Paddington is an instant family classic, and will likely defy the expectations of those expecting another live-action CGI hybrid such as Scooby Doo, The Smurfs or Yogi Bear. Director Paul King is able to take the story of a young Peruvian bear known worldwide, and turn it into a unique and charming experience unlike anything seen before. It truly is a special little film, and it will surely continue to find an audience well after it leaves theaters. Its the type of movie that is impossible to hate on any level.
The movie follows Paddington as he travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he begins to realize that city life is not all he had imagined, until he meets the kindly Brown family, who read the label around his neck ('Please look after this bear. Thank you.') and offer him a temporary haven. It looks as though his luck has changed until this rarest of bears catches the eye of a museum taxidermist played ethusiactially by Nicole Kidman.
We recently caught up with director Paul King, known for his cult comedy Bunny and the Bull and his work on the series The Mighty Boosh, to chat about the movie. We talk about how the story came together, how he managed to land Nicole Kidman, why it wasn't a musical, and how they managed to get such a sweet and realistic bear for the lead role. We also discuss the possibility of a sequel, how Blade Runner ties into Paddington's quest, and whether or not there will ever be a Mighty Boosh Movie. Here is our fun conversation:
Now that you're in the States, how often does Diff'rent Strokes come up in the conversation?
Paul King: It has not come up in the conversation yet. I'm not sure what Diff'rent Strokes is!
It was an American TV show back in the 70s. It starred Gary Coleman...
Paul King: Oh, okay! I think that may have been remade in the U.K. What happens in it? What's it all about?
In what I think is the first episode, Arnold loses his Paddington bear, and it was pretty emotional. I've talked to some friends about this, and for a lot of us in the States, that episode of Diff'rent Strokes was our first introduction to Paddington and who he was.
Paul King: Oh, wow! I didn't know that at all. I must look that up!
I thought maybe some of the scenes with the housekeeper were kind of an homage to that. The kitchen looks like the Drummond kitchen, and she's running around like Mrs. Garrett.
Paul King: Oh, no! I don't know that at all. Now I'm keyed into something...
Hmm? Well, then that makes me want to immediately ask...Did you purposely set out to have a nod to Blade Runner and Indiana Jones back-to-back?
Paul King: (Laughs) The Indiana Jones reference, I know what you are talking about. But what is the Blade Runner reference? I wasn't aware that was in there? Not that I don't love Blade Runner, but I'm not sure which bit you're referring to...
The scene with Hugh Bonneville, where the dad is hanging off the ledge, right before Paddington slides under the door and grabs his hat. I saw that, and Rutger Hauer immediately came to my mind.
Paul King: Oh, I know what you're talking about! (Laughs) I hadn't thought of that. Maybe my brain was broken by what was one of the more disturbing movie moments. So, yeah! That's great. There is no shortage of references in this movie. There is a bucket load of Charlie Chaplin in there as well. And we have the pigeons! Isn't there a bird thing in Blade Runner? Rutger Hauer releases a dove at the end of the movie, at one point, so we have that going off as well. I was more thinking about the movie The Birds, but I'm happy to take Blade Runner.
Maybe that movie was just resting in your sub-subconsciousness the whole time...
Paul King: I know. I think these things do. Don't they? Its terrible. Someone goes, 'You got that from there." And you go, 'Oh, shit!' (Laughs) I hope that's not the case.
Now, before we go any further, I have to say...If you read any bad reviews of this movie, its coming from some grumpy old person who decided they weren't going to like it months before they even stepped into the theater.
Paul King: (Laughs) I hope so! We've been pretty fortunate with our reviews so far. Hopefully we don't bring in a bunch of angry old people. We tried to do something that was warm and fuzzy. And that people would take to it, but you never know how its going to go. Fingers crossed.
What I thought was great about the movie...Sometimes you go to these kids movies, and the director, or the writers, or whoever is involved with getting it on the screen, has set out to make it too weird for the sake of being weird. That it skews too much to the 'smart' adults in the audience. That it's uniqueness is forced. You can really feel that sometimes. Here, I felt the movie was incredibly unique, and weird and strange but never over the top or trying to become that for the sake of itself. Its genuine, I think is the word.
Paul King: I think its tricky, isn't it? There are so many family films. Its difficult to tread the line of doing something original, but like you say, doesn't feel willfully just different for the sake of it, or weird for the sake of it. What we tried to do...We felt there was a universality to the character, of being the outsider. That is something everyone can relate to. I like the idea of telling the story in the most straightforward way. It's nice to have the cutaways, and the bits with the newsreels. We have the dollhouse, and the scene with the train. Its nice to play with those visual devices, but just so long as they were in service of the story, really. We were pretty ruthless about keeping it all grounded in the reality that we made. That it never became for the sake of it. We didn't want it to feel like, 'Oh, you're just trying to show off.' We tried to keep everything based around Paddington and his feelings as an outsider. All of those visual devices of him looking into this world he didn't quite belong in. We were trying to create that space, and have some fun, I suppose.
