In 1942, the french pilot and acclaimed author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote a story called The Little Prince while splitting his time between his Central Park South apartment and a residence on Long Island. The book tells the story of an aviator, likely modeled after Saint-Exupéry himself, who, upon crashing his plane in the desert, encounters a small blonde-haired boy in royal regalia—the little prince—who lives on a planet scarcely larger than himself, and whose one true love is a single red rose.
Although The Little Prince is often marketed as a children’s story, its dedication implies that the book’s messages are truly intended for the child within.
On August 5, the film adaptation of the beloved tale, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, will hit theaters (and Netflix) in the U.S.
Mark Osborne, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker known for the short film More (the first short to be shown in IMAX) and the animated film Kung Fu Panda, directed the film, which is voiced by notables like Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Ricky Gervais.
The film features an original mother-daughter narrative about a little girl who apparently lives next to the aviator as an old man. Her close relationship with her mother (McAdams), a capable businesswoman intent on sending her daughter to a top school called Werth Academy, leads the girl to devote most of her time to studying and chores rather than playing or making friends. Finding a kindred spirit in the little girl, the aviator tells her the story of the little prince, and the rest is history.
While CGI is used to tell the story of the little girl and her mom in “real time,” gorgeous stop motion is used to portray flash backs to Saint-Exupéry’s classic story as retold by the aviator.Impressively, the film is the first to combine stop motion and CGI on such a large scale.
The Observer chatted with Osborne about his interpretation of the book, secret easter eggs hidden throughout the film and the love story that motivated his adaptation.
Did you have a personal connection to the story of The Little Prince? Why did you choose to build off of that book?
Yeah I actually have a really good reason and a really good story. 25 years ago, I was living in Brooklyn, and I was going to Pratt Institute and that’s where I met the woman who became my wife eventually. At that time we were dating and fell in love. I got interested in animation and I applied to CalArts in California and I got in, which was kind of like, “Oh shit, now what do I do,” and I was terrified. She was incredibly encouraging and wrote me these incredible letters, but she’d actually quote from the book [The Little Prince]. She’d say…”It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” And then she gave me her copy of the book, because I didn’t know the book.
It’s a great book to give.
It is the best book to give and it’s a great book to receive. So the book became sort of a bond. We had a long distance relationship. We had our ups and downs and the distance was very difficult, but the book did have a major impact on me for many reasons. It did keep us connected, and so we’re now married with two kids. Our son is the voice of the little prince and our daughter was the inspiration for the little girl [in the film].
I was wondering how that mother-daughter story played out around the central story of the book.
It was all born out of the book…The book was so important to me and important to many people and I also knew that it’s different for everybody. Everybody has their own version. So you can’t really make a film of the book. So that’s when I started to think…maybe I should put the book into somebody’s imagination…really I had to create a mirror character of our experience: someone gives the book to you, you read it and it changes your life. So that was why I said, “I’m gonna try to find a character that I can tell a story about.” And I just looked at my daughter and thought of her as a way to balance out the little prince as a little boy and then we could have this little girl. It just felt right… and by kind of creating…the scenario where the aviator is an old man that hasn’t found a single person that he can share the story with—it kind of creates this kind of ticking clock. What if the book never gets published? What if it dies with the aviator? And those were the big ideas that got me creatively excited about not only adapting the book, kind of as the heart of the movie, but letting the movie be a tribute to the experience that somebody could have with the book.
It seems, though, that you took your own interpretation of the story in the process. How did you develop that interpretation.
I looked very closely at the text. At the beginning, the aviator says at age six, nobody understood his drawings and they told him not to be an artist, right? And then at the end of the book he’s talking about how important it was that he wrote the story and he created the illustrations because he wanted to communicate who the little prince was, and he talked about how important it was that he shared the story, and how important it was that he write his first book. The world would continue to get more and more grown up and more and more broken, and it would need the book more and more and more. Which is the
The world would continue to get more and more grown up and more and more broken, and it would need the book more and more and more.
clue to me that he’s not the author, he’s a fictional character based on Saint-Exupéry. So it was at that moment that I said, well, okay in the book he talks about how important it is that he shares this story, and we know it as a book that got published. I said what if in that Aviator’s existence he went out and showed the book to people and it didn’t get published? Then I track that forward. The world would continue to get more and more grown up and more and more broken, and it would need the book more and more and more. And that was kind of when I said, well, what if the Aviator’s a very old man who is now desperate to share this story with somebody and he reaches out to this little girl who is really in need of the story because she’s a kid but she’s never had a childhood. So in a way, he’s helping her with the story, right? And he’s giving her a chance to have a childhood and what we ended up creating…is it’s actually a retelling of the book, because the book is about a middle aged man who is broken who is fixed by this magical little boy, but now we’re telling the same story but upside down and backwards, because now we have this broken little girl, who’s a grown up. But she’s little. And she’s broken. And she’s fixed by this magical old man, who embodies the spirit of the little prince. He’s the only character in this world that has met the little prince. So that was the way to echo the book and mirror the book, and kind of give a new approach to those same themes and ideas, so, yeah at it’s base, the larger story that we’re telling is a novel retelling of the book in way.
Did you name Werth Academy after Léon Werth to whom the book is dedicated?
But why do that if the school is so evil?
It’s more of an easter egg. The double meaning of [worth]…was too good…That idea came from my writer Irina Brignull, my first writer, because we were constantly looking for little things that we could hide in the movie…I love the dedication to the book, because I think it’s the biggest clue that the book is really written to grown ups. You know, it’s written to the child that is inside of us. But we weren’t trying to demonize Léon Werth. It was a loving tribute.
