The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn - Jamie Bell interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JAMIE Bell talks about some of the pleasures and challenges of making The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn such as working with performance capture and getting over the Spielberg effect.
He also talks about picking up injuries on-set and working without a dog, as well as how his career is shaping up and what he has learned from working with the likes of Spielberg and Clint Eastwood.
Q. Does it seem like quite a while ago now that you actually filmed Tintin?
Jamie Bell: Yeah, I can’t remember when it was. I was a child back then I think. I don’t think I had chest hair either. So, it feels like a while ago. But that’s the process with a fully animated film. It takes a damn long time in post-production. It’s crazy. Just to complete a shot takes hours, days… and there’s lots of shots. So, the process is very long.
Q. One of the first film experiences you had in the cinema was Jurassic Park. Now, years later you’re working with Steven Spielberg himself. Was that a pinch me moment when you got on-set?
Jamie Bell: Yeah, for sure. Steven Spielberg has a direct line to the nostalgic part of your heart that is usually more closed off and somewhat unwilling to open the door for anyone to get in. But he’s in there. So, I’ve had that experience as an audience member with a lot of his movies. And then knowing that you’re going to work with him is the same kind of feeling. It’s like: “My God! I feel like Elliott [in ET]. I feel like all of these characters who just get touched by something and have this profound experience.” So, I felt like I’d kind of won the Lottery for a second.
Q. Does he do anything to reassure you when you first get on-set to ease any sense of nerves?
Jamie Bell: Yeah, the Spielberg effect starts coming on quite strong when you first arrive. But does he reassure you? I don’t think so. I mean, he’s put his trust in you already. He’s said: “I think you’re the right guy for the job.” So, you have his trust and it becomes about management of your own excitement, which is difficult. I spoke to Daniel [Craig] a lot about it. I said: “God, I feel like ‘whoah’!” And he said: “Yeah, it’s the Spielberg effect. It happens.” It literally feels like a chemical reaction. Not that it wears off… because it never wears off! But you realise that he’s a collaborator and that you can collaborate with him. So, then it becomes good.
Q. And you watched a lot of Tintin as a child?
Jamie Bell: Oh yeah, I started watching Tintin as an eight-year-old. I loved it, vicariously wanted to live through it and travel the world and be heroic and courageous. I wanted that lifestyle of not necessarily danger but the travel, the adventure, the friendships… So, I would switch on Channel 4 on a Sunday and just be taken to wherever it was he went. And so I want to give back that experience because it was great to leave my bedroom in Billingham for a second and just go wherever he went. So, I want to give that back to any demographic really. The synergy in all this movie – the fact that it’s me playing Tintin, it’s Spielberg, it’s all kind of wild.
Q. So, what did you look to bring to the character?
Jamie Bell: I wanted to make sure that his physicality was definitely portrayed correctly, his kind of youthful driven enthusiasm, his intelligence, his weird blend of boy-man that he has, which I think I can play really well, and the correct portrayal of a European sensibility in a hero. I think that is very important as well. But I also didn’t want to answer any questions. I didn’t want to say: “This is why Tintin doesn’t have any parents! Or this is why Tintin’s only friend is a dog!” I think answering those kind of questions removes the layer of mystery that surrounds him constantly. And I think the reason that I live vicariously through him so much is that I didn’t see him as Tintin, I saw him as myself. I think that was important.
Q. This is based on the 11th book of the series…
Jamie Bell: Yeah, The Secret of the Unicorn and it’s also a combination of Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Crab With The Golden Claws… that’s for people who really know their Tintin books! So, it’s a combination of those three but the most important part of all those three is the origins story of Captain Haddock and that’s the through-line and emotional journey of the story. It’s the origins of their relationship, which is great because I want to see that. I want to know how Tintin got to know each other and what they thought about each other. And what Tintin thought about his drinking and how he tried to fix him. And how he ultimately had to depend upon him and rely upon him as a friend because he doesn’t have any. And that’s hard for him [Tintin] because he’s an independent person, driven… He’s like: “I don’t need anyone else… maybe my dog, but that’s it!” So, for him to find a friend is huge. And no one does that better than Spielberg.
Q. How was working with performance capture? You’ve worked around it before, of course, on King Kong…
Jamie Bell: And I didn’t really understand it then [laughs]. I was like: “This is weird! I don’t know what the f**k he’s doing. I mean it’s amazing. But I really don’t know what he’s doing!” But having done a lot of press with Andy Serkis recently and hearing what he has to say about it, I think the problem with motion capture is that there’s not enough education about what it is and how it works. Not to pinpoint any one person but you get Sigourney Weaver going on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and going: “Well, the day starts with scaling and I get my dots painted on and we go in the room and we start capturing.” It’s like: “I have no idea what you just said… literally, no concept!” So for us, the way we’ve been trying to educate is that you should not look at motion capture as anything different than just another way of recording an actor’s performance. That’s it! We’re bringing to the table exactly the same thing we would bring in an ordinary live action movie. We’re embodying the characters, and we’re living the situations in the contexts that drive the narrative. Without the actors, the puppet does nothing… nothing. It’s a lifeless puppet basically. So, the actors are essential to the process.
