This year marks the 75th anniversary of the internationally adored children’s story, Curious George. In celebration of this milestone, filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki is putting together a mixed-media documentary that tells the incredible story of Hans and Margret Rey, the husband and wife duo who together authored the Curious George franchise.
Living in Paris during the rise of Nazi Germany, the Reys were run out of Europe and forced to live in Brazil until they could get their US visas. The epic tale of their escape is chronicled in Monkey Business: The Curious Adventures of George’s Creators, which utilizes original hand-drawn animations in addition to interviews and archival sources from the Rey estate.
Yamazaki was granted access to over 300 boxes of archival material, including war journals, letters, and old sketches, from a massive collection of the couple’s personal documents archived at the de Grummond collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Since she started working on this project two years ago, the filmmaker has conducted interviews with over 30 people close to the couple. Now, to help pay for the production costs, she and a small team of filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign that’s so far raised over $60,000 from more than 450 backers. With only a few more days left in the campaign, The Creators Project talked to Yamazaki to get a better idea of what the project will look like.
The Creators Project: When I was younger, I always saw Curious George as synonymous with American culture. I had no idea he was created by two German immigrants.
Ema Ryan Yamazaki: They were also Jewish, and before they made Curious George, they had spent a lot of time traveling around the world. The husband had spent over a decade in Brazil. I can’t help but wonder, for example... George is supposed to be from Africa, but in the books it's depicted with palm trees. Hans traveled up and down the Amazon, so I’m sure he saw monkeys there. I feel like the Reys probably incorporated all of these influences from around the world into George and his world, subconsciously or not.
But on the flipside, you talk about George being this American thing, and definitely, but I grew up in Japan reading Curious George, assuming he was this Japanese monkey that all my friends and I read about. And it was really one of the few things that I got to share from my childhood that was the same as my American friends when I moved to the US as a college student, because all these countries are claiming him. In places like Sweden and Norway, George is really popular. When I was younger, I don't think I was aware that Curious George was being read by kids from around the world. We don't really get to think about that as children when we read these books, and I think that’s what got me really interested in pursuing the project when I first discovered their story.
So, when and where did you first hear about Hans and Margaret?
Over two years ago now, in the Spring of 2014. I had directed a couple short films. I was working as an editor, editing documentaries and nonfiction TV shows. I was really actively looking for a story to be my first feature documentary— something that would excite me so much that I would be willing to dedicate a few years of my life to. And then a mutual friend introduced me to the woman that runs the Curious George estate, Lay Lee Ong. I heard an audio clip of the Reys from a joint interview they did in 1966. They have these very strong German accents and they were true partners—they lifelong partners, and even in that short clip you can see how close they were. It's like they knew what each other was going to say. They’re kind of riffing off of each other, and it was so exciting to me. I went to Lay Lee Ong, and heard more details about their life and what kind of people they were. Then I started to visit various other people associated with the Reys' story. That’s how I got started.
Why do you think the story needs to be told?
As someone that was impacted by Curious George during my childhood, I’ve seen that it’s not just me who feels this connection to him, but the world. And not just children—George has had an impact on multiple generations. He's been around for 75 years, something about this monkey has transcended cultures and time to mold our childhood. He's very special, and in learning about the Reys, I realized George was really a reflection of who they were. It was their life experiences, and their personalities that drove through the book. Maybe not directly. They weren’t the kind of people that would like this type of psychoanalysis. But the more I studied their lives, the more connections I realized. Curious George echoes the outlook they had on life. They were these curious, resilient, adventurous people. A lot of films and books explore the relationship between an artist and the art they make, and this is just another one of those, but it happens to have a particularly interesting backstory that very few people know about. They were so close to not making it out of France when the Nazi troops came through Paris.
Has learning about the Reys changed your perspective of Curious George and his story?
Well, Margaret herself describes Curious George as this monkey that somehow finds himself in trouble. He doesn't mean any harm but somehow finds himself in these situations, and then, through his own ingenuity, gets himself out of trouble. This one sequence, for example, where Curious George rides a bike and goes too far. And then he hits a rock and one of the tires becomes unusable and he's upset and he's crying and he doesn't know what to do. And then he actually realizes on his own that he can keep going if he lifts that front wheel and rides the bicycle just on the back wheel. And it's just this great illustrated sequence, especially if you think about what the Reys went through.
For example, they found themselves with no train to ride, no car, not even bicycles to escape on the night before it was going to be too late to leave Paris in June, 1940. All they had access to was a tandem bicycle, and Margaret, who was a very impatient woman, was not going to put up with fleeing the Nazis on a tandem bike with her husband. So Hans himself cobbled together two separate bicycles out of spare parts, and that's what they rode out to flee the Nazis. Just an example of the Reys finding themselves in trouble, and then finding a way out of trouble using their own ingenuity and creativity. There are so many resilient themes that go through Curious George. It's almost never his fault that he's in trouble, but he always finds a way out, or the Man with the Yellow Hat comes to save them, which is another connection to the Reys. They said it was the kindness of strangers that got them through those streets of Southern France. People letting them sleep in barns and stuff like that. I think it was like an impulsive approach to their experience of war. It shows what they wanted to preserve from it, and that’s also quite an inspiring way once if you contrast it with the other accounts of what was happening at the time.
Why are you choosing to incorporate animation when telling this particular story?
As I learned about the Reys' story, and started to think about how I was going to retell it, it was natural for me to look to them. I always wondered, as someone that kind of fell in love with who the Reys were, ‘How would the Reys have told their own story?' In doing that, it really became impossible to imagine this film without some animation, especially during the parts when Margret and Hans are speaking, telling us their own story. We basically tried to recreate the style that they’re known for, and the world they created. It’s them on bicycles fleeing, it's them in certain moments in their life, whether they're getting married or on the road. It just made sense to me.
I'm working with this amazing animator called Jacob Kafka, who I went to NYU film school with. He's been diligently working on this, pretty much by himself for two years now. We get some help here and there, but if he were to do this all on his own, it would take about four or five more years, which is why we're trying to raise the funds to get a team in place. All the ideas are there, it’s just such a great undertaking. I believe it’s something like 15,000 hand-drawn drawings have to get done.
I hope that the Reys would approve. Were trying to tell a story that is sometimes quite dark, through a whimsical positive approach, the way I think they would have told it.
With roughly $115,000 left to go in the campaign, are you guys feeling confident?
This is my first Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign of any sort, and obviously it's a huge undertaking. I didn’t really know what to expect from these 30 days—it’s definitely been a rollercoaster. Once the page launched, the first day was great, and then there was a lull, and then now in the past three or four days it really kicked into next gear. Just like the filmmaking itself, the Kickstarter campaign has been quite an adventure. I’m feeling really good about it, though. I think we’re just going to continue to build momentum. We have a few more announcements were going to make that will hopefully keep the momentum going. I was at Hot Docs, the documentary film Festival in Toronto, in May, pitching my Curious George film for the first time, and that’s when I really learned, having met people from Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, how far it's come. I learned more about not just the funds that are being raised, but the overall impact that crowdfunding can have on a project. You’re basically finding your audience before your film is done, and these people are engaging with you, waiting for your project to be done. That’s been crazy. I’ve been doing this for over two years, basically myself and a really small group of really dedicated filmmaker friends, people I went to school with. And now, all of a sudden, the world knows what we’ve been up to.