Volver, Attack the Block, Eden and Licorice Pizza.editor joins and to celebrate the 100th edition of London-based cinema magazine, and chat about the films behind his four favorite illustrated LWL covers:
Paul King tells us why Frank Capra was the greatest influence on the Paddington films, what Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond thought of his movie adaptation, and reveals the Phoenix Buchanan dog food jingle we never got to hear.
“For every person who would laugh at a fart joke, I suspect another two would have been disappointed. That’s not to say a fart joke can’t be funny, but it wouldn’t have been right for Paddington.” —⁠Paul King
King, the director of Paddington (2014) and its sublime sequel Paddington 2 (2017), is the reigning champion of the “weird-creature-lives-with-a-family” sub-genre. Based on the beloved children’s books by Michael Bond (who died this past June, aged 91), the films are so richly detailed that each viewing reveals a new and lovely surprise.
While Paddington was a critical and box office success, Paddington 2 has been an even bigger hit. On Letterboxd, the sequel is one of our highest rated releases of 2018 so far and was the sixth-highest ranked film on Jack Moulton’s unofficial Top 50 of 2017. The film’s US release wasn’t until earlier this year, so it didn’t appear in our 2017 Year in Review, but look for it next January.
What is your personal opinion on marmalade? —Erik
Paul King: It’s only okay.
Paul, curious about your favorite silent films? —ShaunPilgrim
I’m a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin. Some people dismiss him as too much of a sentimentalist, but personally I find him hilarious and love the pathos and rhythm of the storytelling. The Kid is probably my favourite, followed by City Lights and Modern Times. But I’ve also devoured all the Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, WC Fields and Jacques Tati that I’ve been able to get my hands on.
What influences (personal experiences, film, books, TV, etc.) were prominent in getting the Paddington films just right? —Matt
When I first spoke to [producer] David Heyman about how I imagined the finished film, I described it as having the comedy of Chaplin and the emotional complexity of Pixar, all set in the world of Amelie. It sounded like a pretty good movie to me then and still does. The greatest challenge of working on a film for as long as we developed Paddington is to keep true to those touchstones and not get too distracted by other influences.
That said, there were lots of other films, photographs and books that I referenced at various points along the way. I tended to think of Wes Anderson’s formal angles for the scenes where Paddington finds himself in very proper places where he feels out of place, and sweeping Max Ophuls tracks, pans and orbits when he feels more at home. We looked at the colours of Jacques Demy, the set designs of [photographer] Tim Walker, and the sense of the alien in Shaun Tan[’s work] to name but a few.
The Paddington films are such a wonderful fan-tribute to the stop-motion BBC series and Michael Bond’s books, enhancing the artistry and placing Paddington in a perfect “contemporary-vintage” 21st-century context (especially with the current international conversation around refugees, immigration, Brexit, human kindness and what-have-you). That’s really a long-winded way of asking: where did Paddington sit in your childhood and how heavy was the responsibility to get it right?
One of my earliest memories is lying on the living room rug watching Paddington on TV. I loved the character and the comedy, and for some reason, that particular show really stayed with me. The genius of it is that Paddington is the only 3D character in a cardboard cut-out world, which makes you relate far more closely to him than any of the humans, which is quite unusual in the weird-creature-lives-with-a-family sub-genre and goes some way to explaining why he’s such a beloved character.
I definitely felt the weight of responsibility, not only to all the fans of the character, but especially to Michael Bond. By the time I’d put in my five-year shift on the first film, he’d been writing Paddington stories for 55 years, and I knew he must have been petrified about what we’d done to his beloved bear.
When the time finally came for him to watch the film, I was so nervous about how he might respond, I couldn’t sit with him. Instead, Rosie Alison, our executive producer (and a far braver person than I) watched it with him while I paced nervously round the block for 95 minutes. When she finally phoned to tell me he’d loved it, I literally doubled over in the street, moaning with relief. After that, I didn’t mind so much what other people thought!
