When I first spot Nick Park at Aardman’s Bristol studios, he’s on screen leading a caveman dance with a bearskin slung over his sensible shirt. A colleague waddles slightly in a pear shaped fatsuit, while a third shakes a makeshift spear.
“Oh, you saw one of our home movies,” laughs Park. “I end up making these live-action videos to help the creative directors and the animators. It’s the easiest way to convey the tone and the gestures and let everyone know what’s exactly in my head for the characters.”
Here is what has been going on in Nick Park’s head for the last five years: the adventure of a geeky caveman called Dug and his harp-plucking pet hog Hognob, and the comic potential of early man putting down his club, and joining a football club instead.
Park and Aardman are one of the great British success stories, moulding British eccentricity out of Plasticine and stop-motion animation, which is perhaps the slowest, most labour-intensive artistic activity since the building of the pyramids. Park joined the company in the mid-1980s when he was a student. He’s now 59, and although he has won four Academy Awards and five BAFTAS for Creature Comforts , The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run, he remains both boyishly self-effacing, and prone to the nervous laughter and trailing sentences of a shy teen.
This is the first Park-directed production since Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death a decade ago, and when I visit Aardman, it is tribal hive of activity. There are teeny, meticulously-constructed props, and the costume department is very keen to show off its wardrobe of prehistoric furs. Where The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) used 28 sets, Early Man uses 40 little curtained cubicles containing primitive villages, a dinosaur fight, and a magnificent gilded coliseum which turns out to be man’s first football stadium. Shooting two or three seconds on these sets can take an animator two days.
Signs of Park’s exuberant love affair with puns are everywhere. In a café, a notice invites lonely hearts to sign up to Carbon Dating. At a Bronze Age market, the butcher sells Jurassic Pork, and on the way to the stadium, you pass a zebra crossing made of real zebra. “I love to make the art department laugh,” admits Park.
Everywhere are images of the Early Man heroes and its villains. The cavemen look cheerfully shaggy; the film’s youthful hero Dug is voiced by Eddie Redmayne, after Park saw him play a shy novice monk in the medieval horror, Black Death. Treebor is a giant mummy’s boy, played by IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade. Mark Williams is neanderthal Barry, whose best friend is a rock, and their leader is Chief Bobnar sounds like an exasperated Timothy Spall. Park himself provides the voice of Hognob - “he’s mostly grunts, a bit Scooby Doo”
The main villain in the story is bald, overweight small-handed Lord Nooth, unexpectedly played by Tom Hiddleston, who likes to joke that, “Nick Park is the first man to see me as I am”. An avaricious, self-important middle-manager is quite a leap from Hiddleston’s suave Night Manager, but an appearance on The Graham Norton Show doing impressions of Hollywood stars convinced Park that Hiddleston could be useful vocal support.
“I needed someone who could do accents, so when I saw Tom doing DeNiro in front of Robert DeNiro, I thought ‘he’d be worth a look’. Tom is very clever, and he can do anyone.” Park pauses, and giggles: “I couldn’t use them, but he does a fantastic Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.”
Early on, it was decided that Early Man’s prehistoric tribe would be British, while their more sophisticated Bronze Age antagonists would be European, a joke that even played well with StudioCanal, Aardman’s French distribution partners. However at the dawn of Early Man production, no-one had reckoned on Brexit throwing a new interpretation on the Brits vs Europe interplay.
“I don’t want Early Man to be a flag for a kind of nationalism that is anti-European, especially in the current climate,” sighs Park. “My film is more about football rivalries – although it’s not about FIFA either,” he adds. “But there are probably more parallels with FIFA making money out of the beautiful game here than anything else.”
“In fact, at one point we did ask Tom Hiddleston to do an English voice, just to see if that would calm things, and take away a sense of a particular political stance. But an English villain felt too obvious and typical. And it was just funnier when Tom was French. Even StudioCanal said, ‘Oh, it’s a pity you lost the French accent.’ So we changed it back again.”
Park is not a massive football fan himself, but there are in-jokes scattered throughout Early Man for the faithful. Making Maisie Williams’s Gooner a Stone Age football coach also let him direct attention to women’s football.
Naturally, movie references abound: the finest of previous Wallace and Gromit movies, A Close Shave took notes from Brief Encounter. The feature-length Chicken Run was an extended spoof on prisoner-of-war pictures. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit sent up Universal’s werewolf pictures, King Kong, Frankenstein and The Fly, and the inspirations for Early Man are cave man epics like One Million Years BC, with the contribution of one of Park’s favourite elder statesmen of stop-star animation, Ray Harryhausen, gets a nod via a pair of dinosaurs called Ray and Harry.
Off-camera, Park lives modestly, holidaying with wife Mags’ extended family in Ireland, or driving to Scotland in a beat-up family car. “It’s quite important to stay in contact with reality,” he observes, despite a level of achievement that would unnerve most creative forces. There is a hidden steel: when Hollywood’s Dreamworks took a hand in Were Rabbit, he withstood pressure to make his approach more transatlantic. “The British find self-deprecating humour very funny,” reflects Park. “Americans talk about losers and find it sad in some way.”
It is also impossible to meet Park without bringing up Wallace and Gromit, particularly since Dug and Hognob could be mistaken for prehistoric ancestors. “I guess there’s something inevitable to that” allows Park. “Hognob sometimes reacts the way Gromit does, although Hognob is closer to a happy puppy than Gromit, and Dug is a lot younger, and he isn’t an ideas man like Wallace.”
Peter Sallis, the actor who brought genial eccentricity to the voice of the cheese-loving mild-mannered inventor Wallace, died in June last year. He and Park had worked together since 1983, when Park offered him £25 to add a voice to his student film, after seeing Sallis as Clegg in Last of the Summer Wine. At the time Park merely hoped the accent would fit Wallace, but Sallis was an even greater influence on the shape of his character: “Something about the way he said ‘cheeeese’ gave me the idea that Wallace’s mouth should be wider than his face.”
“It’s very sad to have lost him,” says Park. “He was always funny off-mic, as well as on.” However this does not necessarily mean the end of Park’s much-loved creations: “I always have a lot of ideas for Wallace and Gromit, and many of them have yet to reach the screen so I do see a future for them. Obviously, it’s going to be tricky, but there is someone we’ve worked with through the years who could step in. But after Peter, they are hard shoes to fill.”