A chat with Henry Selick, Henry Selick interview, Coraline, the Nightmare Before Christmas
Henry Selick

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If you only looked at the dates of Henry Selick’s films, you might think that he’s a pretty lazy director. I mean, really, only four films in seventeen years…? Hey, you try directing stop-motion animation. As the man who helmed “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Coraline,” you may rest assured that Selick more than earns any downtime that he may choose to take after completing a picture. Fortunately, his hard work has paid off: “Coraline” received 10 Annie Award nominations from the International Animated Film Society, more than any other film this year. Bullz-Eye chatted with Selick in connection with his nominations (and, if we’re to be honest, did so with an eye on the inevitable Oscar nod for “Coraline” for Best Animated Feature Film), and he provided us with a great deal of insight into the process of adapting Neil Gaiman’s original story, casting the voice actors, and bringing the whole thing to life. In addition, however, we also discussed his work with Tim Burton, learned the likelihood of him helming another live-action feature, and how he came to direct the video for Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero.”

Henry Selick: Hey, Will, it’s Henry.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Henry, it’s a pleasure to talk to you!

HS: Same here!

BE: Well, first off, congratulations on your Annie nominations.

HS: Thank you! Yes, it’s pretty nice. In the animation world, that actually means something. (Laughs)

BE: As a film geek, it means something to me, too. (Laughs) When I was talking to some of the other editors about how you and I were going to be chatting, our editor in chief asked if we thought it would be safe to show “Coraline” to his 3-year-old son. The response was a resounding “no.”

HS: (Laughs) Yes, he’d have to be a very brave 3-year-old.

BE: As it happens, he’s reportedly prone to nightmares.

HS: Well, then, definitely no.

BE: Were there any sequences in the film where, as you were constructing them, you found yourself consciously aware that, “oh, man, some kids are not gonna be able to handle this”?

"I fully expected a PG rating (for 'Coraline') and would hope that parents would know their own kids well enough to see whether or not it would be appropriate for them, because there actually have been some 3- and 4-year-olds who can handle it, but there have also been some 11-year-olds who couldn’t handle it. It was always a delicate dance of where to go and how far to go."

HS: You know, yeah, I wanted to dance right up to that edge, and I fully expected a PG rating and would hope that parents would know their own kids well enough to see whether or not it would be appropriate for them, because there actually have been some 3- and 4-year-olds who can handle it, but there have also been some 11-year-olds who couldn’t handle it. So it was always a delicate dance of where to go and how far to go. Certainly, we were holding back a lot longer than in the book from the Other World. Aside from buttons for eyes, it seems to be a very inviting, wonderful, positive place…until it’s not. (Laughs) “Coraline” the movie is as dark as the book. It just doesn’t get there as quickly.

BE: Tell me a little bit about the process of adapting Neil Gaiman’s story to animation. Was it something that you’d had your eye on for awhile?

HS: It was something that came to me. Neil…I didn’t know him, but he paid attention to the credits on “Nightmare Before Christmas” and realized, “Well, there’s this Henry Selick guy who actually directed it,” so he was thinking of me as he was finishing this novel. It was something he’d done on the side, inspired by one daughter and finished for another. So he sent me the pages – the book wasn’t quite done – and I took ‘em, I loved it, and I met with him and hit it off. I took it to Bill Mechanic, our top producer, and set it up. It was a process, though, to ultimately find my own voice and vision, and it was strongly encouraged by Neil. The first draft was very wooden, it was too close to the book. I was talking to Neil too much. You know, he’s a wordsmith. He’s very intimidating in some respects if you’re trying to adapt his book. But Neil told me, “You go off on your own. Let’s stop talking, you go off on your own, and find your voice.” Which is phenomenal for the author of the source material, but that’s what I needed to do. I set it in the U.S. because I was more comfortable writing American rather than English dialogue, I introduced another character, I restructured it and basically started to dream up the images that I wanted to emphasize and wrote around that, then I came back to Neil and Bill, and they were both very happy with the direction I was going.

BE: When it came time to actually design the characters, did you find it challenging to create your own vision while still sort of paying tribute to Dave McKean’s designs?

