The Titans Behind 'Tintin'

 Joe Pugliese

Steven Spielberg first heard the name Tintin 30 years ago when a French critic compared Raiders of the Lost Ark to Belgian artist Herge's comic books about an intrepid young journalist.

"I speak very little French, [but] the review kept saying 'Tintin, Tintin' all over, and I asked my assistant, 'Will you get me a translation?' " Spielberg recalls. Intrigued, he began to read the original works about the wide-eyed, boyish reporter and his larger-than-life adventures -- comic-strip books that have sold 350 million copies to date, have been translated into 80 languages and have the sort of vast, cross-generational appeal of today's Harry Potter franchise (except in America, though this movie hopes to change that). Spielberg optioned the rights, and in 1983 he started to develop a Tintin movie with his E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter, Melissa Mathison.

Then something went wrong. "Much as I loved Melissa's script, I wasn't certain that we had interpreted Herge to a degree that would be palatable for the rabid global fans," he says, "and I got very involved in other movies, so I let the option drop."

Years later, he returned to the project. Stunned by the motion-capture work of Peter Jackson's Weta Digital effects house, which raised the bar in The Lord of the Rings movies, in 2004 he asked Jackson to create Tintin's dog Snowy before embarking on an extraordinary collaboration with the Oscar-winning director.

Unlike Spielberg, Jackson had been familiar with Tintin. Growing up in New Zealand, he discovered the books at the home of a family friend and then plowed through other, untranslated French language volumes at the local library. "I'd pore through these books, trying desperately to follow the stories," he says, never imagining that one day he'd bring them to life.

Later, as a young director, "I started to read about Steven doing the Tintin film and was waiting and waiting to see it. Then eventually, six or seven years ago, Steven called me."

The result is The Adventures of Tintin, which kicks off when Tintin (Jamie Bell) discovers a model ship with a secret that leads him, with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) at his side and the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) in pursuit, on a round-the-world quest to find a shipwreck called the Unicorn. A $140 million joint venture between Paramount and Sony, it premieres Oct. 22 in Paris, beginning a European rollout before its Dec. 21 release in North America. It is, says THR film critic Jordan Mintzer, a "kid-friendly thriller that combines state-of-the-art 3D motion-capture techniques with a witty, globe-trotting treasure hunt." (For the complete review, see THR.com.)

It is Spielberg's closest collaboration with another helmer. While Jackson, 49, nominally produced the film and Spielberg, 64, directed (they'll reverse roles for the sequel), their collaboration went much further, as the men explained during an exclusive interview with THR that took place July 19 at Paris' Le Royal Monceau hotel.

When you first contacted Peter, did you know each other?

Steven Spielberg: Well, I had handed him the Oscar statuette for the final Lord of the Rings in front of millions of people -- and that's how we met: on camera. And then we went backstage and spent a little time together.

Peter, were you nervous when he called?

Peter Jackson: Yeah, obviously a little nervous, but I was excited -- I mean, just to be asked to do something with Tintin and Steven, those two things coming together are pretty cool. And so we did a test for Snowy …

Spielberg: Which surprised me because Peter didn't tell me anything except they were going to show us that they could make Snowy interact with humans, and when I saw the [film] tests, all of a sudden [the character of ] Captain Haddock [appeared] in full [costume], and it was Peter [playing the Captain]!

Jackson: It was very embarrassing.

Spielberg: It was great! I wasn't ready to hire Snowy, but I was ready to hire Peter. He was wonderful, and he came out with a bottle, a little bit tipsy.

Jackson: I saw that just the other day, and I'm a little bit of a porker in it, a little bit embarrassing.

Why did you turn to Weta in the first place?

Spielberg: I was drawn to whoever did the effects on The Lord of the Rings. I just loved what they did. I'm very loyal, of course, to ILM [George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic], but I had been blown away by the facial capture and thought, "If they can do that, they can maybe do a dog."

Did you have to tell George why you weren't going to ILM?

Spielberg: He never asked.

Peter, you subsequently became hugely more involved. How?

Jackson: It was organic. Steven and I started to talk about the idea that it's impossible to cast actors who look like the iconic characters that Herge drew, but you could create these characters in a realistic way using CGI animation. That started with Snowy and kind of grew. Then at some point, Steven asked me if I wanted to be more involved in the movie. Took me two or three seconds to say yes.

Back then, you were still thinking of doing it as live action?

