Interview – ‘Scarygirl’ creator Nathan Jurevicius and producer Sophie Byrne talk their new Australian animated film

When her world is threatened by a loss of sunlight, a young girl must overcome her fears and journey to a fantastical city, save her father from a mysterious scientist and prevent the destruction of her planet. SCARYGIRL has been critically acclaimed as one of the most ambitious animation projects we have produced in Australian in recent years, starring an amazing, all-star cast including Sam Neill, Tim Minchin, and Deborah Mailman.

It was also recently announced that SCARYGIRL will compete for the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Animated Film. It is one of only two Australian films nominated at the APSAs this year alongside Blueback, celebrating the screen storytelling and rich cultural diversity of the region’s 78 countries and areas, representing a third of the earth and half the world’s film. The winners of the 16th Asia Pacific Screen Awards will be announced at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards Ceremony on Friday 3 November 2023 at HOTA Gold Coast.

Leading up to the film’s nation-wide release in theatres on October 26, and the upcoming APSA Awards Ceremony, I sat down with SCARYGIRL Nathan Jurevicius and the film’s producer Sophie Byrne to chat all about the film, it’s 20 year journey to the big screen, and why it’s themes resonate so well with audiences.

Nick: Nathan, I want to start right at the beginning, because the world and character of Scarygirl have been around for over 2 decades now! How exciting has the evolution of this IP been for you, up until now with the release of the feature film?

Nathan Jurevicius: I mean for me, it’s always been like a really interesting experiment, I suppose. Because I’ve always viewed, in some ways, Scarygirl as this almost open-source type of IP where each time there is a new collaborator or new medium. It gets reinterpreted.

Even before the multiverse was “the word” that was spread around, we were already kind of doing that with Scarygirl. We were doing a lot of things where I would create just basic threads of what the core story was. But it’s evolved and changed quite dramatically as new mediums have come about. You know, we’ve done games, we’ve done books, toys. Each one has it’s own different branch and each one has a new collaborator.

It’s been really fun to see how that has all informed the film, and how the film has taken bits from each little different medium and kind of culminated into one cohesive film!

Nick: Speaking of the different collaborations, what was it that stood out to you, Sophie, about Scarygirl that made it the right project to bring to the big screen?

Sophie Byrne: Well, basically it was the aesthetic that was just the standout. I mean, Nathan and I have been working together for 20 years. I just came back from the UK and had just finished working with the Gorillaz on their early movie and was looking for something Australian.

And it just stood out beyond anything else from a design point of view, being a very unique and, I’d say, extraordinary type of IP. I was looking to option and work with creators in gaming, new media, television, and film. So, yeah, it was very early on that we had that ambition for it.

Nick: There is something about animated films that emotional connects with audiences while exploring some reasonably dense, mature themes. Why do you think animation is such a great vessel to explore these themes?

Nathan Jurevicius: I do find that animation has a way of creating almost an alternate reality to be able to tell a tale that has, kind of, truths that we have in our real lives, but does it in a way that’s like an analogy or a parable. We can do it in a way that it’s relatable but not so realistic that it hits you in the face as hard.

Animation is just a medium, but I find that you can push animation further than I feel you can with live action. And there’s an ability to cross different ages. Animation now has a strong adult audience, but the same thing can appeal to kids. There’s a lot of animated films now that are suitable for kids and adults can enjoy the same film. Whereas, often with live action, you know, it’s either an R-rated, hardcore film, or a family G-rated film. So, it’s hard to cross over multiple age groups. I think animation does that.

We were all kids once, and we fell in love watching animated things. So, think we all have that connection to that medium.

Sophie Byrne: Also, I think particularly with Scarygirl, we’re in this fantastical world, you know. There’s no other world that looks like this. Its lore is made up by Nathan and our creative departments, and our directors – but specifically Nathan. So, we have so much freedom to tell stories that everybody knows, that can be interpreted in a different way, because visually, we’re in a completely different universe.

Nick: One of the themes that Scarygirl deals with in particularly is how we need to take better care of our planet. And I find it fascinating that this specific discourse has only been a mainstream concern for probably 20-odd years, the same amount of time Scarygirl has been around. How do you find the message of taking care of the planet has aged along with the evolution of Scarygirl?

Sophie Byrne: That’s a great question!