There were two times where I thought I was looking at an actual bear. It kind of creeped me out. It was a state of visual art that I haven't seen reached in a movie like this yet. Is there a guy in a costume, or have you guys sort of perfected the VFX even more than what we've seen in the movies that came before Paddington?
Paul King: That's good! There is nobody in a bear suit. We actually did experiment with that for a couple of shots. We thought it might give us some possibilities. Even with simple things. Like when he first comes to the house, and he runs his paw across the radiator. We thought it was just such a close-up, can we get a glove for this? The problem is, when you start animating the character, and every part of him feels so real, it just felt like Thunderbirds when you cut to the hands. With the puppets, you know. It always just really stood out. He is real, and really animated, and everything. The hope is that you can get lost in the character, and not think so much about the CGI. What they've done...Framestore is as good as it gets. They did Gravity, and they did Harry Potter. They are a world leading company. I find that I really believe in Paddington. But I'm such pushover.
Maybe that's what happened to me. I got so lost in the movie, and came to believe in him so much, I suddenly thought I was looking at a real critter...
Paul King: That's so nice.
It was the movement of the character that caught me off guard. Its what I guess my mind images a real anthropomorphic bear might look like in the flesh.
Paul King: Yeah. That's so good. When you are animating it, and you start with what is essentially a puppet, you want him to move his hand up here, and scratch his head, or whatever. You would work out the movement that you want. But then to go through finalizing the movement, and finding exactly what gesture you want, what his hand is going to be doing, they then built his musculature, and built his skeleton. They built all the tendons. They figured out how they would be contracting for every single move. Then they hung and simulated skin hanging over that. Stuff that is really interacting with gravity. The technology and detail is insane. And the process. You finish the process and go, 'You'll just stick fur on it now, right?' And they go, 'Nooooo.' (Laugh) They go back to the first steps, and again work out the biology. They are able to do stuff now that they really couldn't do before. The shot where he is shaking the water out of his hat...It looks like real fur. We all know what it looks like when an animal does it. But working with water is so hard. And fur. Then you have wet fur. And water coming off it, its impossible. Framestore is just incredible. I love those guys.
The water coming out of the hat, when he takes his hat off and it pours onto the table, I remember that was one shot that did kind of pull me out of the movie, only because it did look so real. You know, because you get used to this stuff looking so fake most of the time, it pulls you out now when something is took realistic.
Paul King: Yes. It was really well done. But it took so long, that shot. I think there were 490 versions or something. At the end, I think the water was coming out to late. There was this jerk, where he lifted up the hat. And then the water poured out. There was a beat. And then the water splashes out over him. The problem was, that is the cartoon way of doing it. We wanted it to be real, so we had to go back and do it all over again. It was a mad meeting. But it worked out in the end.
I know you have the end credits song with Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams, but I was a little disappointed to see there weren't any musical numbers in the movie. Just as a fan of your work, I was kind of expecting that just a little bit...
Paul King: I don't think we ever considered turning this into a musical. But I really like the Calypso band that is in there. That meant a lot to me personally. I love that music, and its a little known corner of world music. This amazing immigrant music that was made by people who came to Britain in the 50s. Its just an incredible mixture of West Indian and the U.K. It is very nice to use music, and there is a magical life to it. We did looked at a lot of musicals, because Paddington is set in that sort of heightened world. You could imagine that someone could start singing. Certainly if you can have a talking bear, you can have that. But we never really considered making it an actual musical.
I was just a tiny bit disappointed...
Paul King: I'm sorry! (Laughs)
You had that one thing that is forever stuck in my head. The jacket on, jacket off song from Mighty Boosh.
Paul King: Yeah, Jean Claude Jaquettie. They would always do those amazing half sung, half rap sort of things. It was brilliant.
I'll never be able to get that out of my head.
Paul King: Jacket on, jacket off, jacket on (Laughs)...That one, yeah? (Laughs)
Now I was so taken with the movie, if a sequel happens, I can't imagine anyone but you coming back to direct.
Paul King: (Laughs) That sounds good. We might do a sequel. They're expensive films, and it needs to find an audience. It has done well in the UK and Europe, but it really needs to find a proper stateside audience. Hopefully we're on the way, and we can do more. He is such a nice character to write for. And they are such nice films that allow you to build a slightly heightened world. It was a real pleasure to make something with that tone. It would be nice to do another ninety minutes. We just have to see if the gods are kind to us.
I like 90 minutes. This is swift. Its economic storytelling at its best. You really know how to get in and out, and we never feel short changed. Some of these movies run on for what seems like forever.