Spielberg: Yes. But my big fear was if we didn't invite Herge's style into our process, we would be sort of doing Dick Tracy, where Al Pacino had prosthetics on his face and was barely recognizable. Then I would be making a very stylized movie, which I didn't want to do.

Did you ever meet Herge?

Spielberg: I spoke with him on the telephone in 1983 when I was making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in England and he invited me and Kathy Kennedy, my producer, to come to Belgium and meet with him in two weeks' time. And then sadly he passed away before we arrived.

What made you go with the three books this film is based on, The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab With the Golden Claws?

Jackson: We were drawn to Unicorn because it's one of the really great stories -- a lot of adventure, a really good mystery and a treasure hunt. But we both felt pretty strongly that we should memorialize the moment that Haddock and Tintin meet. And of course that's in Crab With the Golden Claws. We just made the decision to take elements of all three books and combine them into a sort of three-act structure.

And you had the rights to the whole 24-book series?

Spielberg: All the books.

What kind of approvals did you have to grant Herge's estate?

Spielberg: We had to build into our relationship, beyond even just the deal, a series of creative consultations so the estate could look at a character and reject it if they felt it wasn't close enough to Herge. They had to vet all of the characters, especially the main characters. They had consultation rights on the script and gave us great notes.

As you started working, what surprised you about each other?

Jackson: I was surprised just how excited [Steven] still is about making films. I guess I thought he'd have a sense of, "Well, I'm doing another film." But he walks onto the set every day like it's the first time he's ever been on one.

And on a personal level?

Jackson: I recognize in Steven all of the things that drive me: You're making movies because you want to see them. It's hard work, but you're doing it because you want to sit in the cinema one day and look at that finished result. I'm making films for myself, first and foremost, and then you hope that other people around the world are going to want to see it as well. But it's a kind of personal thing. I've obviously lived with the drive to make films, butI thought Steven would be different.

Steven, do you still have that same drive?

Spielberg: I think the drive has increased with age, actually.

Because of a sense of time passing?

Spielberg: No. It's that my love and respect for the movies being made today -- that I see so many of -- keeps increasing, and the better the movies I see, and the more inspired I become, the more I want to work.

Would you ever consider working in a medium other than film?

Spielberg: There's always a first time, isn't there? I would do theater. I mean, my love of working with actors has just increased exponentially, and that would drive me to do a play someday.

Jackson: My brain's not wired for theater, I think. I grew up as an only child and spent many happy times imagining stories, and my imagination was always in the form of a movie -- it was like literally a movie running through my head. And as soon as I got hold of a Super-8 camera when I was about 7 or 8, I was able to start experimenting with putting the stories onto film.

Steven, what surprised you about Peter?

Spielberg: A sense of humor. The Lord of the Rings movies were very sincere and epic and impassioned, but I didn't really appreciate Peter's humor until I sat down with him and realized that he was going to bring a whole layer of humor to this collaboration because he's really funny and laid-back about things. I get rattled, I get a little bit nervous, and Peter doesn't. Peter's steady, and so he's a great counterbalance to me. I'd go running off, trying to figure something out, and Peter would just say: "Patience. We'll sit down, figure this out quietly over a cup of tea." And he always breaks through the roadblock.

Do you get nervous about the process?

Spielberg: Not nervous so much. I just have a sort of burning energy when I get to the set. You know, I like to make movies quickly, because the faster I make a film, the more I can objectify the experience and see the picture from the center aisle as opposed to waiting for hours and hours and then I have to imagine what the day is going to bring. If I get five shots a day, I lose sight of the entire movie. If I get 25 shots a day, I get to experience what the audience is experiencing in a 12-hour work cycle.

How did you prepare for that experience when you'd never shot motion-capture before?

Spielberg: Our friend Jim Cameron asked me to come over to the Avatar performance-capture "volume" stage near Marina del Rey, where he was capturing all the Na'vis. I watched for a while and Jim let me play with -- you can't even call it a camera, it looks like a game controller, with a little television screen and an X and Y control to move the camera around. When you walk, the camera dollies; when you go forward, the camera moves in. I was able to play around. Then Peter and Weta devised an entirely new system that was the most remarkable I had ever seen. I could actually get in the volume, because as long as I wasn't wearing a motion-capture suit, the cameras didn't see me. I could be right in the volume with the actors, three feet away, which directors never, ever got to do.

Jackson: It's an incredible experience to be shooting these movies because you open your eyes and have Andy Serkis or Jamie Bell or Daniel Craig in motion-capture suits in front of you. But when you look at the camera, which has this little screen, you're looking at Tintin or Haddock in their environment because we first had to build the entire world that the story takes place in. It's incredible freedom.

