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Interview: Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj Talk Exploring Guilt in Borrowed Time

Borrowed Time is an insightful and thoughtful look at grief as told through the eyes of its lead character, a cowboy. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj are the Pixar animators who take us on this journey as the sheriff returns to a place that holds many painful memories for him. The beautifully sensitive elegy is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short. I caught up with Andrew and Lou to talk about their friendship that dates back to New York and how that friendship went from two young filmmakers studying animation, to working together at Pixar, to being nominated for an Oscar, and of course, talk Borrowed Time.

Congratulations on the Oscar nomination.

Lou: Andrew, myself and our producer Amanda all gathered at her house. We all got up at 4 in the morning, huddled around her laptop and waited while we watched the webcast. We wanted to be together because it was a long road. We finished the film and started the festival circuit in 2015, so it has been a long road. There’s no better way to close it out than to have a nomination. There was no way we were just going to wake up and hear it when we hear it. We had to be there and we were determined to celebrate either way regardless of getting nominated. Luckily, the journey continues.

How did you both meet?

Andrew: Lou and I met as Tisch film at NYU and we studied traditional filmmaking, live-action filmmaking. There’s an animation department with about 20 kids in there a year, Lou was three years younger than me, but he ended up helping me on my short in my senior year.

I later helped him on his. He was still in school when he got his scholarship at Pixar and left for California. I went to Blue Sky Studios in Connecticut. We wanted to work on a film together, but we had to wait out until we were in the same place because file-sharing wasn’t good back then, and there was no cloud so it would have been difficult to make a film across the country.

In 2010, I started at Pixar and we had no more excuses so we put our money where our mouth is, and we went for it. We thought it would take a few years, but five years later we finally finished it. Our naivety made it possibly for us to make the film that we made.

That’s fascinating. I didn’t realize it took so long.

Lou: It was never our intention for it to take that long, but we were doing this entirely in our free time and making a film is hard. We set out to do this from the beginning just the two of us. I think there was a bit of wanting to recapture that feeling of wanting to be a student again and learning about the aspects of what would go into it. We set out to do as much as we could on our own. The story process was a very difficult one and took up a good chunk of that time, probably 2 or 3 years of our process was spent finding the right version of the story that we wanted to tell that would connect with people.

We wanted to tell a story that would connect with audiences in the 6 minutes. In the beginning, we wanted to try something emotional and impactful. We started building a feature and tried condensing it into a short. That’s the way we naturally went through it, and it took us a long time to hone in on that simpler message and show it in the most economical way possible and to get the audience to actually care and feel for a character in that short amount of time. It’s easy to get people to laugh and have fun, but to have them actually care and be with a character emotionally is a tall order. It took us time to get to a point where we were satisfied.

Andrew: Also getting people to help us and having people spend some time with us and put time into our project. We had to put a lot of work in at the beginning to get the ball rolling.

Lou: Our vacations were about coming into work on our days off to work on it. Five years sounds like a long time but when you’re working 40-50 hour weeks and there are a few months out of every year taking a lot of time than already having a full -time job, and you have friends, families, and wives, it’s a lot of work.

I love that you take the Western genre, and there’s this cowboy at the heart of your story, a character who we wouldn’t normally associate with those feelings. How did you decide that he was the right character for the story?

Lou: That was a big part of why we ended up going with the Western. The first thing we wanted to do was make something different to what we had already worked on at work. We worked on huge blockbuster, family friendly films, and we were super fortunate. We just didn’t want to do the same thing after work as we did in our day jobs. There’s a trend in the USA that animated films are for kids and people tend to see animation as a children’s film genre which is false and unfortunate because it’s a medium to tell any story. That’s what is exciting about animation, is that it can be anything. We wanted to challenge that.
Thematically, we asked ourselves what we wanted to say and we were looking for several ideas.

This idea we had for a Western stood out. You can say irrefutably that the film is a Western but there goes the animation as a genre as an argument. It now becomes a Western that happens to be animated.
With that comes a certain amount of expectations, the iconography is the very thing you mentioned of cowboys and the stereotype of the cowboy and how ripe that is for an opportunity to do something different not only for animation but also for a Western.

