Curious George turns seventy-five years old this year. And while children and adults, throughout the ages, have loved this adventurous monkey character, few know the origins of the children’s book star. Until now. Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki announces the first ever mixed-media documentary that delves into the extraordinary lives of Hans and Margret Rey, the authors of the Curious George children’s books.
The Reys were of German Jewish descent and narrowly escaped the Nazis on makeshift bicycles they rode across Europe, carrying the yet to be published Curious George manuscript with them. Monkey Business: The Curious Adventures of George’s Creators is Yamazaki’s directorial debut after amassing an impressive editing credit list including collaborations with seasoned storyteller, Sam Pollard (When The Levees Broke). Marc Levin (Chicagoland) is on board as Executive Producer. We interviewed the filmmaker about this exciting project.
When did your fondness for “Curious George” begin?
I grew up in Japan where I thought George was a Japanese monkey. Little did I know that many countries were claiming George around the world. As a child, I remember the feeling of exhilaration reading those adventures. Two years ago I was surprised to learn that he was created by German-Jews who fled the Nazis on bicycles, carrying with them the first Curious George manuscript.
What was it like learning more about Hans & Margret Rey, and all they had to endure to escape Nazi Germany?
Just reading Curious George, you would never know that people who had gone through such a harrowing experience created the books. Learning how close the Reys came in not making it out of Europe was shocking. I became captivated in learning more about who the Reys were and what had enabled them to have such a positive and resilient outlook toward life.
What specific aspect of the lives of Hans & Margret Rey, and all they had went through, spoke especially to you?
There are many things, but in particular, I found their partnership to be fascinating. Hans and Margret knew each other their whole life. Their personalities could not be more different: Hans was gentle and a dreamer, while Margret was blunt and rebellious. But together, they made a perfect team. Driven by respect for one another and perhaps the shared experiences in their life, they had a special bond. I’ve learned that it was Hans who was the artistic genius, but it was Margret that pushed him to put his talents to use. We needed both of them to have Curious George.
You have been quoted as saying that Curious George was “a global phenomenon from the beginning.” Can you tell us more about George’s impact worldwide?
In America, Curious George is a household name. But actually, George is very well-known in other parts of the world as well. The books have been published in 19 languages. Just as I thought he was a Japanese monkey, Swedish people may think he’s Swedish. Norwegian people may think he’s Norwegian. There’s something about that monkey that transcends cultural barriers. Also, the story behind George’s creation has many international elements. He was born in Paris,created by German immigrants who carried George with them from Paris through Portugal, then to Brazil and finally to America.
Added to that, as your documentary explains, George’s origin traces through various countries; do you think people will be surprised to learn that George was actually “born” in Paris?
As a child, we never consider where our books come from. Especially with a book like Curious George that has left such an impact on so many of us, I think it is surprising and very insightful to learn about the story behind the books.
Is there anything else you uncovered about Curious George that you think might still surprise your documentary’s audience?
Curious George was originally a sequel from a book called “Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys,” a book about a giraffe and nine monkeys. George was the baby monkey in that book, and he was named Fifi at that time. It was only later, once the Reys were in America, that Fifi was renamed George.
What issues or problems did you face when developing the documentary?
The biggest challenge in making this documentary for the past two years has been figuring out how to gather the funds and resources to get it made. I seemed to be stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation where I needed to show the film to receive funding, but I couldn’t make the film without funding. Ultimately, the fastest way I could get started was use my own money that I was making on other jobs. Alongside a dedicated group of filmmakers who worked with me for little to no money, we have made it a long way. But, to finish the film we still need to gather funds, which is why we have launched a Kickstarter campaign this summer.
How does it feel to for the documentary to be selected by Kickstarter as a “Project We Love?”
Kickstarter is a perfect platform for a project like this. Everyone loves Curious George, and I thought that if I could connect with those George fans and share with them the story of his creators, I could get this film funded. Since we’ve launched the Kickstarter campaign, I’ve had such a supportive response from people. The Kickstarter campaign has become about more than raising the funds. It’s also become the platform in connecting with those who are also excited to get the Reys’ story told. Being picked by Kickstarter as a “Project We Love” was very exciting because it means we have the potential to reach even more people and get them involved.
Tell us more about your background in film? Any other upcoming projects?
I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and English father, and then came to New York when I was 19 to study filmmaking. As a director, I made a documentary for Al Jazeera English called Monk By Blood about an 800-year-old Buddhist temple family in Kyoto, Japan, which aired internationally in 2013. As a documentary and non-fiction TV editor, I worked under Sam Pollard (When the Levis Broke), and then went on to edit for Marc Levin (Slam, Brick City). On Marc’s latest film, Class Divide, which will air on HBO this fall, I served as the co-producer and editor. As for upcoming projects besides this Curious George documentary, I am in production on another documentary, and in development on a few others, both in New York and Japan.