Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Interview: Dirk Nielandt, writer of 'De Texasrakkers'

Dirk Nielandt is primarily known in Flanders as an author of children's books, and the last few years he's been quite active as a writer for television as well. Recently he added a major feather to his cap when he became the writer for the very succesful Flemish animated feature De Texasrakkers. Dirk graciously consentend to an interview, and shared his experiences on writing the first Flemish 3-D computer-animated feature with us and, through the magic of the internet, the world...

1) How did you get approached to write the script for Texasrakkers?

I was working on a television project for Skyline Productions, the production company of De Texasrakkers (Texas Rangers), when Eric Wirix (ceo Skyline and producer of Texasrakkers) and Mark Mertens (director of Texasrakkers) came up with the idea to make an animatied tvseries with Suske and Wiske (in UK known as Spike & Suzy or Bob & Bobette in French) as main characters.

For those who don’t live around here: Suske and Wiske are comic book characters that are world famous in Belgium and Holland. They have been popular since the fifties. Generation after generation grew up with their adventures.

Willy Vandersteen (1913-1990), the spiritual father of Suske and Wiske, sold millions and millions comic books of his action-adventure-comedy characters, and entertained whole generations with brilliant and often hilarious storytelling. Until today the books remain popular and are rock-solid sellers.

I was (and still am) not only a huge fan of Suske and Wiske, but also worked for some years as editor-in-chief of Suske en Wiske Weekblad, a weekly comic magazine. I also wrote ‘Suske en Wiske’-books for kids who are just learning to read. So I knew the world of Willy Vandersteen and ‘Suske en Wiske’ quite well. I was happy and honoured when I was invited to participate in the brainstorm sessions for the animated tv series.

2) You mention an animated tv-series, but Texasrakkers is a 85 minute 3D-animated feature film!

Yeah, right. We kicked off brainstorming for a tv-serie, then started to develop a 50-minute tv-movie that could be divided into 5 episodes of ten minutes each.
Then the decision was made to go all the way for a feature. I guess the project grew and the ambitions grew. Things kept moving. That was fun. We also started develop
ping a completely different story for the feature. It was like starting from scratch after months of working on the tv series, but on the other hand it wasn’t, because talking and writing the television movie prepared us for the more serious work.

3) You're a writer of children's books and a scriptwriter for television. Was it difficult to make the transition to writing the screenplay for an animated feature? Did you have to learn/use new skills as a writer?

It certainly is something completely different, so I definitely had to use different skills. Fortunately a year before we started writing I participated in a screenwriting development course (North by Northwest in Denmark) where I developed a feature screenplay for an animated feature, based on one of my own children's books. I worked under the supervision of Hollywood animation-screenwriter Philippe Lazebnik (Prince of Egypt, co-writer of Shrek, etc). In the end that script didn’t get produced, but I certainly learned very useful skills that helped me during the development of Texasrakkers.

4) 'De Texasrakkers' is an adaptation of a comic book. At first sight, this would seem to lend itself extremely well to a movie adaptation. What turned out to be the biggest difference between the two media for you?

The biggest difference is ‘structure’. Some comic books are written in a structure that is easily transferable to a moviestructure, but Texasrakkers isn’t :-)

And that’s understandable. You should know that the original book was published in 1959 and its structure was dictated by the fact that it was a newspaper comic. Every day the newspaper published an episode of Suske and Wiske a the length of half a page in the book. Ususally this meant that Vandersteen wrote and drew half a page a day. He produced four Suske en Wiske albums a year. Even for that time it was a hell of job. There was no time to start structuring the whole story before starting. The story was developed day after day after day after...

Vandersteen was a man with a very rich imagination. He was a brilliant storyteller. To keep his newspaperreaders hooked, he ended every daily epsiode with a cliffhanger. Usually every daily episode also contained a joke. This meant that in the end, when the story was published as a book, the structure was... eh... non-existant. That didn’t disturb the Suske and Wiske-readers at all. On the contrary. It made Vandersteens work original and funny and witty and wonderfully chaotic. It is part of the charm of his work. His stories were wild, funny, exciting and very original.

But unfortunately this structure (or the absence of structure) could not be transferred to the big screen. The flow of the book would not work for a feature. So we had to re-think the structure completely. We had to re-think the plot all over. The only thing we wanted to keep by all means was the soul of the album, the spirit of Vandersteen, his unique voice of storytelling. That was quite a challenge, but it was also part of the fun of writing this movie. How to translate the magic of Willy Vandersteen to a modern feature that would still fascinate an audience that is less familiar with the early Suskes en Wiskes descending from their parents childhood.

5) Why did you choose the Texasrakkers?

Good question. There are 300 Suske and Wiske albums to choose from (300+ by now), so which story to choose... That was a hard one.

One thing we were absolutely convinced of was that it had to be a Willy Vandersteen story. It had to be a story he wrote. Not that his succesors didn’t do a great job, but Vandersteen is the founding father. He has written the ultimate Suskes en Wiskes. So it had to be one of his stories, which limited our range of choice. I don’t remember exactly how long the remaining list still was, but it was still huge (sigh).

