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Writer-Director Paul King on the Travails and Triumph of ‘Paddington’

Writer-Director Paul King on the Travails and Triumph of ‘Paddington’

Since being released in the UK on 28 November, “Paddington” has shattered everyone’s expectations, not least its main financier and local distributor Studio Canal, by grossing £32.8 million (around $50 million). It has surpassed “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” to become the UK’s fourth biggest box-office hit of the year, and it’s still raking in £1m-plus per week. 

This week’s BAFTA nominations announcement yielded more good news: King was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, while “Paddington” itself was selected as an Outstanding British Film contender, helped in no small part by British critics, who have been dishing out the superlatives. Robbie Collins from The Telegraph called “Paddington” “a total delight, as warm and welcome as a hot pair of socks on a winter morning,” while Wendy Ide from The Times praised its “delirious physical comedy” and branded Paddington himself “a damp-nosed delight… irresistible.”
A few months earlier, a happy outcome looked anything but certain for King and producer David Heyman’s attempts to turn the beloved childrens’-book series into a big-screen franchise. In a weekus horribilis for the production last June, a pair of hammer blows rained down. First, the “Creepy Paddington” meme – in which the first official image of the CGI bear was pasted into various horror-movie scenes – went viral. That was swiftly followed by the announcement that Colin Firth would no longer be voicing Paddington (an amicable press release announced his “conscious uncoupling” from the project). He was later replaced by Ben Whishaw.

Remaining cheery throughout the bad-buzz tsunami, King just soldiered on with the job he’d been recruited to do by Heyman: make a great bear and a great film. An admirer of King’s 2009 feature debut, the dark indie comedy “Bunny And The Bull,” Heyman had been won over by King’s “inventive, imaginative” take on “Paddington,” which remained respectful to the gentle pleasures of author Michael Bond’s original books about the misadventures of a refugee bear in London while injecting a 21st-century vim and vigor.

“It’s a cherished national icon that you tinker with at your peril,” Hugh Bonneville told me when I visited the “Paddington” set. The “Downton Abbey” star and Sally Hawkins portray Mr. and Mrs. Brown, the kindly family who take Paddington in when he arrives from deepest, darkest Peru, while Nicole Kidman plays a Cruella De Vil-esque taxidermist keen to stuff Paddington for her exhibit. “I think Paul’s nailed it,” Bonneville said. “He is Paddington bear, basically.”

Matt Mueller: How did you land the gig in the first place?
Paul King: Unsurprisingly, I approached David Heyman, rather than the other way around, when I read that he had the rights. I’m a Paddington fan through and through and I managed to convince him to give me a shot.

How was the collaboration with David?
This is going to sound luvvie but for a man who’s made $8bn at the box office or whatever, through the entire process he’s only been interested in making this film if it’s right. And amazingly, flatteringly, he wanted to make my film and really supported all the odd little arthouse ideas and storytelling devices that I wanted to throw at it.

What were some of your inspirations?
One was Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid.” What attracted me to Paddington, comedically, is the clown side of him, the silent comedian side, and what I really love about Chaplin is how those films – especially “The Kid” but also “City Lights” and “Gold Rush” – have enormous heart as well as great laughs. Paddington is such a lovable figure and there’s something so profound in that image of him alone at the railway station, sitting on a suitcase with “Please look after this bear. Thank you” on a luggage label. I think that’s the reason the books have stayed with us. I also wanted to do a love letter to London, like “Amelie” felt like a love letter to Paris. If you’re a bear from Peru, it can be an extraordinary, beautiful, wide-eyed city of wonder, and it can also be cold, scary and unfriendly.

Was it difficult to land Nicole Kidman as your evil taxidermist?
I remember when we were discussing it, someone said, “I just wonder if it’s a waste of time sending her the script. I mean, we have to be realistic.” I went, “Oh go on, please just send it to her.” I loved her in “To Die For” and I’ve always thought she had a wicked sense of humor and can be deeply creepy in some of her movies. I thought she’d make a cold and menacing villain and, amazingly, within 24 hours, she said yes. What opened the doors is the bear. You hope obviously it’s been her lifelong desire to work with the director of “The Mighty Boosh” [surreal British comedy series], but really it’s that she had the books as a child and loved them.

It’s a family film but between Millicent’s ability to frighten young children and some edgy humor, the film landed a PG rating in the UK. It hasn’t hampered its success, but where did you pitch the balance between appealing to adults and children?
Well, I don’t know any children. I really don’t! I don’t have any; none of my relatives have any. So I always hoped it would play with adults. I sort of made it for me, really. And when we started showing it to children, they seemed to respond well. I was trying to make a quality kids’ film, like “E.T.” or “Edward Scissorhands” or a Pixar film, that had a bit more emotional oomph. I hope it works with everyone.

Getting the bear right took years of effort and involved motion-capture, physical comedy experts and the visual-effects house that also created “Gravity,” Framestore.
It was a huge challenge, not least because people had strong opinions about what he should look like, which generally depended on the first Paddington they’d seen, whether it was the Ivor Wood animation with the black hat and blue duffle coat or the toy with wellies, which they gave him to help him stand up. For me, the Peggy Fortnum illustrations from the original books were the go-to source because he didn’t look like a teddy bear – and he’s not a teddy bear, he’s a bear.

Were you always clear how you wanted the computer-generated bear to interact in a real-world environment?
I’ve never liked films where they try to put animated characters in the real world. I always though things like “Stuart Little” worked better, which was extraordinary for the time. What makes it work is that the world feels heightened, allowing you to feel like you’re in a storybook world where a mouse can talk. We were trying to find a bear that was as realistic as you could go but at the same time not a wild animal. It was a journey.

What happened with Colin Firth?
Even though Colin’s got a mellifluous, wonderful voice, as the bear slowly came to life, you thought, “I’m not sure this resonant voice would come out of this small fluffy creature.” And Colin was the first to see it. We tried a few things but then we just decided we weren’t going to be able to make it work. I think I found it harder than he did. He was very kind and said, “It’s not like splitting up with a girlfriend, Paul.” He’s been a fan and a friend throughout and was really useful in pointing out what it should be. Then we found Ben.

What did Ben Whishaw bring to the bear?
A younger voice; a higher pitch. You can try and pitch people up but they just sound like Smurfs. Ben is a cross between the best actor in the world and a strange woodland creature anyway so I don’t think this was a huge stretch. It was a journey with him, too; I’m relatively exacting and we spent a long time together trying to find Paddington. He’s a hard character to pin down: he’s a fish out of water but also a polite English gentleman; he’s a little boy lost but also a bit of an old man; he’s a klutz but he’s got the dexterity of a wild animal. It’s a strange combination but as it emerged, it felt extraordinary and I think Ben’s voice makes the film very special.

How did you cope with the negative press that emerged in the months before the release?
It was weird. I’m not used to working on anything that anyone has any interest in in the wider world so it was a strange experience when Colin’s departure was making headline news in Britain. I was thinking, “What’s wrong with this country?”

Did the Framestore team have to redo much of the animation when Ben came on board?
Inherently, when we recast the character, he was going to evolve, and he has. It’s not like you simply revoice. Everything changes a bit. There was something that just hadn’t been chiming before, even with the embodiment, but now he feels just perfect.

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