How did you finally settle on a film about pirates?
We were talking about pirates a long time ago. When these books by Gideon Defoe came along, that was it, all the possibilities opened up. It’s not just about pirates, it’s about creating a world set in an unspecified past – or “the olden days” to give it its technical title. It was so liberating for me to see the pirate world treated in such a fun, irreverent manner. When I first read the books, I had my creative director hat on. I thought: I’ll have that. If I don’t direct this, then some other bugger will.
Was it always going to be a stop-motion film? Or did you consider going down the CG route?
We’re a highly evolved stop-motion organism. It’s what we do better than anybody else. Right at the outset, I did think of doing this one in CG because of its ambition. But I’m happy with what we landed on. And I suspect that making a stop-motion film is more fun than making a CG film. But don’t tell anyone.
Has the stop-frame process become any easier over the years?
Actually, it is really easy now. Just yesterday, I was sitting in this very room looking at footage. And something had happened in the background: the lights had moved. Ten years ago, it would have been, “Aww gawd, the lights moved! Get ready to go again...”. Now, if that happens, we laugh. We can fix it. In the past, when I was checking shots, half my attention involved scanning the frame to see what had gone wrong, which is a very negative way to work. Now, you only have to think about the performance. Everything else is fixable.
Did you always have Hugh Grant in mind to play The Pirate Captain?
He was cast pretty early on, but no, the character wasn’t designed for him. When he came on board, we let him improvise a bit, as you always get good stuff that way. I remember he added a rather lovely “well, duh!” to the end of one line. It felt audacious to have Hugh as a pirate. But Pirates! is a comedy, not an action film. It was especially fun trying out accents with him. I’ll never forget his attempts at West Country.
Did you watch lots of pirate films prior to making this one?
There’s vague references to pirate movies of a certain era, like the Disney Treasure Island (1950), Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood (1935) and The Crimson Pirate (1952). But I’ve tried to avoid doing the shot-for-shot name check thing. Nick Park loves to do that, especially with Wallace & Gromit, but it didn’t seem right for this.
In the film, one character says ‘arse’ and another says ‘crap’. Is this the dawn of a saltier Aardman?
No, no, no! David Tennant saying “arse” in a very posh voice just seems terribly funny. We had a meeting the other day, and were told it’s getting a U certificate. We all said, “What?!! They say ‘arse’ and kill people!” I didn’t know you could do all that in a U, but apparently you can. In an early test cut, we had the Sex Pistols’ “Friggin’ in the Riggin’” as our theme tune, which is not just rude but utterly obscene. Even that looked funny and innocent. I think it’s very hard to offend people with these characters.