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The Art Of The Scene… Nora Twomey Discusses The Breadwinner

In this installment of The Art of The Scene, director Nora Twomey takes us through key aspects of the Oscar-nominated animated feature, The Breadwinner.

Parvana is an 11-year-old girl in Afghanistan. She is not a princess, she doesn’t live in a magical fantasy land, she lives in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Her father is arrested one day and since women are not allowed to leave their homes unescorted, Parvana takes it on herself to cut her hair off and pose as a boy so she can provide for her family, but more importantly, find a way to free her father from prison.

Read how Twomey takes us through the opening, casting and the key decision scene below and consider The Breadwinner in your Oscar voting for Best Animated Feature.

On opening the film:

Opening a film like this was a huge challenge. We tried several different things because not only did we want to set up Parvana and show that she was quite specifically Afghan and that she wasn’t like a Western girl who was going to start explaining to her dad that she didn’t want to sell that item of clothing, we had to internalize that. She’s a girl who first and foremost has a responsibility to her chofamily so she doesn’t think of her own individual needs above those of her family. We needed to internalize that but yet, have our Western audience empathize and understand what’s going on with her.

On Casting:

For me, the casting of this film was extremely important. Not just every individual character, but also how those voices play alongside each other. The kindness of Ali Badshah voice who plays Nurullah (Parvana’s father) because we see so little of that character, that kindness has to carry Parvana for the entire film. For the entire film, she wants her father and we feel the loss of him and her wish to see him again. Those two voices and how they play against each other was so important. Getting those two actors correct was important.

We had an animatic rough version of the film expressing that she didn’t want to sell the dress and the father explained it to her and we brought it down to you seeing it in her eyes and her movement. She’s trying to be invisible and feels vulnerable there.

Her father is protective of her. We also see her father’s physicality and he’s an amputee as so many men of his generation are in Afghanistan, so we had a lot to set up.We also had to set up Nurullah’s storytelling and that was hugely important. At one point, it was twelve pages of script that included Parvana’s father talking about Afghanistan and her place in Afghanistan where the story took us up to the present day. We storyboarded and kept doing that until we came up with the device of the circle and the circle changing. We really wanted to get that across in a simple way because it sets up for the end of the film. The beginning of the film is a question and the end of the film is not an answer, but it’s another question. There’s this idea that Afghanistan has been at the edges of Empires forever and those Empires carry out proxy wars on its soil is something we wanted to get across to some degree.

The film is about a young girl’s relationship to her father and to herself and to the rest of her family and how she manages to get through this extraordinary time. You see her strength and the hope she embodies. The setup was difficult, but the wonderful thing about animation is that you get to make so many mistakes and it’s with those mistakes that you learn.

We had so many people from Afghanistan on the film from different religious perspectives, people who had left during different decades of conflict we giving us input to make sure that it was rounded and that the film was telling the truth in some way.

I was relying very much on the voices of Afghan people. I talked to one man who was fighting for the communist regime and had been conscripted into the army had managed to escape, he was one perspective. Another was part of the Mujahideen and another had run from the Mujahideen because they had a reputation of recruiting children. So, you had all of those perspectives that were in The Breadwinner in some way, all informing Parvanah’s journey. Honoring those voices was really important.

On the film’s music

Early on, before Mychael and Jeff Danna came on board, I knew I wanted them on board. There was space for music, sound design and silence because the film is about contrast. There’s contrast between light and dark and the interior and the outside world. We wanted Mychael and Jeff to similarly put contrast into the musical score of the film.

We wanted to see her imagination and the limitlessness of her imagination. Mychael and Jeff worked with a lot of the musicians and the choir from Afghanistan. Each time you hear hope in the film, you hear young female voices recorded in Kabul. For me, that was incredible and having all of these elements come together was just so interesting.

Usually, you have a demo track, the score was built almost in the way tapestry is created. It was layer after layer coming together to form it.

We wanted a traditional score and wanted to be universal with it. My main note to Mychael and Jeff was to never tell the audience how to feel.But to support the audience when they did feel something. They were just incredible and from the earliest points, they understood the sensibility of the film.

The Decision – Parvana cuts her hair

This whole sequence is about seeing what the character is thinking. She looks at her sister, her mother and her brother and you understand that she’s going to make a decision. It’s a decision that she is going to put herself in great danger, she’s taking on this great responsibility and the health of her entire family is on her shoulders. It’s the moment she stops being a child and becomes the adult of the family.

I was always aware with her that I didn’t really want the gender thing to be an issue. I don’t think she thinks of herself as male or female in the same way when you wake up, you don’t put yourself in the box. I wanted for our audience to see her from the inside out.

What’s lovely about the scene was we had dialogue early on in that scene. Our actors recorded dialog for that sequence. I knew we were going to get rid of it, but I kept it in right until the moment we were handing it to the animators. I wanted all the emotional beats.

When Soraya says, “You are the man of the house now.” We kept the camera on them for that length of time, but she no longer spoke the words because the relationship between those two, they’re always arguing. When they’re silence and relate to each other physically. They have such a real relationship and they would die for one another. The reality of that relationship is quite special I think. Older siblings think of younger siblings as an extension of themselves, I think.

There’s a point later in the film where you see her sister understand Parvana’s autonomy so you see that relationship progress and I love how it progresses. The quietness of that whole sequence needed the dialog to be in there until I pulled it out.

On Parvana in the marketplace

We always wanted to return to the same scene and the same market set up. When you see the first time, she’s with Nurullah and the next time, there’s this absence where he should be.

In another point, Shauzia, her best friend comes and sits with her so we were deliberately returning to the same places so we could mark a new time in the film.

When we see Parvana selling that item of clothing that she was so special about in that first scene, we see how far she has come, it’s a means by which she can feed her family and we see how far she has come. Something that meant so much to her as a little girl is a way she can feed her family. She owns her environment as well.

When you see her in that first scene, she’s in the smallest space possible and when she’ selling her red outfit. She’s proud of her environment and she is at one with where she is.