Oscar Wilde short story The Canterville Ghost gets an animated makeover with a star-studded cast in a new film. Its co-writer, Buzz’s own Keiron Self, takes us through the trials and tribulations of making an independent British animated film…
Co-writer Giles New and I were first approached about making a film version of The Canterville Ghost in 2010. We’d been working together on sketch shows for years for the likes of Mitchell & Webb, done a few Shaun The Sheeps, and had numerous TV pilots nearly made. This was to be our first film script.
The Oscar Wilde short story had been adapted several times into feature films and TV series, but never a full-blown animated adventure. It’s the tale of an American family, The Otises, who move into the haunted Canterville Chase and remain unfazed by the ghost of Sir Simon De Canterville as he tries to scare them off his property.
The trick was to take Wilde’s story, written in 1887, and make it contemporary, but not take it out of its time. Certain characters went by the wayside and others were completely invented as we fleshed out a new ending – a third act which would hopefully make the film more satisfying than the abrupt ending to the short story. After several drafts and the backing of Stephen Fry’s company Sprout, the film was underway in 2015. Concept art was created and we recorded a scratch track: a version of the script with cast members to aid the animators in their task of bringing these characters to life.
A dream cast was assembled. Fry, who played Oscar himself in 1997 film Wilde, was Sir Simon, reunited for the first time in decades with comedy partner Hugh Laurie – who would play his nemesis, a mysterious gardener. Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton also signed up, as did Freddie Highmore (just making it big at the time, with Bates Motel). Miranda Hart voiced a new character created for the film, phantasmagorial investigator Algernean.
Giles and I filled out the rest of the voices as best we could, and the film looked set to go ahead. Then came Brexit. Two possible financing options were closed, and The Centerville Ghost film languished in undeveloped hell until 2021.
The chaos of the pandemic brought hope for the film, as animators could work on the project from home. We were greenlit. Across several continents and multiple Zoom calls, designers in New Zealand, animators in India, editors in Ireland and directors in Britain and Germany started coming together to make the film.
And now, after screenings in Cannes and the Annecy Animation Festival, the film has been picked up by Signature Entertainment for release in September 2023, 13 years after its initial conception. It’s been a massive journey, during which another feature film we wrote, A Christmas Number One, was made: the greenlight for that came in the same week as Canterville.
That movie, released in time for Christmas 2021, was shot, edited and on Sky Cinema within six months. Mind you, it was a live-action affair – an animated film is invariably a longer haul. Scenes must be digitally created, characters and locations designed and rendered rather than just shot with actors.
Finally, then – following a gestation period during which my actual children have been through comprehensive school and university – this creative baby is coming into the world. Thanks to the dogged determination of producer Robert Chandler, who has stayed with us throughout the entire process, and the brilliance of so many other people who shaped the film, it is seeing the inside of a darkened cinema: a dream come true for any writer.
The Canterville Ghost is scaring up cinemas from Fri 22 Sept.
words KEIRON SELF