BAFTA – winning screenwriter Sarah Woolner: „With animation, you design your own worlds”

Sarah Woolner

„Sleeping with the Fishes”, the 10 minute story of lonely fishmonger Sonja and her delivery man Bruce, won the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Short earlier this year, on top of many other festival awards and honours. Writer Sarah Woolner, director Yousif Al-Khalifa and producer James Jose Walker met each other and made the film while studying at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. Sarah granted us an interview on writing for animation in general and for „Sleeping with the Fishes” in particular:

Nadia: How is writing for animation different from writing for a live action film?

Sarah: With animation, you can go anywhere, let your imagination run completely wild. You can make up your own rules and design your own worlds more so than in fiction. Saying that, I do love Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN where they do just that.

Nadia: How does the medium influence your storytelling?

Sarah: I have a bad habit of naturally imposing restrictions when it comes to fiction – especially having been involved with so many short films where you have a budget (of usually next to nothing!), so you have to be considerate of productions costs etc. There are no restrictions when writing for animation. If I want to create a character who has a cello growing out of his back and she lives in sheets of music then I can. That was a previous idea, by the way, not as random as it might sound!

Nadia: Where do you draw your ideas from?

Sarah: I recently met a 97 year-old woman at a party. She asked me to refill her glass of wine – I did, four times. It transpired that back in the day her family were big players in the brass business and she was on a salary as a sales representative. When her brother took over the business he accused her of not doing enoughm so she offered to work on a commission only basis. She was, in fact their highest earner but her brother never acknowledged this. It still affects her that he never said „well done”.Her story struck a chord with me, I could resonate with it in my own way and I am sure it will surface in my work down the line.

So, to answer your question: my ideas are inspired by people. Their lives, their stories.  As a child, we moved around quite a bit, so I  experienced many different environments and situations. I had a very colourful childhood meeting people from all walks of life. A combination of always being the new kid at school and coming from a large family of storytellers where you could hardly get a word in edgeways meant I watched and listened instead.

Nadia: If/when you experience writer’s block, how do you fight it?

Sarah: I normally walk. Sitting and staring at a screen is no good. Walking and thinking go hand in hand. I often find myself walking to the shop to buy an ice cream.

Nadia: What’s the first thing you put on paper when you start writing a story?

Sarah: Sometimes typing a long document can be too daunting and I become obsessed with the details, often missing the bigger picture. If I had the space I would create a story wall to throw ideas at, literally – like throwing paint bombs. I love using visuals – photographs, paintings, images that stir me. My new revelation is an index cards application on my iPad. I use to scribble ideas for scenes and dialogue on paper or in my notebook, but I’d lose track of the cards or they would end up in the bin. Having electronic cards means I have a permanent record that won’t get lost on my messy desk and I can move the cards about, delete or add notes to. The cards really help me to organise my thoughts and it’s very satisfying to see a shape emerge.

Nadia: What kind of animation do you like?

Sarah: I am a big fan of hand drawn, 2D. I love the subtlety, texture and movement.

Nadia: Can you think of an animated film that you admire for the quality of its writing?

Sarah: „The Old Lady and The Pigeons” by Sylvain Chomet  is my favorite animated short- the story is simple with a satisfying twist that leaves a wry smile on my face. I am really drawn to the bizarre world that they created.

Nadia: Can you tell us about the process of developing the script for „Sleeping with the Fishes”? How did you get the idea and how did the story shape up?

Sarah: At first, Yousif [Al-Khalifa, the film’s director], James [Jose Walker, the producer] and I went on a couple of day trips together to get to know one another a little more and to explore each other’s interests. I remember visiting Brighton where we spent half the day at a flea market on St James’s street, trawling through old photographs and various other items. We spent the other half in the police station because Yousif had his phone stolen! You never know where or what will spark an idea….We also shared animations, live fiction films and stories that inspired us.

We had 12 ideas on the table but nothing was quite working. Then, it was the evening before we were due to green-light an idea and I remember panicking that we didn’t have anything. My mind was working on overdrive and suddenly this oddball, introverted fishmonger, Sonja snuck in. I quickly sketched out the story – and of course, to begin with there was way too much, so began the process of whittling it down and reshaping with a ten minute film in mind.

It was a very collaborative process with input from the whole team and thankfully for everyone – especially Yousif who was going to be locked in his animation room for a year with [the characters] Sonja and Bruce, the story seemed to fit everything we had discussed – thematically, stylistically and tonally.

Sleeping with the Fishes 1

Nadia: How does the finished project compare to the initial idea, how much did it change?

Sarah: Although the core remained intact, scenes were ever-changing. Despite writing a few drafts, Yousif didn’t want to work with a traditional script as such. The animatic was the most important ‘draft’ where we could see holes and whether an emotional beats were reading. Then it was back to the drawing board, imagining new scenes.

Sleeping with the Fishes 2

Sleeping with the Fishes 3

Nadia: What effect did winning a BAFTA have on your work?

Sarah: I am still working odd jobs to live whilst juggling with my writing, but of course the BAFTA helps. I suppose the industry see it as a sort of validation and might take you more seriously. I’ll let you know. And my bank manager!