The films of director Simon Curtis often skirt the line between reality and the myth of a famous person’s life. Rather than attempt to tell the story of Marilyn Monroe, he took a tumultuous week in her life while being supervised on a movie set by a man who ended up falling in love with her in My Week with Marilyn and used that as the basis to tell the story of her downfall.
Curtis followed this with Woman In Gold, telling a Holocaust story from the perspective of a lawyer seeking to retrieve art stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family. These were both said to be true stories, but Curtis presents them in a way that feels like folklore, with both tellings equally compelling.
His latest work, Goodbye Christopher Robin, relays the creation of perhaps the most famous children’s book series in history—the Winnie-the-Pooh titles, written by A.A. Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and inspired by his son (newcomer Will Tilston), who was known to the world as Christopher Robin.
Suffering from PTSD after serving in the trenches of the First World War, Milne wrote the Pooh books as a means of giving the nation—and himself—something to be happy about, losing himself in his son’s fantasy world of stuffed animals and simple adventure stories. The movie is also a cautionary tale about becoming the world’s first internationally known child star and the perils of answering to fans while trying to keep some modicum of privacy and normal family living.
The film, now playing in Chicago, also stars Margot Robbie as mother/wife Daphne and Kelly Macdonald as Nanny Olive, who ends up being the only person in the boy’s life truly looking out for him.
I sat down with Curtis in Chicago recently to discuss his connection to the creation story and Winnie-the-Pooh in general, and how class status figures into the Milne family story. Please enjoy…
I don’t know if you remember, but we did the Q&A when you were here for Woman In Gold.
I definitely do. Was that the screening where the film started without the subtitles?
Oh, that’s right, I forgot about that. I remember it was fixed fairly quickly, and it was still a lovely conversation. So which came first with this story? Was this a story that always fascinated you?
No, there was a script that I was sent, and I just loved it.
So did you have much of a connection to the story before that?
No more than average. I was read it by my parents and I read it to my kids, but nothing beyond that.
I’m sure you discovered your own surprises about this story, but I had no idea this story was born of trauma or about the healing quality that the books had. How do you make those things cinematic? How do you turn something that’s all in someone’s head into something visual?
We did decide to have just a few fragments of scenes from the war just to reiterate what was inside of A.A. Milne’s head, because it was an attempt to get out, to recover from the trauma of war. And one of the ways he did that was to connect with his son and together create these stories. I think because so much of it happens in the woods, and also the heart of the film is this gorgeous, almost love affair between a father and son. It’s not a given. They have to learn to love each other, and I think seeing the beats of that is something I’m very proud of in the film.
The scenes in the woods look different than the rest of the film. They have an ethereal quality to them. Did you set out to do that, to make them feel a little bit more fantastic?
Yes. We were influenced by Terrence Malick, and there’s something about the woods that at times is maybe a bit scary, but is a magical place, and a way for A.A. Milne to release himself from his demons.
Where did you find this remarkable little boy?
It was a search that went out, and I can’t believe how lucky we got, actually. He’s a special boy. We just wrote to all the schools and any drama clubs, and by chance, he joined a drama club a couple of days before the letter arrived.
What was it about him that made him right? Or did you figure “I’ll know it when I see it”?
Well we knew we needed to have a nine-year-old boy who looks like Christopher Robin, and nine-year-old boys, some are very big, and he was small, so that helped. He came from a lovely family. He was a happy boy, but he also had a great ability to be sad and connect with sadness.
There are certain scenes where his emotions turn on a dime, as kids often do.
Yeah, but the fact that he could do it on camera is the thing.
I love that he’s so new to it that he hasn’t learned any bad, kid-acting habits yet. Did you say to your casting people, “Find me the child with the biggest, most pronounced dimples.”
No, I didn’t. That was an extra gift [laughs].
What is it about this story that you think will resonate with people today?
I think we are all recovering from trauma a bit in different ways. But I think mostly it’s about cherishing your family—cherish your parents, cherish your kids, if you have them, because as the nanny says in the film, “You never know what happens next.”
I have often been told by British filmmakers and actors that every film made in Britain has something to do with class, whether that’s what the movie is about or not. That’s definitely part of this story, in the way this child is raised.
It’s very much the way children were raised in that class in that time.
How would another child’s experience been different if they weren’t rich like this family?
