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A Peach Grows in SOMA 

S.F. animator Henry Selick brings Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to the screen

Wednesday, Mar 27 1996
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It may be a simple little kids tale, but Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach has caused some grown-up headaches for movie director Henry Selick.

After nearly three painstaking years, Selick's South of Market production company has finally completed work on an animated version of Dahl's offbeat 1961 classic. Scheduled for release by Disney on April 12, the movie has survived one setback after another, according to its exhausted director.

Selick says that the late Dahl -- never happy with the filmed versions of his books, especially the perennial favorite Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- went to his grave in 1990 still rebuffing advances from filmmakers who wanted the rights to James and the Giant Peach, his story about a lonely orphan boy and the talking insects he befriends inside an overgrown, runaway piece of fruit.

For years, those filmmakers who got close to the project were confounded by the story's meandering episodes, which posed problems for screenwriters seeking a coherent narrative flow. Big-name producers like Steven Spielberg and Danny De Vito abandoned the chase, declaring the book unfit for the silver screen.

"Somehow or other," Selick decided, "I can make this film work."
No sooner was he awarded the project, however, then an army of Disney executives began balking at his decisions, as he fought for character designs, script treatments, and animation methods that were foreign to the company's tried-and-true formula. Heightening the director's anxiety, the film industry's expectations for animated movies soared as he produced Giant Peach; releases like Toy Story and The Lion King set extraordinary precedents in computer-aided techniques and broke box-office records.

Perhaps most vexing to Selick has been his inability, until now, to step out from under the shadow of fellow filmmaker Tim Burton, who handpicked him to direct the 1993 stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas.

"I don't want to take anything away from Tim," Selick says, "but I was a little bitter and disappointed when that film came out. I don't think he ever publicly acknowledged, 'Oh, by the way, I was only up there [at the San Francisco studio] for five days in three years. Someone else made the film.' "

Founded by Burton and owned by Disney, the studio is located in a nondescript warehouse space on Seventh Street. In honor of the bag of bones named Jack Skellington, Burton's main creation for Nightmare, the company has been called Skellington Productions.

"About the middle of Nightmare," Selick says, "I realized it was time to get into development on another project." Burton, coming off his recent successes with Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, set up his colleague's one-picture deal at Disney "as a favor, a payback," Selick says, "which was great."

Though Disney's animation department had been among those to pass on Giant Peach some years earlier, Burton's nominal involvement as a producer convinced the company to reconsider. Selick's first task was to secure the services of noted illustrator Lane Smith, whose simple, dreamlike forms -- Selick compares him to the artist Paul Klee -- for popular children's books like The Stinky Cheese Man were a little disarming to the tradition-minded Disney brass.

"It's so rare that something that's truly creative connects quickly," the director notes. "When I proposed Lane's work, Liccy Dahl -- who didn't really have a say about the visuals, but she sure had an opinion -- she hated it."

The author's widow has since come around, however -- so completely that she has authorized Smith's artwork for a new book version of James. As for the Disney people, Selick says, Smith's work "was bizarre and strange to them. I said, 'You may not like this, but it happens to be enormously successful.' That's really the best battle I won on the movie."

The possessor of a childlike sense of curiosity and a perpetually furrowed brow, the towheaded Selick got his start doing storyboard work for Disney from 1977-81. "I was never happy at Disney," he says of the monolithic enterprise for whom he still toils. "Especially in that time period; they were making awful films."

The aspiring director went on to create a series of award-winning short films, including several MTV station-identifications and the six-minute Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, the one that attracted Burton's attention.

Selick's steady rise through the ranks of animation has given him an appreciation for the profound patience of his crew: "It's harsh, focused work," he says, "incredibly disciplined. ... You need to blow off steam. A lot of the animators ride motorcycles and whoop it up, like cowboys who come in from the cattle drive to the town on the weekends."

As a result, he says, there is a great sense of camaraderie among the crew members. "I want to work with these people again and again," Selick gushes. "We've trained some folks coming from a very rudimentary involvement in animation or lighting or whatever field to becoming world class. And you don't want to just squander that."

Which is why he established Twitching Image, the production company that will succeed Skellington (the name will be retired upon the release of James) in the same SOMA space. Selick's Twitching Image has just signed a three-year deal with Miramax -- a Disney subsidiary, albeit one with a measure of creative autonomy. Key Twitching Image personnel, the director says, will share in the company's profits, "if there are any."

"It's hard to be a director or producer and hold onto good people," he says. Though animated film projects are enjoying a boom, "Disney and Dreamworks and Warner Brothers have finally turned on the vacuum cleaners, and they're throwing money out like crazy. We pay our people well, but we can't compete with those guys."

"What we have to offer is more interesting material, and that's the thing we'll always pursue."

Like Nightmare, James and the Giant Peach is considerably darker and creepier than typical animated tales. The characters' voices are provided by actors like Susan Sarandon, David Thewlis (Naked), and Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous' Patsy); arch lyricist Randy Newman wrote the score.

In order to get around the story's awkward narrative, Selick took the liberty of expanding several sequences -- though he didn't cave in to the traditional Hollywood push for a happier ending.

"We didn't bring back James' parents," he says. "There were a few people at Disney that felt we should do that, but respectful minds prevailed. I mean, forget it -- he's got a family of bugs, and if we've succeeded, then the audience likes them. And they do."

Indeed, Selick reports that preliminary test audiences, including schoolchildren familiar with the book, have given the animated James and the Giant Peach the thumbs up.

"They don't mind the changes. So it's not The Scarlet Letter -- we haven't completely ruined things."

To the director, dark material is perfectly suited for children. "People sell kids short," he suggests. "Their fears are real, and their dreams are worse than ours. ... That's why Grimms' Fairy Tales works so well, it's why kids want to dress up as monsters for Halloween. They want to understand those fears, [and] I'd like to play more directly to them."

This full-grown kid says he intends to remain headquartered in the Bay Area. "I wasn't able to function very well in L.A.," he admits. "I'm terrible at meetings with executives."

"There's more fear there about being different than anywhere else in the world. The stakes are higher; people want to play it safe."

Safety is not high on Selick's agenda: "I'm just going to ride this wild snake as long as I can," he laughs, "until it throws me and breaks my neck.

About The Author

James Sullivan

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