Few kids have ever wondered about A.A. Milne, the man who created their beloved fictional character Winnie the Pooh. It’s just as doubtful their parents ever wondered much about him either.
Which is a shame, because it’s actually a fascinating story as told by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) in his new film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People, Millions), it stars Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: the Force Awakens) as the author and playwright.
Suffering from PTSD after fighting in the trenches during WWI, Milne returns to London and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), but is still unable to cope, especially after she has their son, Christopher Robin. They move out to the countryside, hiring Olive (Kelly McDonald) as a governess for young Christopher (Will Tilston) who immediately bonds with her as his parents socialize in London.
Eventually, Milne has to start writing again, but he finds himself left alone with his son and not sure how to act around or entertain the child. He starts to tell Christopher stories, as the two of them bond over the inventive characters they create together. The resulting book Winnie the Pooh becomes an enormous hit, but sadly, instead of bringing father and son closer together, the book’s popularity and Milne’s son’s notoriety as the Christopher Robin depicted in the stories, drives a wedge between them.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is likely to be compared very favorably with Finding Neverland, which starred Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. It’s a wonderful historic look at the creation of one of literature’s most enduring characters with moments that are joyous and others that are heartbreaking.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Curtis a few weeks back for the following interview.
You seem to have this proclivity for these historic pieces after doing Marilyn and part of Woman in Gold. Was this a screenplay that had been floating around for awhile that you got your hands on?
Yeah. Funnily enough, Marilyn and Woman in Gold were both films I pushed into existence, but this was a script that was brought to me. Well, it was sent to me, actually. I read it, and I think in this day and age, people are suspicious of fiction and they do like real stories. You could argue that Marilyn and Klimt motored those films, and hopefully people’s love of Winnie the Pooh, a book that’s on most bookshelves in most households in the world, will help bring people to this film as well.
I don’t think I realized A.A. Milne only wrote one Winnie the Pooh book.
Well, it was four books actually, but they were joined together as one. They weren’t massive, long books. I personally think one of the reasons that they’re popular with parents is that they’re short. It’s a 15-minute read rather than wade through hours of Harry Potter or whatever.
I’d obviously heard of Winnie the Pooh and knew A.A. Milne, but never knew much about his background.
To be absolutely honest, the thing that attracted me was behind one of the best-known books of all time was this unknown story.
Once you got involved, what sort of research did you have to do? No one involved in the story is alive anymore, as far as I know, so how did you go about researching the movie?
Well, there were various books, but our principle source was the biography of A.A. Milne, and the woman who wrote it, Ann Thwaite, who was sort of the advisor on the film.
What kind of questions did you have for her?
Well, it was very interesting that the whole thing with PTSD was such a huge part of the film. One of the themes of this film … I think people think, “Oh, it’s a film about Winnie the Pooh,” and they have a vision of it. It actually is a much more nuanced and complex film than that. One of the themes is the horrors of war don’t only live on in the men and women who fight the war, but their descendants and families as well, and getting that insight was very helpful. Also, we were definitely recreating parents in the way they were parents of that time, so that was important, too.
It’s really interesting how that war changed so many people, particularly in the UK.
I’m 57, and I was brought up by parents who lived through World War II, and the more I think about it, the more I think obviously they had parents who were engaged in the war, and that filtered down to me in a way.
That’s something very present in England still even though it’s been 70 years since World War II.
Yes, yes. I think it’s in the way that they were brought up in a time of food rationing, so that still governs the way they behave today. I think that’s one of the themes of the film, as I say, wars don’t just end when they end. They linger on in people’s consciousness.
I was curious about handling that aspect of the movie, because the movie does have a PG rating. While I think kids might enjoy the Winnie the Pooh aspect, I wasn’t sure if the war scenes might be too hard for them to watch. Was that an issue while editing?
Actually, we shot more war moments than we have in the film, and we just realized that you could tell that story as economically as possible, so we condensed that.
What about casting Domhnall Gleason as Milne, what made you think of him? He’s really grown as an actor in the past few years.
Very much. He’s a very intelligent actor and was attracted to complexity in this man. I was the beneficiary of that.
I feel like he’s been in a few period pieces now and he might be one of those men out of time you hear about, people able to relate to bygone eras.
Him or me?
Well, both of you, I guess.
Well, I don’t know. What period is Star Wars set in?
Sure, I guess there’s that. I was thinking more of Brooklyn and a few other movies he’s been in.
But that’s because they’re the kind of films that get made, aren’t they? Actors have to gravitate towards what’s being made, but I think he was very brave to take this on, and I couldn’t be happier that he did.
I would think that the hardest part of that role is doing so many scenes with a younger actor like Will Tilston.