Well, they wouldn’t be handed over to a nanny. It was quite routine to see your parents for half an hour a day, then they would hand over the baby to the nanny, then send them off to boarding school. It’s not like that now.
Have there been other examples of books, movies, or theater works that have had this kind of impact, that healing quality to them?
I feel that we could use something like that today, and I’ve now seen it with lots of audiences, and there is lots of laughter and enchantment, and there’s also quite a lot tears, particularly from the gentlemen in the audience. I think there hasn’t been that many films that dig so deeply into fathers and sons as this.
And you also deal I think very honestly with the post traumatic stress that he experienced.
A Vietnam vet saw it last week, and he was very impressed by the way we handled the PTSD.
I love those moments where it starts to happen to him, and then he finds a way re-center himself.
Yes. You see the recovery. We did quite a lot of work with an expert on PTSD who advised us, and she said things like, “When you see him inventing the story about why he can’t hold his knife and fork like that, that’s Milne coming through his PTSD and finding a way to reconnect with his imagination.” Someone said, “That’s what the Brits do, but they also write the best stories. They push their emotions into their stories.”
Talk about working with the adult actors here, the three key ones in particular, especially Domhnall Gleeson. I keep thinking I know what his limits are, then he does something like this. Most everything I’ve seen him in, he’s been very emotional and emotive, but here he’s so restrained.
He just had an instinct for that, and he’s a very versatile, very bright actor. He seems to be in every film released at the moment. But I think this is a truly mighty performance that he gives. He brought a great deal to the film and the script, so it was a joy to work with him.
With young Will, what were the directions you gave him the most?
Actually, nothing. He was so good, I thought I didn’t want to burden him with lots of notes. But I did give him advice. I thought of him as a proper actor, so if he wanted to have another take, he could say. I gave him his voice.
Did you find that he was observing the other actors, watching them and picking things up?
Very much so, yes. I think he really admired all the actors, but especially Domhnall.
And Margot is interesting, because there are definitely people who come out of this film not liking this character.
Yeah, but I think she’s very bold to play it as a mother of that time so well, but also she brings her own natural warmth to it. I’m sure that Daphne—for the half an hour when she was with the boy, giving him the toys and inventing the voices—was a joy as a mother, but she wasn’t like modern mothers who are able to offer that 24/7.
I love that this is very much a cautionary tale about fame as well, and about becoming too famous too young, and how that can often lead to a certain kind of trauma. How much of that story did you know?
I didn’t know, but it turns out that Christopher was one of the first-ever child celebrities, but to be fair to the parents, it was unprecedented. They couldn’t have predicted the fame of the book, nor the focus on the child. It was uncharted territory. It wasn’t like putting your kid onto the Kardashian show [laughs].
We can’t help but looks at them as these stage parents, but there was no such thing at the time. Still, I felt terrible for him every time he had to dress up like Christopher Robin. I noticed in that a great deal of the time, he’s dressed like a girl. What is that about?
Well, I think Daphne was suffering from her own version of PTSD, because it was so traumatic when her husband went off to war. She couldn’t bare to have a son in case he would one day go to war too, so she was hoping it was going to be a daughter called Rosemary.
Having made this, how have your feelings about these books changed?
I think they’re timeless classics that will appeal to children and their parents for generations to come, as long as people are still reading books.
Why do you think their appeal hasn’t faded?
There’s absolutely nothing cynical about them. I think there’s something about that, and there’s something about the reminder of childhood innocence, and he has a random group of friends, and they’re letting their imagination roam to simple pleasures. This film is a reminder to put down your iPad and smart phone and pay attention to your kids.
Back to what I was asking before, can you think of another book or something else that has had the impact that this one did since then?
I was thinking of the Harry Potter craze, the way that took off, but it’s a different thing. By the way, the last nine-year-old boy I cast who never acted before was Daniel Radcliffe. He was my David Copperfield.
Right, that was on PBS here. I saw that. Do you have any thoughts on what you’re going to do after this?
No, I haven’t decided yet. I hope it’s an American film, my next film.
The last three have been about real people…
That’s not deliberate. They just happen to be the three best ones.
All tortured artists to a certain degree, which is even more enjoyable to watch.
That’s very true.
Thanks so much. Good to see you again.
Great. Thank you. Nice to see you again.