While waiting for Nick Park to show up for breakfast -- and his first interview of the day in support of the new stop-motion animation feature "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (see review on Page 39) -- the British animator's handler arrives, introducing himself as Arthur. He then cautions a bleary-eyed photographer and reporter about expecting his charge to pose, in too undignified a manner, with his on-screen creations. "After all," Arthur says, "he's the only Wallace and Gromit."
Nevertheless, the three-time Oscar winner arrives with his friends in tow, in the form of action figures representing the slightly dimwitted Wallace and his put-upon dog, Gromit, characters Park created in college and who went on to appear in three short films (the last two of which, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave," won Oscars, along with an earlier, non-Wallace-and-Gromit piece called "Creature Comforts"). During the interview, Park barely lets the toys out of his sight, picking them up whenever possible to illustrate a point or simply to play with.
So how much of Wallace and Gromit is Park?
"Probably a lot, I would have said, actually," admits the filmmaker, who, if you close your eyes, even sounds a wee bit like Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis), especially when he's jumping into character, as he is occasionally wont to do. "Let's go somewhere where there's cheeeese," Park says, play-acting for a moment as he explains how he first came up with Wallace's signature gesture, an excited little wiggle of half-closed hands. "When you're animating something, you are your only reference point, because you're constantly acting through the action and dialogue yourself."
Gromit, oddly enough, has no voice. (If you want to be technical, he has no mouth, despite being dubbed in Norway, but who's counting?) Originally envisioning the character as a cat, and at one point imagining him with a voice "a bit like Scooby-Doo, just a growly kind of voice with intelligible words sometimes," Park says the character, first seen as an "assistant" to Wallace, was borne out of economy.
"I just found a dog easier to make out of clay. The shapes are bigger. You could have longer legs. I could get in between the legs to model them and move them, because it'd be too tricky otherwise. It was very quickly the right decision."
Immediately seeing Gromit's expressive potential and recognizing that dogs, in general, are "full of human baggage," Park says that Gromit's, not Wallace's, point of view has always been what guides him. During the making of "Were-Rabbit," whenever the story went astray, Park says he and co-director Steve Box would ask themselves what would Gromit do.
"Steve and I would often come up with these ideas, and we'd laugh at them, but we'd end up getting lost. We would put together these funny scenes, but in the overall film, it would kind of go off course a little bit, like we'd taken our eye off the ball, really. And the way to get back was always to remember, it's Gromit's story. Whenever we made it Gromit's story again, we'd kind of get it back."
Park has long been fascinated by what he calls the "crossover" between man and beast. "It's not just anthropomorphizing animals," he says, not just for a laugh anyway. It's the "porous boundary" between humans and other critters that interests him -- an interest seen most clearly in Park's first Oscar winner, "Creature Comforts," a 1989 short and subsequent television series in which animated animals speak about their lives, using dialogue culled from real man-on-the-street interviews.
"I was amazed how, in the interviews, I never predicted that I would get all these people saying, 'Oh, I live in a nice room,' you know? 'It's very nice,' you know? They never say a bad thing about it. It's like, the willingness of people to adapt to their surroundings, to accept hardship, really, and not complain."
So that's what makes us animals?
"Maybe it's the British spirit," Park says. "I don't know, but it's kind of that acceptance of things."
Speaking of the British spirit, Park is a little mystified by exactly what, other than understatement and touch of the surreal, that means. He confesses to confusion when people who have seen the new film compare it to any old British thing that pops into their heads, for example "The Benny Hill Show."
"I haven't seen a 'Benny Hill' episode in years," says Park, adding that his influences include not just the classic British comedies out of Ealing Studios, but Hollywood fare as well: "Disney, Chuck Jones, Tom and Jerry, whatever."
Interestingly, though, no Peabody and Sherman, characters from the Jay Ward cartoon series about a hyper-intelligent dog and his less brainy human companion, who seem an obvious cousin of Wallace and Gromit. "I do remember it from when I was a kid," he says, "but it was always on too late for me."
What makes Wallace and Gromit Wallace and Gromit may be hard to define, but it's something Park says he was scrupulous about safeguarding while making his second film for DreamWorks (his first being 2000's "Chicken Run"). Other than changing one word in the American version -- a vegetable is referred to as a "melon" instead of a "marrow," the British name for squash -- Park says there were no compromises to make the film more palatable to Americans. Even under what Park calls sometimes "sharp" criticism from DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg.
"Jeff would see it every 10 weeks or so," Park says. "He'd fly in on his jet, stay for eight hours, watch the reel and make a lot of comments, and then go home again and leave us to it. It was very hands-off, in a way. I mean, there were tensions and differences of opinion, but he would say what his opinion was and not hold us to it."
What about that reference in "Were-Rabbit" to Monterey Jack, that quintessentially California cheese, by Wallace, who up until now seemed to be a diehard fan of the oh-so-English Wensleydale variety? Was this an example of pandering to the U.S. market?
"I just found that funny," Park says. "Do people know that cheese here? I just found that on the Internet and thought the name sounded funny."