'I was struck by Hergé's illustrations. Without knowing one word of the language, I understood the whole story,' said Steven Spielberg of Tintin. I don’t speak or read French. In 1981, when I saw a review of Raiders of the Lost Ark in a French magazine, I didn’t understand what any of it meant. But I could see one word all over the place: Tintin. So I got the review translated into English, and in a very nice way it said that Raiders was a homage to Tintin’s creator, Hergé.
It suggested that I must have read all of the Belgian artist and writer’s books. In fact, I’d never even seen a Tintin book in my life. So I asked my assistant to go out and buy me a Tintin story, and she chose The Seven Crystal Balls. It was in French – they weren’t translated in the U.S. then – but even though I couldn’t read the text, I was struck by Hergé’s illustrations. They were so evocative of storytelling, plot and character relationships that by the end, without knowing one word of the language, I understood the whole story. I bought all the Tintin books.
I discovered that Tintin is a tenacious young discoverer and investigative reporter. His passion to achieve or uncover a mystery inspired me. I admired how nothing will stop him, and how he has this amazing relationship with the most unlikely partner, Captain Archibald Haddock.
Together they’re the yin and the yang: Tintin is the straight man, Haddock the fall guy – he’s the one who gets cold and drunk and lights a fire in a lifeboat, not realising it’s going to burn a hole in the boat and they’re going to sink. Hergé’s sense of humour was very close to slapstick and the silent movies. The detectives Thomson and Thompson are comedic characters, a double act like Laurel and Hardy.
I said to Kathy (Kennedy), my fellow producer, ‘We’ve got to make this into a movie. Where do we start?’ Kathy said, ‘We start by meeting Hergé.’ So I called him, and we had a wonderful conversation. He told me that he loved Raiders, he said I was the only person who could turn his adventures into a motion picture, and he invited us to meet him. Only a few weeks later he passed away, and I was absolutely devastated. That was in the early Eighties. At the time I was intending to make Tintin as live action – perhaps with Jack Nicholson as Captain Haddock. Roman Polanski, an old friend of mine, was going to come on board and direct one of the films. But I always say, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. I just couldn’t get the screenplay right. So I let the rights expire. It wasn’t until 2001 that I suddenly had an epiphany about how to make Tintin the movie and the whole process started again.
This time, Tintin was to be animated with the aid of motion capture (recording actors’ movements via sensors and using them to animate 3D models on a computer), combining live action and animation. With this method, I was confident that after four minutes of the audience wondering what genre this was, they would forget the medium. It would be like when I saw War Horse on the London stage. There were four puppeteers around each horse and the horses weren’t even realistic – they were impressionistic. Five minutes into War Horse, I stopped watching the puppeteers and I only watched the horses. Six minutes into War Horse, I saw real horses; there were no puppets.
It all comes back to the story and how you involve an audience in your storytelling, how you get them to forget where they are, who’s sitting next to them, they’re in a movie theatre or even that there’s a special effect. They’re simply transported by the experience. I am very nostalgic. I can’t help myself – it’s a wistful moment we all experience where we yearn for a return to our childhoods. If you’re not nostalgic, I don’t think there’s a pill you can take. You are or you aren’t.
For Tintin, 3D was right, but I have strong feelings about the medium. It isn’t right for every film. I would love to see David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 3D. But not Brief Encounter 3D! There are certain movies where 3D gives depth and breadth to the experience. There are other films where 3D removes the intimacy.
When it came to producing Tintin, I wanted Peter Jackson on board. I’m a big fan of his; he has invented some brave new worlds. The first time we met was in front of 800 million people – I opened up an envelope, took out a card and said, ‘And the Oscar goes to…’ And I presented Peter with Best Picture for his third Lord Of The Rings movie. The second time, I didn’t take the most honest route. I didn’t know if Peter had any interest in Tintin, but I commissioned his company, Weta, to do the original motion-capture test to show what Tintin and Snowy would look like. When the film came back I saw a perfect Snowy dressed up in a Captain Haddock costume! I guessed that I had got Peter at least halfway pregnant, so I called and popped the question. Would he be interested in producing the first Tintin movie with me, and, if successful, directing the second? He said, ‘You should see what’s behind me right now. I’m sitting in front of the entire Hergé library containing every single Tintin book.’
Ours was collaboration unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before – except perhaps with George Lucas. It was a real brotherhood. I had no ego. Peter and I shared all major creative decisions, starting with the scripts through to the 31 days on the motion- capture stage and beyond.
Peter is based in Wellington, New Zealand, so we had a live feed between us, and there he was on the television screen in front of me every day. It was usually 3am New Zealand time, so he would be in his pyjamas – him and Hugh Hefner! – mug of tea in hand. I wish there could have been a fly on the wall listening in on the conversations going back and forth between our offices, with us trying to get an exact match for the colours that Hergé used on his palate, trying to pick out minute details that the audience would never even know about, not just to honour Hergé but to represent his world in a photorealistic way. We were sensitive to the diehard fans from the very beginning of this entire endeavor, and throughout every day of the shoot.
For the movie, the Hergé estate gave permission to combine several stories – Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Secret of The Unicorn, already companion pieces, and The Crab with the Golden Claws – so I could show audiences how Tintin and Captain Haddock first met.
Now it’s down to the public to say what they think of Tintin. Who knew anybody would like Jaws? I was 27 years old, I went 100 days over schedule, massively over-budget and I was roasted by the studios, who called me an irresponsible young film-maker. It was a debacle. Who could have guessed the public would embrace Jaws the way they did?