Another important issue to take into account was that almost every adult in Belgium and Holland has his or her favourite album(s). Almost everyone has a couple of Suske en Wiske-books that transports them back to the magical age of 10-12 years old. So for every story we choose, we had to disappoint a lot of people who would absolutely be sure we made the wrong choice because album nr 98 or nr. 123 or nr. 44 or ... is in their memories the most fantastic, faboulous, wonderful Suske and Wiske-story of their childhood.

Mission impossible? It was Eric Wirix who had the idea to choose a genre story. Some of the most popular albums were stories based on popular Hollywood films of that time. Suske and Wiske covered almost every film genre: sci-fi, action, romantic comedy, you name it! James Bond, Planet of the Apes, etc. So we decided to start with a genre that is more or less the father of all movie genres: the western. And look... Suske en Wiske en de Texasrakkers, a real western, was in our top 10 list anyway...

6)Was there sufficient material in the original book to fill the movie? Or did you have to cut things or add material to get the right length for the film?

There was enough material. We had to kill plenty of darlings (the rock that threatened to destroy Dark City, for those who remember the book) in order to make the story work properly. We also had to cut some characters that were too archaic (the story is from 1959, remember). But the album was so rich and contained so much material that there was plenty to fill the movie.

7) Did you collaborate mainly with the director, or with the animators as well? Did they have specific demands you had to take into account?

From the beginning of the writing process I collaborated with both producer Eric Wirix as well as the director Mark Mertens. We held brainstorm sessions at the Skyline office on a regular basis. After these sessions I went home to write and rewrite. Some weeks later we sat together again and discussed the new outline, treatment or synopsis, depending the stage of development we were in. The first draft was really the result of the collaboration of this small writing team, all die-hard fans of Suske en Wiske. We continued working like this until we had a first draft that everybody was happy with.

Then my work was done. Guy Mortier, the ex-editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Humo, well known for his sharp and witty pen, polished the script, spiced it up with great jokes and sharpened the characters. I think he did a great job.

After that the actors started working with the script. The voices were recorded and once that was done the team of animators started to work. I didn’t have contact with the animators at all (and there is no reason why I should have). More then 100 animators were working on it in Liège and Luxembourg. A hell of a job for the two directors Mark Mertens and Wim Bien. They supervised, directed, managed this huge team. Quite an acrobatic job. It took them a lot of stress and a couple of sleepless nights, but they did great!

8) Did you have to include a lot of visual information in this script which you wouldn't normally do?

No. Perhaps because one of the directors was part of the writing team, he filled in the sets and visualized it in 3D. No need for me to put it in the script. But I also think it is a misunderstanding that scripts for animated features automatically need more visual information. We didn’t create a completely new world that needed to be described. It was the Wild West, how much description does that need? It was also an action movie, with some serious action and fight scenes. Obviously those scenes didn’t need dialogue but a detailed description of the action.

9) The climax of the comic book features a deus ex machina - did you keep this or was it changed for the film?

A deux ex machina in a family film is a disaster, a rip-off and absolutely not done. As mentioned before, we re-thought the main plot of the story. We turned it into a western with a who-is-the-bad-guy-behind-the-mask-(a wodunit)-plot. ‘Who is Jim Parasijt really?’ is the question that is pushing the story forward in the second and third act. The answer to that question had to be a surprise ànd had to make sense in the end.
I’m not gonna spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen the movie yet (go and see it!!), but I think we succeeded in avoiding to rip off the audience with a deus ex machina and still surprise them with the answer to this main question.

10) Were you able to keep a lot of the original dialogue, or did you have to do a lot of work to make it work in the screenplay context?

Some verbal jokes were kept, but as most of the scènes in the movie are different from the book, most of the dialogue is different too. And anyway... dialogue, how we speak, use of words has changed a lot since 1959, so obviously it was updated.

11) What was the most difficult thing about writing this screenplay?

Re-structuring a story that was written in the fifties to a modern well-structured screenplay that kept the original soul of the album and would honour the work of Vandersteen.
We also never lost focus that we had to respect the memories of all the Suske en Wiske-fans. Lots of them are very protective of their heroes and we didn’t want to shock them by creating something very different from the original characters.

12) And what was the most rewarding?

Seeing the result of all this labour on the big screen and listening to the reactions of the kids and their parents. It’s great when they laugh when they’re supposed to laugh, thrill when they‘re supposed to be thrilled and leave at the end of the movie with a big smile on their face.

This movie is really the accomplishment of a big team. Writers, producer, directors, animators, actors, designers etc all put a lot of time and energy in this project. All for the love of Willy Vandersteen's work, trying to capture his spirit and update it for the screen. It was fun working on it and right now I’m hoping we can start writing the sequel;-)...

Best of luck with that, and a big thank you to Dirk for taking the time to talk to us and let us know what it's like to work on a major animated feature!

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