As Moomins on the Riviera arrives in UK cinemas, I catch up with Sophia Jansson, niece of Moomins creator Tove Jansson and head of the Moomin Characters company, to discuss the genesis of the film and her aunt’s wider legacy. The hand-drawn film is made by Hanna Hemilä’s Handle Productions in Helsinki and director Xavier Picard’s Paris-based animation studio Pictak, and is adapted from an extended episode in the long-running Moomins comic strip co-created by Tove Jansson and her brother Lars, Sophia’s dad. The English version of the film is voiced by Russell Tovey as Moomin, Nathaniel Parker as Moominpappa, Tracy Ann Oberman as Moominmamma and screen newcomer Stephanie Winiecki as Snorkmaiden. The family adventure goes awry as Moominpappa befriends a local aristocrat, Snorkmaiden is stirred by the attentions of dashing playboy, and Moomin learns the bitter taste of jealousy.
During our chat we also touch upon Sophia’s depiction as a young girl in her aunt’s semi-biographical The Summer Book, a tender portrayal of the shared trust and wonder between Sophia and her grandmother, Tove’s mum, as they while away the summer months together on the family island retreat.
MR: What were the first stages in the development of the film? Were Hanna Hemilä and Xavier Picard partners from the very beginning? And how did the Riviera story come to be chosen?
SJ: In actual fact, I knew Hanna before, and mentioned to her that I was surprised nobody had made a film based on the comic strips, and she came back to me and said she’d like to have a go. She said she knew this French director who’s done lots of animation for television, and she proposed putting together a joint pitch, and I said yeah, go ahead. So that’s basically how it started, back in 2010. Because Xavier is French, and he had in mind to have the initial production done in France, Moomins on the Riviera, apart from being a nice story and quite funny, was a good story to use as a base for a script because the French would easily relate to it.
Well, over the years we’d had several pitches from other potential production teams, and almost invariably they were all 3-D, and somehow they just didn’t look right, they didn’t suit the Moomins. I think it has to do with the fact that Tove as an illustrator made such a mark with her illustrations, which obviously for the large part were 2-D… When they came back, Hanna and Xavier’s pitch was in a certain colour scheme which we really liked, and they said, “We would like to do something in this style, in 2-D,” and it did ring a very nice bell with us, because it was much more what I had thought was possible based on the comic strips.
Could you say a little more about the colour palette? It’s got a nice touch of surreality to it, for example how the sea and sky switch between violet and yellow, suggesting a world of imagination at the edges of a recognisable reality.
Once the project advanced we had a closer look at the colours and Xavier came up with like a series of postcards based on different views of the Riviera, and with a certain colour palette from, I would say the thirties, forties, with lots of warm orange, ochre, turquoise. He suggested something very similar, and we really liked it. They were very much the idea we have of all those warm hues in the Mediterranean. And even though this Riviera is a fantastical place, it still felt very suitable, so we were very happy.
Will other stories from the comic strips now follow? Are the novels and picture books also available to be remade in the same style?
Now that there is one film made, of course there’s interest in making a sequel, and possibly something for television, and I would strongly advise whoever wants to carry on to just think logically about where would you go from here. That could include the comic strips or the original books as a basis for the next script – but without a lot of cutting and gluing of different pieces from different sources. Tove’s basic stories we would like to keep intact.
Because I was involved from the beginning, and we put up some of the budget, I became associate producer. In my role here as artistic director of Moomin Characters of course we approve anything that is made based on Tove’s work. Merchandising, film, theatre, anything else, it all goes through us, so we would have looked at the script anyway even if I hadn’t been attached as a producer.
Do you get involved in how voices are cast for each territory, or do you leave that for the territories to work out for themselves?
The French one I didn’t have that much to do with, but for the Swedish, Finnish and English voices, they sent sound samples for me to listen to – not attached to any names, just the voices for me to pick out which ones I felt would best mirror the general idea of the characters. There was a television series made in the late 1980s that was screened in Finland from 1990, and in many European countries, and about a hundred countries in total. The series was made in Japan, but in the Finnish dubbing there were some voices that became very well known over the years so people, especially in Finland, have a pretty strong opinion on what any given character should sound like. So when we were trying to determine the voices for the new film, it was quite important to keep in mind what the general public here in Finland thinks any given character should be like. Having said that, of course there’s always room for change, but it was something that I kept in mind, definitely, when listening to them.
