Katie Moritz chats to writer Mike Sizemore about bringing the epic Howl's Moving Castle to the London Stage
As a massive fan of Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle (and being a creative soul with a lively imagination) I was very excited to see how the story would be brought to life on stage at Southwark Playhouse by the dream team of writer Mike Sizemore, dynamic artistic duo Davy and Kristin McGuire and Guillemots singer and songwriter Fyfe Dangerfield. After seeing the production, I was bursting with questions for Mike to find out how this magical, immersive theatre experience came to be…
London Calling: Howl’s Moving Castle is an enormous epic of a story, both interpreted in the book by Diana Wynne Jones and in the film by Studio Ghibli. How did you decide which scenes and characters to take from the book and the film and how to interpret them - for instance, the characters of Sophie, Howl and the Witch of the Waste?
Mike Sizemore: The tricky part was working out what to focus on. The film differs from the book, and our version ploughs its own furrow too. My first draft had a lot more of the book in it, but it's quite a dense plot with a large cast so once I knew how many actors we'd be using I had to be practical and pare it back quite a bit. Basically I focused on the love story between Howl and Sophie. And, yes, the Witch is quite different from the original character - on one level she's a spurned lover, but on another she's this outside force trying to keep Sophie from Howl that ultimately helps bring them together. Kristin then had her own interpretation on stage.
LC: I absolutely loved the projection that accompanied the imaginative and adaptable set used in the show. It was totally spellbinding and surpassed all my expectations in terms of how you would visualise the moving castle and the worlds outside the door. Can you explain the creative process?
MS: It was very much a collaboration from day one. I was asked to take part before we even had Howl in mind. Davy and Kristin wanted to follow up their smaller, more intimate work, The Ice Book, with something larger that featured a strong narrative. We discussed the stuff that they wanted to play with - life-size projections, a sense of scale, a pop-up set etc - and then the Playhouse suggested Howl. Technically, I wrote a screenplay; we borrowed cuts and dissolves from film.
LC: What kinds of challenges and opportunities did the unusual space of Southwark Playhouse create?
MS: The Playhouse offers a unique space and atmosphere, but also a few challenges. I just had to bang away on a keyboard, but a few of the things I came up with created some technical headaches. Luckily Davy is a fan of tackling the impossible. Deep beneath London Bridge is an atmospheric place to be - we incorporated the walls of the Playhouse into the brickwork of our Moving Castle and it means the audience are wrapped up in the story from the moment they take their seats.
LC: Can you tell us more about how the whole creative team worked together to bring the story to life?
MS: Davy is a madman. I'd come up with an idea and he'd roll his eyes and then go off and create it. At other times he'd have an idea for something he simply wanted to see come alive on stage and I'd find a way to incorporate it into the script. Then of course we had the rather large talent of Fyfe Dangerfield that added another element to the visuals. And a splendid chap called Jerry Lbbotson designed the sound. I sat in on a matinee yesterday and there's a moment where a dragon roars behind the crowd and I watched an entire row of children turn around looking for it.
James Wilkes' brilliant voice-work brought Calcifer to life just as much as the projections. The lighting design was also crucial because we move locations so often and with such speed; our lighting designer Tim Bray did some incredible work. Our stage manager Peta Dyce ensures that all this technical scaffolding doesn't come tumbling down on us - she controls the thousands of cues that come with the show and is running the computers at the back of every performance.
LC: How did you work together with Fyfe Dangerfield from the Guillemots to create the score?
MS: We met quite early on in the process and began to throw ideas around with Davy and Kristin regarding the mood we wanted to create. Then while he was on tour with the Guillemots I'd send him the latest draft of the script and he'd begin to send pieces that gave the cast and crew a taste of what was coming. Just before we opened I had Howl (Dan Ings) over for supper with Kristin and Davy, and we sat there waving slices of pizza in the air in time to this huge imaginary castle moving in our minds, thanks to Fyfe's music.
LC: And finally...what fantastic project for 2012 would you like to give us a sneak preview of?
MS: I think the entire team will be doing some crazy and wonderful stuff in 2012. I hope the BBC take note of all the people describing Dan Ings as the next Dr Who. Susan Sheridan, who plays the cursed version of Sophie, is returning to the role of Trillian in a very special stage version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2012.
I'm already exhausted just thinking of all the projects that Davy and Kirsten have their teeth into. Same for our producer, Katherine Jewkes, and I suspect our narrator will do one or two good things too! The Playhouse will continue to champion innovative and experimental madness like ours.
Right now I'm busy on a new draft of a sci-fi movie for my management in LA and my TV show, Slingers, is moving forward. We have a former Firefly scribe (Jose Molina) on board and The Mummers just released a single that was written for it, which you can hear a sneak preview of here.
Howl's Moving Castle can be seen at the Southwark Playhouse until the 7th January, 2012. Watch a sneak peak of the show here and book your seat quick!
"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."