An animated adaptation of the Oscar Wilde short story, The Canterville Ghost (Cert PG, 88mins) will take to the big screen from September 22. Directed by Kim Burdon & Robert Chandler and adapted for screen by Keiron Self and Giles New, the new adaptation reunites Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie alongside a fantastic voice cast in a spooky animated adventure.
The poor ghost of Sir Simon Canterville has been roaming his castle searching in vain for a brave descendant who will release him from the Canterville curse by performing a brave deed. An American family moves in and finds the ghost amusing, but a young girl in the family can release him – if she dares.
Known also for his stage and screen credits including My Family, High Hopes and The Martin Decker Show, actor, director and The Canterville Ghost writer Keiron Self recently discussed the new film with Andy Howells.
The last time I saw you on stage was in The Black Rat production of ART at the RWCMD. That was back in 2019, before the pandemic, but you’ve been quite busy since then.
As a writer, the work didn’t stop which was great and bizarrely in 2020 we had 2 films greenlit in the same week. I write with Giles New. We were at Welsh college together back in the 90s and we’ve been writing together ever since. Mostly TV sketch shows including Mitchell and Webb and a couple of Shaun the Sheep‘s. We’d end up writing sitcom pilots and then get to a stage when then that would stop, and we’d have to start again. We’d had quite a lot of years of frustration with that.
Then, we started writing films. The opportunity to write The Canterville Ghost came about because we were working on a project for Disney. As a result of that, we met a guy called Robert Chandler who asked, if we’d be interested in writing The Canterville Ghost, an Oscar Wilde short story. It has been done as live action in the past, but never animated. The beginnings of that were back in 2010. Now it’s going to be out on September 22. So, it’s been a long process!
What’s the difference writing for animation as opposed to a live action? I suppose with animation your imagination knows no ends.
Yes, it’s great because you can do anything, but they must work out exactly what happens before they draw everything or CGI it. In terms of planning it, it’s not something that can be off-the-cuff like we did with the other film which got green lit the same week, A Christmas Number One, which is on Sky Cinema which was all live action. That was greenlit in the April, and then on television by Christmas, so slightly different lengths of time there!
The Canterville Ghost is a British independent animated film, meaning that the money is coming from so many places. Because of Brexit, it fell through a couple of times because we couldn’t get European money in the same way. That happened a couple of times. During lockdown, animators could still work from home. So, it proved to be more of an attractive prospect at that time (Not that, it wasn’t an attractive prospect, anyway). But I think that sort of maybe Turbo-charged it and made it more viable during that time.
Stephen Fry is in it with Hugh Laurie, the first time they’ve worked together since they did Fry and Laurie and Wooster back in the day. I’m gobsmacked with the people they managed to get. Toby Jones, Imelda Staunton, Miranda Hart, David Harewood, Meerah Syall, Freddie Highmore and Emily Carey who’s just been in House of the Dragon. It’s great!
And you’re in it as well?
Yes! Making sort of occasional noises now and again, like the crowd! (Keiron voices Lord Monroe too). It’s been quite a ride and we’re just amazed that it’s finally happened. Also, we’ve just found out that it’s got distribution in America. So, it’s going to be in cinemas in America around Halloween, which is brilliant.
Because The Canterville Ghost is based on an Oscar Wilde short story have you had to embellish bits for the film to make it a little more dynamic for today’s audiences?
The Oscar Wilde short story basically doesn’t have a third act. It’s about a ghost who has been in Canterville Chase. and has been a resident spirit for years, scaring off people who come and live there. At the turn of the century, some Americans come, take over the house, and they’re not scared of him. He then has a crisis about what his point is. We find out why he’s trapped there, what his backstory is, and he eventually enlists the help of the daughter of the family, Virginia Otis, which is voiced by Emily Carey to help him. We’ve created a whole new third act, and a character for Hugh Laurie who plays a big part in in the final section.
We did have to change quite a bit, but there are a few lines from Oscar Wilde still in it. The Wilde purists will probably be very cross, but also we make it family friendly and make sure it still works.
There’s been a fair number of live action versions. It’s quite a tricky balance deciding what to do at the end. There’s a whole bit that happens off screen that we never really find out about, and it’s brushed away with. “I’ll tell you about all that when you’re older,” it’s like, “Tell us what happened?” I think Oscar Wilde probably went, “I don’t know!” We’ve written something that probably works and makes the most of having an animated film. There’s a big sequence which, involves fighting death in various guises which is a bit more cinematic maybe than just, “I’ll tell you about it later!”
What were your earliest aspirations for writing? How have you balanced it with acting?
I guess from university onwards I’ve always written and then I found with Giles New who I’ve written with since university, we both went to Welsh College in Cardiff as actors and wrote cabaret shows. Then we started writing sketches. We did several series of a sketch show in Wales called Lucky Bag, and wrote stuff for Radio 4, then Mitchell and Webb.
Giles was in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. the opening tour of We Will Rock You and Blues Brothers, while I was doing My Family and High Hopes. We’d also do stage work and get together when we could. Then, of course, we had children, so it was harder to do that. So, we were writing over the phone, cradling phones in our necks. Now he lives in Hove near Brighton and I’m in Cardiff. We normally write over Skype most days when we’ve got deadlines. We’ve always written alongside acting work, but it’s started that we can now get paid for this, or better paid maybe! The acting world is very topsy turvy. So, there’s always writing to fall back on. We were lucky enough to meet some great producers like Robert Chandler and Gareth Edwards, who used to be at the BBC in that we have got stuff made or nearly made!
The life of a writer is often just as frustrating as that of an actor, in that it is like two industries where you can be completely frustrated at every turn. It’s great to have the opportunity to make scripts and being paid for developing scripts. Not getting them made at the final furlong is often a little bit heart-breaking, especially when you’ve put 2 or 3 years of your life into that. Then suddenly, it’s no, we’ve moved on!
With The Canterville Ghost, it was 13 years from inception. We’ve always gone, “is it going to happen? I don’t know!” We did the first draft 2011/2012. I remember Hugh Laurie been on The One Show, or something like that, and he was saying, “Oh, my next project is The Canterville Ghost.” and that was back in 2014!
Bless the producer, Robert who has stuck with it. It’s been made for a fraction of the price of most animated films. Very much a low budget independent British film, it was designed in New Zealand, animated in India, directed from London and Germany, then edited in Ireland. It’s been a lot of getting people together to try and sort it out.
We’ve been lucky at been kept on board throughout the process. Robert’s been great at including us. We’ve had to adapt things and rewrite lines. We’ve done scratch track; we voiced the entire film before the professionals came in. It’s all about doing stuff to lip movements that have been animated. Sometimes they don’t quite work. It’s all a learning curve and fascinating to be involved in every stage of development, which has been a joy. It’s been frustrating at times. But now that it’s finally happened. I just hope people go see it and enjoy it, because it’s out of our hands completely! (Laughs).
- The Canterville Ghost is on general release across cinemas from 22 September, 2023 while Signature Entertainment presents The Canterville Ghost on Digital Platforms 6 November.