HS: Funny thing about that. Neil gave me the pages, he wasn’t quite finished with it, and, in fact, the book wouldn’t be published for two years after he gave me the pages, so I’d pretty much gone down my own path before Dave had created any of his beautiful illustrations. When the book was published and I got my copy and everything and saw what he’d done, I was tempted to sort of rethink my own direction, but ultimately I felt that those were great for his book, but they felt too cold for me for the movie. So, really, there’s no conscious Dave McKean in the movie, even though he’s a brilliant artist. The train had already left the station by the time I saw his drawings.

BE: The stop-motion is about as smooth as I think anyone could possibly have hoped for…like, to the point where some might not even believe that it is stop-motion. Did that occur to you as you were doing it, or as you were looking at it?

Henry SelickHS: Yeah, it’s sort of this delicate thing, but some of the people…about one-third of the crew on “Coraline”…are all veterans that I’ve worked with, some of them for as long as 20 years. Animators like Trey Thomas and Eric Leighton, Anthony Scott, they don’t want to purposely make it look crude or any less than what they feel is their best work. My argument is that it’s okay to leave some of the flaws in, but why don’t you work a little more quickly? Because, I mean, the essence of stop-motion is that it’s imperfect. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me if people don’t know that it’s stop-motion. I think there’s a feeling that you get from it, whether you think it’s CGI or not, that’s unique, that you do feel the work of the artist and you know that this stuff exists. People react to it a little differently than the other animated forms.

BE: Between “Coraline” and now “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I’m officially calling this the era of the stop-motion renaissance.

HS: It’s a renaissance, but, in fact, it never was big. (Laughs) There’s very few features that’ve been done…maybe five or six total…and very few TV series that have been. But, now , there are going to be three such TV series going at once, so it’s more than a renaissance. I think it’s…well, I don’t know, you’ll come up with a proper term, but it’s a blossoming of stop-motion.

BE: I know that you worked with Wes Anderson on “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Did he already have it in his head that he was going to do “Mr. Fox” at that point, and did he ever chat with you at any point after that?

HS: Yeah, I met with him when he first came to me to do stop-motion sea creatures for “Life Aquatic,” and I think in my first meeting he told me that he ultimately wanted to do an all stop-motion “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” We had a couple of discussions in the course of the work I did on the film, and then later on, when he had his first draft written with Noah Baumbach, he sent it to me. At that point, though, I was on the verge of getting “Coraline” finally greenlit, and I’d been working on it for a few years to find the right studio, which was Focus, so I had to go my own path. But I recommended a few people to help Wes, like Mark Gustafson, who’s an animation director. It was nice to imagine working on it, but ultimately it was better that we both did our own films.

BE: With “Coraline,” as far as finding the right voice actors, I feel like you succeeded across the board. Keith David is particularly good as the Cat…which is funny, as I just heard him in “The Princess and the Frog” as well.

HS: Yeah, that guy can do anything. He’s a great singer. He does a Nat King Cole tribute that’s pretty phenomenal. The Cat was tricky. It took awhile to find the right voice, and what’s funny is that he came in with his own take, this cat sound that he was doing, and we recorded some of it, but I said, “No, I want that Keith David voice!” So we went there, but I ultimately went back and used a lot of the stuff that he brought in because it was better for the film. Yeah, he’s incredible. (Laughs) This little scrawny, damaged animal coupled with his voice…it’s a wonderful juxtaposition and presence and power. People love the Cat. It’s usually their second most favorite character after Coraline.

BE: You also managed to reunite French and Saunders, which is pretty cool for British comedy fans.

HS: Yeah, they’re amazing. At the time I recorded them, they hadn’t worked together in a little while, so they had fun. They were originally cast in the opposite parts, and I started the day recording them and everything was great, but during playback…it was kind of that thing where it was good but not great, and I’m thinking, “Well, I guess my writing sucks, because that’s the best I can do.” But then I just thought, “Why don’t we switch the parts?” So I went back to them, and they didn’t flip out or get angry. They said, “Well, it’s certainly worth a try.” And they switched the parts, and immediately everyone was happy with it. It was much better.

“I met with (Wes Anderson) when he first came to me to do stop-motion sea creatures for 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,' and I think in my first meeting he told me that he ultimately wanted to do an all stop-motion 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox.' Then later on, when he had his first draft written with Noah Baumbach, he sent it to me. At that point, though, I was on the verge of getting 'Coraline' finally greenlit, and I’d been working on it for a few years to find the right studio, which was Focus, so I had to go my own path.”

