What’s an Irish filmmaker to do when one of the world’s most famous women takes an interest in your fledgling project?
For Nora Twomey, the answer was simple — to hightail it on a flight across the Atlantic, and let on that you happened to be in town anyway.
That’s how the Cork animator first came to meet with Angelina Jolie, who was so enamoured with her film that she signed up as an executive producer. Now the rest of the world is poised to fall in love with it too.
Twomey’s solo directorial debut, The Breadwinner, is attracting early awards-season attention and rave reviews.
Described by the Hollywood Reporter as “jewel-bright and heart-wrenching”, it tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old Afghan girl who dresses like a boy so that she can support her family after her father is imprisoned under the Taliban regime.
Jolie, a producer as well as actor who has long worked as a special envoy for the UN, was on board as soon as she read the script and saw early concept work.
“She read it and looked at the work that we had done to date, and really responded to it,” says Twomey.
“I hopped on a plane, flew over, pretending I was there on business, met her. She very much aligned with the sensibility that we were aiming for.
"She really understood the complexities of Afghanistan and the history of Afghanistan and had, for over a decade and a half, been involved in girls’ education in Afghanistan.”
Walking into one of the most important meetings of her career, Twomey must have felt it vital to not be overwhelmed.
“Literally, because I had hopped on a plane and been to airports, the magazine stalls were full of Angelina Jolie, these very glamorous, glossy pictures.
"To walk into a meeting with her… it was just herself and myself. But you’re meeting someone who’s very down to earth, very chatty, very warm.
“What’s weird as well is she’s probably the most famous person I’ve met, so when you’re talking to someone like that, because you’re so familiar with their face, you think you know them. She was very welcoming.”
For Twomey, a co-founder of Kilkenny-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon with Tomm Moore and Paul Young, the film has been a labour of love. The well-established studio has created such award- winning films as The Secret of Kells, but this is Twomey’s first big solo run.
Growing up in a farming community just outside Midleton, she could not have considered such a successful career in animation possible.
“My sisters would have all drawn. And my mother loved literature and poetry. An appreciation was there. My father growing up would have liked telling us stories. The love of storytelling was there. But certainly in the ’70s and ’80s it was something you would think of as a past-time rather than something you would build a career around.
“Even at the time and in terms of film and that, before the Film Board came into being in Ireland, it was something that was American or English. It was only when the Neil Jordans or the Jim Sheridans started making their films that it became something that you realised Irish people could do.”
As a child, drawing became more and more important to her.
“Most children will draw, as a means of communication. And then at the age of nine or ten, a lot of children give it up. I would have just continued on.
"As I continued on at school, and really didn’t fit into the mould of school, I retreated more and more into my imagination and more into drawing. My copybooks, the backs of them, were full of doodles. For me, I suppose, it became a stronger, as opposer to a weaker, thing.
“Most children, unfortunately, will give it up and it’s a pity because I think drawing is such a relaxing thing anyway, no matter what your skill level, it’s a great thing to do, because it slows you right down and it makes you observe the world around you.”
Like many teenagers, Twomey struggled to find her place in the school system and left as soon as she was able, taking a job with local porcelain doll artist Judy Cuddy.
“It brought back confidence — I would create something in the morning that existed in the evening time,” she recalls.
Realising that art was her calling, she took a factory job in Midleton to help raise the funds to get back into the education system.
“I did a year foundation course in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa in Cork city. That gave me a broad idea of what fine art is like, what ceramics is like, textiles, all of the different disciplines I could go into.
"There, I met some of the other students who were planning to do animation. They told me what animation was and that you get to draw every day and get better and better at your drawing.
"For me that sounded amazing, so I got my portfolio together with the help of the people who were running the course, and went off up to Dublin.
“My sister helped me a lot as well, she’d done art for her Leaving Cert. Based on my portfolio I got into Ballyfermot.”
Twomey worked at Brown Bag before setting up Cartoon Saloon with Young and Moore. When she came across the novel The Breadwinner, she endeavoured to bring it to the screen in a journey that has taken four years.
“Deborah Ellis has a wonderful way of writing about challenging subject matters in a way that’s not sentimental, but at the same time is quite respectful of the audience she’s writing for.
"I read it in an evening, absolutely fell in love with the character of Parvana and the fact that she was flawed. This very human character in very extraordinary circumstances.
“In some senses her life was very alien to mine, but in other senses there were things that I understood very well, in terms of the family dynamic and how much she loved her father. These little things that we all understand.”
The film opens in the US next week (and will be released by Element Pictures in Ireland next spring) and is being widely discussed as an Oscar contender for best animated feature.
“For me the big win is if people go and buy a ticket. What we make films is for people to go and see them. We’re storytellers and we want people to participate in the story.
“I feel very proud, honestly, to represent the 300-plus people who worked on this film. All of these people put so much work into this project, so it’s wonderful for it finally to be out there and starting to get seen by audiences.”
Twomey and Jolie have collaborated and come to know each other well. Has she ever confessed she didn’t happen to be in the area on the day of that first meeting? She laughs.
“No, but I’m sure she’d be quite used to people pretending!”