'Never Forget Me': Simon Curtis' 'Goodbye Christopher Robin' dramatizes father-son bond that inspired 'Winnie the Pooh'
There is a tradition of developing British directors that starts in the theatre, transitions to the BBC and concludes with making feature films. “Who knows where that paradigm will land in the new world?” notes Simon Curtis, who began his career working at the Royal Court Theatre and would go on to direct Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh to Oscar-nominated roles in My Week with Marilyn.
“I was an assistant director in the theatre along with Danny Boyle, Stephen Daldry and Roger Michell. Sam Mendes was down the road at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company]. Then I went to the BBC and my fellow directors there were Joe Wright, David Yates and Tom Hooper. We’re all following in the tradition of Stephen Frears, John Madden and Mike Newell. That’s where British directors are so lucky, because in the subsidized theatre and BBC we were able to train, and make mistakes. I could have never directed My Week with Marilyn without already having done ‘Cranford’with Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton or David Copperfield with Maggie Smith and Daniel Radcliffe.”
A major change going from the theatre to movies was not having the ability to solve problems over weeks of rehearsals. “On a film set you’re making final decisions all day, every day,” Curtis observes. “I would say that was the biggest adjustment of all. The other thing is theatre directors are innately collaborators. No one tells you just before becoming a film director how important your relationship is with your DP or first AD. Different directors have various methods, but I love to collaborate with a team.” The theatre also enables directors to have an intimate relationship with the cast and an understanding of the emotional beats of a scene. “I love actors with opinions,” Curtis asserts.
That attitude served the director well when helming Goodbye Christopher Robin, which chronicles the relationship between A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) before, during and after creating the worldwide literary sensation Winnie the Pooh. “Collaborating with Domhnall, who is in most of the scenes, felt like a theatre relationship and he elevated the film.”
He continues, “The big difference on Goodbye Christopher Robin was working with a nine-year-old boy who had never acted before as the center of the film. Will Tilston is incredibly natural. We had a long audition process, so by the time Will had come to the set he had done most scenes a few times. Will was an absolute delight. Everyone on both sides of the camera adored him. One thing that he always liked was the last time I cast a nine-year-old boy who had never acted before was Daniel Radcliffe as the young David Copperfield. That experience at the BBC helped me this time, for sure.”
Margot Robbie plays the role of Daphne Milne, the socialite wife and mother who delights in giving stuffed animals to her son. “I love seeing Daphne’s face and the pleasure she has in that. She’s not some villain. Daphne is a great mother when she chooses to be.” Kelly Macdonald portrays the compassionate nanny Olive Rand, who becomes a surrogate mother to her charge. “The rest of the cast were British actors that I asked to do me favor to play small parts, such as Steven Campbell Moore as Ernest Shepard and Geraldine Somerville as Lady O.”
“I try to find the tone of each scene,” Curtis explains. “I wanted it be both harsh and warm.” A defining element was A.A. Milne being a World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which influenced the visuals and sound design. “We did speak to a brilliant woman who was an expert on PTSD. It was interesting to learn about how people can be pulled out of PTSD. She said soldiers after the war for years can be fine, but then the sound of a champagne cork popping takes them way back. It can happen at any time. In that first breakfast scene, Alan says to Christopher Robin, ‘Hold your knife and fork like that.’ He comes up with this imaginative story and that’s part of his recovery from PTSD.” The whole country was mentally suffering. “What I hadn’t realized was that the Winnie the Pooh stories were a way for England, and later the whole world, to recapture the innocence that existed before the First World War.”
A cultural difference existed especially in the area of parenting. “Alan and Daphne were the way parents were in England at that time,” notes Curtis. “It was perfectly natural for a baby to be handed over to a nanny the minute they were born and for parents to go away for six weeks, leaving a child behind. They were typical parents in that sense. That was important to us. Christopher Robin wrote in one of his books he would only see his mother for half an hour at the beginning of the day and a half-hour before bed. But during those minutes she was a fantastic mother. I remember speaking to an old man in England who had been a child at this time and he only remembered his mother touching him once in his whole life. That was the terrain that we were in.”
No sets were built for the Fox Searchlight production (opening Oct. 13), as it was all location shooting in London and Cotchford. “There was a lot of research that was available and I worked with David Roger, the production designer, both in the theatre and the BBC. He’s brilliant in finding all of that detail. In Alan’s office in the Cotchford location, if you freeze-frame at a certain spot you can see that the builder has written on the wall 1769. That wasn’t art design but the actual wall. The Pooh Bridge is the actual Pooh Bridge that they played on.”
The forest scenes took place at the real Ashdown Forest and Windsor Great Park. “The idyllic summer with father and son playing together, I’m incredibly proud how that turned out. Both Domhnall and Will were so mesmerizing. There was a wonderful day when we did some improvisation and they came up with the knighting. One of the crew found this frog. I said, ‘Give it to them.’ He gave them this frog and they went with it. Every time I see that moment I feel so proud of the whole crew. That becomes a moment when Christopher Robin is playing with his dad, but three minutes before none of us knew it was going to happen, which was fabulous.”
Fantasy elements were mixed into the narrative, such as drawings coming to life. “We weren’t quite sure about how we were going to deal with the illustrations, but it seemed a natural way to do that,” notes Curtis. “What bonded father and son was this shared imagination. Christopher Robin says, ‘Let’s be hunters in the snow.’ You go into this imaginative snow world. It was Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the writer, who came up with the snow going upwards, which I eagerly claimed as my own! Winnie the Pooh came out of those glorious summers of fun and games between father and son, but that wasn’t as important as the games themselves. ‘I didn’t know that we were writing a book. I thought we were just having fun.’ They are the most important lines in the film to me.”
The dream imagery from The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick was a starting point for the visuals. “I always use two cameras. I’m absolutely devoted to that. You get everything you planned and what I call ‘happy accidents’. Ben Smithard, the DP, and I have done five or six films together, including ‘Cranford’ and Marilyn. We have a good relationship. Ben was so passionate about this film and that shows in the quality of the imagery.
“It’s pretty much the script, though we were quite tough on the first 20 minutes or so to get the father and son alone as quickly as possible in Cotchford,” explains Curtis, who initially planned to have more screen time for the flashbacks to World War I. “You don’t know how much you’re going to need in the final cut, so we gave ourselves a lot of options. There were several more PTSD moments that we took out during the editing.” Music and sound design have a pivotal role to play. “My dream composer for this was Carter Burwell, so I couldn’t believe my luck when he wanted to do it. I fell in love with his luscious score for Carol that draws you in and takes you on that emotional journey. We did talk about some of the English composers of the time to give it that majesty. I was thrilled working with Carter. For the sound design, we wanted the sounds of the forest, like the bees and birds, and to make that as intoxicating as possible.”
“I fell in love with this story,” Curtis says. “You think Goodbye Christopher Robin is going to be about Winnie the Pooh, but it becomes about being and losing a parent, being and losing a child, creation, and England. Someone said, ‘In England we can tell stories but we can’t say “I love you” to our own family.’ That was quite an astute comment. That speech when Alan says, ‘England is wounded.’ It’s feels like it’s chiming with what a lot of us are feeling at the moment.”
The attention to detail has not gone unnoticed. “I’ve seen the film with audiences and when Alan comes up with a name like Eeyore or Tigger there’s an audible sigh of pleasure from them. They like witnessing this little moment in a family that becomes a legendary cultural thing.”