Noam Murro on Finding the Heart of ‘Watership Down’

We chat with the director of the new Netflix series about embracing the truth of Richard Adams’ novel and escaping the trap of gore.

Watership Down
Netflix

Adapting a treasured classic is always a tricky business. Adapting said classic after it has already received a beloved animated adaptation is even more daunting. However, director Noam Murro pressed on. He believed that Watership Down was never given a fair shake from cinema and that the ’78 feature foolishly bypassed its audience of children by embracing bright red swaths of gore instead of accentuating the character of the rabbits themselves. He was itching to have his go at Adams’ novel, and he did his best to ignore the interpretations that came before.

Thankfully, BBC and Netflix allotted him the ability to stretch the novel out into its four proper chapters: The Journey, The Raid, The Escape, and The Siege. For the first time, the full scope of the adventure is laid out there for the audience to consume. No shortcuts, no cheats. As our own Charlie Brigden said in his review, here is “a welcome opportunity to introduce children to the sheer beauty of Richard Adams’ stories without things getting too intense.”

Ah, there is that added bonus of a voice cast crammed with immensely talented and utterly British actors: James McAvoyJohn Boyega, Nicholas HoultRosamund PikeOlivia ColmanDaniel Kaluuya, and Ben Kingsley. While they rarely acted across from each other, each performer invested deeply into their roles and the words of Richard Adams. The director felt blessed by their presence.

I spoke to Noam Murro over the phone. We begin with the question of “Why?” and quickly dug into the heart of Watership Down and its creator. Murro is a great fan of the book and never accepted the ’78 film as a true telling of the story. He was compelled to give it a go himself. It was important to him that they remove the blood and gore, and treat the violence of the story as real but understandable to a child’s point of view.

Here is our conversation in full:

Watership Down is a beloved novel. The original animated film is a Criterion classic. Why do we need an animated series?

You know, I just want to say one thing.

Sure.

I never thought we were gonna remake a film. I thought we were gonna reinterpret or interpret a book. And that was always the intention, you know? The one thing that we have to remember – what is it a 600-odd pages long book, and we had the opportunity to really interpret it and go through the text at that depth.

This is a very interesting opportunity, and I think that when you have four hours to do it, it becomes a completely different investigation of the text and the meanings of all of what that text has to offer, and really go to the heart of what Richard Adams, I think, had in mind. That really is the intention of all of this. It was never the idea to remake the movie, and certainly not remake a horror movie.

The animated film was certainly horrific at times. Your interpretation is not anything like that one.

Thank you.

Your phrase there, “The heart of Richard Adams.” What does that mean exactly?

Look, if you ask Richard Adams, “What is the book about?” He’d say, “It’s a story about rabbits.” And you know, I always quote my dear friend Alvin Sargent, you know, who wrote Ordinary People. I remember going to breakfast with him one day and he said to me, “Hey Noam. I think I know what I want on my tombstone.” And I said, “What is it?” And he said, “Finally, a plot.”

It stuck with me all these years, and you know, it’s interesting because what’s so great about the book is that there’s a fantastic engine. There’s a dramatic piece that doesn’t wear its allegorical stripes on its shoulder, but at the heart of it, you have all of these things that make us appreciate a piece of literature.

Which is migration. It’s country. It’s friendship. It’s loyalty. It’s environmental issues. It is what we do to the environment. Our relationship with the environment. Our relationship with the animals, and the relationship with animals with themselves. The idea of social, cyclical social issues. I mean, all of that is in my mind, what is encompassing about the book and the beauty of it is that what makes a good piece of art is that we bring this to it. The writer can say, “I don’t know anything about this.” And that’s the beauty of it. You know?

Different than other kinds of books like that in the genre, this has, first and foremost a fantastic story. It’s a world creation, and specific world creation, while all these other aspects of it are all really in the subtext of the piece. In my opinion, certainly some in the text itself, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.

Part of it is violence. Not gore, not to be gory. That was never the intention, but to deal with violence in a responsible and critical way, really stemming from the emotional point of view, rather than just the shock point of view.

Right. I used to be a middle school teacher.

Oh wow.

Yeah. Not an easy gig by any means. I showed the film to my seventh-grade class, and it was a traumatizing event. Silly me, what did I know? I received a lot of critiques back from parents and my principal at the time. That film can be a terror. Your film does not revel in the violence but it doesn’t shrink from it either. There –

I love you! I love you! Yes!

Well, it’s more palatable. It’s engaging, but it’s not…horrifying. Frightening, sure. I don’t think I would have caught as much heat if I had shown your film to my class.

That’s exactly the point! The point is never to shock you. The point is to have an impact on you in a way. An adult is gonna read it in a certain way, and a kid another. The issue is not to shock you. His two daughters think this interpretation is the best one ever because it really is dealing with the issues at the heart of the book and not just the idea of shocking you. I mean, it just, that’s not the intention. The intention is to have a conversation about it. To have a responsible way of telling it. Gratuitous violence is unnecessary.

And the intention was always to tell it in four episodes.

You know, the book is really divided into four chapters.

Yeah.

It felt very organic to really keep that structure in mind. You know, what’s so great about outlets or platforms like the BBC or for that matter, Netflix, is that it allows you to actually go this deep into it. So yes, the structure was always based on a specific four hour-long episodes that really go from one place to another.

