe you know points towards a second there’s a window of an opportunity here. And when she tries to give it a go that’s a big thing. I think just find a little group that shares your passion or shares your interests and see what grows from there because that’s what happened to me.
Fei: Oh that’s lovely. And like you said well this is a universal message and advice to people who want to try anything new. And you know if your toes. And give yourself a chance.
Will Collins: So here don’t be a don’t don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is your best friend. Failure is tough but it’s your best friends because you know you just need to learn from your fail. You always need to. I took it very hard at the beginning of my career as well. And I was afraid people kind of criticizing my work. And it broke my heart when I got criticism and stuff like that would you if you can develop the grace to be able to get back up and listen to what the first of all kind of the girl who’s saying what what to you and what you are saying is if you were able to kind of filter out the productive notes versus people who are just you know trying to say things just to have their voices heard. And then you will actually become stronger your work become stronger and you were your spine will get a bit tougher as well. So that’s important.
Fei: I love that. And I started writing a year ago. This is a year into developing podcasting that I forced myself to pick up. I was so nervous in terms of exposing my writing and then and then transfer some of that into even mini episodes and they turned out to be very popular actually. And I was really stunned and was really it was my own mental block that I couldn’t overcome was the imagined feeling for her and like criticism that I was going to get from other people. Before we close this episode which I have by the way where I really want I think it very much has been such an eye opening experience so I know you are working a project new project called Wolf walkers. Is there anything that sort of tidbits and information you can give out or is it kind of long into the feature before it’s a launch date.
Will Collins: Yeah yeah that’s another feature and doing it more. It’s called being called co-directors. It’s called writing. Russ Stewart was the art director on Secret of Kells and it’s not a feature it’s collaborating with Tom again. You know we’ve been kind of you know working together now you know on and off for nearly a decade.
Will Collins: And I don’t know … it’s set instead in 1640s in Ireland, And I suppose it’s about maybe to do with the werewolf myth and maybe the Irish kind of version of the werewolf myth. And it’s really cool. I really know but I think it’s a really cool story. It’s exciting it’s funny it’s little bit scary to a lot of action and us.
Fei: I must say that what you and Tom Moore have done for your country Ireland is really astonishing because after watching the film I was thinking you know learning hearing about selkie for the first time and reading the wikipedia page it’s like oh that’s kind of cool I want to be a selkie. And now there’s so much more about these like mythology from different countries they think about like China is where I’m originally from it’s very similar in a way that people can be superstitious and there are a lot of stories that are really interesting that I grew up with. So I have never spent so much time thinking about Ireland and after I watch the films like I have to visit the country I have to go.
Will Collins: You actually have to visit actually I live in the north west of the country where the film is says Saunders And so when I drive home some of the locations you see in the movie is like you know are on my way home and so so I kind of get nostalgic when I see this. I see the film on its own. So yeah you got anyone who’s got any inclination of using Arlen’s you should visit Ireland. There’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful. It’s gorgeous.
Fei: I heard it’s absolutely gorgeous. I’ve seen the pictures and people even rent cars to kind of drive around themselves so yeah they look real.
Will Collins: It’d bring when rain gear. Make sure you are prepared for rain. That’s the one thing.
Fei: Yeah I’m always prepared for rain. Living there you go. So thank you again so much. Well for joining me on face world this has been a phenomenal conversation.
Will Collins: Thank you for having me. It was a really entertaining it was great.
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When Song of the Sea was nominated to win an Oscar, Will was invited to join a luncheon with the world’s greatest filmmakers and artists. He sat down next to Richard Linklater, the director for Boyhood (A Moving 12 Year Epic That Isn’t Quite Like Anything Else in the History of Cinema). To Will’s surprise, Linklater had to share a family story of his own with Will, related to Song of the Sea.
Onto the more difficult questions, what was the writing process like? Will speaks to 6 or 7 drafts of the story, at least. He lost track of the revisions and effort that went into each step and turn. Did the film have a different ending? Yes, and you will find out that directly from Will. 🙂
After years of working on the film, Will Collins, Tomme Moore and a team of animators, editors, musicians released a masterpiece to the world, not knowing what to expect or how people from different cultures are going to react. That’s one tough hurdle for creators and creative work. Some of the feedback isn’t only difficult to track down, but also hard to measure and qualify.
[07:00] Your movie is performing extremely well on Metacritic (Scored an 85!). What do you think of that?
[08:30] How did this project start?
[15:00] What was some of the feedback you received, for example from family, friends and colleagues?
[21:30] Can you share some of the biggest breakthroughs you had while developing Song of the Sea?
[26:00] Can you comment on how the main character (the little boy Ben) evolves from having a bad relationship with her sister to being a protective brother, and how this is analogous to real life?
[29:00] How does the screenwriting process work in general?
[30:00] What are some of the initial materials you started working with (as a screenwriter)?
[32:00] How big was the team you worked with in a regular basis for Song of the Sea?
[36:00] Do you remember any cases where you changed the storyline drastically after gathering feedback from your team?
[39:00] Can you comment on the animation team and the music composers?
[43:00] What about winning the academy award? How did that feel?
[44:00] How do you measure your own success?
[48:00] What were your main influencers in life at a younger age?
[52:00] What are some of the things you wish you knew before getting into screenwriting? [Advice for yourself]
[56:00] Can you give us some details about your new movie?
[22:30] ‘I had a revelation in my first feature film. There has to be a painful truth, and it has to fuel everything. It has to fuel your characters, and it has to fuel the problem of the film and bring everything to a head. […] As soon as I locked in on that as a screenwriter, the entire thing became quite clear.’
[27:00] ‘As a parent you try to keep the balance, but you can’t help what people feel. People’s feelings are wired and as a parent you’ll have to deal with all their different personalities’
[31:00] ‘[for being a screenwriter] You have to accept and enjoy working with creative people, and accept better ideas. It is a lot of fun.‘
[42:00] ‘I introduced myself to Richard Linklater who I ABSOLUTELY ADMIRE, and after introducing myself as the writer of Song of the Sea he said ‘Oh I just watched that movie with my kids two nights ago and I absolutely loved it!’. That was a cool moment’
[44:00] ‘Becoming a parent changed my attitude towards life and my career. I’ve become a lot more focused on just happiness’.
[45:00] ‘I don’t frame my work in accolades anymore. I just enjoy what I do, I’m a creative person and I just enjoy seeing things being made.’
Q&A with Will Collins:
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