I have been anxiously awaiting Kubo and the Two Strings since I first heard about it last year. So when I was invited to see a press screening and attend a press conference with some of the cast and crew, I jumped at the chance!
GeekMom Marziah Karch will be writing a more in-depth review of the film in the near future, and my ’10 Things’ post will be going up the day before the release, while this post will focus solely on the press day and press conference itself. No plot or spoilers will be revealed, though I will say that I absolutely loved Kubo and cannot wait to share it with my family. It resonated with me for a lot of reasons I won’t go into, but it is definitely one of my new favorite movies.
The press day started with some breakfast and coffee before we were treated to two amazing artists–an origami master and a traditional candy maker. I have never watched such skilled artisans in person. The origami was some of the most intricate I’ve ever seen, and the candy was amazing. He turned a couple of globs of gooey sugar into a horse galloping through a field in just a matter of minutes!
We then headed into the press conference room where we first got to chat with Art Parkinson (Kubo), Charlize Theron (Monkey), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle).
All three actors talked about how the directness and way Laika distilled down some very adult-themes into a kid’s movie drew them to the story. According to McConaughey, “they don’t really pander down to the age group. They deal with adult themes in a way that’s digestible for kids. There’s always a good moral to the story, that’s learned in the middle of the adventure.”
Both McConaughey and Theron joked about how this is the first movie they decided to make that their children can actually watch. McConaughey said, “I haven’t made any films in about 10 years that they could see,” and Theron added, “I’ve always joked that my kids would have to be 52 before they could see anything I’ve been in. So it’s nice that that now has changed.”
Art Parkinson was drawn to the film because of the close relationship he has with his mother, very similar to Kubo and his mother. He talked about how he and his mother actually worked together on Kubo (and his other roles), “me and my mum do a lot of work together, sort of, in pre-production, whether it be looking over the script and reading over the script together, and then the night before, you know, really studying the character and talking about the different ways that we can portray the character.”
My favorite anecdote from the cast press conference was from McConaughey. He actually read the script to his kids over several nights as their bedtime story. “We read this over quite a few nights at bedtime and they got into it, understood it. I’d watch their reaction to where they thought things were oh, scary, spooky or funny, and then we all went and watched the film. I had a great time watching the film but I also had a great time looking out of the corner of eye at my kids at what they were laughing at.”
Then, it was my turn to ask a question. The night before I had come up with a couple of rather softball questions that it turned out, had all been answered in the Production Notes document we were given that morning. I also resisted the urge to ask McConaughey a Dark Tower question. As I sat in my hotel room, thinking of more potential questions, the news story of the Dallas shooting of several police officers came up in my news feed. That story on the heels of the shootings of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, just brought me to tears right there in my room. My adopted baby girl is African-American, and I was suddenly frightened for her life–the life of a six-week old baby! Knowing the Theron herself has two adopted African-American children, I knew what I needed to ask her.
- I have a question mostly for you, Charlize. My wife and I recently adopted an African-American girl.
- Thank you. She’s six weeks old.
- And you look this good and rested? [LAUGHTER] Wow. I’m impressed.
- Actually, I was feeding her just last night. But the question that I had for you is, especially in light of the last couple of days, it’s really scary living in this country right now. Do you have any advice for another transracial adoptive parent, and how do talk to you kids about what’s going on?
- It’s the most frightening thing, you know, and until you really become a parent you don’t understand how unbelievably frightening it is, because there’s a part of you that can kind of let some of that stuff slip with yourself, but with a child you just feel like the responsibility that you have kind of this promise that you’ve made to the universe, when you’re raising a child, it’s such a serious one, and there are things that are not completely in your control, and that I think is the hardest.
- But you know, again, I talk to my kids–well, the baby obviously not, but the little boy–there’s always a part of me that, it’s like what Matthew said, you want to have a conversation in a way that they can understand it, and there’s a part of you that you don’t want to burst the bubble for them completely on humanity, but you also kind of want to let them know the brutality of what can happen when we don’t take care of our humanity. And my son, you know, I kind of break it down to him as far as just how much we need to take care of each other and care for each other and how we’re all interconnected, and the fact that he’s brown, and I’m white and that’s the interconnectedness of the world. That’s the beauty of our world. But I was kind of like, kind of trying to hit on the thing that, you know, when we don’t care for each other, we hurt each other.
- And he said to me the other day–so sweet–we were driving past a homeless person, and he said, “This is what you’re talking about, Mom.” I said, “What?” And he says, “We should go help him.” And it’s just the kind of connection of realizing humanity and that it kind of isn’t about compartments, and it’s not about what we traditionally think things look like.
