Based on the 2002 French book “Autobiographie d’une courgette” (“Autobiography of a Zucchini”) by author Gilles Paris, Swiss director Claude Barras tells the story of the title character, Zucchini, a young boy who is sent to live at a foster home in hopes of finding a family to adopt him. While there, he makes friends (and foes) with the diverse kids living with him at the home. For his film,l Barras was up for an Academy Award late last month against some heavy competition, including “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Moana,” and eventual winner “Zootopia.”
I got a chance to speak to Barras before the awards ceremony. We talked about why the film’s darker elements work in an animation like this, his favorite character in the film, and the message he was trying to get across to audiences about overcoming fear.
What spoke to you most about Gilles Paris’ book that made you want to turn it into an animated film?
It’s the subject of the book, child abuse, and its point of view, which shows hope and forgiveness as the antidote, that made me want to translate it into film. “Autobiography of a Zucchini” is a rather amusing monologue that speaks of sad things while shedding light on them, but it is also a book that is read at age 15 and up, since it includes specific scenes of abuse and guns. [Screenwriter] Céline Sciamma and I tried to open up this story to children by stressing resilience rather than the details of the abuse the children have experienced. But it was no small matter to translate this cinematographically. Morgan Navarro, a friend who writes books for young people, and who has a very good sense of dialogue, helped me for a time, but it’s Céline who finally found how to mix humor and sadness with a great deal of tenderness and empathy. The key, she says, is to manage to think like a child and not to wonder how children speak.
How do you feel darker elements of a story like this lend themselves to animation, which is usually used for happier narratives for kids?
The children live in the same world as we do, a world that is sometimes cruel and violent. It’s important to speak to them about it frankly, but also with humor, tenderness and hope, so as not to leave them alone when faced with these subjects, out of fear of mentioning them. Childhood is both enormous hilarity and inconsolable sadness. The great success of the script is this jumble of childlike emotions. We laugh in the sad scenes and cry in the happy ones. It’s this contrast that gives rise to the deepest emotions and the darkness enables me to better expose them to them to the light.
Which of the children do you identify with the most and what makes him or her special to you?
I like Simon a lot, because he hides his sensitivity, he is modest, but deep down he has such a big heart that he is able to sacrifice his own happiness for that of others. He is, perhaps, the real hero of the film, the one who most learns to overcome his anger to show the feelings of love buried underneath. For this reason, my favorite moment, from reading the book, is when Simon overcomes his feeling of abandonment and encourages Zucchini to leave, to grow, but ends with a touch of humor, in order not to reveal his feelings too much, so as not to cry. The voice of Simon is very special, since [actor] Paulin [Jaccoud], who had recorded the short test for the voice of Zucchini in 2009 (the bonus casting in the final credits), had matured by the time of the casting in 2014. He was really sad that his voice no longer corresponded to the role, and we were, too. We then had the idea to have him test for the role of Simon. He immediately convinced us.
In the film, one of the orphans has been separated from her mother because of immigration laws. This is a timely subject in the United States because of the uncertainty of what a Donald Trump presidency will do on the topic of immigration. Was this a theme you wanted to come across to audiences? Did you think about that at all?
Yes, that was a motivator for me and for the film’s team, to tell this story to our children today. A story that teaches them not to be afraid, not to respond to violence with violence, to overcome anger while reaching out a hand when we encounter difficulties, and to break down the walls that prevent us from sharing…at the very time when, in our democracies, fear and the desire to build walls threaten our capacity to understand each other and to live together with our differences, which are our real wealth.
Personally, I felt most of the animated films released this year were incredible. As one of the smaller animation studios currently receiving accolades for their work–in comparison to big names like Disney, Pixar and a surging company like Laika–is there pressure for a studio like yours to be competitive with those that have more name recognition and money?
No, not pressure, just great pride in being here, for myself and for my entire team, which is more than 50% women, a fact sufficiently and unfortunately rare enough for me to take pleasure in mentioning it. What is happening to us today really thrills me because it makes it possible for the film to find its audience, far beyond my hopes, and that is what carries me through this long work of promotion which began in Cannes eight months ago and which is continuing in Los Angeles today. Compared with the studios, it must be noted that the smaller the budget, the greater the choice of subject and the director’s freedom, because there is minimal box-office risk with a budget of $8 million. I really prefer this. To return to your question, it is undeniable that this year was very strong with many films of good quality and with propositions very different from each other. This diversity in stories and audiences is certainly a good sign for the future of animation.