Oscar-Nominated ‘Ice Merchants’ Filmmakers Reveal the ‘Weirdest Thing Ever’ of Awards Season

Director João Gonzalez and producer Bruno Caetano chat about their animated short nomination, an encounter with Tom Cruise and hopes for hugging John Williams on March 12

"Ice Merchants" (COLA Animation)

If there is a test for determining whether one has arrived in Hollywood, “Ice Merchants” producer Bruno Caetano aced it. The day before he and the animated short’s director, João Gonzalez, logged on for a Zoom interview with TheWrap, they attended the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, where they met filmmakers — like Steven Spielberg — who have inspired them for decades. That was heady enough, but it soon got even more intense for Caetano.

“I was heading towards the group photo, walking through the corridor, and at my side, like a meter away from me, Tom Cruise is like, ‘Congratulations!‘” Caetano said, miming the actor’s famous gung-ho energy and double thumbs up. “If (the day) wasn’t surreal enough, having Tom Cruise looking me in the eyes and congratulating me for being for being there was the weirdest thing ever.”

Director & Writer João Gonzalez and Producer Bruno Caetano, “Ice Merchants”
João Gonzalez and Bruno Caetano (Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap)

The pair can add it to the logbook of their adventure with “Ice Merchants,” a lyrical, 14-minute film with no dialogue about a father and son who live way up on a snowy cliff and each day, parachute into the valley below to sell ice. Through sound and image alone, the short conveys the deepest of bonds between parent and child, as well as an aching longing for an absent family member. It all began with the image of a tiny house atop a vertiginous cliff, and from there, Gonzalez — the short’s writer, director, animator and composer — conjured up the rest by jumping from his sketches to his piano and back again until a story emerged from the visuals and music. “Ice Merchants” was the first animated film from Portugal to win a prize at Cannes and it is now the first Portuguese film to be nominated for an Oscar.

“When we got to Cannes, it took a long time for us to process. We were feeling a bit of impostor syndrome — like, what what are we doing here? Somebody made a mistake,” said Gonzalez, a classically trained pianist who has made two previous animated shorts, “Nestor” and “The Voyager.” “It’s gonna take a lot of time to settle in. We couldn’t be happier, of course.”

Here’s what else Caetano and Gonzalez had to say about “Ice Merchants” and hobnobbing with Hollywood elite.

“Ice Merchants” (COLA Animation)

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Did you watch the nominations together?
João Gonzalez: Thank you so much for that. Yeah, we set up a Zoom meeting with the entire team. We are spread around Portugal, France and Europe, and so we’re able to catch the moment at the same time. I mean, not exactly the same time because there was some delay. [Laughs] There was one member of the team that was, like, 10 seconds delayed, so she was just looking at people celebrating and not knowing what was happening. The recording is very funny. But yeah, we were able to experience the moment in family. And it was beautiful. We’re still in shock.

One of the things that struck me about “Ice Merchants” is the emotional warmth between father and son, which stands in stark contrast to the frozen surroundings. João, how did you come up with this particular emotional landscape?
Gonzalez: The landscape factor of my films are always the starting points. I always base my films normally on the landscapes that I imagined, you know, when I’m about to fall asleep or I’m dreaming and then I take notes. And so in this case, the starting point was the tiny house attached to the cliff. I never know exactly how the film is going to be at that point. I know the topic I want to explore. In this case, I knew it was going to be about loss and family connection. But my pre-production is a lot about discovering the world where it is going to take place, so I draw a lot, I write a lot about the scenario, like the rules of the world given — how would someone survive there? How would be the everyday life? And more questions. And at the same time, I also start composing soundtracks. So I started to do a bit of pre-production in every area and the narrative starts to naturally build up in an organic way where everything is a bit connected.

Bruno Caetano: It’s quite an interesting process, as a producer, to watch. We were a very small team when the animation started: It was me, João, and [animator] Ala Nunu, which is the person that’s missing here. [Gestures to his left.] She’s amazing. She did half of the animation, she contributed in so many ways. I’ve been able to produce loads of talent and João has a process that nobody else has. The way he skips from the drawing boards to the piano, and back and forth, just figuring out the emotional depth of the film while he’s building this world. It’s very interesting to see. It’s unique. Since he doesn’t write scripts, he does very simple storyboards. But the way that he then conveys these emotions that he wants to portray on the characters on the narrative, it’s a funny process. It involves sometimes mimic or extensive descriptions of something.

And João and Ala, they connected really well. They’ve known each other from RCA [the Royal College of Art in London]. And this connection was the reason why the characters were so warm and so well put together. It was it was an animation that took about four months, it was quite short. The whole process was very intense, us being confined because of COVID. This was where we were getting our our happiness fix every day: We have some new shots coming in and our hearts would be just filled with the fact that we were doing something that we’re proud of.

“Ice Merchants” (COLA Animation)

Like your two previous films, João, “Ice Merchants” is without dialogue. Everything is conveyed wordlessly. What appeals to you about wordless language?  
Gonzalez There are two reasons for not having words. The first one is very simple: I’m not a good writer. I’m not good with words. My background is actually music. I started to playing the piano when I was 4, very early. My father is also a pianist. I started doing animation film quite recently — like, five, six years ago. I think it was always very natural for me to combine it with music because I feel like I express better through music and sound and image rather than only the words. But also this film wouldn’t have benefited from dialogue because it would only add a layer of expression that would distract us from what’s actually happening. So I think as a director, it’s also always important to figure out which elements we should include.

You also love extreme, vertiginous angles in your films. 
Gonzalez: Oh, yeah. I always like to draw, so I was always very interested in perspective because for a long time in my life, I was actually considering pursuing architecture. So I always loved drawing landscapes and the vertical and weird perspectives, and only recently actually started drawing characters when I start doing animation. And when I started drawing characters, I like exaggerated limbs and tall. For example, the father has very exaggerated. I really liked strong, dark shadows as well. I think they are good to enhance the dramatic effect of the film. I like limited color palettes. It’s always very important to find a purpose for the colors — in this case, it is very important to find a way of contrasting the warm colors of the characters in the house, like their safe spots, with the more harsh and bold colors on the outside.

“Ice Merchants” (COLA Animation)

You met some influential people at the Oscar Luncheon. Who do you hope to meet at the ceremony on March 12th?
Caetano: There was somebody that I was hoping to meet yesterday [but] I didn’t have the chance: John Williams, the composer. He wasn’t present. Hopefully he will be at the ceremony. I would be extremely happy just to shake his hand. Even more if I could hug him! But yesterday, besides Steven Spielberg, which just filled my heart, we managed to talk and meet loads of incredible people that have been, yeah, truly influential. And sometimes serendipity has a way to come about it. As I sat down, right next to me, there were two producers from Shadow Machine, which is an animation company that I’ve follow for years. But you know, producers you never see their face! You read their name. And all of a sudden I’m talking with people that are responsible for my love of stop-motion. They worked on “Pinocchio” right now.
Gonzalez: For me, personally, it was very special, our chance of meeting and speaking with Guillermo del Toro. We took a nice photo. We also took a photo with Brendan Fraser.
Caetano: He’s the nicest guy. And the actor from “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Ke Huy Quan.
Gonzalez: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But with Guillermo, it was very special because the first Oscar-qualifying award that our film got was from Guadalajara Film Festival in Mexico, which was the festival that Guillermo created in the ’80s. And also the award that the film got is called the Rigo Mora Award, which Guillermo created in memory of his friend. And so it was very surreal and amazing to talk with him. It was someone that I wanted to meet for a long time and it finally happened.