Nimona is officially streaming on Netflix, but you can forgive filmmakers Nick Bruno and Troy Quane for feeling a bit of trepidation around the movie's debut. The road leading to this moment has been especially long and winding for the directing duo, plagued by setbacks including changes in leadership, a global pandemic, and a studio shutdown. When the Bruno and Quane sat down with A.frame prior to Nimona's release, the former quipped, "We're just hoping it doesn't get shut down again."
Based on ND Stevenson's beloved graphic novel of the same name, Nimona takes place in a futuristic medieval world where knights ride around in flying cars. The story centers on Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed), a disgraced knight who is framed for murdering the queen, and Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a trouble-making shapeshifter desperate to be Ballister's sidekick. Throughout their journey, the unlikely duo discovers a conspiracy that connects back to the very founding of their kingdom.
Back in 2015, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to Stevenson's graphic novel with the intention of producing a movie adaptation through its now-defunct animation subsidiary, Blue Sky Studios. However, when Disney completed its acquisition of Fox in 2019, the studio delayed the release of Nimona, before ultimately shutting down Blue Sky Studios in early 2021 and effectively canceling the film. Fortunately, it was revived in early 2022 by Annapurna Pictures and Netflix, who partnered with DNEG Animation to help Quane and Bruno finish the film.
"It's been such a journey," Quane reflects. "There have been so many twists and turns and unforeseen elements that have just sideswiped us. It's great to be at the point now where people are reacting and responding to the film itself, and not just to the story that's led up to it."
Nimona's June 30 release notably coincides with the end of Pride Month, and fans of Stevenson's graphic novel will be relieved to learn that the movie version maintains its queerness. In fact, the directors couldn't imagine a version of Nimona that doesn't honor that aspect of its characters. "For us, it was about being honest and true to the characters we were getting to work with and the narrative we were trying to tell," Quane says. "I think it's a responsibility we all have as storytellers, whether it's in an animated form or not, to show the world as it really is."
A.frame: The film had its world premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. What was it like watching it with a crowd for the first time?
NICK BRUNO: I hate to sound corny, but it was pretty moving. Annecy is such a beautiful place. You have working professionals and fans in the crowd, so it's a great group of people to celebrate the movie with. What I really loved was getting to talk to so many people afterward about what the movie represents to them and why they felt it was important to get made. It's hard to explain, but we really had something we believed in with this film and knew we were making it because a lot of people need a movie like this. So, when it was initially shut down, we kept hearing from people about how we couldn't give up on it, how it had to be made, and how they needed it. To get that kind of response is a really profound experience. We joke about it hopefully not being shut down or canceled again, but the truth is that it is going to be out there soon. We're incredibly happy and proud of it.
TROY QUANE: To build off that, I think the exciting thing was that there are so many people who are fans of the original graphic novel who will carry what it means to them into the film. But having people coming up to us afterward and say, "I love this movie so much that I can't wait to go back and read the graphic novel," knowing that we'd created new fans and that they still had the same reaction based solely on the film, made us feel like we really did something right.
What originally drew you to Nimona's world and characters?
QUANE: The character of Nimona is just so engaging. She's unapologetically confident and in your face and disruptive and funny. The fact that she's a character who can be anything she wants and chooses to represent herself in this specific way is incredibly empowering, unique, and something that needs to be seen on screen. I think we all have a moment where we think, "Oh, I wish I could be somebody else so that I can fit in better..." And to have Nimona respond to that impulse with "Why? Be you and let people see you that way" is important. Having Ballister as her counter is also important, because he's desperately trying to alter the public perception of himself by changing who he is and becoming a knight and literally encasing himself in armor in order to be viewed differently.
