Interview with Sarah Smith, director of Ron’s Gone Wrong

An artistic still from Ron’s Gone Wrong where Ron is dazzled by lights and staring in awe
Ron’s Gone Wrong, written and directed by Sarah Smith, is a beautifully animated and moving story about the struggle for friendship.

I got sent a picture of a little boy, a six-year-old, who’d seen Ron [and] loved it. First of all, a picture of him with a B-bot that he designed with a big grin on his face, super cute. Then his mum said he’s scared of the dark, and she’d ordered him the toy that is the light-up Ron. A night-light, like in the movie. She sent me a picture of him just asleep, cuddling that light-up Ron.

The following is a transcript of most of an interview with filmmaker Sarah Smith, conducted by Simon Brew for Film Stories.

I’ve been head-over-heels about Ron’s Gone Wrong lately. It is genuinely remarkable achievement of British filmmaking, both technically and in storytelling, so I’ve been annoyed that it hasn’t been getting all the attention it deserves.

Most other interviews with Smith largely consist of canned questions met with, understandably, canned responses. This one is a treat however, Smith gives a remarkably personal story about her professional history and the little-known period of time between opening Locksmith and releasing a feature, and reacting to the audience response.

  1. Early career
  2. Joining Aardman
  3. Never having it easy
  4. Opening an animation studio in the UK
  5. The perils corporate reshuffling
  6. Story development vs. production
  7. Phases of relationships
  8. Relationship with the audience
  9. On second-time directing

The interview

30 minute read

Early career

Brew: How on Earth given your background, did you end up in animation? Because your background is in writing an awful lot of really edgy comedy shows.

Profile of Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith.

I was basically a writer, producer, director, in British comedy. In fact, going all the way back to being a tiny child, I [had] went to university at Oxford and fell into The Oxford Revue [as] the first thing that I went and auditioned for. I saw a notice for auditions and I wanted to be a serious theatre director (laughs) and I saw an audition for the Revue and I went along and I got in. I was in it for about a year—I am honestly not very good performer—but they did ask me to take it over, run it, and be the president.

That’s how I met [British comedy writer] Armando Iannucci. Afterwards I went off and I did a little bit of theater for a while—regional theater—but Armando went off to BBC Comedy so I kind of saw that as a potential career path. When a job came up in radio entertainment, I applied and ended up being a comedy producer: first in radio, then in television, and then writing and directing as I went along, and I did that for ten years. I did things like League of Gentleman (2001), and Fist of Fun (1995) with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, and then all the Armistice (1995-1999) series with Armando. I did League of Gentleman on radio, and then on television. So lots of dark, dodgy, edgy comedy (laughs).

[The co-writer of Ron’s Gone Wrong] Peter Baynham and I worked together right from the very beginning on a lot of those. The very first thing that either of us did as an original show was a radio series called The Harpoon (1991-1994) that we did together. We worked together in various different roles, him as a performer, writer, me as a producer, director.

Four scrapbook-style animal characters in a call center
I Am Not An Animal (2004) was a series of surreal animated shorts.

Then he asked me to help him write something, and that was I Am Not An Animal (2004), it was the first time we’ve done animation. I did a little bit of script writing on another thing, but that was the first real big animation we took on. [It was] with Julia Davis, Simon Pegg, Steve Coogan and so on. It was completely nuts, it had a budget to be five characters in one set, but as soon as I joined I went yeah, but what if they escaped? and then they had to spread the budget over lots of different things (laughs). The animation was a little stretched financially, though I was proud of it because it was funny. It was the first time we ever written together.

Three women standing outdoors
Thin Ice (2006) was a short-lived BBC Two sitcom

Then I was in the middle of directing a series called Thin Ice (2006) up in Whitley Bay. It was really cold, I remember a designer saying to me Have you ever seen Lost in La Mancha? [Lost In La Mancha is a making-of documentary detailing the spectacular failure of Monty Python’s adaptation of Don Quixote] It was like one of these productions in which everything went wrong. Literally, the power broke down, and the ice rink started melting at one point. Also, I couldn’t skate. You couldn’t hear yourself because it was so echoey beyond about three feet away. It was like an anxiety dream, where I was standing in the middle of an ice rink that was melting with 30 children in penguin costumes completely ignoring me trying to direct something. It was so miserable.

