By Esther Zuckerman
February 10, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST

Even without The Lego Movie, a number of the nominees in the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category are well known to audiences: not, perhaps, Song of the Sea, an Irish film that deserves its share of attention, even though it doesn’t feature a big puffy robot. 

Song of the Sea is a beautifully rendered tale, which draws on Irish mythology to weave a story about a grieving family. Its protagonist, Ben, bitterly regards his little sister, Saoirse, whose birth took his mother away. Meanwhile, Saoirse, turning 6 and still unable to speak, has a childlike curiosity that turns out to be something magical: she’s a selkie, possessing the ability to turn into a seal in water.

Director Tomm Moore has mined his culture before, and in fact came away with an Oscar nomination for The Secret of Kells. He got on the phone with EW to talk about how he settled on selkies.


ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you grow up with this mythology or did you come to it?

TOMM MOORE: It was stuff that I knew about and had been researching a lot. A lot of it was tied into the work we were doing for Secret of Kells so it sort of grew out of the same research, but there wasn’t any place for that Celtic revival fairy tale stuff. Song of the Sea grew out of that research. 

Was there one element of the folklore that drew you in? Selkies?

The selkie stuff was really our starting point. I read a book called The People of the Sea, which was just a collection of all the stories from Scotland and Ireland. It just seemed like they were obviously allegories for loss. It seemed like those coastal communities had kind of invented these fairy tales as a way to deal with loss and I thought that was something that was worth trying to update and do a modern retelling of those stories. 

What was it about the selkies that really drew you in? How did you decide to focus it on this young girl?

I thought what was interesting in a lot of the selkie stories was that the children were left behind too. Very often it would be that the children would find the mother’s selkie coat and give it back to her and then she’d leave and the children would be left behind as well. I thought there was something interesting that wasn’t very often explored in selkie stories about what happens to the kids that are left behind when the mother is gone. I thought making Saoirse the last selkie and having that focus on a little girl was a very beguiling starting point. And then the sibling rivalry was something that wasn’t usually explored but was something that kids really related to when we first started to develop the story. I thought that would be really interesting to focus on the kids and look at it from the kids’ point of view. Even though the story’s usually from the point of view of the man who’s left behind or the other parent that was left behind. 

Artistically, how did you think about how you wanted to represent this folklore?

Myself and Adrien Merigeau, the art director, we were sort of talking early on about trying to make it feel sort of damp. There’s a lot of rain in Ireland, and we thought by using the watercolors we could kind of capture that wet atmosphere and that kind of mystical feeling that you get with the wet atmosphere.

 How soon did you have the main theme music and how did it inspire elements of the film?

That was one thing that was different from Secret of Kells. Secret of Kells we made the whole movie basically and we just had temporary music in place, and then at the end [composer] Bruno Coulais and the band Kíla composed and did the score in a very short period of time to an almost finished version of the film. 

With Song of the Sea we had them involved very early on. Even when we were still working on the storyboards and finalizing the story, we were working with Bruno and the guys from Kíla to find the main theme. Some of the sequences even were changed based on those music sessions. It was very organic, the storyboarding and the writing and coming up with the music all sort of happened at the same time. They were all sort of feeding off each other.

Saoirse and Ben, even though they are stylized, they do exist in a modern world that is just interacting with the ancient world. Did you think about that?

We were always trying to play with that contrast. That is one of the themes of the film as well, about how that all that ancient stuff is all around us, it’s just kind of opening your eyes up to it and being open to it. We kind of hope that kids would maybe come across an old carved stone and wonder about it, and maybe look at the world in a different way, maybe look up from their phones or whatever they are engaged in. Like all of us, we kind of get lost in technology and all the buzzy, fast-paced modern world, maybe let people stop for a moment and be a bit more reflective and think about all the history that’s just under your feet—anywhere in the world, really.

 What kind of rewriting of the mythology and legends did you do? Was there anything you were worried about altering?