Eventually, Ballister realizes that there is value in who he is, and Nimona comes to understand that all you need is one person to get to know you and form their own opinion about you in order to make a difference. They both learn really beautiful lessons from each other, and the graphic novel's mythical future world is designed to support that. It's not just that it's cool to see flying cars and knights and swords all at once. The idea behind the world is that, while its culture has advanced and moved forward, its thinking is still very static. How do you change that? How do you make sure the way you think progresses with time?
Nimona really doesn't look like any other animated movie. How did you settle on its visual style?
BRUNO: First of all, I feel like it's an extremely exciting time for animation right now. People are taking more chances in general. Some of that is because we're moving away from the same three studios that have been doing animation for years, and some of it is due to the fact that we understand the technology better now. So, we're able to use the hammer in a different way, if you will. With Nimona, we wanted it to feel evocative of some of the fairy tale styles we've seen in movies like Sleeping Beauty and Sword in the Stone, but we also wanted to use the modern advances of technology to give that aesthetic a fresh spin. And that decision was also made because, thematically speaking, what does a medieval future world represent? It has all these technological advances and yet the culture still has the mindset of a feudal past. Everything from the look of the film's world to the way people think in it all stems from that thematic idea, which really informed everything we did.
QUANE: We even used those ideas to inform how we represent the characters within the movie. The closer they are to the camera, the more detailed they are. The idea is that the closer we allow people to get to us, the more they see all the elements that make us a unique individual. When they're kept farther away, we become a more generic representation of ourselves that others could easily get wrong. We were always playing with those ideas in the film.
BRUNO: For the record, that literally meant that if a character stood past a certain distance from the camera, they were swapped out with a different geometry. It's that way in the graphic novel, too, because you only have one size pencil, right? When they're smaller in the frame, you start to draw them differently and start to simplify their forms.
The film is obviously visually indebted to its source material, but did you look at any other films or TV shows for inspiration? There's one sequence that feels inspired by monster movies like Godzilla.
QUANE: Blade Runner was hugely inspirational in certain places, where we were trying to achieve a kind of future grunge look. In other areas, we thought about Camelot, with its gleaming sets of armor and brightly lit set pieces. Generally, we're always looking for ways to create visual contrast. At the same time, this was such a unique story with such unique characters that we could only do that up to a certain point before we had to just accept that it was going to be what it was going to be and then build from there.
BRUNO: For me, I thought a lot about Beetlejuice. I love the feeling that Michael Keaton creates in that film, where you're not always sure whether Beetlejuice is good or bad. Here, we purposefully held back on revealing Nimona's backstory instead of delivering it up front like we normally would. That was because a lot of people in the film are constantly telling you that Nimona is bad, even though as you get to know the character, you start to feel like she's pretty good. At the same time, she can be a little unsettling, because she has a big personality and a dangerous exterior. I also looked at King Kong, because Kong's such a soulful character that the world doesn't understand. In our film, the world is going after both Nimona and Ballister for similar reasons, but Nimona also has her own drive, which I won't reveal for those who haven't seen the movie.
When you transition from one studio to another like you did here, moving from Fox and Blue Sky to Annapurna and Netflix, how does that affect your process as filmmakers?
QUANE: Well, we went from a vertically integrated environment where every department was down the hall from each other and you could walk to a person's desk and ask, "Hey, how's it going?" to essentially a vendor-client situation. We went from having a lot of stuff built and ready to go that had been developed over years and years, to going to a new studio where 90 percent of the stuff we'd built didn’t translate. We had to start literally from scratch. DNEG Animation came on and they did an amazing job of rebuilding everything to try and maintain what we had, while also discovering their own version of everything. For us, as directors, the challenge became making sure that we didn't just keep pointing backward. We always say that our job is to talk a movie into existence and get people passionate enough to bring their own love and creativity to it. But if all you're doing is saying, "Copy this," no one can feel passionate about that.
At the same time, we'd already found something we loved, so we really had to find a way to both direct a new crew toward what we'd already done and allow them to find their own passion and love for this film. We needed to make it something that is close to what we already had but also new and of itself. It was a really interesting journey.