Will the UK-English version be shown in America, or are they re-voicing?
So far, because the English voice cast has been done, I think they would go with that one – unless they all of a sudden decided no, no, no, we need to have our own, in which case we’d have to re-do it. But I don’t think so, to be honest. I think it will be the same one as in the UK.
I suppose it would carry an appropriately European flavour if they keep the English accents.
Yes, Tove was after all Finnish, European, so maybe that’s not completely wrong. The Moomins are much better known in the Nordic countries, the UK and Western Europe, Russia too, than in the United States, and I think the bigger fan base influenced the decision to have a British voice cast, and in a way I think it’s quite fitting.
Well, it’s optioned to a British production company who have written a script, which we have now approved, and I think they’re in the process of looking for finance. So the film might see the light of day. You never know with film projects, sometimes they can get halfway there and then in the end are never completed. But it’s looking good so far.
And are they planning live action or animation?
Live action for The Summer Book, definitely. It could work in either I suppose, but somehow for me, I don’t know why, I see it as live action, which is what they have suggested.
How does the story in that book compare with your memories of those summers on the family island?
It’s a book that’s in a way quite confusing for me, because the more time passes, the more you think it’s real. Tove said during her lifetime that about one third was from things she had observed between myself and my grandmother, one third were stories from her own childhood with her mother, and one third was invented. I think in many ways it’s perhaps not important to know exactly what is based on reality and what is pure fiction, because I think it’s Tove’s way of writing that particular story, how she crafted it and how she puts words in the mouths of these characters that makes it such a nice book to read.
A good deal of Tove’s fiction for grown-ups has recently been re-released. Do you have any particular favourites among them?
I do. The True Deceiver is a novel I like very much, and she wrote a few short-story collections and there are some particular stories that I like. Of course they’re quite different from her Moomin stories, yet the same. By default they’re quite short, but it also means she had to say a lot in very few pages, and she was rather good at that, her language was quite sparse, especially when she wrote dialogue, and you really need to think a lot about what’s happening between the lines, which can be very rewarding.
The Moomins are characterised by tolerance, understanding, individuality, adventure, fun, mischief. Would you say those are all Jansson family traits too?
Oh, I’d love to think so! I do think that the whole Jansson family lived a life deeply rooted in a very humanist outlook on life, and they were very liberal on the whole. Having said that if you read any of the biographies of Tove it’s quite evident that even within the family there were, during the wars, quite opposing political opinions. But I think Tove was always very humanist, very liberal and open-minded about different ways to lead one’s life.
There are not that many books that become classics, but I think Tove’s, especially the Moomin stories, are on a good track to become that. They are quite timeless, and they work for lots of people.”
When did looking after the Moomins become your full-time job, and what are the next challenges?
I started at the Moomin company in 1997, as an assistant to my father to begin with, who did all sorts of things, most things really, in the company. When he died in 2000, gradually I took over and have had different titles. My current title is artistic director, and now I’m also chairman of the board. I think the challenges for the future are the same as they always were, but in an ever-changing world, and that’s to keep Tove’s original books alive. There are not that many books that become classics, but I think Tove’s, especially the Moomin stories, are on a good track to become that. The books are forever being translated into new languages, and anyone who picks up a Moomin mug or a Moomin toy can go back to an original story in a book – or read it on a tablet if they prefer – but it’s still there, and that’s only possible because the stories still work. They are quite timeless, and they work for lots of people.
As a child, no, I don’t think so. It was just work that my aunt and my father did, maybe it was a little too close for me to really be so enamoured with the Moomin stories, they were just basically around, books on the shelf, and the comic strips were part of the work that they did. It wasn’t really until I became an adult that I’ve delved deeper into the significance of those stories and the different characters; as a child probably I wouldn’t really have identified with them in any particular way. Today again, because I work in the company, I also have a little bit of distance. I’m very often asked which is my favourite character, and I’m not sure I have one, I have to like them all equally. But just like most Finnish women, I do like Little My very much.
Moomins on the Riviera is in UK cinemas from 22 May, released by Vertigo Films.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
All film stills © 2014 Handle Productions Oy/Pictak Cie/Moomin Characters™