Nathan Jurevicius: I think it’s probably become, in some ways, more of a reality for a lot of people. I think the idea of being able to actually see things change over 20 years… I know people who live in Iceland who have noticeable seen icebergs and glaciers actually changes over the course of 20 years!

I think a lot of people now in their 40s can see the effects of climate change in action. I think there’s a lot more awareness of it now. So, even though it feels like maybe there’s more environmental themes becoming common in animated, and even live action, stories, I think there’s an underlying sense that the message needs to be told to all ages at the moment.

It’s not about trying to be on the nose and say: “climate change is bad”, and weaving climate change into the story somehow. It’s more to just kind of let people know that it’s an ongoing threat, and it’s real. And being able to do that in different mediums is important, I think.

Sophie Byrne: I think as well, it used to be very much more a theory. We didn’t sort of set out to say the messaging was going to be about climate change. It was something that we thought about bringing into the entire matrix of the whole thematic messaging of the film. But, because it’s taken so long, it’s now very relevant. As Nathan said though, it’s not on the nose. It’s an element of the film that is important thematically.

Nathan Jurevicius: I suppose the heart of the film is really mostly about family connections. It’s really that, and then the environmental theme comes into that as, kind of, the overall existential threat.

Nick: Sophie, you mentioned earlier about the creative departments that worked on this film, and Nathan you’ve come into the film with 20 years of Scarygirl lore in your arsenal. What was the process between everyone involved in the film to expand the world and characters, and ultimately bring everything to life?

Nathan Jurevicius: Yeah, each person involved, whether it’s the directors or writers, you know, liked to infuse their own kind of takes and interpretations on the story. And what I’m doing is making sure that the heart of what Scarygirl is all about, is maintained, while also giving everyone the freedom to have their interpretations and direction on how it happens.

I mean, my main thing is just making sure that it bloody looks good! That’s my biggest passion and my obsession on it. I was doing lots of drawings, working with a very, very tiny art department. We only had four of us in the actual early design process. So, we had a very tight, fast group of people just working on concepts and making sure that colours and the atmospheres were right. That was fantastic and I loved that collaboration. It was probably my favourite part of the process, that pre-productions, you know, world building moment.

Sophie Byrne: Yeah, I think as Nathan said, animation is a team sport. We’re very grateful to all of our partners at Like A Photon creative, producers, and directors. But we all worked together as an incredibly small team. I mean, if you look at our credits list, compared to a medium-size, indie, animated film, it’s like a fraction of the budget and the team! Which, I think, is a part of why we are so proud of that achievement, and everyone involved with the film.

Nick: That pride and team achievement is getting recognition too with the Asia Pacific Screen Academy awards nominating Scarygirl for Best Animated Film! How do you both feel, not just about the nomination, but also being celebrated by your fellow film community?

Sophie Byrne: I would just say that we are absolutely thrilled, because we weren’t really expecting it! It’s such a strong field, you know, with really amazing animated movies. So, for us to be selected alongside the other films, it was quite stunning. I’m thrilled for the team, and I’m thrilled that it’s an Australian film.

Nathan Jurevicius: For me, it’s just the fact that out of all of these Asia Pacific countries, that we were the Australian film representing that! To me, that’s a huge achievement. That’s probably one of the biggest things for me – a small film coming out of Queensland. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Nick: To wrap things up – what is next for Scarygirl? Where can we expect to see this world go after the feature film?

Sophie Byrne: I think “world” is the right word! Because the most feedback we’ve got is that people just want to see more of the world, and understand more of the back stories, and understand more about the characters. You get such a limited time in 90 minutes. So, we are looking at lots of spinoffs, TV sequels. We will see what comes of it!

Nathan Jurevicius: I’m just itching to do more stories because I have lots of stories! Especially about things like, you know,Bunniguru and Egg. They are a great duo that you don’t really know too much about. Treedweller’s another amazing character that appears in the middle of the film that you could do almost an entire series where she is one of the main characters.

There’s a lot of mystery in the film and that was purposely done in the sense that, you know, we’re not trying to make Killers of the Flower Moon, where it goes for like 12 hours! We can only tell a certain amount of story in this amount of time.

Thank you very much to Nathan and Sophie for their time, and to Madman Entertainment for organising the interview! Scarygirl is in Australian cinemas from October 26, and the Asia Pacific Screen Academy awards ceremony will be held at HOTA on the Gold Coast on November 3.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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