Joining Aardman

I remember [then] getting a call and going into the urine-soaked men’s hockey changing room. It was a call from Aardman Animations, they asked me if I would be interested in applying for this job to head-up their development team; a few years earlier I’d been in touch with them about [whether] they were looking for some script editing work. Mostly because Aardman are national treasures, right? We all love Aardman. I never in the end done anything with them, but they kept me on-file and asked me if I’d apply for this job. I thought, well that’s not really what I do? I don’t really do development. I’m a director, I’m doing drama now.

Nonetheless, it was really cold doing that series and really tough (laughs) and I thought, well… In the end I said to Aardman I’d come for six months. I thought maybe I’d create just a relationship with them and that’ll be another kind of work I could do in the future. Maybe developing your project. I just got totally sucked into their crazy world. I spent the first year there developing a whole new slate because they were coming out of the Dreamworks relationship. I used to go on every week—I can say this cause he’s a friend now—every week I used to meet Bill Damaschke who was at Dreamworks, and he would go have you got any ideas? and I’d be like no, still not got any ideas Bill because we both knew that I was developing a slate for [Aardman] beyond the Dreamworks relationship.

Characters from The Pirates!
Smith was named the producer of The Pirates! (2012)

I put together The Pirates! (2012) movie that Peter Lord then decided he wanted to direct. Because he wanted to direct that, he then asked me I’d take over as creative director of features. So that was the point where I was supposed to be going back to my comedy life. I kind of thought, there are no other jobs like that in this country, to be the creative director of a studio like that, to making films. It was super fun, it was crazy. Within two weeks arriving at Aardman I was sitting at a roundtable with Jeffrey Katzenberg. You get catapulted into this kind of level of Hollywood though animation which is kind of fun and not that easily accessible to a lot of the British film industry.

I fell in love with animation as an art form, then I started making Arthur Christmas (2011). I said to them look, I want to make this film, so I moved away from being development and creative director and became the director again because Peter [Baynham] and I wrote it together so it became very personal to me. They forgot to say no… someone should have said what are you talking about? You don’t know animation. (laughs) but they forgot.

Arthur from Arthur Christmas
Smith’s directorial debut was Arthur Christmas (2011)

So, I took on Arthur, and I fell so in love with the world [of animation], with [the] people, with the artists, with the art form, the imagery, the mixture of visual as well as words and comedy. I think crucially, Peter [Baynham] and I had our first children in that time when we were writing Arthur. We both left it ridiculously late to have babies, and he met his partner when he went out to do Borat (2006), and then they had a child, and then I also got pregnant at the beginning of Arthur Christmas. So his first child is about a year and half older than mine, but as a result, animation becomes something else. Animated movies become the thing you share with your kids? That becomes massively important. Not only did I love the art form and the people, but I also felt that there’s nothing more important to me than making the kind of work that I want to share with my kid. Stories that mean something. To say something very personal aswell, I came back from Arthur Christmas and I decided I wanted to raise my kid here [in England] and I felt I love the creative community of London. So I started trying to raise the money for a studio [Locksmith Animation].

Never having it easy

When we started, within nine months, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

That was a really complicated time for me because the studio only just started up. I was a single-parent of a four-year-old child and the movies became even more important to me. I really thought of it as a message in a bottle, as putting things [in] that you want your kid to know if you’re not there. That became really poingant and meaningful for me at that time.

Breast cancer diagnosis is a thing that never goes away. I had a very rough ride and I had quite an advanced diagnosis, but I’m in remission. Unfortunately the risk of it coming back goes on. I read an article the other day saying [the risk period can last] for 30 years. So it’s never gone. But I’m okay right now, and honestly that’s one of things you learn, is that okay right now is all any of us ever have, right? Nobody knows anything about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I may have a high-risk cancer diagnosis, you could be run over by the proverbial bus. We just have now, that’s the hard lesson you learn.