BE: John Hodgman was kind of a left-field choice. What led you to consider him?

HS: You know, when you’re working on a film…I was on “Coraline” for a long time before we finally got to the point of casting, finding a studio and distributor, and you’re in this mode where you’re collecting images – I have a scrapbook – and you’re sketching things, and you’re listening whether you’re conscious of it or not. And I saw him on “The Daily Show” as a correspondent, and that voice just clicked. It just worked. Honestly, I expected an argument from Bill Mechanic, because people like to have big names because it’s kind of reassuring. So I expected a fight, but Bill loved it as much as I did. And we talked to him, and it turned out that he was perfect…and, subsequently, he went on to be highly exposed in those Macintosh vs. PC ads. (Laughs) People might not think he’s a great actor, but he is, because Real Dad is kind of like a persona that people know, but as Other Dad, he brought sort of this Bing Crosby / Dean Martin flavor to that that he cooked up, and I just thought he knocked it out of the park.

BE: Actually, speaking of the Dad, we get the one song by They Might Be Giants courtesy of him, but there have been reports that there were nine other songs by the Johns that went by the wayside when the tone of the film changed.

HS: There were never nine songs, but they did some demos for three other songs, and then one that they did many variations on. The demos they did are beautiful, and they’re really great songs, but it just wasn’t fitting. I love They Might Be Giants, they’re one of my favorite bands or duos of all time, and I think they’re two of the most brilliant songwriters of all time, but there’s a tonality, there’s an archness, there’s a humor that’s at the essence of who they are and why we love them, and it was fighting the movie. I didn’t replace them with someone else; I just realized that I didn’t need these other songs…or any songs…for the movie besides the ones that are part of the movie itself. So there’s just the one, with the Dad playing the piano. There’s also the one that the ladies perform, but I wrote that song. I kept trying to get the Giants to write something better for me, but they said, “That’s fine. That’ll work.”

BE: “Coraline” is the first stop-motion picture to be shot entirely in 3D. Is there a particular sequence within the film that you’re the most proud of, as far as how it ended up playing?

HS: Well, there are many sequences that stand out to me for different reasons. There’s one where Coraline creates… she takes the pillows to sort of make replicas of her parents and puts herself to bed in their bed. She’s missing them desperately. I think that, emotionally, that’s a real standout. A guy named Payton Curtis animated a lot of that. The Magic Garden sequence was one of the most difficult sequences of the film to figure out, to plan and have a story, and to find the materials to have things to grow and not just resort to CGI. So that’s one of my favorites. And one of the most difficult ones that we pulled off was the fight between Other Mother, when she’s transformed into her final form, and the floor flies up and the metal web drops below. That was a hellacious challenge to build that thing, to actually make this big steel coil and figure out how to move it, how to get animators to be able to animate the characters on it. So those are a couple of stand-outs that I’m proud of.

Henry Selick

BE: Do you have any favorite in-jokes that you sneaked into the production?

HS: Uh, there are little visual things that are hidden. I couldn’t actually admit that there’s an image of Jack Skellington, because it’s not a Disney film, of course…

BE: Of course. You wouldn’t want to have yolk on your face.

HS: (Laughs) Exactly.

(Writer’s note: If you’ve seen “Coraline” but don’t have any idea why Selick laughed, you’ll want to re-watch the film and pay close attention during the scene where Other Mother is making Coraline an omelet.)

HS: There’s stuff hidden here and there, but sometimes it’s just things in the background where someone…maybe a set-maker…snuck something in, and sometimes it’s word references, but I don’t really like to point that out.

BE: But you do like sneaking them in?

HS: Oh, yeah. (Laughs)

BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other projects you’ve worked on, but I had one more “Coraline” question. I couldn’t help but notice a couple of other Selicks in the voice cast.

HS: Well, my younger son, George, has a very good voice, kind of raspy, so I tried him out for the Ghost Boy…and I’ve got enough people around me who tell me the truth that I can trust it when they tell me, “Yeah, that’s gonna work.” And I figured…well, my older son, Harry, I gave him a small part as well, because I didn’t want him to feel left out. It was nice. It was kind of fun to have them be part of the project in that way. My older son, I also gave him a couple of weeks internship, where he’s, like, sautering feet onto puppets… (Laughs) …and a whole variety of other things.