BRUNO: The weird thing is that while that all was challenging, that's also what we do. That's the job. The truly amazing thing was, when we found our new partners with Annapurna and Netflix, they fully supported what we were trying to do. We got to get an 800-pound gorilla off our back so that we could actually tell the story we wanted to tell. They really supported the themes that we wanted to explore. Writing and breaking a film's story is always the hardest part. That's the thing you're racking your brain about all day, so when you have genuine support, it becomes a whole lot easier. Even though we had to rebuild the whole movie, that was really the easy part. The hard part was getting to a place where we were able to tell the story that we wanted to tell.
Nimona puts queer love at the front and center of its story. In animated movies, that still feels like an uncommon occurrence. Why was it important for you to spotlight queerness in animation?
QUANE: Unfortunately, I think it is uncommon, and if it is shown, it always seems like the characters' central journeys involve them struggling with their sexuality. For us, the queer elements of Nimona are just so intrinsic to ND Stevenson's original graphic novel that they're a part of its DNA. We'd seen other attempts at adapting the graphic novel that tried to skirt around its queerness, and they just didn't work because it's so important to who the characters are and what the story is trying to say. Our job really became protecting that, being stewards for that truth, and reflecting what is, in all frankness, the reality of the world around us. We're not coming up with something groundbreaking in this film. We're just saying, "This is love. These are the relationships and people of this story. Just stop and see that." It's not some terrifyingly random or weird thing. Love is love.
We also had a really great group of queer people at Blue Sky who would come in, have lunch with us, and share their experiences and their journeys with us. They were incredibly honest and courageous, and the stories they told were happy, funny, tragic, and contentious. It was our job to make sure we reflected the level of honesty they gave us, and a lot of that made it up onto the screen. Which is why I think the film resonates. It feels real in that sense. It feels like a real story is being told.
BRUNO: One of the biggest things that we got from those conversations is also that, like the rest of us, all of those people grew up looking to animation as a guide to help them navigate the world. Unfortunately, for a long time, certain people have grown up with animated movies that say that the world doesn't include them. Those conversations really helped us realize how important it is to actually show the diversity of the world on-screen. It's everything. It's so incredibly important to do that, because if you don't show the world the way it is, it can make some kids think that there's something wrong with them, and that's unfair.
"We don't tell stories about heterosexual couples struggling with their straightness. It's just accepted. Queerness is just accepted in Nimona."
The movie deals with themes of cultural otherness that resonate deeply with the queer community, but it never makes its characters' sexualities the result or source of their problems. Can you talk about taking that approach for the film?
BRUNO: I hope in a few years, people will be able to look at this movie and say, "Oh, Nimona's just a shapeshifter," and that'll seem like all the movie's about. Right now, it seems like we're saying something else because of the world we're in, but it's not actually, specifically, about queer ostracization. There's nothing wrong with being gay, so why paint a world where there is? Ultimately, the film is really about why no one should pass judgment on others out of fear or a lack of understanding.
QUANE: We, as humans, will always find something to demonize, but we made a choice early on that the struggles the characters have in this film would have nothing to do with their sexuality. That's just who they are. We don't tell stories about heterosexual couples struggling with their straightness. It's just accepted. Queerness is just accepted in Nimona. To Nick's point, hopefully, in a couple of years, we'll have moved past this point in the conversation. That's not how queer characters need to always be represented. We can just be interested in their journeys as individuals rather than worrying about finding ways to dramatize their sexual identities.
Last question: If you could program your dream double feature, what film would you pair Nimona with?
BRUNO: Well, you win because that's the most unique question we’ve been asked on this press tour… Babe: Pig in the City? I'm just trying to think of what would make for the most random pairing, and that is a great movie. You know what, I’d pair it with King Kong.
QUANE: Yeah, agreed. I think there are important ideas about judgment and acceptance in both films.
By Alex Welch