‘Shaun the Sheep’s’ writer-director team are a pair of true gag men

Ed Symkus More Content Now

Before Richard Starzak and Mark Burton got together to co-write and co-direct the new stop-motion animated feature “Shaun the Sheep Movie” they’d already spent lengthy careers, in different departments, at England’s Aardman Animations, creators of the Wallace and Gromit films. Starzak, then using the last name Goleszowski, was an animator and director, working on projects including the Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” video, the “Penny” cartoons on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and the “Shaun the Sheep” TV series, which ran in the States on the Disney Channel. Burton had worked on the screenplays of, among other animated features, “Chicken Run” and the Wallace and Gromit-starring “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” They shared a phone call from Los Angeles last week to chat about the delightful “Shaun.”

“I was asked to help in the development of the [2007] ‘Shaun’ series, and I ended up devising it,” said Starzak. “Shaun the Sheep initially appeared in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ in 1995. He was only onscreen for about six minutes. But he had a very iconic face, and he proved to be so popular, after the film came out the Shaun merchandise outsold the Wallace and Gromit merchandise. But it took us about another 11 years to devise a series. I directed and wrote a lot of the scripts. We went the non-dialogue route, which proved to be very popular, and it just grew from there. I think I became very aware, early on, that we had a group of characters, and a dynamic that might suit a film.”

Starzak and Burton knew each other, and they almost got together on a DreamWorks project that ended up not happening. But they shared a similar sense of humor, the Aardman folks knew that a Shaun movie was definitely a two-man directing job, and the combination of Burton’s screenwriting experience and Starzak’s directing experience seemed like a good match.

“We also co-wrote the film,” explained Burton. “But I suppose I brought in my background as a screenwriter in terms of how we structured it.”

Although Starzak was far closer to the film’s characters – the featured players in the little village of Mossy Bottom are Shaun the Sheep, Bitzer the Dog, and the Farmer – Burton was asked to introduce them. He was delighted to take on the task.

“The farmer is basically a kind of grumpy, slightly short-sighted bald guy. He’s in middle age and is not at all based on Richard or myself (laughs). Bitzer is like his foreman. In some ways they’re in a work place and in some ways they’re a family. Bitzer is a foreman, but he’s also like an elder brother. Shaun is kind of like an 11-year-old boy. You reach a certain age and you just want to push at your boundaries. There’s a bit of mischief in you, you want to explore the world. If there’s button that says don’t press, you’re going to press it. But at the same time he’s got a heart of gold. If anything goes wrong, whether he caused it or somebody else caused it, he’s the guy that’s going to put it right.”

Lots goes wrong in the story, which keeps the relationship between Shaun and the Farmer at its center, and is cleverly told without any dialogue. It’s about Shaun and his flock growing tired of the everyday sameness on the farm, and wanting a day off. The message here is to be careful what you wish for, especially when you move from the tranquility of the farm to the chaos of “The Big City.” But no matter where the people and the animals are, chaos reigns in the form of an endless stream of endlessly inventive sight gags.

“Me and Mark came up with a lot of the gags but we also had a talented storyboard team that could suggest visual gags as well,” said Starzak. “That was the fun part. We managed to find a very simple way through the story that allowed us to add a lot of visual gags.”

“Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s hard work,” added Burton. “We were always rigorous about it. We always had to think up some more gags, but it was fun to do that because we were on the same wavelength.”

For those who can’t get enough of Shaun and his pals, Aardman is right now heading toward the deadline to complete a half-hour special titled “Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas,” which is currently scheduled to be shown on TV at Christmastime in England.

Burton sounded slightly disappointed when, after saying it would also be shown in the States, he added, “I’m just not sure exactly when.”

“Shaun the Sheep Movie” opens on Aug. 5.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.