Whether it’s Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman or Ursula Le Guin, you may consider yourself a super-fan of an author. But have you dedicated 15 years of your life to making an entirely crowdfunded film adaptation of their work? Thought not. Sit down, mate.
In 2011, production began on a short film called Troll Bridge, an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett story in which an ageing barbarian seeks adventure and meaning in an unfamiliar new age. With a production team of unpaid volunteers that spanned the globe, the film’s ambitions grew, eventually extending its run time to 25 minutes.
We caught up with director Daniel Knight to find out more about his epic quest, which may just be the most elaborate and ambitious fan film ever made.
Tom: Can you describe your first encounter with Discworld? What it is that continues to captivate you about Pratchett’s stories?
Daniel: I was first introduced to Pratchett and Discworld through the Stephen Briggs theatrical adaptation of Mort. Stephen had somehow managed to compress and translate a piece of modern fantasy fiction for the stage, and sell the impossibilities of that world with very little other than lighting, sound and dialogue. The show was about Death taking on an apprentice, and training him in how to usher souls into the afterlife, and it was incredibly funny and I was hooked. Blak Yak Theatre produced it and I soon found myself involved in five of their Discworld productions. For some reason they let me direct two of them. My introduction to Discworld was entirely through performance.
I was already a big fantasy nerd by the time I discovered the plays, and Terry’s ability to subvert the genre and tropes was a magnetic pull for me. I love cluttered worlds where anything is possible. As I grew up, so did Terry’s writing, and soon I found myself staying for the characters, who all now feel like close friends.
Tom: There have been several attempts to bring Terry Pratchett’s work to the screen, but results have been mixed. Why do you think capturing the tone of his work has been such a challenge for filmmakers?
Daniel: I think the trick is in the balancing of humour and drama. Terry is capable of being very dark about things… and these dark things are often real things, and real things have a weight about them.
The cartoons were aimed at a young demographic, and the telemovies were all (I believe) holiday releases, so there is a great importance on these movies being accessible by all on free to air TV across multiple markets. On TV the tonal balance differs from the books in that it needs to favour the fantastical, rather than the dramatically deep stuff. Troll Bridge would be terrible on TV, it’s far too sombre.
That said, I’ve personally loved the telemovies and cartoons for focusing on the strengths of their platform – I think they’re great fun.
Tom: What were the biggest challenges for the production teams?
Daniel: Without a shadow of doubt, the film’s greatest success story is the team itself – particularly in post-production, but this was no-less true for the rest of production. Post, however, had the extra difficulty in not existing in the same space as the rest of the team at any one time. The producer and I are in Melbourne, our VFX Supervisor is in LA, our composting supervisors in London and Canberra, and everyone else in between. We have a lot of crew in Germany, and around Spain, and have people in Moscow, Sao Paulo, Vancouver, Wellington, Dubai… all over the place, just over 300 of them all working towards a singular objective through email and Skype, and some software called Shotgun Studio which makes it all easier.
It’s mad, and incredible, daunting and humbling. I still can’t believe how lucky we have been with our talent pool. I’m very proud of the coordinated effort that made all of this work, it required a great deal of sacrifice and singular determination, from a great many people.
Tom: Terry Pratchett left behind an enormous body of work. What particularly attracted you to this story?
Daniel: It’s one of the few short Discworld stories he wrote, so that helped greatly in reducing my list for something time appropriate. Anything bigger would spin us into feature territory, which was beyond our scope at that time. Of his shorts, I felt it was Troll Bridge that I could contribute the most to as a director. It satirised Conan, Lord of the Rings and Three Billy Goats Gruff and I knew enough about each that I felt I could appropriately tell these stories using the same shortcuts and filmic grammar Terry might have were he a filmmaker. Where he used literal shortcuts, we used cinematic ones, stealing design and filmic cues from Peter Jackson and John Milius. I’d watched these films a thousand times, and I was obsessed by fairy-tales, it felt like a comfortable fit.
The mix of these worlds provided the backdrop to what is essentially an extremely personal tale for the lead character as he comes to grips with aging. Obviously the physical issues, but more the fact that the world has seemingly changed under his feet overnight. The age of heroes has fallen. I liked the idea of telling something so small, so stupidly large. It is Cohen the Barbarian after all, even his small thoughts are large scale.
Tom: It must be extraordinary to dedicate 15 years of your life to a project like this, and to now be so close to the end. Looking back, is there any advice that you would now give to yourself at the start of the process?
Daniel: Leave less things to the courtesy of others. And teach yourself to roto!
Tom: I understand that Terry Pratchett contributed some dialogue to the production. How much direct influence did he have over the film?
Daniel: Hah! The dialogue he wrote was in response to my throwing down the gauntlet to him. He chided that he could have written some additional guard chatter better than I had. Obviously I agreed.
Terry was around for 12 of the 15 years we worked on this, and watched it grow and develop as the team did. He was incredibly encouraging and only wanted the best for the show… what small involvement he could afford was fuel for many of the crew working on this, myself included.
The last time I saw him was in 2014, and I think it’s fair to say he was ecstatic with its progress. I wish more than anything we had been quicker with the film, I miss him very much.
Tom: I imagine it’s a little difficult to see past a project you’ve been attached to for 15 years, but are there any other future projects that you would like to talk about?
Daniel: Oh, there are so many, but I’ve no idea which one will land first! Mayan astronauts, faulty escape pods, steampunk dream fridges, more Discworld gods willing, a survival story on my favourite explorer… whatever it ends up being I can’t wait to dive in!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Daniel for taking the time to talk to us! Troll Bridge is currently submitting to festivals worldwide. You can find out more about the film here and follow Snowgum Studios on Twitter for updates.