We present an exclusive interview to Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, directors of the animated short movie Borrowed Time.
How was the Borrowed Time project born? What led you to set the short film in the Old West? Were you inspired by classic Western films from the past?
AC: Back in 2007, we had brainstormed a few ideas for a short we’d like to make, and one of them happened to be a western. We grew up watching films like Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, Butch Cassidy, Unforgiven etc. and really loved and were inspired by the iconography: from characters and setting all the way through interesting framing of shots and editing that is specific to the genre. However, at the time, I was at Bluesky, and Lou was at Pixar, and though we gave it our best effort, making a film across the country without today’s technology really wasn’t feasible. So, we decided to hold off on making a film until we were in the same place. It wasn’t until 2010, when I started at Pixar, that we could finally move forward with something.
LHL: By that point, we had both been working in the industry for a while, and had the privilege to contribute to a number of great family films. But we knew that to make this film we’d have to work in our off-time, and that fueled us to spend that time making something “different”.
AC: We were a bit frustrated with the lack of breadth in stories told through animation in America, and wanted to contribute to the medium by helping illustrate that it isn’t merely a children’s film genre, as much of the public perceives it. We wanted to champion American animation as a medium to tell any story.
LHL: What better way to do that than to target something uniquely American? Westerns are irrefutably a genre, the way that horror is a genre. You can make an animated western, or an animated horror film, and if you’re true to that, suddenly the “animation as a genre” argument falls away. It’s just the vessel we use to bring that story to life. That said, westerns are ripe with opportunity.
AC: That iconography I mentioned brings with it certain expectations. We may choose to frame a shot of someone you believe to be a hardened and weathered cowboy, and in the same shot, reverse that expectation and have him break down with emotion. Fighting for that unexpectedness is really at the core of why we chose to make a western, and specifically in the medium of animation.
We noticed a certain influx from Sergio Leone — the theme of the clock, leading in For A Few Dollars More. Was it an intended homage or just a coincidence?
AC: Ah yes, this was certainly an homage. We rewatched most of his films as we were researching and learning about how we would approach a film in the western genre. Those scenes with the watch from For A Few Dollars More are iconic and really stay with you.
LHL: We loved the idea of paying respect to the iconic films that inspired us while showing our specific take on it. In the end, these touchstones afforded us a familiarity that grounds the audience immediately – they know exactly where they are and what the rules of the world are. That’s hugely helpful in a short film, because now we can spend the rest of the time taking you someplace you haven’t been within that context.
Animation and comics are not too distant relatives. How much have Italian and foreign Western comics — Tex and Blueberry — affected the imagery of Borrowed Time (a short film, but dense with meaning in this regard)?
AC: To be honest, we were not looking at those comics too directly as we made the film.
In retrospect, and now that you bring them up, we probably should have. However, there is a clear symbiotic relationship between the framing and simplicity of those comics and with Spaghetti Westerns and the western genre in general. The artful framings, interesting compositions and gritty attention to detail found in those comics is certainly echoed in western films, and we were very much interested in exploring that in Borrowed Time.
LHL: Agreed, the westerns we grew up on really utilized the frame in a way that hadn’t been done before, and created a whole iconography that is super distinct. That was always appealing for us to play with. But what’s awesome about comics is the freedom to subvert what westerns have assumed the frame must look like. All in the service of dynamism, clarity, and occasionally more impactful storytelling. Frankly, I’m jealous that we don’t see as much playfulness in that regard in film, but we try as much as possible, and in the same way, to leverage that iconography and disrupt it for impact.
Animation in the USA is always synonym with joy and laughter, especially when it comes to giants such as Pixar. Borrowed Time seems to break this rule. Do you think the time has come for animated works with more mature thematics?
LHL: We very much hope so. As we mentioned earlier, telling a more mature story in Animation was part of the reason we made Borrowed Time. There are so many more diverse types of stories that could be tackled in animation. The challenge is getting more of these types of films out there so people see this for themselves, and don’t assume the content based on whether or not it’s animated.
AC: There are many films already out there from different countries that challenge this notion (think Princess Mononoke, Grave of Fireflies, The Red Turtle etc). They just don’t get distributed on the same level in America. But with content platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime et al, accessibility to great animation is easier than it has ever been. The other hurdle is the time and monetary cost there is to make animated films. It’s hard to take huge risks when your film takes 5 years and 30-80 million dollars (for the cheaper end of studio animated feature films). These films are huge undertakings, and one failed movie can easily mark the end of your business.
LHL: Thankfully new paths for making films are emerging these days. Advancements in technology such as working remotely on the cloud, mean that films don’t have to be made in one giant building and with only one company. There will be ways to produce films for cheaper. Hopefully this means that more risks can and will be taken in animation, and we will start to see more diverse and mature themes.
Digital animation is common to cinema and video games. What do you think of the videogame rebirth of Western, in particular with Red Dead Redemption? A provocation: could Borrowed Time become a videogame or not (clearly in the indie/experimental sphere)?
LHL: Resurgence of genre across various media is always welcome, it can totally reinvigorate things and create new sources of inspiration. Games like Red Dead Redemption offer a unique window into that world, as you can be as much on either side of the law as you choose. It’s a little Westworld-esque in its open-world, choose-your-own-adventure regard; I personally got lost in creating my own stories in that game rather than staying with the intended narrative, but RDD is about the wild west after all – so anything goes, and that’s the point! There are other games that, while not strictly adhering to the western iconography, carry a western swagger. A good deal of tonal inspiration for us came from games like The Last of Us, which in turn were inspired by films like No Country for Old Men, and that inspiration thread has deep roots in other westerns. I would love to see more games be steeped in character drama like that.
What are your current projects?
AC: We are currently still working our day jobs at Pixar (I am on Cars 3 and Lou is on Incredibles 2), but have some ideas that we are exploring for next projects.
LHL: The reality is that our focus has been on getting Borrowed Time through the festival circuit. It has been a lot more work than we could have ever anticipated, and there’s still a great deal to learn about.
AC: In our careers, we have gotten used to doing our work and finishing on a film and just moving on to the next one, while a separate machine of PR takes the film and gets it out to the public. For our own film, we have to suddenly be that machine (with the bulk of the work done by our amazing producer, Amanda Jones). We are definitely out of our comfort zone to say the least!
LHL: Needless to say, it’ll be refreshing when we can refocus on being creative!
AC: While have no plans to make Borrowed Time a videogame, we are obviously open to it! At the end of the day, we want to continue creating worlds and telling stories, both of which can be done in a game