And there is breath to the story.

I think so, and I think you know, they all have their own sort of inner mechanisms, in terms of how you start relating to the world as you explore it. That means the idea of what’s happening, say, in the fourth episode, which is really a conclusion to all of that. I think, you know, that is allowed only when you have that kind of time that you can really go into it.

We also have to talk about this astonishing voice cast that you’ve assembled.

I must say, I’m the luckiest man alive. You know, I remember sitting one day in London and we were all sitting together, and at some point, I think, I don’t remember who. I think I said, “Could you imagine if James McAvoy played Hazel?” So cut to him getting the first draft of the first episode, and he’s opening the door, and he’s wearing, by complete chance, the very old and used tee-shirt of Watership Down. You know?

Wow, really?

So if there is karma, I guess this is it. And we were laughing about it. I keep laughing about it. He has a very deep and interesting relationship with the source material, and I think from there on, just because it is such an iconic piece of culture for so many people, especially in the UK. I think that that became this incredible ensemble of incredibly talented people just came and wanted to do it.

And you know, this is nothing without that talent, because their understanding, not only the performance but their understanding intellectually and emotionally the depth of the material is what makes it, I think, so good.

Why did you want McAvoy as Hazel? Beyond him having a passion for the material itself?

You know, I think that Hazel is a leader. I think that Hazel is also a complex character, and I always found that in James. I think that there is some, an almost unspoken complexity, wonderful complexity to him in whatever he does.

When I first saw James onscreen, I fell in love. That’s really what this is about. It’s about really falling in love with Hazel, him as Hazel. The fact that he has such emotional depth and at the same time, you know, vulnerability. That is a rare combination, and that’s what really attracted me to him in that way.

Then you’ve John Boyega as Bigwig, and he’s just such a different personality. The combination of their two performances as those two characters, it’s confrontational but warm.

That is the relationship of friendship. Friends are not identical, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful. That relationship between them. Thematically they always had the issue of leadership. That’s at the heart of really what is the back and forth between them, and you can feel that. You know, Boyega is – I don’t know where to start describing the level of talent that all these people had. Don’t forget, also part of the challenge is that they never work in the same room, ever.

Right. Of course.

It’s usually done over a long period of time. As hard as it for me to keep that fabric for me in my head, in terms of tonal accuracy and performance continuity and character development and all these other things. For them to do that over, broken into pieces, a performance here and there, is astonishing talent.

Well, talk about that a little bit. You’ve directed live action, and this has got to be a completely different experience. What was your experience in this medium?

I am obviously primarily a live action director. What made this dramatically successful is that I created a box for myself and for everybody else, which is basically saying, we’re gonna treat this as live action. The camera is never gonna go into where a camera can’t go if it was a real set and real characters. The lensing is gonna be exactly the same as live action. The pacing and the way the camera moves and the cinematic language is one of cinema. Not just animation. That creates a very specific aesthetic and tonal approach that really defines how dramatic this piece is.

So when you look at it, hopefully, that’s really what happens too, and I’ve seen it over and over again. You forget that you’re dealing with rabbits very quickly. You are now dealing with a set of characters that inhabit a narrative that is dramatic and emotional, and that’s what drives it. We decided to edit it that way, like a film, to approach it like a live-action cinema. You know, I think that perspective is different than a lot of animation, where you can really have, you can put the camera anywhere you want, and it can be as “Kooky” as much as you want. This was a very specific set of rules that created that sort of tone.

That pretty much sets up your visual style.

Yes, I’m gonna go and do that as live action. The lighting is gonna be like live action. The action is gonna be, the blocking of all these scenes is gonna be like live action. They’re gonna go in places where only a camera can go.

The cinematography adheres to that very specific language, which is, “It’s gonna be very much like a real camera in a real set.” That creates an aesthetic or cinematic or cinematography language that is very specific to this series. We scoped Watership Down up and down with drones.

Really?

And documented the entire space before we built those digital sets.

Amazing.

So while there is a dreamlike quality to some of the backgrounds, they are very specific. Botanically, topographically, lighting wise, mood like and all that, are very true to where actually Watership Down is.

So, going back to the heart of Richard Adams and his novel. What is the big element you have to nail as a filmmaker in bringing that story to life?

Oh my God. Yes. I think, look, that understanding of the backdrop of where this is all happening. The idea that to be true to the characters themselves, what is it in them that motivates the story? What is the relationship between them? What is the idea behind?

Part of it was when she looked at the opening of episode four, which is basically what seemed to be a home movie. Where you see little Woundwort getting nailed by that fox. Which really was important to me to address that in that way, because I wanted to know why is Woundwort the way he is? And I thought this is what makes this interesting. Because you know, there’s a great Auden poem, which goes, “I and the public know what every schoolchild will learn, to whom evil is done, will do evil in return.”

That is what it’s about. Why is Woundwort the way he is? It’s not just left for some sort of nihilistic point of view that is, “This is how we are.” There is a very specific psychological underpinning to all of it. That to me is, you know, is at the heart of it, is above all philosophical or environmental or social issues that this brings on top of it.

At the end of the day, this is about these people, characters. What motivates them and why? What is their relationship between community and family? What is the relationship between community? That is what is so fascinating to me about this story and what makes it really resonate for all these decades. It is not gore, trust me.


Watership Down is currently streaming on Netflix.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.