The first large scale animated production to come out of Scotland was premiered to audience acclaim at the Sonoma International Film Festival on Friday, April 13th. A heart-warming and hilarious adventure film, “Sir Billi” features an all-star cast including Academy Award® winner Sir Sean Connery in his first ever animated voice-over role, and Tony Award® winner Alan Cumming. AMFM spoke with Tessa Hartmann of Billi Productions in Glasgow Scotland. Tessa wrote the screenplay, and her husband is Sascha Hartmann, the Director.
Academy Award® nominated Scottish composer Patrick Doyle, (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Sense and Sensibility”), created the film’s music score and British singing legend Dame Shirley Bassey also joined the project to perform the title track “Guardian of the Highlands,” marking the first time Connery and Shirley have worked together since the 1965 James Bond film “Goldfinger.”
SYNOPSIS: When tragedy strikes in the Highlands, there can be only one man for the job – Sir William Sedgewick, aka Sir Billi (Sir Sean Connery)! This is an adventure story about an inimitable Highland hero – a grandpa. As active senior skateboarding veterinarian he goes above and beyond the call of duty fighting villainous policemen and powerful lairds in a battle to save an illegal fugitive – Bessie Boo – last beaver in Scotland! A roller coaster adventure, Sir Billi braves treacherous ravines and hazardous gullies with his sidekick Gordon the Goat (Alan Cumming) to save Bessie Boo and Wee Dave the rabbit as they hurtle down a perilous river.
AMFM: I SAW THE VARIETY MAGAZINE REVIEW OF SIR BILLI. I WAS SHOCKED.
Oh listen, the other thing about being Scottish, It’s going to take more than one bad review to put me off. I said to my husband last night, “We knew by doing this project we’d be swimming with the sharks, and if I didn’t want to swim with the sharks I wouldn’t have jumped into the sea. Bring it on.
TESSA HARTMANN: It was rather surprising to us. The only important thing is the reaction of the audience. Before we went to sonoma we were very nervous because it was the first time we’d shown it to a general public audience. We’d shown it to lots of test screenings and focus groups in Scotland along our way. For me and Sascha it was almost worse than waiting for one of your children to arrive.
We had four or five days, and the whole experience was a bit overwhelming. The reaction, being a Scotsperson, our Scots mentality kind of puts you down, you always think the worst. You can be an eternally positive person, but the natural temperament of the Scotsman is to not believe anything people tell you.
The audience laughed, they were laughing at things, there were tears in their eyes, they clapped at certain bits, but at the end, most importantly, they all cheered and clapped. For us that was an exhilirating moment and a huge relief, because you’re sharing your vision. To have it accepted by them was a monumental thrill.
* We had two calls from some fairly large journalists that asked us if we’d upset anyone at Variety, “because he’s not reviewing the same film I saw at Sonoma.”
AMFM: I THINK IT WAS PARTICULARLY THE COMMENT ABOUT THE ANIMATION BEING “SPAT OUT” BY SOFTWARE. HELLO, ALL ANIMATION IS SPAT OUT BY SOFTWARE. HAVE YOU NOTICED ON ROTTEN TOMATOES THAT WHEN THE CRITICS HATE IT THE AUDIENCE LOVES IT? SO MAYBE THIS IS A GOOD THING.
TESSA HARTMANN: I’ll tell you what was odd about it. Variety doesn’t usually review films that don’t have a distributor and release date. Another media person pointed out that the writer was not at the screening, he said he was coming and cancelled at the last minute. He had asked for an advance copy.
This was written for the family market. Our research showed it was tested really well with kids and teenagers, It tested through the roof with the adults, because there are so many of subtle “Bond” nuances and gags which Sascha, the director, put in. He’s a big fan of literature and he’s a reader, loves old cinematography and history that only an older person would pick up on, I think that’s why it went down so well in Sonoma.
When Sascha was leaving the theater, he was approached by the actor Christopher Lloyd, who came over and was raving about it, he said “I just want to shake your hand Sascha, I’m a huge fan of animation, I thought the writing was amazing. I loved the warmth, I loved the landscape. I thought it was engaging, and up until the end I was at the edge of my seat.”
We saw him a few days later in the bar of the hotel and he again lauded the film and said we have a great product just keep going.
(HERE’S A CLIP OF THE TALENT INCLUDING SIR SEAN CONNERY TALKING ABOUT THE FILM)
Another thing that happened when we were leaving the theater, a young lady in her 20s shouted over the crowd to Sasch a “Hey, I’m still waiting for Goat!” That’s a reference to a poster at the end of the film that’s got Gordon the Goat’s picture on it, and it says “Waiting For Goat by Sam Bucket,” which is an homage to the Samuel Becket play “Waiting for Godot.” There’s loads of stuff in there that maybe only fans of literature would get, but this young girl spotted it and shouted it over to him, it was just like “Brilliant!” At the dinner afterwards, two guys came over and said, listen, what we thought was brilliant was the iconography, there’s references to Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. They said they loved the references to all the different iconic films.
The next day one of the photographer’s at the press reception said he loved the Vermeer reference. Sascha really concentrated on Johannes Vermeer the geographer, once you see the film you’ll notice the lighting is very different. Jann Vermeer was a big influence on the lighting and animation of the film. There’s lots of little gems in there, like paintings that are Billi’s version of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
Sascha as a director is just so well read, and he loves art and painting and literature.