Yeah, I think he was very nervous for that, with reason because the character was very … It’s terrifying for me and for Domhnall because you’re casting an unknown under ten who’s never acted before, and the scenes depend on that. Do you know what I mean? But like me, Domhnall completely fell for Will, and he was so brilliant to work with. So our worries were unfounded.
How did you go about finding Will? He’s a bit like a young Freddie Highmore or Jacob Tremblay who can make an audience cry just with his facial expressions. How did you find him and know he could handle what was required of him?
Basically, it turns out the path is a very rich path because at one point he’s playing, the next minute he’s crying. But what I hadn’t realized until I saw the film was just how astutely he played a boy trying to fight his own identity. That’s a mark of great acting.
Having a child actor means working fewer hours, and when they’re in the countryside he’s in every scene, so how did you manage that?
Well, he’s not in every scene, but I’ll tell you a story. It was aggravating because the poor boy had to go off and legally do school lessons after he did scenes, and I remember them taking him offset to have a lesson at one point after a very emotional scene. When I went to do one more take, they said, “No, he’s got to go for his lesson.” I said, “What lesson is it?” They said, “It’s his drama class.” Which I thought was ridiculous. I don’t know if it’s worth saying that Will had never acted before, but the last nine-year-old boy I’d cast who’d never acted before was Daniel Radcliffe, so I’ve got form with these young kids. (Note: Curtis directed a TV version of David Copperfield, which was Radcliffe’s very first time on camera.)
What about Margot? I feel like she’s been playing more Americans, so it’s strange seeing her play a Brit, but I guess you got her just as things were skyrocketing for her.
Yeah, we had to let her off for a week to go and host SNL actually. But we were really lucky that she fell for this script, and she was a huge part of this film. We all adore her.
I’m also a big fan of Kelly MacDonald…
Casting her as the nanny was also quite inspired, I think. What made you think of her?
Well, my wife did a play with her about ten years ago and I’ve always adored her. Her qualities just seem totally right for it.
You’ve generally had it good working with actors from the experiences you’ve had.
I’ve been very, very blessed with the actors I’ve worked with. Not only like Dame Helen and Dame Judi, but with Domhnall and Margot and Michelle (Williams) and Eddie (Redmayne) and Ryan (Reynolds) and Tatiana (Maslany). Some of the best young actors around, and I’m married to an actress as well, so that helps.
What were some of the challenges of making a period film like this one vs. My Week with Marilyn?
Well, actually a similar thing. That house that Marilyn rented in the film was the actual house that the real Marilyn rented when she came to film that film. And here, we were actually in the actual forest, which was pretty exciting. But you never know. In this country, you’re always vulnerable to the weather, but we lucked out in terms of the weather.
The forest looks beautiful, so was that all real or did you enhance it a bit?
Yeah, we enhanced the weather, but the view is real. Actually, I’ll tell you something. That rock they’re sitting on in the final scene actually has a plaque on it that’s dedicated to A.A. Milne because that’s where he actually sat. When they’re playing Pooh Sticks, that’s actually the bridge that game was invented on.
So you had to CG the plaque away from the rock, I assume.
Well, we just covered it. Yeah, we covered it. They’re sitting on it actually.
One thing I also found fascinating was the use of period songs. I was curious about how you went about finding those songs, which I thought was interesting.
To be honest, the Al Bowlly song playing in the woods is a song I’ve used before. It’s one of my favorite songs, but I love researching. Apple Music is very helpful, just trying to find songs of the period and trying to get the atmosphere and so on. But I was also really lucky that Carter Burwell scored this film because he’s one of my all-time heroes, and a phenomenal composer. I was terrified showing him the film because he’s been the first person to see some of the best films ever made, and the fact he wanted to do it was incredible.
The last act of the movie gets rather dark because of the relationship between A.A. Milne and his son, so what do you think people should get out of the movie? Is it something about the price of fame?
I think it’s that the fame meant that it all got away from them a bit, but I think the final beat is the son forgives the father, and I think that is a very emotional thing because many people don’t have the chance to have that scene in real life, and don’t have the chance to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” I think it is a film about England in many ways because we’re the world’s storytellers, but it’s not so easy to say, “I love you” perhaps.
I just saw that Elisabeth Moss is joining Call Her Jane, which I guess that will be the next movie that you’re doing?
I hope so, yeah. I’m a big fan of Elisabeth.
That’s more timely and fortuitous casting, and I hope you got her before she won the Emmy.
Yeah, but I mean it’s not about the awards. Her performances are always extraordinary.
What makes you interested in that particular subject? It’s an interesting concept for a movie, an abortion drama set in ‘60s American suburbia. What caught your interest in doing that one?
I don’t know. That’s in very early stages, but I think it’s an important story to tell.
Goodbye Christopher Robin will be released in select cities on Friday, Oct. 13.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor