TORONTO — Writer-director Andrew Adamson has made animated features such as “Shrek” and “Shrek 2” and large-scale adventure stories including "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and its first sequel. So the small-scale drama “Mr. Pip,” which premiered on Sunday afternoon at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, is something of a surprise.
The film stars Hugh Laurie as the last white man living on the island of Bougainville during the Papua New Guinea civil war of the late '80s and early '90s. Acting as a schoolteacher, he excites the local children with Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”
Adamson, who was born in New Zealand, lived in Papua New Guinea until the age of about 18, leaving in 1984, setting off on his career as a visual effects supervisor and later a filmmaker.
“I can’t say I went looking for a film to make in Papua New Guinea,” Adamson said in an interview on Sunday afternoon just before heading to his film’s premiere. His wife had given him a copy of Lloyd Jones’ 2006 novel, and on a flight from London to Los Angeles during the production of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," follow-up “Prince Caspian,” he read it straight through and immediately sought the film rights.
“A lot of it was certainly recognizing the characters; there’s so many people in the story I felt I knew,” Adamson said of what drew him to the story. “But on top of that it was a story about the power of stories. And as somebody who has chosen to do this for a living, it’s great to find something that puts some value on that.”
The production brought him back to to Papua New Guinea for the first time in more 25 years.
“I went with a lot of trepidation, the country’s changed a lot in that time and I went not knowing how I felt about it,” he said. “The high school I went to is gone, the city I grew up in has a lot of political problems. But I got there, got in the back of a pickup truck that headed into the rain forest, and I just felt at home.”
For most of the movie, Laurie is the only person onscreen with acting experience. Every other part is played by local islanders. Xzannjah Matsi plays the young girl Matilda who forms a special bond with Laurie’s character over Dickens’ novel, and her real-life mother plays her mother in the film. That intertwining of fiction and reality hit especially close to home while shooting some of the shocking scenes of violence that were a result of civil war.
“I knew going in I had to take a different approach, even though I didn’t know what that approach would be,” said Adamson of working with his non-professional actors. "What it became was quite frequently reenactment. A lot of these people had been through the traumas of the civil war, and we were asking them to go through it again, which ultimately, thankfully, became a catharsis for them. But it meant at times we were shooting something in between a documentary and a drama.”