There was a lot of ammunition because people can see in the first two shots that it is a Western. Cool.
If we can spend the rest of the film turning the film on its head then cool.

Andrew: It helped us be economical with the way people handle emotions and with how they expect things to pan out for animation generally and to be able to subvert that and play with those expectations. It was a lot of fun.

There are some influences in the film such as Sergio Leone.

Lou: Absolutely, we looked at Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Western. We also looked at Butch Cassidy and some modern Westerns like True Grit and Unforgiven. We also looked at Indiana Jones as a way to tastefully depict things that are somewhat violent but not gratuitous. All those things were helpful and put into a pot to help us.

Andrew: There are obvious homages. The pocket watch is from A Few Dollars More. The character is designed around Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, and a bit of my dad. So, the character is a mix of all of those cowboys from cinema history.

My dad is a cowboy. [laughs]. He’s British and was born in Scotland and is as British as they come.

I can picture that.

Andrew: He still looks and feels a bit like Clint Eastwood. I guess when growing up, whatever male role models you have, you tend to attach to your father maybe.

Lou: [laughs].

What about the ending, what was that choice for you to leave it as you did? It left you wanting more after that journey.

Andrew: This goes into how much time we had. Leaving it in a place that’s more reflective for the audience and gives it time outside of viewing. Some of our favorite films are films that force you to reconsider everything you’ve seen with information with what you’ve learned. It’s a conversation that you can have with others, and you can ask questions. Hopefully you can put together a lot of things on your own about what the film means emotionally for that character and how you can empathize with that and see your own life in how the main character is dealing with something and the guilt of the event that happened in his life without us having to tell you everything explicit that’s around it.

If you watch the film a few times you can start picking up on a few details that you might not have caught the first time. It’s the sort of film you can make in a short time, but you can give it depth.

Lou: It was always a conversation for us. We wanted it to have a hopeful upturn and regardless of the events in the film, they’re not completely downtrodden. Our character doesn’t have to be completely fixed, we can put him on a path. There are many steps ahead to get him where he needs to go.
Placing them on that trajectory is what we tried to keep in mind.

If you wrap it all up at the end, that’s just dishonest and it would come across as cliche.

This is the thing everyone deals with in their lives. We all lose something in our lives, there’s always a guilt of losing people. There’s no answer to how you deal with it, it’s up to the to individual to reconcile their own death in a way. finding something contemplative for the audience to take away felt more honest.

How did you get Gustavo Santaolalla involved as a composer?

Lou: In animation, you’re always putting together the music to build the mood. It was a challenge for us to find music that would evoke the tone of a western without being overplayed or too cliche. We happened to have known Gustavo’s music. There’s an incredible sense of atmosphere in his work and even in silence, he builds that. It can be haunting and beautiful. We put quite a bit of that in our temp track and lived with that for a while until it came to a point where we needed to consider who could compose it.

We asked our producer to see if there was any way we could get Gustavo, and she signed up for IMDB pro, found his agent, sent a cold email. After a few conversations, we realized there was a great fit and he was really happy to do it.

Andrew: He liked what we showed him. We had the full animatics. We had a few shots with the final look and he had this understanding of the level we were striving for and he really connected with the story.

We found out that he said, “I usually don’t like it when I’m shown work with temp music, but since it was my own music, it’s cool.” The temp was all his music and he knew what we were going for as he had written that music. He knew the melodies and the emotional content and how it connected to his music.

He was so modest and thoughtful and super collaborative. He was never forceful and would try things. We’d go down a road, like at the end scene, we wanted that to be a reprisal of the theme when he gets the pocket watch. We were forcing Gustavo to make it work. Intellectually, it made sense, but emotionally it wasn’t feeling right. Gustavo played something, the original version he had written and that was the one.

Lou: It was a cool experience. We got to see his recording studio in LA and we had a blast.He played every instrument that you hear. He’s so innovative and interesting. We could talk about him for hours.

What’s next for you?

Lou: I’m on Incredibles 2

Andrew: I’m on Cars 3 which is fun and easy. It’s stress-less. It’s appreciated and allows me to have fun and do the circuits right now. It’s such a fun and crazy ride.