Yeah, well, there is a certain feeling sometimes when you go into this stuff where you are afraid to offend purists or dabble in something that’s so ancient, you almost have a kind of reverence for it, like it’s a kind of gospel. One of the characters in the film the Great Seanachaí, he’s based on the storyteller called Eddie Lenihan, who is one of these old storytellers here in Ireland. He collects all the stories. Really inspirational guy, he has a big crazy beard like that as well. He had a really refreshing approach when we talked to him. He was saying that these stories need to be reinvented and every story reinvents the stories for their audience and updates the stories for the times they live in. And that’s how the stories stay alive, rather than being written down and kind of fossilized and commoditized and turned into something for tourists or turned into something that should be studied in schools. For folklore to be part of every day life it needs to be a living part of the vernacular and the only way to do that is to adapt the stories. Another filmmaker could take the selkie legend and just do something very different with it. And that would be great because it just means that everybody tells the story and hopefully keeps the same truth or the same decor. They can retell it in different ways. That’s what kind of allowed us to loosen up a bit and adapt the story for our own needs and tell the story from our own point of view rather than trying to be very reverential to the old sources.

Once you had the selkie, how did you decide what other legends would fit in with the story of Saoirse?

I have to say there were a lot of different drafts and those drafts really had too much because I wanted to pack in so many different mythologies. The way we honed it down was we sort of found something that we thought could be a mirror of the family. We saw that Mac Lir, the giant, could be a mirror of Conor, [the father]. The more full story of Lir and the children of Lir, who were turned into swans, got cut away. We just pared it down to he was this grieving giant who was metaphor for Connor. And similarly Macha, the witch, she was very much adapted from the stories; she became a caricature or an exaggerated version of Granny. Granny is trying to do the best for the kids by putting the emotions away; the witch is kind of doing the same thing by putting the fairies’ emotions in jars. It kind of just became a mirror, an exaggerated version of the real world characters as it were.

What has your response been to different cultures reacting to the film?

We’ve yet to release it here in Ireland. We’ve had a few screenings, and it’s always been great. My wife’s a teacher and I showed different work-in-progress versions of the film to the kids and get their feedback. I think it’s very different. I think Americans watch it maybe the way we watch the Japanese films with Studio Ghibli. They might seem a bit foreign and different the mythology but hopefully they relate to the human aspect of it. It’s interesting to see how Irish people respond to it. Sometimes Irish people can be a little bit embarrassed by their own country reflected back to them on cinema screens, so I’m hoping they’ll embrace it and enjoy it too. 

Why is that?

That’s a big question. I put it down to a certain post-colonialism. I think we’re a small country and we’re usually very outward looking. We look at the rest of the world and we’re always a little embarrassed to look at ourselves or to see ourselves in anyway self-aggrandizing. We’re either afraid that other people are mocking us or we’re afraid that people are getting too big for our boots and getting too self-important. There’s a tradition of putting down anybody that gets too big for their boots.

Does that have to do with clichéd version of Irish mythology that involves leprechauns and such that people know? Song of the Sea puts it more on the level of Greek mythology.

Yeah and hopefully people will see it like that. That’s happening in the country anyway. When I was a kid there was an embarrassment about all that. Leprechauns were very much for tourists some people played along and did it and other people kind of cringed at that kind of stuff. There’s been a real reawakening. I see my son’s generation. He went to an Irish-speaking school and they were taught all the old folklore mythology and there’s a certain pride. It happened before, just before the revolution at the turn of the last century with Yeats and all that Celtic revival. I feel like that is coming around again. After the whole battering that the country took after the economic collapse and the Celtic Tiger I feel like people are looking around for something to be proud of again, and something true at the heart of the country that isn’t susceptible to the whims of the economic storm that hit the whole world. I think people are looking back to that and I hope they are ready to embrace that stuff again, because it is something to be proud of.