Tomm Moore follows up his Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells with another hand-drawn Irish folktale from Cartoon Saloon: Song of the Sea (opening this autumn through Gkids), and we have the first interview and teaser trailer. It’s about the Selkies, mythological creatures that are part seal, part human, and it’s set in 1987, a transitional period for both Ireland and its youthful protagonists.
So tell me about your interest in the Selkies and how you’ve made an animated movie about them.
I had heard plenty of Selkie stories growing up and had seen The Secret of Roan Inish but had not really thought about doing anything with those legends until I spent some time with my family in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland several years ago during the pre-production of The Secret of Kells.My son was 10 at the time and while sketching on the beach together he noticed something rather disturbing — a dead seal floating on the surf.
We asked the woman we rented our holiday cottage from about it and she said that young fishermen in the locality had taken to killing seals, blaming them for the drop in fish stocks — which is of course crazy, as it’s human over fishing that’s killing the industry.
She said years ago that no fisherman would dare harm a seal as there was a widespread believe in Selkies — people who could transform from seal to human form and also a belief that seals could contain the souls of those lost at sea. I began to think about how the old stories served us well in protecting what is truly valuable and important and how by losing these stories we are losing a lot more than just folklore.
When I got back to the studio I was talking about all this to my friend Ross Stewart, who was art director on The Secret of Kells. He lent me a book called The People of the Sea, which was full of stories of Selkies from Ireland and Scotland. Since there was no place in Secret of Kells to properly explore this mythology and these themes, I began to dream up a story about a Selkie and the way we lost so much of our folk wisdom to the modern world.
What’s it about and why did you set it in 1987?
It’s the story of Saoirse, the last Selkie child, and her brother Ben. When their mother disappears they are sent away to live with their grandmother in the city. But on Halloween night they decide to sneak away to get back home to their lighthouse by the sea. On their journey they encounter the forgotten creatures of a fading folklore, and discover that Saoirses song is the key to their survival; however, Saoirse cannot sing or even speak without her Selkie coat, which their father has taken from her for fear of losing her like their mother before her. So it becomes a sort of race against time to reunite her with her coat and save the fairyfolk.
I set it in 1987 because I was 10-years-old then and it’s the time I imagine it as being the transition time in Ireland when the old ways were fading just before the coming of “the Celtic tiger” and all that.
I’ve read you make comparisons to Into the West, My Neighbor Totoro, The Jungle Book, Y.B. Yeats, and modern-day Seanachai.
Well, it’s just a blend of all those influences and more — I loved the themes and adventure in Into the West and wanted to capture some of the whimsy and the insight into Japanese culture at a very specific time and place in Totoro. Jungle Book was a childhood favorite and I wanted to make a film with music that children could really enjoy and sing along with on repeat viewings. Yeats had a very romantic and melancholy sense of the fading of the old beliefs in Ireland that I was also inspired by. Finally, I had always admired Eddie Lenihan, who continued the tradition of the Seanachai or storyteller — he used to be on TV when I was a kid telling stories he had collected from old people and he continues to keep the tradition alive to this day. He even saved a fairy tree from a modern motorway in recent years.