“[The book is] one lovely afternoon… We dug a little bit deeper and we’ve expanded out our scope and timeframe as well,” explained Bagnall, who said the film will take place over a whole summer and include more adventures shared by Julián and his Abuela.
Thematically, in Julián and the Mermaid the protagonist explores an awakening of gender expression. Bagnall feels the brilliance of the book is that “it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t like, go ahead and label things… It’s actually opening up a question and letting the audience project their own feelings or their own experiences there.”
Cartoon Saloon is currently in development on Oscar-nominated filmmaker Louise Bagnall’s (Late Afternoon) debut feature Julián, based on the picture book Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.
Bagnall said that Julián will be targeted to an audience around the age of its pre-adolescent main character, but that “Julián’s journey is gonna be something that a lot of old adults, young adults, will relate to as well. Because I think these things have come up and do come up with questions about, how do you express your identity and even cultural identity? How can things grow?”
The project’s official synopsis reads:
Part of the reason why the original story resonated so deeply with her is its approach to asking questions and learning to explore things. “That’s something that feels genuine. For a lot of kids, there is an age when you explore things. There’s an age where gender expression can be a big part of that for certain.”
Bagnall has directed multiple short films, including the Oscar-nominated Late Afternoon, and most recently assistant directed Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon for Netflix. Though she hasn’t directed a feature yet, she has been working on the development of Julián with screenwriter Juliany Taveras for years.
She went on, “We’re talking about something that actually affects a lot of people, they feel like they have something to say on it. So, between the writer, between myself, between the different members of the team that we’re gonna have on board, I think we’ll have a good way of collaborating together and talking about these things as we’re making the film so that we’re not just coming at it from a one-note perspective.”
In typical Cartoon Saloon fashion, Bagnall and her team decided to add more fantastical elements. “I can tell you that there’s definitely magic in the story; he will meet a mermaid goddess,” she said. The film will also adhere to another of the studio’s tenets, traditional animation. Bagnall predicted, “I do think we’re still gonna embrace a lot of the stuff that we all love in the Saloon, which is like a hand-drawn feeling.”
Bagnall and Cartoon Saloon will pitch Julián in March at the French event Cartoon Movie.
“I’ve never adapted anything before,” the director told Cartoon Brew about her next project. But when Julián is a Mermaid was brought to the studio by David Yate’s Wychwood Media, Bagnall looked through the material and knew “it was a project that I can feel passionate about, but also something that speaks to me artistically, visually, thematically. And more importantly, what did I want to spend years of my life working on?”
The wide-eyed Julián spends a summer of discovery in New York City with his Abuela. Nearly strangers, they brace themselves for tense conversations and new adventures. The colorful chaos of Abuela’s world, and the stories she tells him, awakens something within Julián… questions about who he is and who he could be. Julián’s journey will reach across the diaspora, from Brooklyn block to the depths of the ocean, in an intergenerational ebb and flow. Through Abuela’s world, Julián explores his identity, gender expression, and the hidden heritage of his family.
With a character like Julián in this film, there is an opportunity and importance “to both be able to show that there is an expression and there’s an exploration and there’s a question that he’s beginning to ask, and there’s a desire to find out more about his own at wants and his own desire to express himself,” Bagnall said.
While Cartoon Saloon is known for its expressive visual exploration, Bagnall feels it’s important to get the story right first. “We’ve got the artists; we’ve got the interest in making the visuals look good. I wasn’t exactly worried about that, I knew we’d get there with the visual development, whereas I wanted to make sure that we were gonna tell the story that we really wanted to tell.”
As part of the development, the studio reached out to the author and illustrator, Jessica Love, to explore the design of the book. According to Bagnall, “It’s a great jumping-off point, the book, in terms of the visuals. There’s so much vibrancy… and it’s been really exciting as well to explore the world. We’re able to expand it.”