BE: With “James and the Giant Peach,” not to in any way disparage Randy Newman’s musical contributions, but was it heartbreaking to have to lose Andy Partridge’s songs?

HS: Yeah, it was just one of those things where the deal couldn’t be made. Disney’s very tough and, basically, Andy Partridge wasn’t famous enough in their eyes to warrant sharing publishing right with him. And I think, “Why not share in success?” (Laughs) But Andy Partridge did some very beautiful demo songs. I mean, there’s a couple that are always in my head. I can call on them any time. They’re wonderful things. So, yeah, it was heartbreaking. Randy’s a genius, he did wonderful songs for the film, but Andy was my first choice. They just wouldn’t budge on deal making, which I think was just stupid. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t, but that’s just how it was.

BE: As a longtime Fishbone fan, I’m very curious about the “Party at Ground Zero” video.

HS: (Bursts out laughing) Oh, man! Oh, boy, you really know your stuff!

BE: Hey, man, I was a music critic first. (Laughs) In fairness, though, I should admit that one of the other editors – David Medsker – is the one who suggested that I ask you about it.

"We were fearless (on 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.') We had no fear of failure. We didn’t care. We wanted to make something great. It was so incredible that we were getting to make a stop-motion feature, and we pretty much had total freedom. It was a great experience, and it would be many years until I had a similar experience, which I finally got on 'Coraline.'"

HS: Well, you know, it was just this weird thing. It was a contest that was put on by Sony through the AFI, and there were four different bands that you could choose. You’d write the proposal to do the video, using Sony video and tape and so forth. I can’t even remember who the other bands were, because I just loved the Fishbone song and energy so much, so that’s the one that I wanted. So I came up with this basic idea that was like the old Vincent Price / Edgar Allen Poe movie, “The Red Death.” It was very much based on that. So I wrote something up and I did a storyboard, and…one of the judges was a very young Nic Cage, who I got to meet in later years. So they picked it, and then we did it. It was super low budget, where you just call on your friends and try to put something together. The video tape of the era, it looked good first-generation, but when we edited things, there was a huge generation loss and the final image quality was…well, whatever. It was pretty awful. (Laughs) But it was fun. I think the band’s still together in some form. It was hard as hell, but it was fun, and I have good memories of making that.

BE: You’d worked with Tim Burton during your earliest days at Disney, but had you maintained a friendship from that point onward? I was just wondering if it was that path which led the two of you to eventually collaborate on “Nightmare Before Christmas”?

HS: You know, there’s a guy named Rick Heinrichs who was Tim’s creative partner going back to Disney, and I was pretty close to Tim and Rick in the early ‘80s. Rick’s the guy who took Tim’s sketches and first sculpted them, and now he’s an Academy Award-winning production designer and a great sculptor, but at a certain point, Tim’s success with live action had gotten so big that I’d lost touch with him. He was just too busy. But Rick always stayed in touch, so it was Rick who showed up with a big secret, and that was that Tim was now going to go back and do what was originally a half-hour TV special and make it into a feature, and Tim wanted me to direct it. So I reconnected with Tim, and from his great story and main designs and Danny Elfman’s songs, we started making a film. Basically, my small team of people up in San Francisco all became supervisors, our producer Kathleen Gavin showed up, and…we were fearless. We had no fear of failure. We didn’t care. We wanted to make something great. It was so incredible that we were getting to make a stop-motion feature, and we pretty much had total freedom. The budget was low, Tim was our protector, but he was off making two other feature films in L.A. It was a great experience, and it would be many years until I had a similar experience, which I finally got on “Coraline.”

BE: Was there ever any discussion, however briefly, of you working on “Corpse Bride” as well?

HS: I didn’t work on it for a long time before it was made, but, yeah, I worked on the script with the writer, I did artwork, but this was right after “Mars Attacks.” We took the project to Warner Brothers, and they just…at that point, no one was going to back another stop-motion feature. So I had my time on it in an earlier incarnation.

BE: With “Nightmare,” how weird has it been seeing the characters become pop culture icons of sorts?