- I think that’s what’s beautiful about this movie. I mean, ultimately, what it is is about a story about what do we think family is? And it takes it and turns it upside down, and it’s telling you a story that family is not necessarily always what we traditionally think of it, right? And I think we need more of that. I think we need more of that so that there’s more compassion in the world, because the more we have empathy towards things that are different, whether it’s our color, our race, our beliefs, our culture, where we come from, how we choose to live our lives, our sexuality, our identity, the more we have empathy towards those things, I think the more we’ll actually accept each other and the more peace there’ll be. It’s a very, very long road, but you got to kind of wake up and try and see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s really tough. It’s hard.
This is the only time I’ve ever almost cried in a press conference, but Theron’s answer was amazing and moving. I also blame the fact that they showed us trailers for A Monster Calls and Loving right before the press conference. Also, please note, Theron told me that I looked good, not the other way around!
The entire cast finished by talking about the freedom Travis Knight gave them with their voice acting. McConaughey said, “they have enough voiceover for three more movies from the stuff I gave him. I like to walk in and say, you know, press record. And then don’t press stop for the next 12 hours.” Parkinson concurred, “I thought that if I had any ideas about extra lines or things I wanted to add, I always just mentioned it to Travis and asked him if we could do a take with these extra lines and he was always very supportive of it. ”
The cast then left the press conference room and Travis Knight, President & CEO of Laika (as well as the producer, director, and one of the animators on Kubo) came in to talk with us.
Knight opened by talking about how much Kubo’s story was and became his own as production went on. ” I was very stupid in terms of like seeing how much of myself was in the story until pretty late in the process. When I finally figured out that Kubo is basically a version of me. He’s, you know, he’s an artist, he’s a storyteller, he’s a musician, he’s an animator, really, when you think about it. And his mirror, his journey pretty much mirrors my own. He’s basically a lonely kid and that was really my experience growing up. I grew up on the side of a mountain that was 15 miles away from the closest town, which was itself just a little country-fried place. And I spent a lot of time alone. I made friends slowly when I made them at all. I spent a lot of time exploring the woods near my house and climbing trees and jumping over creek beds and things like that. I spent a lot of time creating and drawing and making music and writing stories, and when I wasn’t doing that my whole life revolved around my mom. She was my closest friend in the world.”
Knight then pointed out one of the core themes of Kubo, “when we learn that profound, melancholic truth that to love is to hurt and those things go hand-in-hand and you know, love is an amazing thing because it opens us up, and it makes us vulnerable. But at the same time, it heals us, and it gives us strength, and it makes our life worth living. And so you know, that’s one of the kind of core themes that are at the heart of this movie and every scene, to varying degrees, has elements of that at play.”
Knight was then asked about how he found that aforementioned balance between realistic, heavy topics, but still being kid-friendly. “I think back to the things that I loved when I was a kid, and the things that stuck with me, the things that took up residence in my head and stuck to my ribs, they were always those stories that had that artful balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth that took us on a journey in a really dynamic way and didn’t sugarcoat things, but talked about things sensitively and hopefully in a poetic way that even kids could understand. And you know, we make films for families, so we don’t speak down to our audience. We really want to respect their intelligence. And so we talk about fairly sophisticated issues that mean something to us when we were kids, and now as parents with that other generational perspective, looking the other way, we’re grownup kids who now have kids of their own.
In the end, I think it really is up to every parent to decide what’s right for their kid, but we try to make films that are meaningful for the whole family, and when I think of the best cinematic experience I have as a father it’s when I go see a movie with my kids and on the drive home we’re talking about what we just saw and some of the ideas that were raised.”
I then got to ask Knight a question, but I took it much easier on him than I did on Theron.
- So aside from film making and stop motion animation, what things are you a geek about? And which things have you been happiest that you’ve been able to share with your kids, and what things have your kids made you a geek about that you wouldn’t have been otherwise?
- (LAUGHS) Well, I am a geek about a great many things. I don’t know, I don’t know where it stops, actually. I mean, I was a nerd in every possible way you can imagine. I think part of that was a great gift to my mother because she was, when she was pregnant with me she was reading Lord of the Rings, so my first breath in the world (LAUGHS) was in a room where my mother was reading Tolkien. So it was like, I think that’s kind of just infused in my bones to kind of be a fantasy geek and that has been true for my entire life. But of course, I love comic books. You know, I love Star Trek. I love all that stuff that is just kind of pathetic and nerdy but you know, kind of speaks to you in some way.