Paul King: Yeah, you want it to be pretty snappy. It's weird when you have one of these movies, and its two and a half hours. Like Harry Potter is just enormous. Even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, some of those older films. The movies are shorter now, and I think it works in their favor. I think 90 minutes is a good length. We looked at a lot of Pixar films, and they are so wonderful. They really have managed to make these kids films that are extraordinary. The first Toy Story is like 78 minutes, or something. You just go, 'If you can tell this story in 78 minutes...' It doesn't feel rushed. I always felt we could do that with Paddington. There is a chunk of backstory there. But it doesn't need to be Interstellar length to work.
I'm going to throw this out there, but I don't want you thinking I watched your movie and thought it was a ripoff of all the other movies I've seen...That's absolutely not what I thought, I thought you took something that already existed and made it unique, and made it your own. But, in saying this, watching Sally Hawkins...And I have never thought this about her before, but she reminded me of Shelley Duvall, especially her work in Popeye. If you do a sequel, why can't we see Shelley Duvall come in as the mother?
Paul King: That would be amazing! I had not thought of that, but it is very good. If anything, I think I was channeling Diane Keaton in Murder Mystery for Sally, that is what I had in the back of my head. But that would be extraordinary. That is really good. I'm going to steal that from you and give you absolutely no credit. (Laughs)
Hey, if I get to see Shelley Duvall in a Paddington movie, that will be worth it.
Paul King: That would be so wonderful. That is such a good idea. I love it.
Now, let's talk about Nicole Kidman real quick. This is quite the different type of performance that you've pulled out of her. And I think its one of my favorites. She's great as the villain.
Paul King: I never thought in a million years that she would want to be involved. You're not supposed to think about actors when you're writing, are you? Cause you will always get disappointed. But I always thought she would be amazing. For all kinds of reasons. I really love To Die For. She is funny in that. She is so good at that skeevy determination. I thought she'd be very terrific. She is tall, on a physical level. She comes in and towers over Paddington. I thought she'd be really good. I sent her the script, and everyone said, 'She is never going to do this. She doesn't do any children's films, she doesn't do many comedies. This is a million to one shot.' But then her agent mentioned it to her. He said, 'I'm sure you won't be interested in this. It's Paddington Bear.' And she goes, 'Paddington Bear?!' She had grown up reading the books, and she loved the character. She read the script and liked it. I think what is so terrific about Nicole is that she is game for everything. The films she's done, you go, 'Not everyone would have done Dogville.' That is a bold choice for an actor. Lars von Trier is a notoriously hard person to be directed by. Its a film with no sets. She tries lots of different things. If she hasn't done it before, I think she loves the challenge. She was so great and so easy going. I was terrified that this movie star wasn't going to land on her feet, because we put her through so much torture every day she was on set. She was just dangling from those wires. The last shot we did was when we cover her in all that animal gunk. She was fine with all of it. She is so easy going, really down to earth. A real trooper. She'll do anything. She's a pleasure. I think she's great. Its nice to see an actor doing something you haven't seen them do a hundred times before. Its just good that she is doing something really funny.
The whole cast here is great. Now, was Peter Capaldi Doctor Who before he came onboard here?
Paul King: I think he'd just gotten the job. I'm not a massive Doctor Who watcher. I know of the show, and I watched it as a kid, but I hadn't watched the new ones. I knew him from In the Thicke of It, In the Loop, and Local Hero. I knew how brilliant of a comic performer he was. Just as they started talking to him, I think we were the last thing he did before he went into space. When we cast him, the next day I saw World War Z. It was the weirdest thing. He's in that as well. I was watching it and was like, 'Oh, my gosh! What's he doing in this?' He does a lot of things. I think he's best doing comedy. I love him when he's funny.
Now, I'm sure you've been asked this a bunch today. But what was your take on Creepy Paddington. That really turned into something funny there for a minute last year.
Paul King: I saw the first one. Matt Lucas, who plays the cab driver in Paddington, and is a friend, and a very bright comedy performer, he sent it to me. I laughed, and thought it was funny. Because they are funny images. But then you think, that's not necessarily the association you want with your sweet bear. But it was funny. He is a sweet bear, and then he's standing in the middle of Friday the 13th. I think its always fine. You know? It didn't bother me too much. It was okay. I think its okay because he's not really a creepy disturbing horror character.
The last question I want to ask you, and you may not even be involved with this, but are you guys still planning a Mighty Boosh movie? Back in 2012, the guys said it was happening...But then last year, it seemed like maybe it wasn't...
Paul King: That had been the dream through the whole time. I think they are slightly doing separate things at the moment. Noel Fielding has his comedy show. And Julian Barratt is writing a film and playing a part in it. I really hope they get together and work on something again. I would love to be involved with anything, I would love to just see it. But I don't think its on the horizon quite yet.
Do you think you'd be involved in directing it?
Paul King: I would love to, but I'd have to be asked. That's their call, very much so.