Brew: You just don’t do it the easy way?

You are absolutely right! Other people have said that to me, and that is not a choice (laughs). I don’t mean to, but somehow you’re right. I have climbed every blooming mountain in the difficult way. My big advice is if you want to start a studio—or any form of startup—don’t do it in your mid-late-40s, because you are being both a parent and also I was looking after my own parents. That’s when you have sniper alley, which is when you run a high risk of all sorts of illnessnes catching up with you. Really, startups are for 25-year-olds! (laughs)

Flushed Away (2006) was the last film in the [Dreamworks] relationship with Aardman. I had to create a new slate, and at the end of my first year there it was time to try and find a new partner for the studio. I remember saying to someone, what do people do in film pitches? because I’ve literally never seen anyone pitch a film before! I had put together my own presentation of what I wanted to show. I had visual material, I had rip-o-matics, I had some artwork, and I had stories to tell. I had just done what I felt was the best way to excite them. I suddenly worried that I might be doing everything wrong (laughs).

An office space seen from the top of an open staircase
Aardman offices look pretty swish

Then we had this hilarious experience. We were in Aztec West—which is a business park at the edge of Bristol—[and here I am] at Aardman, they have Academy Awards to their name. All these heads of studios flew in there; we had a guy who flew in on his private jet. That one didn’t go so well because I think the canteen provided sandwiches, and he was this very rich French guy. We realised we had not catered at his level, so we got that right after that. Then we had Donna Langley [who] flew in on a jet to come and see the slate, and that looked like it was going to be the deal. Then at the last minute, Michael Linton and Amy Pascal flew in on their private jet and I presented the slate, and they were like we want to do a deal straight away. I still do the same kind of pitches now, and to be honest it’s fine, but I didn’t know if it was at time time (laughs).

I love to take credit for my great slate, and I think it was a great slate and I’m proud of what we did. The truth is at the end of the presentation we had this whole three hours mapped out, we would take them down onto the studio floor, and they setup the sets and characters from Chicken Run and things. Honestly, we should have just done that bit and then gone sign here because they all gone around going gasp, oh my god! Look at the— which is fair enough because it’s like magic down on the studio floor (laughs) so really Aardman sells itself.

Opening an animation studio in the UK

Brew: I always got a sense of a real moral core to the stuff that you do. That struck me too at being at the very heart of what you wanted to setup at Locksmith Animation. I was intrigued as much as what that wasn’t as what that was. I would report on British animated films, [for example] Rocket Pictures would make Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) and outsource it to Canada for the actual animation. No one was doing what you were trying to do, to [animate] in the middle of the UK, not outsource the work overseas, [and] be a magnet for talent into the UK. [Putting] the flag in and say no, we can try and go toe-to-toe with a Pixar and a Disney. The barriers for what you were trying to do just looked ginormous. I just want you to discuss the period of time between you deciding to open Locksmith and being able to announce a first film?

A computer animation office
The Locksmith Animation offices are in London.

I think honestly, everything you said is fantastic and also true. I did feel strongly about all of those things, but also just to put a very simple and selfish slant on it: I wanted to create the kind of environnent in which I want to work. I think it’s really changed now, you have to see that the landscape is very different. At that time it was very dominated by the major four, five, studios out in the States who were all very corporately owned and had quite a strong agenda of the kind of things that they did. I worked for ten years at the BBC, I’m quite maverick? I like more independent worlds, I couldn’t see myself in any of those big US studios. Yet I’d fallen in love with animation. I also love the UK, I wanted to raise a child in England, not LA. I don’t really like LA to be honest, I love it as a place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

For all those reasons I wanted to be back in the UK, therefore it was like how am I going to do this? So to some extent I was trying to create what I thought was the dream version for creative people at that point. Other companies were much bigger, they were owned by their corporations. Every now and then [at Locksmith] someone would come and visit me, a bunch of animators and people came who were part of the early days of Pixar, and they [say] to me this is how it felt to me at the beginning, and I always liked to punch the air because that’s what I wanted.

That excitement and energy of being your own thing and what I felt from Arthur Christmas is that because we did the first half of the movie in the UK, we didn’t have anyone to refer to but ourselves. You’re not borrowing from other kinds of movies, you’re following your own best instincts, and we had the freedom to do it because we were a long way away from distributors who could drop in every week and give you notes. It just gave us the thinking time—not that you don’t want the notes—but it gave us the creative thinking time to get the thought out and make it feel right.

So all of those things felt to me so precious. We had such a lovely time in Bristol on the first half of Arthur Christmas. I wanted to recreate that atmosphere really. Everything else was me analysing what I had learned about the industry and what I had thought was best practice. I look at Pixar, they sit with their animators, they don’t outsource. The best movies to me come from the place were you have that collaborative team together. In every respect, I was looking at what feels like the smartest model that there is.

I downloaded how to write a business plan from the Barclays website. I kept saying to people, show me a business plan, I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like! In the end I wrote a 150-page bible of everything I had learned that I thought was the best way to go about development, this is the best way to do it. I persuaded Julie [Lockhart] to get involved, though she was still at Aardman at the time. We just talked it out, what’s the smart model? The timelines, what does it look like. Then I found people in the industry in the UK. I was really supported by some great people, like Tessa Ross, David Heyman, Barbara Broccoli, grown-ups in the British film industry to get advice.

Eventually I found somehow who helped me turn the business plan into something presentable, and taught me how to present a deck, stuff I never done before, then we went out marching the streets looking for investment. When the company started, finally, I was there on my own because Julie was still finishing Shaun the Sheep (2015). We started a development slate and my aim was to have four things, of which two were more or less ready to go, and then go out and put it in front of a distributor. I had my eye on where we would take it and who I knew was looking for animation at the time.

My argument at that time was that feature animation is doing really well at the box office, there aren’t that many people who know how to make it, these distibutors are looking for content. That was all true. It’s all very different now by the way, there are a lot more options and that makes it harder to exist because Netflix and so on has opened up the independent sector. At that time that was how it was. I was looking to put together a slate as I had done at Aardman to go out and get a deal on the basis that you would have a couple of projects lined for front-run, one goes into production, and the other one you give more time to.

Unfortunately I then became ill, so then the plan changed. I spent months in chemo and surgery and all sorts of things. We had to scale down. I went out to LA, I guess it was about 18 months to two years, and the business plan said by then we needed to find a partner. I literally went out after chemotherapy bald with a wig (laughs) and pitched to Paramount. We only had one front-running film because I hadn’t been there enough to get the slate up and running. Paramount loved us and wanted to do a deal with us, but they wanted a different film which was Ron. That’s why I then jumped-on because the quickest way to [accept], okay, we’ll do Ron first, was for me and Peter to write it. There’s no [time for] getting to know you, no figuring out, it’s just like: okay, here’s the idea!

Peter loved the idea, it had originally come from me, so we just sat down and started work. That’s how therefore it came to be, so it took a bit longer to get to that first film because we had [another] film that was much more advanced. That was the one on the blocks. But because you do what your distributor wanted, they wanted to change the order of production, and they wanted to start with what was then called MiBot. Then it takes you two years, maybe, to write that, to develop the visual IP, it takes a long time.

The perils of corporate reshuffling

Brew: You nearly signed with Paramount, then you went with Fox, then Disney bought Fox, then Disney dropped most of your slate, then you signed with Warner Bros, Disney held onto Ron’s Gone Wrong. It sounds like Disney kept some degree of faith with it?

It was even crazier than that, because we went out initially—me with my wig—and we pitched, at that time, the possible buyers for what we were doing were Warner, Paramount, STX, and couple of others, so we pitched all of those. Paramount was the most keen, although it took a change of regime there before they said let’s do it, they did a slate deal with us and wanted Ron first. Then we were developing Ron, and in the time we were developing the green-light package with their investment, which took a year or so getting the first draft of the script, the chairman Brad Grey died and suddenly we had a green-light package with no one there to greenlight it.

Then Jim Gianopulos came in and he wanted to go a different route. So our very first greenlight pitch was the first time we stood in front of Jim, and they said no this is not what we want to do. This is the nightmare of animation, it takes so long that everyone changes seats. That was a really sticky few weeks, and we went back with [Elisabeth Murdoch] about three or four weeks later and we pitched the slate elsewhere and we walked into Fox and Stacey Snider just loved the film and everything that we were doing.

By the time we were walking off the studio lot she was on the phone to [Elisabeth] Murdoch saying she wants to pick up everything from this company and I want to make Ron. We went from disaster to triumph, which is always the way in animation. Then we made with Fox, we loved those people there were a lot of great execs there, we were very happy there, and Disney bought them in the middle so then there was a question of: would everything move to somewhere else? At that point Warner Bros was looking to diversify what they were doing, we pitched everything to them and then in the end the agreement was that, for all sorts of complicated reasons, Disney would hold onto Ron and other things would go to Warner Bros. It changed again, because I put something together that has been sold elsewhere. I think I’m not allowed to say, but I think it’s announced the project is a Richard Curtis penned script, this time co-directing, but that’s outside the Warner Bros deal.

It’s changed so much, it used to be when I worked at Aardman with Amy and Michael, who I loved by the way, but they had been in post for like nine or ten years and they had another five year contract. Hollywood is just empires of people that were there forever and you knew where you were. In the last few years, the pace as changed. Jim Gianopulos is no longer at Paramount, these things are happening at high speed. Plus of course, streaming [services] and so on, if I was writing that business plan again I’d know how to do that now. I would write it different now because it’s a different universe.

Story development vs. production

Brew: Going back to your roots as a storyteller, did find a lot of fun in [the phase of story development], or did you just want to get to tell your story?

No, I loved that phase. It’s really hard (laughs) I remember once getting off from a London to LA flight with Peter, we’ve been on this flight for ten hours just trying to figure something out in the middle of Arthur, and he looked at me in the end and said oh... movies are so long. He and I had done the whole gamut [up to] an animated movie that takes five years. We used to do Armistice with Armando: we’d start writing on a Sunday in a rehearsal room, we’d write and rehearse all week, we’d record the show on a Thursday night, I’d work all night long into Friday, and then it went out on Friday evening. Entire half-hour made in one week (laughs). I’ve done that, [and now productions that take] five years.

I had to send some of my details of what I’ve done to Jill Coulton, an animation director who’s sponsoring me for a thing, she [asked me for my] CV. She went, Wow, we really slowed you down! Look at all these things she used to do! And now animation? (laughs). But, I do love the building process. It takes a lot of energy, you have to be totally self-starting, and you have to believe for the longest time. You have to be prepared to go around in the weeds. It is exhausting because, Peter and I are working on something at the moment and there’s no one there, it’s the opposite of when you’re in production [where] there’s a very rigorous timetable other people work out for you and you just get stuff done all day, moving things foreward. In development, you’re living in this going-around space. At the same time I love the story conversation, I love that.

Phases of relationships

Brew: Can you talk to me about the point-of-release?

There is something that happens at that point. I’ve been in that place before. I think, it’s interesting because [Jean-Phillipe Vine] who was directing with me [as his directorial debut] hasn’t been in the place before. Peter said to me, I never even think about, usually. This time round he said he did. For me it’s something that I hold in my head and my heart, through four years of struggle. That is, when you have a connection with an audience, and I really felt it strongly over the years with Arthur Christmas, I didn’t think I felt it immediately when Arthur was released, but over the years [as it’s] a Christmas film it’s been shown on [repeat], and people find that film. You hear from people what a film means to them. That is an incredible experience, an incredible feeling.