Were there other easter eggs?
There were a lot of details. Especially the aviator’s house, and a lot of things that are references to his life and his experiences. The biggest reference is more to french culture than it is to Saint-Exupéry directly, but the little girl’s house is inspired by the house in the Jacques Tati movie Mon Oncle … I love it when people catch that. We also reference Jacques Tati’s movie Playtime.
The author was in a plane crash. Did knowing that impact the way you worked from the book at all?
Well it’s certainly the origin. And I got a little insight from family. He never had kids but he has nieces and nephews who have descendants.
Did you speak with his family?
Oh yeah, yeah yeah. I spent time with them…The plane crash that he experienced actually inspired the writing of The Little Prince and he came home from that plane crash and would tell stories to his nieces and nephews. They would sit on his knee and he would talk about meeting a little prince in the desert…and finally somebody [told him] to write that as a book and it was his publisher’s wife that encouraged him to write a children’s book…The amazing thing is that the family—I was told—the family to this day—these 94, 96-year-old nephews and nieces—still believe [the story of the little prince] as a true story. And that really made an impact on me because I think that’s kind of the game that Saint-Exupéry as the author is playing with you over and over again. He’s asking you to believe this and believe it as real, but he’s telling you stuff that is so hard to believe. It’s pure imagination, it’s pure playful childlike thinking, or he’s dehydrated in the desert and he’s hallucinating. Whatever that real experience was that he had was certainly what we were thinking about a lot because it really inspired the writing of the book.
It’s also interesting that the author also ultimately vanished.
Right…He vanished. He unfortunately didn’t live to see the success of the book and so in a way, like I said, the aviator is not Saint-Exupéry, he’s based on Saint-Exupéry. So in a way I was allowing him to have an extension of the life of that character, so that character doesn’t in our imaginations, die as well.
You really played up some of the characters that in the book don’t have too much of a role. How did you develop those characters into something more nuanced then what they might have been in the book.
Well at one point we were trying to adapt all of material in the book and it was just too much because we had to tell the little girl’s story. Her experience of the book had to be very personal, so what we did was we just went and we used the characters from the book the way they are in the book and then we kind of give you them through her lens. So it’s her perception and her interpretation of the story that we’re showing you. That was one of the ways that we were sort of protecting the book. And then we got to develop those characters more…I can’t tell you how incredible it was to work with Ricky Gervais to create that character [of the conceited man]. I mean he built that character. He had fun with it. Same with all the characters really It was like an incredible experience working with the…actors because they were defining who the characters really were for the animators. And the animators were then listening to the voices and building off of what they were hearing. When you’re creating a character in an animated movie, it comes from the writing, it comes from the storyboards, it comes from the animation, it comes from the voice acting. There are so many different elements that end up fitting together to create that characterization.
You’ve done shorts in the past. Did you ever consider making this a short?
I was approached and asked if I wanted to make a feature, and the french producer said, “Do you want to make a big CG animated movie?” And my reaction was, you can’t. CGI is the wrong medium, the book is too poetic. And that’s when I sort of came up with this very sneaky, clever way to say what if the book was stop motion and what if we hand make those puppets and we let [the story of the book] be the short film inside the film. The opportunity that presented itself was, if you were to make a feature, what would you do? I kind of said, well the only way I can see this working is if I’m using CGI to kind of tell a larger story that is about this little girl’s experience of the book so that we can keep the book intact. I love making shorts but no one pays for them.
There were so many facets of the animation that all kind of went together. What was that animation process like?
We had two entirely different production houses. One for the CG and one for the stop motion and they were both in Montreal, so we had a lot of proximity, but I still had to drive a half hour back and forth, but it was like two separate crews. So it’s not very easy. The logistics of it are kind of crazy and nobody’s ever done this kind of thing to combine techniques, and you know everybody said they liked the idea creatively, but it was very difficult to think about how we were actually going to do it because it was incredibly complex, so, luckily we had the support and we figured out the way that we could pull it off, but it was certainly not easy.
Good character designers don’t think in terms of shapes, they actually think in terms of souls.
What was the process for developing the corporeal representations of the characters?
Well there’s a design process that starts with a character designer who does drawings and their exploring. What’s really nice is good character designers don’t think in terms of shapes, they actually think in terms of souls. And when they’re drawing—like Peter De Sève who designed the little girl, designed our characters for the CG world—he thinks about who the personality of who these characters are and he’s always drawing them thinking or doing something and it’s like that first stage is really an important step and Alexander Juhasz who designed the puppets for the stop motion is like—he’s also doing that—he’s taking his own artistic style and he’s trying to find a way to interpret the little prince, we’re very familiar with the little prince and he’s trying to interpret it in his own style, so it becomes a creative process that starts there and then everything builds out from there. So they start with those original designs and then we build everything out in CG and stop motion. Like these are physically built out of paper…To see it gives you a sense of what it takes.
What gives you most satisfaction out of the whole production?
I think just finally letting people see it? That’s the most satisfying thing and we premiered at the Cannes film festival last May and so I’ve been promoting the movie all over the world and I’m just so happy to have it finally released and here and with the original voices, you know? Hundreds and hundreds of artists worked so hard on this because they all love the book and they wanted to help bring the book to people, and so that’s I think the satisfying thing. Maybe there are people who’ve never read the book who might read the book after seeing the movie. I think that would be kind of amazing.