Author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy didn’t necessarily set out to write a book, let alone a best-seller that has affected the lives of countless people around the world.
“It was a series of drawings that I posted on Instagram, really,” Mackesy, the author behind “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse,” tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. Mackesy started by posting drawings of a boy and a mole, and their imagined conversations prioritized values like kindness, empathy, and forgiveness. After he added a horse to the mix, Mackesy wrote an interaction that spawned a movement: “What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse in Mackesy’s book. “Help,” says the horse in response.
“I think that was the first time I was really shocked by the response worldwide from hospitals and schools, and even the army in Australia, and Canada,” Mackesy says. “I just keep kept the drawings going, and the conversation between the four characters going and listening to what people felt about them. So it was very much an interactive journey with people being very vulnerable about how difficult life can be. And also just, you know, about the joy of cake.”
Based on Mackesy’s 2019 book, and co-written and co-directed by the author and illustrator himself, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse” expands on the world and characters created by Mackesy, but keeps the message and meaning of his initial Instagram posts intact for a new audience. The animated short film debuts Christmas Day on Apple TV+ and features the vocal talents of Tom Hollander (as The Mole), Gabriel Byrne (as The Horse), Idris Elba (as The Fox), and newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll (as The Boy). Mackesy worked on the project with co-director Peter Baynton and producer Cara Speller, an Oscar nominee for the 2016 animated short “Pear Cider and Cigarettes.”
“One of the things that I found fascinating about the process is that even though Charlie obviously created those characters and knows them better than anyone, I think he learned an awful lot more about them through the process of making the film,” Speller says in our roundtable chat about the making of the animated short. “All the discussions that we had on a daily basis about how would the mole react in this particular situation or how would the boys sit on the branch in the tree – he’s obviously not going to sit still, he’s a little boy, he’s always going to be shifting around. What are his little mannerisms?”
Mackesy, Baynton, and Speller spent hundreds of hours working on the adaptation, discussing every single frame of the short film with great passion and integrity.
“That’s why I’ve loved this journey and why making the film was so moving,” Mackesy says. “Because we had 150 people [involved], and it was largely a journey of kindness and friendship, We’ve all become friends. And so I will always love the process as much as I do the product. And whenever I see it, I can pause the film at any point, and I will remember instances of deep conversation – and occasional argument and disagreement, but always in kindness.”
One of the more difficult choices faced by the creative team was casting the voice of The Boy. Nicoll, a newcomer to acting, won the role over more than 300 other young boys.
“We were looking for a certain fragility and vulnerability in the voice of the boy. We wanted people when they heard the boy’s voice to have the instinct to try and take care of him or try and protect him,” Speller says. “He announces to us right at the start of the film that he’s lost and he’s looking for a home. We all felt incredibly protective of the boy. And that was the quality we were looking for in the boy’s voice: a very soft, very gentle unconfident-sounding voice.”
The film starts with the boy and the mole, and the interaction between Nicoll and Hollander is a particular delight – inquisitive and sweet without being cloying. “I find there’s this sort of lovely rapport, and there’s a sort of lovely musical relationship between their two voices,” Baynton says. The performances sound so immediate that it’s easy to imagine Nicoll and Hollander recording the voices together in a studio. But all the captures were done separately, not that even Baynton can believe it. “Watching it now, I’m like, ‘Are you sure they weren’t together in the studio?’ For me, it has that sort of emotional quality.”
Mackesy’s book struck an immediate chord with readers, but the response reached new levels during the coronavirus pandemic, as the emotional toll of the loss and isolation came into greater focus. The animated short, which is as timeless in its look as Mackesy’s writing, is out on Christmas Day and will expand the audience for Mackesy’s work even further. The co-director says he still gets emails from people who have found the book, either at school or in the hospital while caring for a dying loved one.
“All these people, all these wonderful people that the book and the characters and hopefully the film have threaded together, is very moving to me,” he says now. “It’s all one part of the same thing: about friendships and relationships and interaction and vulnerability and the shared journey. That’s what it is.”
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