Esther McCarthy.

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When life really gets animated for Cork animator Nora Twomey

With a cancer diagnosis coinciding with her Oscar nominated film, Cork animator Nora Twomey really has been on life’s rollercoaster. But she’s thrilled ‘The Breadwinner’ is finally opening in Ireland, writes Esther McCarthy.

When life really gets animated for Cork animator Nora Twomey

With a cancer diagnosis coinciding with her Oscar nominated film, Cork animator Nora Twomey really has been on life’s rollercoaster. But she’s thrilled ‘The Breadwinner’ is finally opening in Ireland, writes Esther McCarthy.

If you have to miss a little bit of the Oscars because of a comfort break, who better to pass the time with then acting legend Frances McDormand? That’s how Co Cork animator Nora Twomey and her husband Michael found themselves chatting to the Three Billboards star in LA on Oscar night.

“If you go out to the loo between commercial breaks, you can’t get in until the next commercial break,” said Twomey, whose film The Breadwinner was nominated for Best Animated Feature.

“So I was stuck on the outside with what they call seat fillers — lots of people dressed up beautifully and their job is to fill the seat if someone vacates it. But Frances McDormand was there with myself and my husband when we were waiting for the door to be opened up again. She was talking about how surreal the whole thing was as well. I was asking her: ‘Do you get used to it?’ and she said: ‘No’.

“It does get very strange after a while, when you’re looking at people like Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep,” Twomey said of the Oscars experience.

“It’s an odd thing, when you see someone who’s very famous you feel like you should say hello to them. You tend to normalise them, you think they’re people that you know because they have such

familiar faces.”

The Midleton woman, a co-founder of Kilkenny-based animation studios Cartoon Saloon, may have to get used to rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s elite.

Her film, The Breadwinner, opens at cinemas this week following worldwide praise and an Oscar nomination for Twomey and animation studio Cartoon Saloon.

Visually stunning and with powerful storytelling at its core, The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old Afghan girl living under Taliban rule. When her father is imprisoned, she disguises herself as a boy in an effort to support her family.

“We began this journey back in September of last year when the film was released in Toronto. What’s lovely is when the film receives awards by youth juries. To see appreciation there is amazing because one of the things we started out with was to try and take Deborah Ellis’s book and Parvana, her character, and to try and introduce it to more young people.”

Steeped in authenticity, Twomey’s film featured wide contributions and involvement from various members of the Afghan community, including a girls’ choir on the soundtrack.

“The Afghan Music Institute in Kabul is run by a man named Dr Sarmast, who lost 80% of his hearing in a bomb blast a number of years ago. He can’t hear the music that his students create, but they got together a girls’ choir for the Breadwinner score. Young women whose voices were recorded last summer, a difficult summer in Kabul. But hearing their voices form part of this film is amazing, and it feels right.”

Twomey’s solo directorial debut (she was co-director on The Secret of Kells) was the biggest project she had ever taken on. But life has a habit of meddling with the best-laid plans.

“About halfway through the process I got a diagnosis of breast cancer. It was something I was going to have to go through — chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery. I guess initially I didn’t really process it and I tried to schedule it.

“I was trying to solidify answers and of course there aren’t really answers. Nobody has them. I continued to work through it because I could. I tolerated the treatment OK. But also just because it gave me a sense of normality. There’s a beat in the film that I understood from early on.

"That I understood from Deborah’s novel, about how when life just jumps up and hits you in the face, you try to find things that give you a sense of rhythm in your life, or a sense of normality.

“For me that was going into work, going into meetings, telling my children stories at night time. Just finding little things that I could do. People very much took me as I was. Sometimes I wasn’t able to go into work and I would Skype from home. Sometimes I would go into work and realise I’d only painted on one eyebrow and rubbed off the other one!” she smiles.

She remains very moved by the “incredible women” she met during treatment and the support she received.

“The doctors were amazing, I suddenly became aware of this whole side of life where you have doctors who are incredibly skilled and talented and who have… they can give you back time. You’re heading down one road and they gently turn you towards another. It ways it quietened me down, in terms of being a filmmaker and a storyteller, it made me just bite off the things I could chew, to find help with the things that I couldn’t bite off.”

One of the first people who understood Twomey’s vision for her film was actress Angelina Jolie, who came on board as executive producer.

They connected from the first time they met in Los Angeles, she said.

“The first conversation I had with her felt like the continuation of a discussion rather than the beginning of one. And honestly it was a relief because I’d never met anyone with that much celebrity surrounding them before. So to find out that there was a human being at the centre of it was really comforting.

“She was a tremendous guiding force all the way through the process. She’s somebody who’s been involved in film her entire life — she grew up in Hollywood in a film-making family — but she understood independent filmmaking. She understood small budgets, the restrictions that we had making the film. But again she tried to gently guide us, to try and tell as truthful a story as we could, that they was an authenticity to what we did, and a complexity.

“She wanted first and foremost to make sure that the film had a sense of hope in it. And that it wasn’t giving easy answers. While we did hone in on what it’s like for one young child growing up in a time of conflict, that we spoke to the universal as well.

“Then she stood on the red carpet in Toronto, and many times since, with our cast, which was amazing. To have her shine the light of the world’s press on our red carpet was such a vote of confidence in our team.”

Twomey’s next project, My Father’s Dragon, adapted from the novel about a boy who sets out to rescue a baby dragon, is already in development. But she is excited at the prospect of The Breadwinner being released here.

“It’s won a number of awards. It continues to be discovered, which is amazing. It’s lovely to see the film finally come home here to Ireland.”

‘The Breadwinner’ opens in cinemas tomorrow.

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