LBB’s Addison Capper speaks to the Biscuit Filmworks founder about his TV adaptation of the Richard Adams classic novel
Seven years ago Noam Murro was chatting to a former employee of his production company Biscuit Filmworks. “You’ve gotta remake this,” the employee was saying, while introducing him to a book called Watership Down.
At that point Noam had never heard of this story of a group of rabbits ditching their warren for pastures new, only to be faced with destruction and adversity. "I picked up the book and straight away thought, 'oh my fucking God, this is amazing'. It's a masterpiece of literature,” Noam says. One thing led to another and, seven years later, his TV adaptation of Watership Down is ready to launch (on the BBC in the UK and Netflix internationally), with a cast list stacked with names like Olivia Colman, James McAvoy and Sir Ben Kingsley.
Published in 1972, the book was famously adapted into an animated film in 1978, a piece of movie history that became part of the culture of that time. Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’, to which the movie ended, can still send shivers up the spine of many an ‘80s kid. But Noam’s very clear that his intention was never to remake the movie - though reviews of his 2018 project are inevitably drawing comparisons. Instead, his aim was to present his adaptation of the book that he grew to so love.
“The book is a real deep investigation of many things,” Noam says. “And part of what makes it so great when compared to others in that genre is that it doesn’t wear its allegorical issues on its sleeve. It’s just a fantastic story, and like all great stories it encompasses its hidden messages inside.”
The messages within the Watership Down story have been debated for decades, with theorists latching onto themes of allegory, politics and religion. Its author Richard Adams was always adamant though that it was “just a story”, a view that resonates with Noam thanks to something his friend and screenwriter Alvin Sargent once said to him over dinner. “He told me he knew what he wanted on his tombstone. ‘Finally a plot.’ And it’s stuck with me all these years later because I think that’s what makes it [Watership Down] so incredible - there’s an incredible plot behind it and everything else is what makes it an artistic endeavour.”
Even if it is ‘just a story about rabbits’, the political landscape in the UK, US and other countries in 2018 add an extra edge of poignancy to the themes within the Watership Down story - but Noam is certain that it’s never his issue as a filmmaker to become political. “That’s not my job. But any piece of art or communication does have a reflection on us and society. This is the existential, perpetual cycle of life. If you look at anything that’s happening today, this story is as relevant as ever. The idea of home, migration, friendship, loyalty, leadership, brotherhood are all encompassed in it.”
A commercials director by trade, Noam’s previous long form credits are 2008’s Smart People and 300: Rise of an Empire in 2014. They’re both live action titles, whereas Watership Down is obviously animation. “Animation is an incredibly challenging process,” he says. “You have to invent everything from scratch. We worked within a budget so there were certain limitations to it, which I found quite liberating because they created a box for us to work within.” And he’s not kidding about the budget - his four hours worth of Watership Down was produced on £20 million, whereas Disney’s newest big release Ralph Breaks the Internet had a budget of $175 million.
One thing Noam did have in abundance, though, was acting talent. Nicholas Hoult plays Fiver and James McAvoy is Hazel, but the names don’t stop there. Sir Ben Kingsley, John Boyega, Peter Capaldi, Olivia Colman, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Arterton… It’s the sort of cast that a director would dream of. But such is the popularity of the Watership Down story and the strength of this script - which was written by Tom Bidwell - people were quite literally phoning him to be in it.
He admits that James McAvoy was always “sort of the dream”, but one they never expected to come true. They gave it a shot anyway and James received the script while shooting in Toronto. He was wearing a Watership Down T-shirt when he opened it, and if that ain’t an omen then Noam doesn’t know what is. “After that it was one of those rare projects - and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do another one of these - where people just called asking to be in it.”
Throughout our conversation, Noam is enthusiastic about his cast and what they brought to the production. He never once had the opportunity to get them in a room together to record, and the voices were captured over a whopping two-year period. “You have to keep all those puzzle pieces in your head somehow. It’s an amazing challenge for me to make sure that I keep the continuum in the tone I want, even though it’s done separately and over a long period of time. You’ve got to keep that yarn weaved together in your head all the time.”
So the cast wove the yarn and eventually knitted it into a winter sweater. “I am extraordinarily fortunate and thankful forever for this incredible cast. They really understood the material very quickly. We did it like a feature film, they put everything into it.
“Nicholas [Hoult] reminded me of when we were trying to do the last scene, between Fiver and Hazel. I won’t give anything away but we were both crying for I don’t know how long, we just couldn’t pull it together.”
Though he was working with animation, Noam used the constraints of live action filmmaking to tell his story. The camera never goes where a camera in real life cannot go, avoiding the cliches that animation is “just for kids and fun”.
“They were all tools that a live action filmmaker would have,” he says. “That pertains to the editorial possibilities, to the way it is shot in every single way. That all adds to the intimacy and dramatic experiences.”
Noam was inspired by an illuminating experience at the London Natural History Museum’s diorama room, which informed his approach to the animation style and aesthetics. “I walked in and thought, ‘this is what Watership Down should and could be’. A dioramic type of aesthetic means that you have a painted style background, but as you go forward within that frame it becomes more real. I think it was [a bit of a light bulb moment]. There are many of them, and some of them turn on and off like any light bulb. But I do think that this was a moment where I had a real understanding of what the aesthetic needed to be.”
Something that Noam was keen to avoid was the gore and horror so famously associated with the first film, and reviews so far suggest that it focuses “on the story rather than [making audiences] hide behind the sofa”, a point that seems to please Noam when I mention it. “The book was never meant to shock or scare you,” he says. “The intention was to deal with a variety of issues that are all encompassed within the text. The idea of just making it unwatchable or completely shocking, that was never the intention, nor was it to tone it down. It was always to do justice to the actual text of the book.”
According to Noam, music was “in many ways, the emotional bedrock on which the series sits”. He worked with composer Federico Jusid, a friend that he’s wanted to work with for some time. He says they took the score “very seriously” and tried to make something that was more than a film score, something that was timeless and could be enjoyed standalone in years from now - suitably, Universal Music is set to release it as an album soon. “I’m certainly not comparing myself to Stanley Kubrick, but I remember him saying, ‘if Schubert and Beethoven can write music for my movies, why would I have anyone else?’ And I think that’s part of what we tried to do here. Not to have Schubert or Beethoven but to have something that is intelligent and referential.”
What’s more, Sam Smith knocked on his office door one day and said he wanted to do the end title song. And he did. It releases, along with a specially made music video, on the same day the first part launches on the BBC, and will mark his big Christmas tune for 2018.
And so Noam’s passion project, his seven-year-old bunny baby, is ready to meet the big wide world. The experience has triggered a weird mix of emotions but, for Noam, one stands out head and shoulders above all others.
“I was younger and I was healthier [seven years ago]. You never finish a project like this. At some point you just have to let it go. There is no such thing as finished.
“Time ran out, money ran out, it’s time for the world to see it. With its beauty and its blemishes.
“And I’m proud of it.”
Watership Down will air in the UK as two feature-length (1 hour 40 minute) episodes on BBC1 on Saturday 22 December at 7pm and Sunday 23 December at 7.20pm. It airs internationally on Netflix on Sunday 23 December.