Q. Does it help to have someone you’ve described as ‘the Gandalf of performance capture’ alongside you in Andy Serkis?
Jamie Bell: It definitely doesn’t hurt! I mean, he does it better than anybody else on the planet so he is genuinely the most immersive actor I’ve ever work with. The medium is the most immersive medium for any actor. I think other actors who are equally as uneducated about it, who disregard it as not really acting because you hand in all that data, all that performance data to a technician who then manipulates it… not true! You can’t manipulate a performance if it’s not there on the day. If you don’t capture it on the day it’s not going to be there, period. I think there needs to be a new appreciation. And also, people have this version where they go: “Ah cool, you did the voice of Tintin…” And I’m like: “Yeah, I did the voice of Tintin and I threw out a rib and had two vertebrae out of place shooting the movie!”
Q. How did you do that?
Jamie Bell: Because it’s very physical! It’s not just standing in a booth doing a voice. Literally, there’s a scene where we’re escaping this big ship and we’re rowing… and we’re really rowing. I mean, Andy and I are like [gestures how vigorously they rowed]. Literally, there are three guys against us trying to recreate the idea of pressure against the waves. So, Andy and I are really putting our backs into it all day and it’s very physical. Tintin is a very physical character. It’s the way he moves. There’s lots of negative space here… he has an immediacy and a vital-ness about who he is. And that’s not just standing in a booth and doing a voice. You are acting. It is performance. Hence, performance capture. But this film is also animated, so it is a hybrid of performance capture and animation. And that’s what makes the film unique.
Q. You talk passionately about the un-educated on performance capture but do you think, with the success of films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and talk of awards, that people are beginning to take it more seriously now?
Jamie Bell: Andy Serkis is literally doing it by himself! He’s a one-man army. And I’ve really listened to him because I want to make sure that what I’m saying about performance capture is not making it more exclusive but trying to open the door to more people understanding it. Listening to him talk about it, which he does so well… it’s so fascinating to hear him talk about. I still haven’t seen Apes yet and I really do need to see it. I mean, I know what he’s capable of as an actor and I’ve already been moved by him as a gorilla once before. So, I know he understands the language of animals and primates really well. But we could not create that without that technology. I also happen to think that motion capture works really well with live action… the blend of the two is really incredible. So, he single-handedly is changing the world of filmmaking and that’s amazing.
Q. Given the limitless possibilities of performance capture, is there a role you never thought possible you would like to take on?
Jamie Bell: It’s limitless. You could play a lamp-shade if you wanted to. But that’s a really good question and I haven’t thought about that. I’m sure there is. I always loved a lot of the characters from Lewis Carroll but it’s kind of been done recently. So, I don’t really know. I’ll have a think about that one.
Q. When it came to working with Tintin’s dog, did you have a real dog on set?
Jamie Bell: No, zero, there was nothing. I think if there was a real dog I would have paid it far too much attention, unnaturally. I think when you have a dog you pay it very little attention because you see it every day and you’re sick of the sight of it [laughs]…
Q. You do have a dog anyway…
Jamie Bell: I do, but only after I made the movie. So, I didn’t have one while making the movie, which meant I would draw from my own friends who had dogs and their relationships with them and stuff. But not having a dog then made it more challenging because you had to get that blend right of being a dog owner who can say ‘shh’ without needing to go: “Please be quiet!” I’m used to where it’s mouth is, how to grab it and get it to stop. So, all that stuff was really important. I think when people see the movie they’ll see that Snowy has lots of independent moments where he’s really smart and really courageous and really funny and a dog and gets into trouble and eats things he shouldn’t or challenges Haddock for some whisky!
Q. You’ve said in the past that you enjoy learning from some of the great directors you’ve worked with. So, how much do you feel you learned from Spielberg?
