15 minutes of fame: A chat with "Kubo" director Travis Knight
It was on my first day back at work after my recent Comic-Con Honolulu vacation that I got the offer from our features editor, Christie Wilson: Would I be interested in doing an interview with Travis Knight, director of Kubo and the Two Strings?
Was I ever.
I mean, it's not every day that your friendly neighborhood anime/manga/cartooning blogger gets handed an opportunity to pick the brain of someone tied in with a major national theatrical release. And not just any someone; this was Travis Knight, CEO of Laika, the stop-motion/computer animation studio behind Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, and the son of Nike founder Phil Knight. That's a resume that makes someone a virtual lock on my "people I will talk to no matter what, as long as the offer remains on the table" list.
That "no matter what" clause did come into play a few times. There were a few missed connections, and the publication venue shifted from print to online. But it finally came to pass that last Thursday -- the morning after I attended the Hawaii premiere of Kubo -- I got to spend 15 minutes on the phone with Knight himself. And ... wow. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be talking about manga and Japanese culture with an animation studio CEO and director of what would turn out to be the No. 4 movie in the nation at the weekend box office, younger me probably would have freaked the freak out.
Kubo's certainly a great movie over which to start a conversation. The titular character is a boy who spends his days as a storyteller in a Japanese fishing village, crafting fantastic tales and enlivening origami pieces with his trusty shamisen, and his nights atop a peak, caring for his ailing mom who slips in and out of a trance that seems to be tied in to the rising and setting moon. When Kubo accidentally unleashes a vengeful spirit upon the village, it's up to the boy, a monkey charm brought to life and a quixotic insect samurai to take it out ... and perhaps solve the mystery of what happened to his fallen father along the way. It's the best movie I've seen this year to date, full of Laika's trademark eye-popping animated charm (be sure to stick around for the end credits for a cool behind-the-scenes shot!) and if you haven't seen it yet, you should correct that as soon as possible.
The film marks Knight's debut as director, the natural next stop in a 20-year career in animation that's seen him serve as a production assistant, scheduler, coordinator and producer, taking ideas from conception and development all the way through completion; work as a stop-motion and computer animator; and run a major animation studio. During that time, there was always a part of him that wanted to direct a feature -- "I think it’s sort of a cliche that every animator wants to direct something, and so I guess I am a cliche," he said.
It was just a matter of timing.
"Those early days at Laika, we were trying to get the place up and running, so a lot of the energy early on was just making sure that the place could function," Knight said. "So I’ve been involved heavily on every single film that we’ve done. But once I felt like a) the company was in decent shape, and b) I’d have enough experience that I could bring to bear to direct one of these things properly, and c) that I had enough of an emotional connection with it, that I could honor the story in the best way and bring a unique point of view and perspective to it, all of those things had to align before I was ready to take something on. And on this project, it did."
The project featured the convergence of several factors. Directing drew upon every experience Knight had in the industry to date -- "It required an animator’s eye for detail and attention, the ability to focus on the granularity of something," he said. "But at the same time, to not lose sight of the bigger picture." (Even with that, it was the hardest thing he had done in his career, he said.) The story of Kubo's epic journey is a callback to the kinds of fantasy epics Knight enjoyed during his childhood. Sometimes his mom told him those stories, like Kubo's mom shares with her son in the movie. They were tales woven by legends of the genre -- L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll. J.R.R. Tolkien was a particular favorite, perhaps owing to the fact that Knight's mom was reading Lord of the Rings while pregnant with him and during postpartum recovery.
And then there was the Japan factor. When Knight was 8, his dad let him tag along with him on one of his business trips there. For a kid who'd grown up in Portland, Ore., going to Japan was a life-changing experience.
"From the moment I set foot in Japan, it really was like I’d been transported to another world," Knight said. "It was so incredibly different, but also just beautiful and breathtaking and almost otherworldly. It was so completely unlike anything I had ever experienced growing up in Portland, everything from the food to the style of dress to the music and the architecture and the art and the movies and the TV shows and the comic books. Everything about it was so totally different from anything I had ever seen before, and I was enthralled by it.
"It really was a revelation for me, and I came back home with a backpack full of manga and art and little artifacts from my journey in Japan, and it really was the beginning of a lifetime love affair that I’ve had with this great and beautiful culture."
Knight cited the samurai-and-son epic Lone Wolf and Cub and the missions taken on by the titular stoic assassin of Golgo 13 as two series that made an impression on him, the former having a huge influence on Kubo's development. Having grown up on a steady diet of American and British comics, the artistic and storytelling style of manga appealed to him, even if it was all in Japanese and widespread American familiarity with manga's right-to-left, back-to-front format was still more than a decade away at that point.
"I think that’s the mark of how extraordinary these storytellers were that it transcended language," he said. "It was something that could speak to you, even if you couldn’t speak the actual language."
The work of two of Japan's most revered filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, also helped shape Kubo. Knight sees Japan as the birthplace of the modern cinematic epic, with Kurosawa -- a "pictorial Shakespeare," as labeled by Steven Spielberg and affirmed by Knight -- being the director who led the way.
"He was certainly an aesthetic muse for the film, just in terms of how he made films -- composition, cutting, lighting, movement, staging," Knight said. "You could basically take any frame of a Kurosawa film and put it on a wall, I mean, it’s that gorgeous. They look like paintings. I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive that hasn’t been directly or indirectly influenced by Kurosawa. I mean, you could just look at all of the things … Yojimbo was a huge influence. I mean, I saw Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and loved it before I even knew that Yojimbo existed. But then of course you find out later that it’s a remake of a Kurosawa film, as so many Western films are."
