Director of seminal animated film Watership Down to come to Singapore for masterclass

Martin Rosen's hit animated film, Watership Down (1978), is based on writer Richard Adams' allegory about a group of rabbits in search of a new home.
Martin Rosen's hit animated film, Watership Down (1978), is based on writer Richard Adams' allegory about a group of rabbits in search of a new home.PHOTO: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL

Martin Rosen, who directed the hit animated film Watership Down, discusses its successes and failures 37 years later

He directed the seminal animated film Watership Down, but Martin Rosen cannot quite put a finger on why the heartrending tale of refugee rabbits remains popular, 37 years after its release.

"I wish I had an easy answer," says the 79-year-old American, whose career has seen him write, direct and produce, both in his native United States and in the United Kingdom, where he lived and worked for a time.

Rosen will be in Singapore to conduct a class on bringing animation characters to life this Saturday at the National Museum as part of the Perspectives Film Festival. He will be speaking after the screening of Watership Down on Friday.

On the telephone with Life from his home near San Francisco, he points out that the 1978 film's appeal is far from universal.

"It wasn't a hit worldwide, I'm sorry to say. It did well in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Germany, Italy and the Scandi- navian countries. But not so much in France, Spain or Japan. For some reason, it didn't touch them," he says. "I can't explain it."

In his home nation, reviews were largely positive, but Americans stayed away from the film. The movie is based on British author Richard Adams' 1972 novel about rabbits who flee their warren because one of them has a vision of an impending disaster. Along the way, they meet obstacles, some with fatal consequences.

He attributes the film's lukewarm reception in the United States to the frankness of its advertising, which added the caution that "sensitive children should not come, so that cut out a large part of the audience", he says.

But Rosen, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, had been a fan of the book. He says he was aware of the commercial risk he was taking by refusing to dilute the book's sense of doom and danger.

Today, in online discussions about favourite childhood movies, adults will name Watership Down, usually with the caveat that when they first saw it as children, it terrified them or made them cry.

"Some people get it and some people don't. Some people get it, very powerfully. I'm accused of waking people up at night, 25 years after they saw it," he says.

Rosen asked composer Mike Batt to write a song for the movie. Batt returned with the ballad Bright Eyes. Rosen says that when he first heard the tune, he was not impressed by its literalism.

Among its maudlin lines: "Following a river of death downstream, oh, is it a dream."

"I didn't want to use it. It was too on-the-nose," he says.

But after thinking it over, he warmed to the song and included it in the movie. Sung by Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes would become the biggest-selling single of 1979 in the UK, moving over a million copies.

In the UK, the book and movie live on in the popular imagination. In 1999, there was a British-Canadian television series based on the Adams novel (which Rosen executive-produced), and earlier this year, the BBC announced a computer-animation remake of the movie, to be released next year .

Rosen says he was invited to participate in the upcoming four- part television series in a creative capacity, but declined because he has already made his version of the story.

But he welcomes the BBC reboot because he knows who it has hired for the job and is happy with the choices. There is another reason why he is pleased to see the movie get a new lease of life.

"I own the rights. They have to get the licence from me," he says.

•Martin Rosen will be conducting an animation masterclass, Bringing Your Characters To Life, this Saturday at 11.30am. He will also be speaking after the screening of Watership Down (PG, 101 minutes, 1978) on Friday at 8pm.

•Tickets for the class, $15, and for the screening, $12, both held at the National Museum of Singapore, are available from www.perspectivesfilm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'A trip down the rabbit hole'. Print Edition | Subscribe