Monster's Ball. Quantum of Solace. Stranger than Fiction. World War Z.
Marc Forster's directorial C.V. is certainly impressive but try as one might, there's no clear path that connects the dots from action and science fiction-tinged movies to him helming a film featuring a live-action Winnie-the-Pooh. Disney's Christopher Robin is Forster's 12th full-length film, and the only one he can creatively blame on his daughter.
"My daughter sees movies that are only for kids, and I was a little bit complaining about it. We were on a plane together and she's watching a Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon, and she said, 'Why don't you make a movie for me and for you? Because I can't watch any of your movies anyway.' This is a six-year-old," Forster, deadpan, tells SYFY WIRE. "Then I said, 'Okay, why don't we make this movie,' pointing at Pooh on [her screen]. And she says to me, 'Yeah, why don't you make that?' Three years later, she was on the set with me."
Aside from Forster's Finding Neverland, Christopher Robin is the director's most family-friendly film. It's an unabashed throwback to gentler times, yet refreshingly lacking in any maudlin sentimentality.
"I wanted to balance a film that speaks to her and that kids can enjoy, but that I can enjoy and that my mother can enjoy," Forster says of his intentions for the movie. "It's like this four-quadrant, classic Disney family movie. I felt that classic Disney family movies should speak to all of us. The humor doesn't have to be lowbrow. It can be absurd and funny, and those animals are so adorable and cute and sweet. And with certain Disney movies I grew up with, I felt there was a timelessness to them. I can watch them 20 years ago, or 20 years from now. They just give you this warm blanket, this feeling of coziness and going home to a warm Thanksgiving dinner."
Christopher Robin hits all those notes masterfully, utilizing his human cast in perfect parity with his fuzzy, mostly CGI counterparts — Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and the rest of A.A. Milne's classic Hundred Acre Wood critters. SYFY WIRE sat down with the director to parse out how this unlikely film came together.
This project allowed you to collaborate with Ewan McGregor again. How was that experience?
Yes, Ewan and I made a film called Stay in 2004 together and we've been friends and wanted to work again ever since. I was looking for something and when I found this, I thought, 'This is the right piece,' because he's comedically and dramatically so gifted.
Then ultimately, I found Hayley. I did a movie with Emma Thompson called Stranger than Fiction, and Emma and Hayley are very good friends. Emma and I were talking, and she said, "You should check out Hayley." I knew her from Agent Carter, obviously, but this woman and her comedic abilities! I love these screwball comedies with actors who talk very fast. Bringing Up Baby from Howard Hawks is one of my favorite films, and Hayley can talk a hundred miles an hour. How she delivers dialogue is very, very impressive.
How did you find Bronte Carmichael, who plays McGregor and Atwell's daughter in the film?
Bronte Carmichael is extraordinarily talented. I've worked with a lot of kids and you can direct them only to a certain degree. So you really try to find someone in the casting who gets there almost, and then you just help them to really achieve your vision. And it's interesting with kids today, a lot of them don't have the attention to really sit there and deliver a two-page scene looking at you without wavering. A lot of them, just because of their attention span with all the digital devices and everything that's going on, it's very hard for them to stay focused.
In crafting a film where the human actors have to have deep, emotional connections to stuffed animals, how did you construct the shooting to give them some grounding in reality?
I thought that, to begin with, it's hard enough for Ewan to play against air. And if you put the bear here, you have eye contact and you can really act, so you can really hold onto something. But once you remove them, you have the empty chair and have to now make believe having an emotional connection with nothing, which is very hard.
I thought the least I can do is provide him voices, because Jim Cummings [the voice of Pooh and Tigger] wouldn't be there. So, I brought these kids from drama school and I literally cast them according to character. We basically rehearsed with them and it helped [Ewan] because we blocked the scene with the animals, and then took them out, but then he still had the voice to have some emotional grounding. And I tried to put them all actually into the movie to give them one little scene. For instance, the Eeyore character, when they're on the train and Christopher starts playing the game, the guy sitting across that gives him the weird look is Eeyore.
The look of Pooh and his pals is amazing in terms of the realism of the felt and the fabric. How many passes did you have to go through to get it right?
I had an office in London and it was taped with every color of fabric. We had Jennifer Williams, our costume designer, knit the red sweater for Pooh, which was very hard. That was actually the hardest part, more than the facial expressions. To translate that digitally, just putting a sweater on Pooh because the sweater's quite tight and when he moves, it sticks. We had a whole sweater team, and it drove me crazy.
But also, the facial expressions of Pooh are very hard. Tigger was easier because Tigger moves around a lot. Eeyore was also very tricky because the chin, the mouth, the ears, and the fur... is it too much, too little? Piglet and Tigger were interestingly enough the easiest, and Kanga and Roo were also tricky. Then with Owl and Rabbit, in the A.A. Milne literature, they're real animals, not stuffed animals.
But with Pooh, there's always this quietness and so how he moves, you watch almost every pore. So, we built the stuffy and then photographed it, real, and they created it digitally. Then we had them both in different lighting environments, always circling the real one and the fake one. It took a long time, but once we got it right, it just clicked. The key thing for me was how to make sure the stuffed animals really feel like they were hugged and played with — that Christopher Robin played with his animals, so they're used and have this vintage look.
How did you get legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman to craft new songs for you?
I've been a big fan of the Sherman brothers. I only wanted one song, really, because [Richard] is almost 90. I didn't even know if he still wanted to write songs for movies, but he said, "No, I'll write you something." And suddenly he wrote me three songs. I was in London going back from set, and I remember very vividly that my phone rang, and I picked it up and it was Richard. He said, "Marc, I wrote the songs for you." And then he puts me on speakerphone and he sits on his piano at home and starts playing live, singing at me. It was so emotional and so beautiful, and it just made me cry. The first song is the one I really needed, the one when Christopher Robin leaves.
For the other two other songs, I thought at the end I should shoot them all at the beach, which wasn't in the script. I suddenly thought it would be funny to put a piano there and have Richard Sherman play the song so when he says, "Oh, things are gonna change and I think it's for the better," we drift over to the animals. That was all improvised last minute. I suddenly said, "Let's put the chairs out there, let's put the animals in, let's see... maybe it works."
How did Christopher Robin rank in terms of difficulty for you in comparison to your other films?
I must say, certain movies are always a battle, and some movies just come together and you feel like you're being blessed. Everything just came together on this. Every instinctual decision I made somehow happened. The weather always was right when we shot, the actors were always on time and prepared. Everything was just so easy. The studio loved the movie. There were no hiccups. And then some other movies are a big struggle. This one wasn't.
And I feel this movie has so much heart and so much joy, and I think it's what the world needs right now. I haven't seen anything like it out there, to be honest. It's either sequels or prequels. But this is a loved bear with an original concept, so you see something original but something you love. I hope people will go and see it. I mean, you can never know, but I hope they will. Because it's something I would go and see more than once. I actually would go twice!
Christopher Robin opens August 3, 2018.