In Goodbye Christopher Robin, director Simon Curtis brings us the little known story of how Winnie The Pooh came to be. With a sensitive and sympathetic examination of the damaging effects of childhood fame, adult postwar PTSD, and bookended by the twin horrors of World War I and II, Curtis looks at how the author A.A Milne was first inspired by his relationship with his young son to create Winnie The Pooh — and then shows us the unexpected aftershocks that world renown had on their family. For those who have not deciphered clues in the books, little is known about Milne and his son. Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the enchanting story, from its brightest to darkest moments. I caught up with Curtis recently while he was in LA to talk about the film.
AA Milne created a much-loved childhood character in Winnie The Pooh but behind the magic he made was a lot of sadness.
Exactly. A lot of Americans think that as Brits we knew, but we don’t know in Britain.
Unless you’d read the books.
That’s how I found out.
Let’s talk about the film and the opening with Carter Burwell’s score, leading us into the Hundred Acre Woods.
I’m always scared of the beginnings.
You see the characters at their oldest. The sequence we had is silent, but it was dialogue heavy when we shot it, but we held back and kept it as a mystery to resolve it.
The opening sets up the mystery of the forest. It’s also a moment in time when nobody wanted a telegram delivered because it could almost only be bad news. The innocent postmistress is also the potential arbiter of doom.
There are a lot of themes covered in the film — PTSD, the two World Wars, and what fame does to you as a child star. How did you find the right balance in the storytelling?
That’s what attracted me to the story. It’s what you say where it’s this rich and complex story that was about so much. When he says, “England is wounded,” everywhere is wounded right now and that’s what resonated with me. I hadn’t realized that the Pooh stories became famous so quickly because those stories were a way for people to capture the innocence of the years before the trauma of the war.
We definitely shot more PTSD and war moments than we realized, but a little went a long way.
As we’re watching the film, there are a lot of ah-ha moments where you give us that feeling of nostalgia and in the next scenes, we’re shifted to the PTSD moments or trauma.
What research did you do? You had the books, was there anywhere else?
The book about Christopher was the chief source, but we read around as much as possible on other material. We also had photographs, so when I saw that photo of Christopher and the bear, I put that into the film.
Was there anything about Milne that you found especially fascinating?
I hadn’t realized he was a successful playwright and that he wanted to be known for more serious work and of course, the impact the war had on him.
Tell us about your journey in bringing this to the big screen?
It took a couple of years to get the casting and script in order. We shot the film last September and October. The casting of Christopher Robin was a long process. We recalled, we recorded and we narrowed it down to three or four boys. We did a day on location with Domhnall Gleeson and the boys and it was clear that Will was our boy.
He’s such a wonderful find and his expressiveness spoke so much. What was that like for you, seeing that emerge as you were filming?
I thought he was brilliant as we were shooting, but it’s when we cut it together, I could see his performance was so profound. Do you know Daniel Radcliffe was someone I cast before he became famous in Harry Potter? I cast him in David Copperfield.
Wow. I had no idea. The film itself is beautiful especially in those forest moments and you actually shot nearby the actual locations?
We had such a great team. Ben Smithard who was the cinematographer and someone I’d worked with before and David Roger did the design. We all talked and we researched the period as much as possible. In the UK we are so lucky because those interiors were as we found them. They were decorated at the beginning of the 21st Century and still feel like that. That staircase is so beautiful and it’s when he carries the baby upstairs, we didn’t have to build that, it was there. Shooting those forest scenes between father and son were a lot of fun to shoot.
I think that’s one of the great things about England with all the history.
It’s still there. In the country house in Milne’s office, look closely and you’ll see graffiti by the original builder and he dated it 1761.
As with any film that’s another true story, was there pressure to make it “Hollywood”?
You wanted to be as truthful as possible and make it as entertaining as possible and that was the constant balance. Yes, we were telling the beloved story of Winnie The Pooh but it was less intimidating than for an actress to play Marilyn Monroe.
You also have Margot Robbie who was superb. She has her own problems but she’s not a villain.
It’s important to remember she’s a woman playing someone of a certain class, so she’s inconsistent as a character. Sometimes she’s this loving mother and sometimes she’s not and that’s not a very modern concept, but it is of that time.
When you’re doing a project, what do you look for? This is your third real-life story?
Does it interest me. Does an audience want to watch it and does an actor want to play the part. Right now, I’m working on total fiction and another real-life story. Everyone is attracted to truth and you try to think of those true stories that will break through.
What do you think is the lasting appeal of Winnie the Pooh?
There’s this eternal childhood innocence and interacting with other people. I think now it’s five generations of parents who have read it to their children and it continues. My first memory is my dad reading the book to me as a child. There’s this actual emotional connection to him that so many people and these parents have that they pass on to their children.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is on general release