Nick Park has to think how old he is. “I’m thirteeee…..um……eight. Thirty nine soon.” He started making movies when he was “Twelve…….um no…..thirteen.” He says ‘um’ and ‘er’ and ‘kind of’ quite a lot. And for a while when you first meet him, he gives the best possible impression of still being 13 going on 39, a grown-up schoolboy. He laughs nervously never mind how deftly you try to sidle up to personal questions without frightening him, he uses words like “scary” and when he sits on the big sofa in the hotel in Bristol just down the road from Aardman studios he looks like one of the Borrowers who’s ventured above the floorboards into the human’s house. Even when he received the Freedom of the City of Preston, his birthplace, last month (under section 249 (5) of the Local Government Act 1972, if you want to suggest someone you know) he stood up in the Council Chamber to make a speech, smiled apprehensively and began “Gosh…” Oh no, we thought, there must be stink bombs in the Town Hall and a frog in his pocket. He looked like a messy and not so promising pupil sheepishly accepting a tidiness award.
And that’s how everybody writes about him. Notwithstanding his three Academy Awards and four BAFTAs, which make him the most personally decorated of British film makers, and an extraordinary national TV audience of 10.6m for Wallace and Gromit’s third adventure ‘AClose Shave’ the Christmas before last on the BBC, the world’s press has happily bought the impression of a Jennings and Derbyshire figure with ink-stained fingers and a film making hobby. But you don’t find that kind of success by wandering into a studio between Cubs and half finishing your Maths homework. It requires almost monastic dedication.
His first film ‘A Grand Day Out’, which was his graduation project from the National Film and TV School, took six years and he completed it almost single-handedly, partly on the dole. By then he was thirty. One friend says of him “all that he cares about is the work, all he wants to do is make films”. Park says, talking about the long suffering, head-in-hands Dog who has captured the nation’s heart “When I see someone else modelling Gromit I get this desire to change it. We have brilliant model makers and they ask me what was wrong with what they did and I can’t really say. It’s something I can only feel when I’ve got it in my hands. I just know and I can’t explain.” Nick Park is a very driven man. But by what?
“Even when I was very small…you know when you’re good at football or ice-skating or dancing you might dream about achieving the heights of that career… I was 11 or 12… I used to dream of one day creating characters……….once I saw a Disney film…and I used to dream that one day my characters might be up there.” He often speaks in this kind of engaging jumble, which presumably is what has created the impression of daffiness. And he stumblingly admits to “not being a very clean and ordered person”. But he goes on “…when Crackerjack was on, you know the telly or whatever, I used to think ‘I’ll never get anywhere if I just watch television’ and I used to make myself go and do some more drawings and do more with the films that I was making in my parents’ attic or in the garden shed…I would make myself go and do it.” At eleven?
He frequently harks back to his childhood. “I keep talking about when I was a kid but I think that’s where a lot of it begins for me. That’s where a lot of my reference points go back to when I am thinking of ideas.” The B-movie Englishness in his films is the Preston of his childhood, where his father wallpapered the inside of their holiday caravan just like, so his father now claims, the inside of the rocket in A Grand Day Out. Wallace and Gromit’s house is a bit of remembered Bakelite but in a contemporary world. It is not nostalgic yearning by Park, who is one of the New Labourati invited to Blair’s new Britain cocktail parties, but an old fashioned atmosphere into which he can play modern incongruities to great comic effect – space ships built of wood in the basement and books called “Electronics for Dogs”. Also it provides a cosiness into which he can inject a feeling of unease.
“Like in The Wrong Trousers with the penguin Feathers McGraw. That is something to do with B-movies, those Sunday matinees on TV, with the strange lodger in the spare room who walked in and out without saying anything. There was a kind of discord and an uncomfortable feeling and I used to love that when I was young. And that’s what I loved about Bob Baker’s script. You never knew what The Wrong Trousers was really about and you never quite know who that penguin was.” Park enjoys playing with this ambiguity. And his skill at it increases with each film. “I do like making characters who are enduring and cute… although cute is not the right word for it… but at the same time mixing it with this sort of mischevious evil.”