HS: Well, it’s been far more wonderful than weird. (Laughs) You know, you never know. We did the film, it came out, there were a limited number of toys and merchandise, but no one was going to do a big order of anything because it was new and different. But it had its run, it made its money back, and it seemed like, “Okay, that was great, that was fun.” But then it started to build into something else. The last few years, I’ve been the one stuck home giving out the Halloween candy, because my older son and my younger son are out, and my wife’s out with my younger son, and every year there’s someone dressed as one of the characters or wearing, like, a knapsack with one of the characters on it, and it’s wonderful to see that. Sometimes, I say, “Well, if you’ll just look back there in that room…” Because I’ve got a big display of Jack Skellington as Santa in the sled with all the reindeer right in the front. They usually scream with delight. (Laughs)

Henry Selick

BE: I know there are always rumblings about doing a sequel. Have they gotten any louder since “Coraline”?

HS: Not really. Sequels can be wonderful things, there’s no inherent reason why it’s a bad idea, but…I don’t see anything on the immediate horizon.

BE: Did you feel that “Monkeybone” was successful enough as a creative endeavor for you to do live action again in the future? Or do you prefer to stick with stop-motion?

HS: I would never do another predominantly live-action film again. It was kind of a slippery slope. The original idea for “Monkeybone” was meant to be far more animation, as much as “James and the Giant Peach,” and the powerful producer that I hooked up with, he had his own take on it and, you know, if you’re getting a name actor, you have to keep him in the whole movie. And he loves stop-motion, but we couldn’t actually afford to do that sort of Ray Harryhausen combo for a big chunk, so…no, the culture of live-action that’s all focused on one shot, it’s just not my realm. (Laughs) I’m much happier in the animated realm.

BE: So I got a copy of “Pete’s Dragon” when they reissued it on DVD recently…

HS: (Laughs) Man, I haven’t seen that one since it came out!

BE: Well, I understand that you worked on it in some capacity. Is there any particular sequence where I can look and say, “Oh, that’s Henry’s stuff”?

HS: Oh, no, you can’t. I was just an in-between artist, an animation trainee. I went to Cal-Arts, then I went to Disney, and I along with Brad Bird and John Musker and…I don’t know if Jerry Rees was there as well, but we were doing these little short films to try and become animators, and then somebody said, “Well, we need help on ‘Pete’s Dragon.’ You need to do an in-between test to see how good you are.” Well, I took it seriously, but those guys purposely did the worst in-betweens they could… (Laughs) …because they didn’t want to do in-betweens. It wasn’t a bad experience, but there’s nothing in the film you can say that I had any real responsibility for. I was just doing in-between drawings under an animator.

BE: Did you think that “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions” was actually going to be picked up as a series, or did you just go into it to see what you could accomplish and were happy with no matter what you managed?

HS: Well, it was going to be picked up. I wrote these other episodes, and the plan was that they could be played in any order and it would still work as a story. So MTV and…I think it was France’s Canal Plus, it was ready to go, but just as it was ready to go, Rick Heinrichs showed up on his secret mission to tell me about “Nightmare.” It was actually a tough decision, because, y’know, I’m happy with where I went, of course, but “Slow Bob” was my own creation, and I’d put a lot of work into it. I tried to convince them, “Oh, we can still do ‘Slow Bob’ on the side,” but they understood that, “Well, if you’re directing a feature, we’re not going to see enough of you.” Whoops, hold on. (Vanishes from the line for a moment, speaking to someone off-phone, then returns) It’s the boss, telling me that we have to wrap up soon. (Laughs)

BE: Well, I have precisely one last question, so that’s perfect. I’ve read that, when it comes to your work, you’re a big believer of building on what you know. That being said, where do you see yourself going from “Coraline”?

HS: Well, I have some good projects. There are three different things sort of competing with each other. Something that I embraced in “Coraline,” even though it looks very polished, and it is, was to try and do as much as possible by hand, effects included. And, ultimately, I felt that that worked well. So I’m not going to start suddenly doing a lot of CG-blending with it, and I’m not looking to mix a lot of other media. I want to use new technology creatively and where appropriate, but I don’t really want to be overwhelmed with it. There’s far less CG in “Coraline” than there was in “James and the Giant Peach,” so I kind of gambled on this kind of idea of doing as much we could by hand, and it seems to have worked. So I’ll try to build on that and see if I can push it further.

BE: Excellent. All right, Henry, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

HS: Great talking to you, too! I’m glad you know of those ancient other projects. It was fun to talk about Fishbone. (Laughs) Take care of yourself!

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