There are a number of nods to the director's work throughout Kubo. Kubo's dad is modeled after frequent Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune, and Kubo's broken home is a callback to the ruined fortress in Rashomon. Several themes that ran through Kurosawa's films are also explored here -- "the exploration of humanism, of existentialism, the role of the ideal, what it means to be a family, what it means to stand up to family sometimes to make the world a better place," as Knight put it.
As for Miyazaki?
"I think that most modern animators ... worship at the altar of Miyazaki," Knight said. "I mean, I love his films, they’re just exquisite. Everything from My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I mean, they’re all just lovely films that are so different from each other."
Knight applied two elements common in Miyazaki's films to Kubo. The first features characters that act in shades of gray rather than black and white. Anyone who's seen the movie might be nodding in agreement here over the character arcs, particularly when it comes to Kubo's scene in the graveyard and the moment when the Moon King reveals his motivations.
"I love how Miyazaki approaches films and protagonists and antagonists where there are shades of gray all throughout his filmmaking," Knight said. "Even the villains are not pure evil; oftentimes they’re misunderstood or they have a different perspective or they have shades of light within them. And then the heroes are not completely noble; they have problems of their own. I just love that approach, that there’s empathy toward people who may be misunderstood."
Those characters dwell in a Japan that certainly feels like Japan, even if it's not a direct reflection of any one time in particular. Knight compared it to Miyazaki's fascination for Europe and how it's depicted in his movies, rendering the continent more as an impressionist painting rather than a photograph or a documentary.
"Our version of Japan, it’s a period fantasy, it’s not a photograph," Knight said. "Even though we do incredible, extensive research into regional and historical history, it is a period fantasy. But we want to make sure that our fairy tale has one foot in the real world.
"And so, very much like Miyazaki is, the prism he applies to Europe, that’s what I wanted to do to Japan, is to effectively make an impressionist painting of Japan so that we can capture the feeling, the experience that I had when I was a kid exposed to Japan for the first time, this wondrous, beautiful, magical, breathtaking place. I wanted to try to infuse the film with that kind of spirit, and hopefully it does that."
So as we head into the movie's second weekend in theaters, why see Kubo (which I'd highly recommend you do) or see it again (which I'd highly recommend you do as well)? It's hard for me to summarize it without leaving something out, so here's his complete response:
"On one level I think it operates as just a big, sprawling epic fantasy. It’s a lot of fun, there’s action, there’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s heart. I think what I love about the movie more than the beauty of the images is what’s underneath it. I mean, it is cinematic pageantry, there’s a lot of glorious things to the whole, it does dazzle the eye. But I love the strong beating heart that it has underneath it all. That really gets to the core issue and the core themes that we explore in the movie. Fundamentally it’s a film about loss, it’s about grief. It’s about things that are typically shied away from in films geared toward family, how we confront and deal with significant loss and death and what grief can do to us.
"But at the same time it’s also a film about healing. I mean, we explore this, we have this motif of scars in this movie, where every single central character in the film is physically scarred in one way and emotionally scarred as well. And you know for Kubo, he’s ashamed of his scar. He combs his hair not because he’s trying to be a cool goth kid, he covers his eye not because he wants to have an awesome hairstyle, but because he’s ashamed of what his hair is covering. And he believes like so many of us believe, that a scar is a symbol of injury. But as we go through the film, we also get to this other notion, come through the other side, that while a scar is a symbol of hurt, it’s also a symbol of healing, after we’ve been ripped to shreds, the scar is something that makes us whole. So by the end of the film, he’s no longer ashamed. He’s an open wound who’s been made whole by this whole experience.
"So fundamentally it’s an exploration of loss, but also of healing. It’s a meditation on compassion and forgiveness and empathy, which I think in this fractured world that we live in, we could all use a bit more of."
And that was where our conversation ended ... or at least it would have been, had the studio's PR rep not mentioned that I had time for one last question. So I asked him: "You have the opportunity to sit down with Kurosawa and Miyazaki and talk to them about whatever you want. What do you talk about?"
Knight paused for a moment.
"Oh my goodness," he said. "I don’t even know if I can answer that! I mean, where to begin? They tell you never meet your heroes, never meet your idols, that you’ll be disappointed."
He went on to say that he'd been fortunate enough to have the opposite experience in working on Coraline with two people he admired: author Neil Gaiman -- "a master and a genius who just oozes genius out of his pores" -- and director Henry Selick, who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
"But that was a working relationship," Knight said. "If I met them as a fanboy for the first time, I would probably be stricken and not be able to say a word. I don’t know … I really don’t know how to answer that question. I wish I had a clever, quippy response, but it’s … when you’ve admired someone’s work for so long and you’ve been drinking it your entire life, the notion of being in the same room and talking with those guys, I don’t even know where I’d begin."
And that was my conversation with Travis Knight. Looking back on the experience a week later, I'd have to say I felt like he would in meeting his filmmaking idols -- total fanboyish glee threatening to turn me into a blubbering pile of squee-ing goo. Throughout this writing cycle, I felt a sense of "OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD ... OK, let's get to work ... OK, interview's done OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD." I hope this post captured the essence of what was really an enlightening chat with him.
Oh yeah, and go see Kubo and the Two Strings. Sometime. Definitely.