The creators behind Snowtime! talk about the challenges of tinkering with an emotional strand of the Quebec’s cultural DNA, and getting Celine Dion onboard to sing about loss
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UT — The footsteps they chose to follow were Yeti-sized craters, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers behind Snowtime! from recreating one of the most popular films in Canadian history.
Originally released as a live action feature in 1984, La guerre des tuques went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year in both English and French Canada with well over a $1.2 million in domestic receipts, not to mention several more million in ancillary merchandize in the years that would follow as the film became the go-to Christmas season broadcast — the Rudolph or Frosty for French-Canada.
“What you have to understand is this is part of the DNA of the quebec people,” said producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp, who sat down with The Ex-Press during the recent Sundance Film Festival, where Snowtime! made its U.S. premiere as part of the Sundance Kids program.
Beauchamp said she had been closely allied with the original, selling it to school boards back in the day, so when she was approached about a remake, she was ecstatic — but also slightly intimidated by the task of tinkering with an entire generation’s precious memory.
“Rock Demers produced the film 30 years ago, and on the 25th anniversary of the film, he received a petition that had the signatures of 11,000 fans who wanted to see the film remade,” says Beauchamp.
“And if the original had lasted 30 years, he wanted to see a remake that would last another 30 more. And the best way of doing that was through animation. It’s the best way of communicating the message and values of the film to a new generation around the world.”
Though Beauchamp says it wasn’t exactly easy to pull the financing together, she did assemble a team of top-notch creatives to climb aboard, including co-directors Jean-Francois Pouliot (La Grande Seduction) and Francois Brisson (Gene Fusion), actor Sandra Oh, writer Paul Risacher and even the grand diva herself, Celine Dion, who sings the theme song for the soundtrack.
“Celine wasn’t easy to get,” says Beauchamp. “But because the original theme song was so well known, we knew we needed a big star to re-record it. And she thought about it for about a year. But strangely enough, after she agreed, we’d written a new song for the new movie and she listened to that one. And that song was about loss but also hope, and given everything she was going through in her life at that time, she really related to it.”
The song is called Hymn, and it provides the emotional finale for the film that pushes at some of the traditional boundaries of kids’ movies and all the Disney expectations that come with the form. Death enters the frame, and while some buyers balked at the edges of the plot, Beauchamp says there was no way they could alter the emotional core of the film by sanitizing the tragedy at its centre.
“This film became a classic in Quebec because people remembered [the loss]. So many people would tell me they loved the film, but could we just change the ending? And we couldn’t. That’s what people remembered about it.”
“Celine wasn’t easy to get… But strangely enough, after she agreed, we’d written a new song for the new movie and she listened to that one. And that song was about loss but also hope, and given everything she was going through in her life at that time, she really related to it.”
Yet, in the translation from live-action to animation, they did have to retool some of the elements of the plot. For instance, we don’t see a single grown-up in this film. Much like the Peanuts’ universe, this is a world unto itself.
“I started from the position of what was my life like as a kid?” says screenwriter Paul Risacher. “Grown-ups were around, but I was really more interested in what the other kids were doing. The only thing grown-ups did was feed us.”
Risacher says he’s happy to throw a snowball in the face of current “helicopter” parenting techniques because at the end of the day, this is a story about taking responsibility for your actions, and facing the consequences of, well, war — because that’s what this movie takes on, albeit in primary colours.
The plot is simple: The kids in a snowy town split up into two teams and start a snowball fight that continues to escalate — with dire consequences.
“So the original also had kids riding without a helmet on Skidoos, which we didn’t keep, for obvious reasons,” she laughs. “But the idea of danger and tragedy is very much there.”
Risacher says he’s proud of the fact parents are absent. “These are free-range kids. There is no god coming down and telling the kids what to do, or solving their problems for them. The kids have to find their own solutions and problem solve, which I think is far more empowering than scooping them up and rescuing them from every situation.”
Co-director Francois Brisson agrees, and says the idea of a hermetically sealed kid-planet that would be universally understood guided his choices for the animation.
“We knew we needed a strong visual style. And we also needed to keep the idea of this snowy place, and all the details of snow that we understand as Quebecers. We know snow isn’t really white but blue or green, and the skies have different tones in winter than they do in summer,” he says.
“We even had about 15 different sound effects for the footsteps, depending on the kind of snow they are walking in.”
In order to make sure they were paying homage to the original, the team also travelled to the Charlevoix region, north of Montreal, where the original film was shot in the early 1980s.
“The architecture is very unique, and we needed to create a whole town that felt real. So we really used that as our model because it wasn’t just the place where they made the original, it’s also very beautiful and has a storybook quality. Everything looks like a painting, and we’re very proud of that.”
The crew even enlisted actors for some performance-capture to make sure they got the winter feel in the muscular movements of the characters. After all, we don’t walk the same way in minus thirty as we do in the summer, and we all remember the wobbly hobble of being a kid in a one-piece snowsuit.
“The only thing we really changed was the pacing,” says Beauchamp, who already has a sequel featuring the pre-school characters in the pipeline. “Before, you could have a scene that lasted ten minutes and it felt natural. Now, the way kids read and watch films, you have to make it quicker. That doesn’t mean we cut, cut, cut… it just means tightened it up. We changed a few details… but the core of the film is the same. It’s still a kids movie about loss, and hope… and facing the consequences of your actions.”
Snowtime! opens wide in English Canada February 12. The soundtrack featuring Celine Dion, A Simple Plan, Walk Off the Earth, Marie-Mai and Groenland is available now on Sony.
To watch the trailer, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, February 11, 2016