Jamie Bell: Dude, I mean how do you take one layer of character and through visual reference make him myth and make him legend? I love telling this story… there’s a scene where we’re in this row boat and we’re escaping the ship and I’m already going to Haddock: “Oh, we’re not partners! No, no, no, noooo… I work by myself. I’m on a mission. So, sorry I’ll get you to the port and you’ll be fine. And by the way, the drinking thing is not cool!” And he’s like [in Scottish accent]: “You’re right, I know…” He’s a complete f**king mess of a man. And there’s this great little moment where he’s looking at the bottle and going: “I hate that you’ve destroyed my life…” He’s deciding that he’s going to give it up and that’s it, so he stands up in this little row boat and makes everything rock, but he breathes in and gets ready for the big pitch and chucks this bottle while wailing at the ocean, and then sits back down and realises that he hasn’t thrown it and that it’s still in his hand. But there’s something about that idea… the iconography, the man with the bottle, the reveal, and then the way you shoot it, the timing of the comedy, everything about it is so Spielberg! That’s it! And I was doing that for most of the movie [laughs]. It happens all the time.
OK, Tintin is Tintin, so how do we make his quiff iconic? And how do we do it in a way where I’m referencing myself? There’s a great moment where I’m swimming underwater and I’m coming up to this sea plane that’s landed and the only thing that’s visible is this quiff sticking up from underneath the water… so, he’s doing his own reference to his own film, Jaws, with Tintin and suddenly that quiff is iconic. It’s effortless. He understands what people are going to want to see, what’s going to excite people and what they already know. So, he’s then just reminding them of nostalgia that you have. He’s amazing.
Q. Did you adopt a quiff as part of getting into character?
Jamie Bell: Yeah, they took reference of my quiff. My hair is really short right now, so you can’t really see it. But usually I do have… my hair is… when I first went down there for reference stuff, they would always take pictures of my hair because we wear these helmets, so when you take your stocking cap off, my hair would be like [flat]. So, they did reference my own quiff.
Q. How do you feel about the world-wide promotion schedule you’re going to be doing for Tintin? Is that at all daunting? Do you like going before the press?
Jamie Bell: We have European cities, things like two premieres in a day and all that kind of stuff. But that’s fun. It’s fine. If it’s something that you like talking about, it makes it easier.
Q. There’s not many times in your career where you haven’t been talking about something that works well. What was the Clint Eastwood experience like for you? Is there an Eastwood effect you had to get over?
Jamie Bell: Yeah, Clint is again a very iconic man. He’s an actor first and foremost before a director, so obviously I had amazing respect for the way he has career changed so many times and then been able to do something that was obviously a passion inside of him [directing]. But there were a lot of young actors on that movie [Flags of Our Fathers] so we were all kind of like: “Oh my God! Oh my God!” And his shooting style is very scary because he does very few takes and likes to do it quickly. It’s cut to the chase, it’s cut the bullshit and get the movie made and go home. It’s what we all want to do, so let’s do it! I think at that time I was a very young actor and I was like: “But no… really? How about this?” If I worked with him again today I think I’d appreciate his idea of making films a lot more. It’s such a great idea. But that said, we had a great time.
He’s a real f**king trooper. He was out there every day with us. He was dressed in fatigues every single day. He was on the landing craft with a camera on his shoulder… this 76-year-old guy was doing it and being one of the Marines. He’s like a 22-year-old man heading to the beaches of Iwo Jima. So, you have major, major respect for the guy… huge! And he could take every single one of us [laughs] if he wanted to! He’s unbelievable.
Q. Is Spielberg prone to doing a lot more takes?
Jamie Bell: I’d be interested to work with Steven on a live action movie just to see what his tendencies are in that arena. I can only go from what I’ve seen on this but he likes pace. Pace and rhythm are very important. But sometimes we’d be so exhausted that we’d be flagging and he’d be like: “OK guys, we’re going to do this scene in 60 seconds.” And we’d be like: “F**k it!” But what’s funny is that we’d start rowing really quickly. And as we’d start really banging out we’d see: “Oh, that’s where this movie needs to constantly be… on this level.” So, I think as actors we all really trusted him. Obviously, he knows what he’s doing. But he’s unwilling to move on until he gets it and that’s great.
Q. You’re writing and directing now. How’s that going?
Jamie Bell: You know, it’s not an easy job at all. I’ve done some small, little things. The only real thing that has any value to it was this thing for Ron Howard, which was a Charles Bukowski poem that I brought to life in a different way. I shot it on a 5D with a 50mil lens and it was just me acting with myself basically. That was a real challenge and I worked with an editor on it. But it was like a real experience… from creation of idea, writing it down, shooting it, going in and trying to cut it and seeing what you come out with at the end. There was lots about it that was very rewarding and there’s lots about it where I thought: “Jesus Christ, you have to be really good at this to do it well!”
Having worked with all these guys, you tend to think you’ve had the best intern experience so you should be able to do it… But confidence is huge. You have to go: “This is what it should be!” And everyone has to believe you and that yours is the best and the right idea. So, I’m definitely confident with it right now. But it’s a skill that needs honing and needs maturity. I definitely consider it to be one of the hardest jobs in the world, for sure.