The mischievous monkey Curious George made his first appearance more than 75 years ago and has been entertaining readers young and old ever since. If not for a pair of handmade bicycles, however, the beloved children’s book character might never have made it out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Brought to life with whimsical animation, MONKEY BUSINESS celebrates the power of storytelling as it recounts how refugee couple Hans and Margret Rey created an enduring classic.
NFF: Did you read Curious George growing up? Did you know much about the history of Hans and Margret or the books prior to working on the film?
Ema: Yes, I read Curious George growing up in Japan. I just assumed he was a Japanese monkey, and it was only many years later when I realized he was so international. I didn't know anything about the authors of Curious George - I think we rarely get the chance to ask, "who wrote our great children's books?' and once I asked, what I found was incredible.
NFF: Why and/or how did you make the decision to incorporate animation into the storytelling?
Ema: We decided that we wanted to tell the story by asking ourselves, "How would have Hans and Margret told their own story?" Since they had created such an iconic illustrated world, it was natural for us to look to animation to create parts of their story also. We decided to animate the anecdotes they told about their lives, while using archival footage to provide a context of the times they lived in. Sometimes, like when they were escaping from the Nazis, the stories they told and the reality of what it must have been like, were not the same. We wanted to highlight this visually by using mixed-media.
NFF: Both Hans and Margret had talents and interests in other areas - do you think had they been born in another time they still would have found their way to writing childrens' books
Ema: Great question. Hans was curious about everything not only was an artist but and had an academic mind - he was interested in being a doctor when he was young, and later on his life wrote books about stars and constellations. Margret also studied various things, including advertising and photography. It's hard to know if at a different time they would have still ended up writing children's books, but it's certain that their chosen profession, and the fact that they worked together, brought out the best in each other. Hans was so gifted but lacked the discipline that Margret brought to the team. He drew and came up with the ideas, while, she did the writing and editing, as well negotiated all the deals with the publishers.
NFF: What surprised or challenged you the most while you were making the film?
Ema: This being my first feature documentary, there were many challenges in the project. I had to figure out a way to fund the film without letting go of the creative vision I had for the film. We did a Kickstarter campaign that was harder than any other aspect of making the film. We raised over $186,000 from almost 1500 supporters, and receiving so much support gave me even more motivation to get the film done and to do it well. I also ended up directing, producing and editing the film, even though as an editor I always tell my directors to hire a separate editor. So in coming up with the structure of the film I sometimes got lost. Although we ended up with an 80 minute film, I remember I thinking at a certain moment "maybe the film should just be five minutes long..." I'm glad I had a team of collaborators helping me through everything, particularly in those darker moments.
NFF: Why are you excited to show the film in Nantucket, and/or what do you hope Nantucket audiences will take away?
Ema: I very much hope that the audience in Nantucket will enjoy and be inspired by the story we are telling. Very little was known about the Curious George authors, and they are people worth knowing. They were as adventurous and resilient as the little monkey the created, and their optimism and curiosity triumphed over the life-threatening situations they faced. I also hope the audience enjoys the way we chose to tell the story with the mix-media elements of the animation and archival materials.