You even operated the camera yourself when it came to your 31-day shoot.

Spielberg: Because I could just walk around with this light little tool, changing angles constantly. On an average movie, I'll get 25 shots a day, but I was getting 70 to 80 shots a day just running around with this controller.

How much was Peter present during the shoot?

Spielberg: Every day he was there on teleconference, on what we called a "polycom" [nicknamed the "Poly Kong" by the cast and crew], sort of a big iChat system. Peter would get up at 3:30 a.m. for our 8 a.m. call from New Zealand to Los Angeles. He could see everything.

Jackson: I was on-set in Los Angeles for the first week and got a pipeline running, then I had to go back. But I would get up when it was dark in my jammies still. It's like a fantasy, to film in your pajamas!

Spielberg: Once -- it was very funny -- there was a moment where we were rehearsing the actors and Peter had just come down about 4 a.m. his time and I wanted to consult with him about a change in dialogue. And there was Peter on the monitor and I said, "Peter?" And Peter was sort of sitting there, but his eyes were closed. I said, "Peter! Wake up!" And he didn't move. And I got right into the microphone, and I said, "PETER!" -- and Peter just very calmly looked up and said, "Yes?"

Jackson: I was deep in thought!

Did you turn to him a lot for advice?

Spielberg: We collaborated on this one. It's my only experience of having a producer who's mainly a director with me in creative spirit every day, consulting on almost everything. It was like the Coen brothers, I guess. Perhaps that's how they work together.

When you're shooting, do you ever feel uncertain or insecure and want to turn to someone else for advice?

Spielberg: Of course. All the time. And most of the time I turn to the actors because I get my best ideas from them.

What were you most uncertain about here?

Spielberg: We kept changing the script all through the shoot. We had an entire subplot we cut out. We shot it to thicken the plot because the plots in all the Herge books are very easy to understand, and we tried to overly complicate them but realized that Herge was right and we were wrong, and we went back to Herge's initial instincts.

Do you identify with anyone in the movie?

Spielberg: I do. I identify with Tintin.

Jackson: I probably identify with Haddock.

Spielberg: Well, you played him so well in the test!

You usually edit on film. How did you edit this?

Spielberg: This was my first editing on an Avid -- going to the dark side. I also cut War Horse on an Avid. You know, I have maybe 18 Moviolas [editing machines used with film]. They're all museum pieces now.

It's a surprisingly old-fashioned way of editing. Do you think of yourself as a traditionalist?

Spielberg: I do. I also think, If it was good enough for all my heroes, it's good enough for me.

What about you, Peter?

Jackson: I think of myself as being relatively old-fashioned and quite traditional. Certainly, as a person I'm like that.

Once the edit was in, what happened next?

Spielberg: Well, I went on to other projects. I'm not an animator. It takes five hours to animate each frame and there are 24 frames every second, and our film is 93 minutes long. You don't have to do the math to know that wouldn't really include me for a long time. We got re-involved when there were some final shots for approval.

Jackson: After Steven had done his first cut, there were chases and a big set-piece with an airplane in a storm that we could never capture on the motion-capture stage. We developed those when Steven was busy doing War Horse, and then after War Horse, we tag-teamed because I got involved in The Hobbit, so it all went back on Steven's lap.

Did The Hobbit interfere with this project? Guillermo del Toro was going to direct, then you stepped in at the last minute.

Jackson: It didn't really interfere because the timing was good.

Before shooting, there was a financial issue with Tintin when Universal backed out late in the game. How much did that throw a wrench in the works?

Spielberg: Whatever caused Universal to back out at the last moment, all of a sudden Paramount stepped in with Sony. We had a deal within seven days.

You were going to do the first two films back to back?

Spielberg: The studios [Sony and Paramount] were willing to do one movie with us and then give us the financial wherewithal to develop a script, do all the visual storyboards and get it really in launch position. So we can launch pretty quickly on a second movie. The script is already written.

So Peter, once you've done The Hobbit, you'll go straight to directing Tintin 2?

Jackson: Yes.

And, Steven, then you'll direct Tintin 3?

Spielberg: We haven't talked about that. But I had such a wonderful time working on this; it liberated me as a director because I was able to run around by myself. It was a big collaboration, and at the same time it was one of the most personal experiences I've had. When you can actually hold the camera and create your shots, you don't have a lighting team, a key grip, electricians …

Jackson: It's like the old days with Super-8.

 

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