One of the things about making animation, which is really interesting and enjoyable, is that you go through phases of relationships. In the early days, at the beginning, you’re really in with a writer. That’s your relationship. Then your relationship becomes mostly with story artists and an editor, those are the people you’re spending all your time with and thinking with—and artists, [designers]. Then it moves through the digital team, and you become incredibly engaged with your animators for about a year and a half. Then you’re in with your post-production team, you live with those people for weeks.

You have all these phases of relationships, and I love that it’s really enjoyable. Each time you want to honor the work that’s gone before by making sure that this bit is good, and that’s partly why I’m such a bloody hardass because I’m like we’ve spent ages on that in story! you got to make that right in animation! so I’ve always holding the bar up. But also, there comes a new place after all that, when you’re relationship is with an audience. That more than anything is why I drive so hard for the best possible quality that I can get. I want an audience to feel.

Relationship with the audience

One of the amazing things that happened to me after Arthur Christmas, [around] when I started Locksmith, was when Aardman forwarded a letter to me that they had received from a mum who said [she always loved Christmas, it’s her big thing and she couldn’t wait to have a child so she could share Christmas with them. Her child is autistic and had never got it, never understood it]. Until he discovered Arthur Christmas. Because of that movie, that he now knows backwards [and] everything about it, he fell in love with Christmas, and it’s a joy. For that one thing alone, makes it feel worth everything. That sounds really cheesy, but I genuinely feel that.

I got sent a picture of a little boy, a six-year-old, who’d seen Ron [and] loved it. First of all, a picture of him with a B-bot that he designed with a big grin on his face, super cute. Then his mum said he’s scared of the dark, and she’d ordered him the toy that is the light-up Ron. A night-light, like in the movie. She sent me a picture of him just asleep, cuddling that light-up Ron.

A soft toy of Ron in the dark that is glowing within
The light-up toy is cute! CUTE!!! I actually have one myself.

It started with with me wanting to make a film that my kid would have a feeling about, and then you see it in another kid that they feel about your character.

Everything falls away at that point.

Everything sort of… all the Brad Grey is no longer at Paramount… all the terrible despairs that you [had] to go through, and suddenly your relationship is with an audience. The people who are seeing your film.

On second-time directing

Brew: What do you learn from second-time directing compared to first?

I was a tiny bit more laid back. The people who were working on it [if they were listening this] would be like "what the heck?" But I was. The first time round, everything has equal weight. It’s what my lovely VFX suit Doug [Ikeler] calls pixelf—ing. You see every single thing, you give equal weight. One of the things you learn a tiny bit of is what to weigh more, when there you go that isn’t the most important thing. Having said that, animation is the art of the detail. It has the illusion of perfectability; if you made every decision correctly, it would be perfect. Of course no human can make every decision correctly. I can decide what shape someone’s nostrils are, therefore in your head—I guess it’s like an artist starting a painting—in theory if you did it right, it would be exactly as you saw it. But it can’t because [in the way] there’s lots of humanity, circumstances, time, and money.

I think you learn a little more of that stuff, I did delegate a little more of these things. In terms of what matters for story, it matters. The detail of where it counts. It is very difficult to say, how many details you can drop and the film still has its impact. What’s the line in perfectionism in which you can drop [details] and it can mean something. It’s not a risk you want to take when it’s four or five years of your life.

Brew: I interviewed Glen Keane once and he gave a slightly different answer. He said he looks for asymmetry; he finds the perfection and just skews it slightly.

I think we’re talking about different kinds of perfection. Glen is capable of the most utterly perfect animation, he’s probably talking about that touch of humanity that you put in it. I don’t claim to be in Glen’s league as animation director (laughs). For me it’s the perfectionism in the story, and the story detail, how much is seen, how much adds up to the impact it makes. That’s what I mean. When do you let it go when [say] that scene isn’t quite right… I can’t let those things go, really. It’s a bit of an exhausting thing [for] all people working in animation. It comes back to that thing of you got to honor what everyone else has put into it. Hundreds of people have poured so much of their life into it, you can’t just go well, that doesn’t really work, but whatever, because it’s not just you? You feel an obligation to keep the standards up for everybody.

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22 December 2021