- The great thing about when your kids get older, too, is, my oldest son is 15, my daughter is 13, and my youngest son is three and pretty big spread there. (LAUGHTER) My wife and I were very surprised. (LAUGHTER) But the cool thing about once your kids start to get to a certain age, you can start sharing things with them that you loved when you were a kid. And it’s interesting because you see what resonates and what doesn’t. What stands the test of time and what doesn’t. What speaks to kids nowadays and what doesn’t.
- I remember when I tried to show my boy Flash Gordon with Sam Jones, with that awesome Queen soundtrack. I remember when I tried–yes, exactly–I thought, oh, I can’t wait for him to watch this movie. I’m so excited. I must have watched that movie, you know, 30, 40 times when I was a kid, and I put the DVD on, and he was so bored. He couldn’t even get through half of it. He’s like, “Dad, this is terrible.” I said, “No, no, no,” and I had to sit there and explain to him how awesome it was. No, you don’t understand how awesome it is. (LAUGHTER) And we got into this big debate about how awesome it was, and it didn’t work.
- But then on the other hand, some things feel like they are evergreen. When I showed my boy and my daughter Star Wars, it was this amazing experience and that was actually the first film that I actually remember seeing in the movie theater. And so it’s interesting. I kind of love that, that I can share things with them that they love, and then they try to share things with me that, that they love, and all the stuff they love is awful, and they have terrible, (LAUGHTER) they have terrible taste. Stuff in pop culture now is terrible. It’s dreadful. (LAUGHS) But yes, it is. But no, it’s… yeah, I don’t know. I remember when my son (LAUGHS) first started getting into Minecraft, and I just didn’t get it. And he’s sitting there, and we’re making stuff, and I’m like, “so wait. What are you doing? You’re pounding on a rock? You get a cube? And then you… we’ve got a set of LEGO over there. We can just…” No, no, but you can do this now on a computer. Oh, God, I don’t understand it, and there’s definitely a generational gap there. But I mean, that is one of the great things about being a parent. You share things you love. They share things with you that they love, and you know, sometimes those things, they’re cross signals, but it’s one of the things I love about being a dad.
- If you haven’t yet checked out Octonauts with your youngest, you should.
- Oh, okay. I haven’t seen that.
- It’s basically Star Trek underwater with animals.
- Oh, I have seen that. Yes, I have seen that. (LAUGHTER)
Knight wrapped up the press conference discussing the song that plays during the credits–While My Guitar Gently Weeps performed by Regina Spektor. “I grew up in a Beatles household. My mom was 15 years old when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and, of course, she was an enormous Beatles fan, and that’s another gift that my mother bestowed to me. We listened to the Beatles record on my mom’s hi-fi, on an eight-track in my dad’s blue Cougar coupe. The Beatles were just kind of part of our life. It was essentially the soundtrack of my life and one, one song that was really, that I love, my mother and I loved more than anything really was While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and when we were thinking about this movie and tried to come up with some kind of a musical accompaniment that was evocative of the ideas and the themes that were running through the movie, my mind kept going to that song because it really is a timeless expression of love and empathy, which is fundamentally what this movie is about.
And the way we played it, I always heard it in my head as a female voice singing it because, to me, it was essentially kind of the last words that a mother gives to her son. And the way we constructed it, it felt like an extension of the movie. We have all the same instrumentation. It was arranged by our extraordinary composer, Dario Marianelli, who threaded different themes from the movie into it as well. It was sung beautifully by Regina Spektor, who is also an enormous Beatles fan and has a three-year-old son of her own, so this movie spoke to her in that way as well. And then the way we construct the song, it’s effectively a mother singing to her son and saying carry on my story.
And at the very end, the coda at the end of the song, we have a boys’ choir that comes in, as if it’s Kubo carrying on his mother’s song. He’s going to continue to tell her story. And it was, to me, it was the perfect way to end the movie. It was the perfect encapsulation of all the things that we explore, and it’s just a beautiful song. You would never know that it was written in 1965 or whatever it happens to be. It’s 50 years old, and it’s as timeless as ever. ”
I couldn’t agree with Knight more. The song is the perfect end cap and summation of the whole film. And if you only see one movie all year, please do yourself, and your family, a favor, and make it Kubo and the Two Strings.
And, if you’re at all like me, you might want something to hold you over until the movie is released on August 19th. If so, visit kubomap.com to explore Kubo’s realm and dive into each location of his epic quest through an interactive map experience. It uses a mix of Instagram grids, story-based video loops, and an annotated and interactive map of Kubo’s journey to outline some of the film’s themes while giving users some emotional investment in Kubo and his quest before walking into the theater.
Note: I was invited to the expenses paid Kubo press day but all thoughts and opinions above are my own.