Benjamin Renner at Atticus Coffee, Books and Teahouse, Park City

French director Benjamin Renner came to the Sundance Film Festival prepped to premiere the English version of Ernest & Celestine, but he never expected to hear the film's an Oscar nominee on day one of the fest.

Along with Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, Renner directed the animated story of a young orphan mouse who makes friends with a big, hungry bear, based on the book series by Gabrielle Vincent (see our review here). The nomination pits Renner's film in against Frozen, Despicable Me 2, The Croods and Japanese fantasy The Wind Rises for Best Animated Feature.

Recently, Salt Lake magazine met with Renner to talk about the film, the nomination and what's next.

So, what's it like being nominated for an Oscar?

It's just a lot of emotion. I'm very happy. I'm feeling really weird being nominated with The Wind Rises, because Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite directors. He's the one who made me want to do animation. So, I really can't believe this is happening.”

What's the overall theme of Ernest & Celestine?

It's like a Romeo and Juliet, but with friendship. Bears hate mice and mice hate bears, because bears eat mice. So, they don't like each other, and Celestine (mouse) and Ernest (bear), they're both outcasts from their own society. They meet and finally just start to live together, because they both have a love of creation, drawing, music and things like that. And this friendship, it's warm. It's like a Romeo and Juliet without ending so tragic.”

Image courtesy of G Kids.

How do the bear and mice societies relate to human society?

The bears are really just like humans, living in cities and stuff like that. Mice are underground, but it's sort of like Venice, a city that's very beautiful, where we wanted there to be a lot of light. Bears have a very capitalist society, and for the mice, it's more communal where everyone has to work together for one purpose.”

Do you identify with the characters?

I relate a lot to Celestine and Ernest. Celestine, it's obvious for me, because I was always focusing on my childhood memories when I talked to the animators. I was always giving them 'When you were a kid and that happened, try to remember those kinds of feelings.' For Ernest, it's kind of the same, he's a grown up who refused to grow up, and I'm still like this. He loves candy, he loves to play, he loves to not work. And I'm really like that even when I actually have to work. So, there's a lot of me in both of those characters."

What are your thoughts voice actors for the English version?

We spoke a lot with the casting. They were asking me 'This actor? This actor?' And I was telling them 'Yes, no, yes, not working.' At first, I was a little bit worried for Ernest, but when they let me hear some of Forest Whitaker's growls, I said, 'Ok, you can take him.' And he was really perfect. As for actors like Lauren Bacall, she's one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she was going to play an old rat lady, who was mean, and I was like, 'No, you can't do that to her.' But it worked, and Paul Giamatti, who played the judge, and all of the other actors I really love. I'm really honored that they liked it enough that they wanted to be part of it.”

Image courtesy of G Kids.

Anything cut that you wish could have been in the film?

The books are really good. They're sensitive and very calm, quiet; the film is a lot of action. Even though the end of the film is meant to connect with the books, because a lot of the drawings are coming from the books directly, I miss the scenes where it's more quiet. For example, there was a scene that had to be cut in editing where Celestine is just walking around the forest, and it was a very contemplative scene, very soft, and we had to cut it. I kind of regret that.”

Any other projects you're working on now?

“Right now, I'm working on a graphic novel. It's about a fox who isn't strong enough to catch and eat chickens. Instead, he gets beaten by the chickens. So, he has this weird idea where he's going to steal eggs and he's going to raise the small chickens, pretending he's the mother, but one day, he's going to eat them. It will be released in France in August. For now, it's called The Children of the Fox, but it might change to The Big Bad Fox."

Read Renner's Ernest & Celestine blog for the story behind the film (he's the pig).