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Female empowerment before its time

Female empowerment before its time

All art is work in progress © Maybe Movies

WeAnimate 2024-01-22 | wam#0027

Following 2015’s well-received feature Long Way North, renowned Danish animation production company Nørlum is working with French director Rémi Chayé for the second time. Once again, the focus is on a young female heroine battling the odds of the surrounding world: Calamity Jane will bring to light elements of the childhood and youth of a certain Martha Jane Cannary before she became the titular American frontierswoman.

It is hard to come up with a more essentially American genre than the western, but thinking back on well-known cartoon westerns, Lucky Luke comes to mind as one of the most popular of all time. Yet, like upcoming animated feature Calamity Jane (2020), Lucky Luke was the brainchild of European artists, not American. Danish producer Claus Toksvig (b. 1977) gives out one of his hearty laughs when asked about the challenge his European co-production team might face once they bring their upcoming feature about one of the most mythical figures of the Wild West to screens in the US: “I have talked to my American friends about this project, and they are very excited to see a European take on the character’s origin story. I feel the pressure from this, because we need to do these expectations justice and as Europeans respect that this is American source material.”

The story will start out in 1863 when the young Martha Jane needs to learn the ropes in taking care of horses to drive the family wagon during a convoy in the American West. In the process, she ends up wearing pants and cutting her hair, very much going against the societal limitations put upon girls and women at the time. Toksvig explains that the film’s director Rémi Chayé (b. 1968) “loves strong female characters and female arcs that venture out against the impossible and overcome inner demons or outer obstacles. Even though Long Way North took place in Russia, and Calamity Jane will be set in the Old West, the two narratives have a lot in common in this regard: They are both about being female during times when women did not have a lot of say.” Toksvig has known Chayé since 2006 and points out that the Frenchman “always had this focus and drive in his wish to tell stories. Right now, the theme of female empowerment is becoming popular in filmmaking, but Chayé was very much ahead of the current trend. He worked on Long Way North for nearly 10 years before it came out, and he really believed in its message all along.”

Toksvig describes Chayé as one of those rare animation filmmakers who also happens to be an excellent animator and layouter himself, a fact that is keeping his production teams on their toes and bringing the best out in them: “On Long Way North, I had some crew members come to me and say ‘He is really hard to please, because he can do animation so much better himself’, but the upside to that is that while he can be demanding to work for, it is also a chance for people to learn a lot from him.” To prepare the film, Chayé and his concept artists went on a research trip to the US to various sites relating to American frontier history


Even though the story in the film as such is fictional, Chayé did extensive research on the character and her time, and he found inspiration for the visual settings of the film in the locations he visited.

All art is work in progress © Maybe Movies

Thematically entering American domain, Toksvig views Calamity Jane as an exciting new challenge for Viborg-based studio Nørlum after the notable successes of Song of the Sea (2014), which was nominated for an Oscar and won the European Film Award for Best Animated Feature, and Long Way North, respectively. While Song of the Sea included no less than five co-producing countries, Calamity Jane will repeat the two-country production set-up that brought Long Way North to life. “Usually, Nørlum gets involved once there is a final script in place and some financing onboard. We had a hope that (French production company, ed.) Maybe Movies and Chayé would come back to us after working so well together on Long Way North,” Toksvig says and adds that fortunately, the timing was right for reuniting on the new project. “With Long Way North, we made a great film together, such a beautiful, accomplished first film from Chayé. That experience creates trust and confidence in our current collaboration.”

Toksvig and Nørlum’s role regarding Calamity Jane is to be a producing partner, contributing with animation and compositing, which is about to begin. Compared to the five countries involved in making Song of the Sea, Toksvig finds that having just Denmark and France onboard simplifies many matters. Being just two countries, it does take more effort to drum up promotion and attention, but all in all, he is pleased with the set-up and to be able to prove that it is possible to make ambitious, stand-out films on smaller-scale productions. “I remain very proud of Song of the Sea, not least because it was Nørlum’s first co-produced feature film. But it also set the bar high for what we can deliver,” Toksvig points out to put things into perspective.

Calamity Jane is aiming to premiere in the summer of 2020, with Toksvig hopeful of a launch at Annecy, where Long Way North premiered in 2015 and took away the audience award (as well as the Grand Prize at Tokyo Anime the following year). “Annecy is definitely a festival we love very much,” he notes. French sales agent outfit Indie Sales is already onboard Calamity Jane, and Toksvig is looking forward to hearing the company’s ideas for promoting and selling the film when that time comes. Asked which age group might be the main target audience for the film, Toksvig argues that as was the case with Long Way North, Chayé does not think along such terms: “He intends his stories for everyone to enjoy, independent of age. I very much hope that Calamity Jane will be a film for the whole family to take something from. In any case, I think it is safe to say that children nowadays form a much more sophisticated audience than back when I was a child, for instance.”

What might appeal to people today in the story of a young girl from the Old West? Toksvig finds that he likes exactly the fact that it is not a modern story: “It tells of a former kind of world where it was a different game of life: It was not so much about what kind of mobile phone you have, it was about making a living and supporting your family. Naturally, those basic values are still present today, but we tend to forget about them in our modern life where we have so many things to choose from. In this way, I feel that the story in Calamity Jane can be inspirational to the kids and people in general today. In addition, currently cinema tends to be dominated by superheroes and science fiction, and I feel that this film will counter that trend in its own way. Finally, this is a genuinely untold story.”  Toksvig describes the overall tone of the film as a coming-of-age drama, but sprinkled with many funny moments and also influenced by lots of cool characters around the protagonist. The Danish producer hopes that Calamity Jane will come out on a big scale, not least in the US. In fact, he recently attended SXSW festival in Austin, Texas and presented the project to visitors at a Scandinavian event there. For the curious reader, an intriguing two-years-old conceptual teaser trailer of Calamity Jane can be found on Maybe Movies’ Vimeo site.


All art is work in progress © Maybe Movies

© Maybe Movies


Text: Allan Sørensen


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