Building a better childhood

Benjamin Massoubre on Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be

by Amber Wilkinson

Little Nicholas
Little Nicholas Photo: Wild Bunch

When I caught up with director Benjamin Massoubre to talk about Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be, which he co-directed with Amandine Fredon, he was also as happy as could be because not only had it screened at Cannes, it had also won Annecy International Animation Festival’s Cristal for Best Feature.

“I’m thrilled,” he said. “We went to the festival with no hopes of getting a prize, because it’s a family movie, even though we put a lot into it, as more often it goes to an adult animation. I think it’s a good signal to send to everybody, if you put heart into a family movie you can also win the first price in Annecy.”

The film blends tales of famous French scamp Nicholas – a sort of Gallic Just William, who was brought to life by Asterix creator René and Jean-Jacques Sempé as a comic strip that went on to spawn a series of books – with the biography of his creators. The directors let inquisitive Nicholas step off the page to quiz his creators about their lives, as they begin to shape his in return.

The film flows seamlessly between these elements, no doubt helped by the fact that although this is Massoubre’s first film in the director’s chair, he is a well-established editor, having worked on the likes of A Minuscule Adventure and I Lost My Body.

He said: “My editing background really helped because it was not like a three-act movie with character building that we know in more simplistic movies. It was really difficult to build the back and forth between the world of the creators and the world of Nicholas.”

He adds: “It’s not about a narrative and emotional arc of one character, it’s a movie about resilience. It’s a movie about two people who were robbed of their childhood – one because he lost most of his family during the Holocaust and the other because he was abused by an alcoholic stepfather – and who created this perfect childhood for Nicholas, maybe because they were robbed of theirs.”

In terms of the move from editing to directing, Massoubre says it “felt really natural”. He adds: “The way we work in animation is really different to the way we work in live action. We do a rough edit with storyboards at first, so we build the script in pictures with some rough drawings and it’s really easy to ask for one more shot or change the dialogue because it’s almost before the directors come on board. So I had a pretty good sense of how you go from a script to the final editing and as I often say, in animation we get the movie before we shoot it because we plan everything in advance.”

There are two very distinctive styles in the film – the world of Nicholas, which takes on Sempé’s style from the original drawings – and the less ‘cartoonish’ more detailed world of his creators. Massoubre says they dug into Sempé’s work for both elements.

“The world of Nicholas is directly taken from the illustration of the books and on the other side, for the world of his creators, we dug into Jean-Jacques’ more structured work, the work he did for the covers of The New Yorker. We tried to be as close as possible to Jean-Jacques’ work in both universes. But Jean-Jacques had a 50-year career, so his style was really different from when he started with Nicholas and where he was in the Eighties and Nineties.”

The animators were also helped by the involvement of Goscinny’s daughter Anne and Sempé himself.

“Jean-Jacques was really involved with us in the beginning when we were making the first design of the characters and backgrounds.”

They worked on a version of Nicholas that “would be attractive for modern audiences”.

Massoubre says they also had a back and forth about how Sempé would look. “It was really funny,” he says, “because one time he was too ugly, one time he was too beautiful, so we went back and forth and had some laughs about it.”

He adds: “Working with Anne was really important for us too, because she gave us access to stuff she kept from her father. So we had a chance to sit at his desk to use his typewriter to see the first manuscripts of Nicholas with his own handwriting and the original drawings of Nicholas by Jean-Jacques which still had the glue from the printer of the time around them. It was a feel of how they were working in the Fifties, it was really intense.

“She did something really beautiful too. She gave us a letter that Jean-Jacques wrote to her mother just after her father’s passing. It’s a really emotional letter where he talks about his friendship with Rene, how they built Nicholas and lots of other stuff, especially his childhood. And at the end of the movie, where they have dinner together, is an extract from that letter.”

Sempé was moved to tears by the scene in question, and Massoubre adds: “The emotion in that letter is something that we tried to convey to the audience and the fact that it worked on Jean-Jacques is, I think, a strength of the movie. You think you’re going to sit down for a typical family movie, but I think you’re surprised by how emotional the movie is – it’s one of its great strengths.”

The music from Ludovic Bource is also a crucial part of the film, helping to maintain the flow between the real world of the creators and the world of Nicholas.

“When I started editing, I automatically felt that the music would be a big part of it,” says Massoubre. “The movie was built, somewhat, as a musical with dancing and singing ‘numbers’.”

In the course of research for the film, they came across Jean-Jacques talking about his musical favourites, including Duke Ellington and jazz, along with classical music stars like Debussy and French post-war standards. That led them to reference films as diverse as An American In Paris and The 400 Blows.

“I put a lot of music in my draft editing,” adds Massoubre. “It was built around Jean-Jacques taste for music and the work Ludovic did really helped us to solidify everything.”

The environments we see artist and writer in are also firmly rooted in reality. “They’re bigger than they were in real life because we needed space but every object that is on Rene’s desk is an object that was on his desk when he was alive. Anne was very specific on it, she gave us hundreds of pictures of his desk. First when we were discussing the script with Anne, we thought that Nicholas had to be in real-life form. But I said, no, he has to be like some kind of Jiminy Cricket walking around the set – he’s going to dip into Jean-Jacques’ ink, he’s going to jump on the typewriter, it’s going to be amazing. It’s one of the aspects of the movie, I love the most.”

Beyond weaving the stories of the creators together with their creation, the filmmakers also faced the challenge of deciding which of the stories of Little Nicholas to incorporate in the film.

“There are 222 novels of Little Nicholas, so we had to read all of them.” Massoubre laughs, and adds: “And there was plenty of excellent stuff in both their lives, too, so at some point I was working with 300 pages of script for a family movie of around 80 minutes – I had smoke coming out of my ears. I wanted to put everything in the movie but I knew that I couldn’t. So we had to make choices. We wanted to make a movie that’s really fun, that’s about dancing, singing and stuff on Jean-Jacques part. On Rene’s part we wanted to tell the audience how much of a globetrotter he was.”

Looking forward, Massoubre says he’s already working on “several directing projects”. He adds: “I’m going to explore directing more in the coming years. I already have a movie, with the producers of Little Nihcolas, that’s fully developed but we cannot make announcements before the end of June. I’m thinking, too, of going into live action. But I’m still going to do editing because making your own movie takes a long time. So between movies I think I’ll still be cutting movies for my friends.”

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