At this point we were talking about modelling Wallace and Gromit. They have both changed physically over the three films. And if you want to see Wallace’s defining moment you have to look at just before blast off in A Grand Day Out. Wallace says “crackers… we’ve forgotten the crackers, Gromit”. Compare and contrast with the sentence before when he says “…allotment doors….”. The latter demonstrates his original small almost pursed lips, but the former is the very first appearance of his characteristic wide mouth, his very Lancashire way of tensing up his cheeks over certain words. “There was something about Peter Sallis voice that somehow insisted I make Wallace’s mouth really wide to get it around the syllables” says Park. And then he adds, “Going back to what motivates me. I think I’ve always had a desire to make a mark. One of my biggest fears is becoming bland. It’s like an aggressive streak. A kind of kick against something… it’s something inside me that wants to do something differerent and suprise people.” And then he says, while I wonder where he’s going with this, “that’s really what’s behind Wallace’s mouth I think.”
This was confusing. How was Wallace’s mouth a statement about being different? But later on we turned to talking about religion. It is something he hasn’t talked about before, but he is a practising Catholic. He was brought up in the Catholic Preston – ‘Priest – town’ – he lapsed, but aged about twenty five he found his faith again. “I cling to the basics of Christianity. I find it is a great leveller. It keeps things in perspective for me. Because I think I have always tried to find my identity in animation. I think I’ve always had low self-esteem and animation is the one thing that has supported me”. There are only two times when we talk that he becomes absolutely focussed. He is physically quite jumpy, but when he described in some detail the evolution of Wallace’s mouth and spoke quietly about the importance of his faith, he was quite still. There is a joy about the discovery of Wallace’s mouth. It is the joy of the discovery of his essential character. And when Park talks about religion he says “I feel kind of tricky talking about this subject because I find that really deep down what matters most, I can’t explain.” This is exactly the way he talked about modelling Gromit.
He was briefly evangelical. And he is charmingly keen not to be rude about the group he joined even though they clearly sounded like a bunch of raving fanatics. He says merely that “I was dissatisfied with the evangelical side because I’ve always been quite a private person and rather than go round telling other people what to believe, I have so much to learn myself. I am more contemplative these days.” However he is the very opposite as an animator. It matters hugely to him that he makes a connection with an audience. He is thrilled by the fact that W&G are national institutions. In fact he says that what gives him the greatest pleasure is that something that is so close to him can mean something to someone else. Even a young boy in Arizona who has just written him a fan letter.
This young American may come to matter a great deal to Park in the next few years as Aardman embark on their first full-length feature film for the international market with, it is strongly rumoured, Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio and a price tag of $25m. They start to shoot next year with an intended release in the year 2000. It is called ‘Chicken Run’ and will be co-directed by Park and one of Aardman’s founders Peter Lord.
All Park will say about it at the moment is that it is set in a dark oppressive Yorkshire Chicken Farm in the 1950’s. The main character is a chicken called Ginger and she wants to escape. “We’ve also added a turbulent romance with a cockerel called Rocky.” It is Aardman’s biggest test to date. They fought off Disney who’s every offer seemed to conceal a takeover of their studio. And they are determined to remain independent and retain artistic control in their relationship with DreamWorks. “What Hollywood loves is the Britishness of what we do.” And that means the world and style they have created. As Jack Rosenthal, who worked briefly on the script, says, “It’s a different world than I’ve ever worked in. I’ve never heard someone say at a script meeting before. ‘Now wait a minute, if the chicken then indicates to the parrot…’” Park is relishing this new world although it may not be long before he returns to the familiar twosome that have made his reputation. But his parting shot on the feature was typical. “I always seem to get these enormous feelings of doubt when I’ve done something whether it works at all. With a film you feel very vulnerable. It’s very scary, really scary”. And that’s probably what drives him.