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Ernest & Celestine – Benjamin Renner interview (exclusive)

Ernest & Celestine

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BENJAMIN Renner talks about some of the joys and challenges of directing Ernest & Celestine, his first animated feature film, and how he grew in confidence throughout the whole process.

He also discusses working with Lambert Wilson, who voices the character of Ernest, and why he feels the finished film is a fitting tribute to the work of original author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent.

Q. This must have been a dream come true for you to land Ernest & Celestine as your first feature?
Benjamin Renner: Yeah, I couldn’t dream of a better project. Actually, I didn’t know the book when I left school and the producer then showed it to me and I was like: “Woah! What is that?” I was discovering all of her work at the same time.

Q. What initially attracted you to it?
Benjamin Renner: Actually, the first one I opened was The Birth of Celestine and it was the most obvious one to be interested in. It was only in sepia, very minimalistic, lots of story but only one picture on each page and sometimes dialogue, sometimes not. And it’s very emotional. You have the introduction, then the crisis and stuff like that. So, Ernest finds the baby mouse in the trash can and he has to take care of it and doesn’t know how to do it. At one point, he thinks he must put it [the mouse] in the hospital but he’s too afraid. But it’s really depicted with minimalistic drawings and was always full of emotions. I really loved the minimalistic style… the way you just drew two lines and could express so many things.

Q. How difficult was that to achieve on film?
Benjamin Renner: On the film, we chose to make it with watercolour backgrounds, so we could keep the really fast… watercolours work pretty fast because you can’t change things once it’s made. So, we wanted the background artists to make it once, and it’s OK, and they move onto something else. It’s a very energetic style. With the animation, we chose to make it with computer. So, we drew on the computer with a pen on-screen. I love this way of working because when you animate you just draw some lines and you can immediately see if it’s working or not. When you make traditional animation on paper, you have to draw it, scan it, see if it’s OK, then correct it if it’s not OK, and do it again. It’s a very long process. So, on the computer it was like making an animated sketch and the animators were working very fast. So, if the animation was wrong, I was not afraid to say: “OK, let’s do it all over again!” The animators were OK with it because it was quite fast to make it. So, we found this energy of drawing, rather like the way [Belgian author and illustrator] Gabrielle Vincent was working actually. When she made the illustration, she was making one, then she did another one, another one, another one… and then she said: “OK, I’m taking this one for the book.” She didn’t want to make very detailed illustrations. She’d make five and if one was good, she’d use it.

Q. Her spirit is definitely throughout the film…
Benjamin Renner: Yes, we wanted to have that artistic energy.

Q. The two main characters have changed slightly and you’ve made the world a little bit more sinister… Was that a deliberate choice?
Benjamin Renner: That was a deliberate choice from the screenwriter, Daniel Pennac. Actually, he’s a famous French book writer. It was his first screenplay and he’s a very cynical and dark humoured guy. He always depicts realism with a lot of comedy story. He didn’t want to hide himself in Gabrielle Vincent. He actually knew her. They talked with letters and had a relationship. So, he knew her but what he wanted to do is… Ernest & Celestine begins in his world – very dark and realistic and not so great with a lot of egoism and stuff like that. So, Ernest and Celestine meet and they escape and create their own world, which is Gabrielle Vincent’s world. It’s like a dream relationship between two people. So, he wanted to pay respect to the artist by beginning in one place and then coming into Gabrielle Vincent’s book. I really loved that way of doing that. It doesn’t start like the book but you can see how we go into the books. In your mind, you can go into the books.

Q. Lambert Wilson said that when he first arrived to voice Ernest, you were almost timid and shy with him. But over the course of the year it took to work with him, you’d grown in confidence. How do you see your journey over that time?
Benjamin Renner: [Laughs] It was a film by itself in a way. At first, I was not very confident at all because I was getting out of school and I didn’t have any professional experience. I’d just made two short films in school, which is a very different way of making films because you’re really protected and you don’t have money problems. I never worked with an actor, so I didn’t know how to speak to them. So, first when I met him I was so shy. Actually, my first experience with an actor was with him. I was really impressed and I didn’t wasn’t to hurt him or say the wrong things. So, I wasn’t telling him exactly what he wanted to hear or giving him any precise direction. I was always talking a lot and saying very psychological stuff that didn’t make sense to him. I had just finished the film… the picture of it. So, I knew everything about the film. So, it was very different to work him. So, for me it was about gaining more and more confidence while I was doing the film. It was a very personal journey.

Q. How confident do you feel now? I mean, you asked for Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier to help co-direct some parts of Ernest & Celestine
Benjamin Renner: Yeah, yeah because I didn’t feel experienced enough. So, I really felt we were like a group of experimental directors. Now I know I can do it myself and I can make my own projects. The thing is, I really want to work with the same artistic team – the people who made the backgrounds, the animators and everyone who made such a… it was really a great pleasure to work with them because we were all the same age. So, we were quite young. I think the average age was 28 or 30. So, we’re really motivated and we really want to find a project that inspires us in the same way. I know this time we won’t make the same mistakes… because maybe my lack of confidence first time, now I knew where we have to go.

Q. Will you continue working in animation?
Benjamin Renner: Actually, I’m thinking of a mix of animation and live action. I really love, for example, Michel Gondry’s work…. it’s always a mix between the two. I really love the type of universe you can create with this kind of mixture. So, I’m thinking of other projects. But I love animation. I can’t work only in live action. I will have to have animation somewhere around.

Q. Which animators have inspired you?
Benjamin Renner: [Hayao] Miyazaki [of Studio Ghibli] of course. Michael Dudok de Wit is another… he lives in London now. He made Father and Daughter, this Oscar-winning film [it won the 2000 Academy Award for Animated Short Film]. It’s one of my favourite films. I like a lot of Russian animation as well, but mostly Japanese animation. It’s one of my biggest inspirations.

Q. What did you enjoy most about getting to direct in the end?
Benjamin Renner: I guess it’s the whole experience of working together with all of those creative guys on the team. It was always a pleasure. We had something in mind and we managed to make it. It was one of the best gifts we could offer to ourselves. We’re really proud of ourselves. I guess another of the best things for me is that Gabrielle Vincent, the author of the books… she’s dead now but her nephew is still alive and he asked us to take care of her work. And when we were in Cannes, he saw the film and when I turned around I saw he was crying tears of joy. It was the best gift for me. He said: “You’ve made my aunt the best gift she could ever have. It’s not her work, it’s something different, but it’s like a gift.” We put all our heart into it.

Read our review of Ernest & Celestine

To find out when Ernest & Celestine is playing exclusively at Cine Lumiere, visit the website