AMFM: SO THERE A LOT OF SOPHISTICATED REFERENCES IN THE FILM FOR THE ADULTS.
TESSA HARTMANN: Absolutely, and plus we have lots of references that are an homage to Bond, and people were just killing themselves laughing about it. Sascha was Gobsmacked that people at our first screening picked it up.
AMFM: SO THEY’RE LAUGHING ON TWO CONTINENTS, THE HUMOR IS NOT ENDEMIC TO SCOTLAND.
The Sonoma audience picked even more up than the Scottish audience. In Scotland the audience completely got all the Bond references, which they absolutely loved, but not a lot of them picked up on the artistic, literature and cinematography references but the California audience absolutely did.
But then again, film festival goers are cultural enthusiasts. Straightaway you’ve got them picking up on all these little intricate details which actually are just important as everything else in the package in terms of the creative output. For us, that just made Sascha’s week, he’s over the moon about that.
AMFM: I’M SURE YOU WERE SHOCKED WHEN THE VARIETY ARTICLE CAME OUT BECAUSE OF THE AUDIENCE’S POSITIVE REACTION.
TESSA HARTMANN: To the guys in production obviously, it’s harsh to them, but as I said listen, as someone once said, there’s nothing worse than being talked about than NOT being talked about. If they’re going to come straight out and slag off our film then they must be worried about it.
Otherwise why would they even give it the time of day in such a high profile publication? Ironically, why we went to California in the first place is it’s the Holy Grail of animation. John Lassiter is the legend of the town and quite rightly so. There’s nobody we are impressed by more than Pixar and the companies we look up to. That’s his hometown, he was there the year before. So when the film festival director Kevin McNeeley approached me and I sent him the DVD, in December, he came back a couple of weeks later and they were so enthusiastic about the film. I said to Sascha, “Given that’s Lassister’s hometown, if we can crack that audience, as they’re probably one of the most well educated “animation audiences” in the world, then it’s bloody good start. That’s why we thought “Let’s go for it, live dangerously, show it there!” So for us that was even more complimentary.
That’s why it was a shame the Variety reviewer was not in the audience. He was completely outnumbered.
AMFM: IS YOUR HOPE FOR THIS PROJECT TO PUT SCOTLAND ON THE MAP FOR ANIMATION AND FILM? YOU’VE ALWAYS EXPORTED GREAT ACTORS.
TESSA HARTMANN: Yes, one of the guys at the dinner afterwards, I don’t know who it was, I kept meaning to ask his name, came over and put his hand on Sascha’s shoulder and said “I have to congratulate you, that was absolutely brilliant.” He laughed and patted his back and said “You do know now the knives will be out for you because it’s good. But I wish you all the luck in the world.”
To me, when you do a review, you say what you want, but then you let the audience judge for yourself. Then you hand it over to the audience so they can see what you just saw. “Here’s a link to what I just saw, “ “Here’s a teaser trailer.” There were no links back to our website. There was nothing. We’ve got a video on our web, we designed an app to embed the video in our facebook. I thought that was really odd, if you think that badly of it why not show a link and tell them where to go look? It’s like critiquing a record and not letting anybody hear it. You can tell in 30 seconds whether you like it or not.
I said to Sascha, I am the positive in the family, he may have done us a favor in the long run, because people are going to want to know” how bad it really was in his opinion.
I’m totally open to criticism, because without criticism one will never succeed. From a purely economical and business perspective, you’ve got to consider that this is Scotland, we’ve got a much smaller economy, we have built a business, we’re building a a small studio, we’ve employed people in the area, we’re contributing to the local economy, and to compete in the global animation market at a theatrical level takes a very big deal.
Now I don’t expect to be up there for another few years yet, and I don’t expect to be as good as Pixar because I don’t have $200 million dollars to put into a film. But I do expect to stand alongside the giants of animation with a really decent product. Over the years our business will grow, and we’ll do more adventurous projects. But for him to decry an entire production in what was clearly a biased review without highlighting or referencing for the audience so that they can confirm or disagree was just bad journalism. That’s what was disappointing. And then to even slag off Dame Shirley Bassey was just beyond my comprehension.
AMFM: ITS A LABOR OF LOVE
TESSA HARTMANN: It is a labor of love. Somebody asked who did the casting for us. We did everything ourselves because we had to, we had no choice. I’d never approached people like this before, I just did it. My background is in marketing and i just did it how we would do any other project and we got really lucky.
INTERESTING TRIVIA: A special “Sir Billi” tartan created for the film was exclusively manufactured by Lochcarron of Scotland, based in Hawick. The ‘Sir Billi’ tartan fabric was woven over a period of ten weeks, then registered as a member of the Scottish Tartans Authority, proving it’s authenticity for the hero’s real-life and film wardrobes. Fashion played a part in the Sonoma Film Festival dinner, Barbies wearing the “Sir Billi” tartan designed by Corrie Nielson, who was a huge hit at London Fashion Week, decorated each table. Scottish designer Graeme Black designed Dame Shirley’s dress out of “Sir Billi” tartan – Graeme Black was head of Giorgio Armani Black Label for 8 years before going to Salvatore Ferragamo and now his own design consultancy under his own name – Graeme Black.