I was impressed at how the first film generally evaded easy/lazy humor that’s all too common in kids’ films these days. Were there certain films you enjoyed as a child that you sought to emulate? —Johnny
I didn’t particularly set out to emulate any of the films I loved as a child. I find writing comedy so hard there’s pretty much nothing I wouldn’t do for a laugh—but I didn’t want to put any jokes in the film that wouldn’t have felt at home in the Paddington books or TV shows, because I felt it would have broken the tone.
For every person who would laugh at a fart joke, I suspect another two would have been disappointed. That’s not to say a fart joke can’t be funny (see Blazing Saddles), but it wouldn’t have been right for Paddington.
Follow-up question: could you name five favorite films you remember from childhood?
My parents aren’t great cinema-goers and we lived in a small village in the middle of nowhere which pretty much meant I wasn’t either. But once I started loving films as a teenager, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I had a very over-thought top ten which I’ve mostly forgotten. Brazil was for a long time my favourite film, followed by Zazie dans le métro, Taxi Driver, Delicatessen and Three Colours Red. What a pompous child.
Several members wanted to know how you make the films sweet and loveable without veering into saccharine territory. Take us into the room with you and your Paddington 2 co-writer Simon Farnaby. What’s your yard-stick for saccharinity measurement, if you will? Is it a bit like the marmalade-making scene in the prison: keep adding sugar until it seems just about right?
The most important job for the director is to keep a sense of the tone, and it’s so easy to get lost. Even Billy Wilder used to have a sign above his desk saying ‘What would Lubitsch do?’ If I were to have a sign above the directing desk for the Paddington films, it would say ‘What would Jeunet do?’ I wanted to do for London what Amelie did for Paris, and I love his characters, his amazing camera angles, tracking shots and seemingly boundless inventiveness.
But in terms of the writing, Frank Capra was our most frequent reference on Paddington 2. Paddington’s a really hard character to write for, especially in a sequel, as he doesn’t have a classic ‘flaw’ that needs fixing. He’s clumsy and misunderstands things—but you wouldn’t want to change that about him, so while those characteristics can help you through set pieces, they don’t help you come up with a story.
When Simon and I started thinking about Paddington 2, we tried to think of films where the character is as kind and good-natured as Paddington, and Frank Capra kept coming to mind, especially Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Jeff Smith is a pure, innocent, well intentioned soul with old-fashioned values, and the journey of that film is testing whether those values can withstand the cruel, cynical world of Washington.
Once we started thinking of the film in terms of that sort of shape, as a test of the values Paddington learned from Aunt Lucy both in London and prison, we were able to find a proper character arc—and that in turn generates meaning and emotion.
That said, we like to find a little joke to undercut too much treacliness or pomposity. I think it’s nice to push the audience to the place where they think things might be about to get cheesy, and then reassure them that they’re still watching a comedy.
My mom’s face lights up when she watches Paddington, in a way that she never has with any other movie and in a way I can only imagine is similar to her being a little girl again. What do you think it is about Paddington, or your take on him, that makes it a true family film, almost like an equalizer, where every age is simply delighted. Are there other films you find have an ‘equalizing’ effect on audiences? —Shirley
One of the things I most love about Chaplin is that I find him as funny now as I did when I was a child. I don’t think any of his jokes are aimed at children or adults; they’re just universally funny (unless you’re dead inside). When we wrote, we just tried to make something that would make us laugh, rather than trying to aim one joke at the kids and the next one at the grown-ups. If we didn’t find it funny, it wasn’t going in.
I think a lot of the best family entertainment seems to take the same attitude. There’s certainly nothing in many of the Pixar movies that I feel is aimed exclusively at children or grown-ups, nor in Nick Park’s movies, which are a huge influence.
Is food the great unifier? Starting with the humble British marmalade sandwich (which was the undoing of Kidman’s character in the first film), to Paddington’s influence on the prisoners’ food and relationships (‘For Goodness Cake’), and Phoenix’s hatred of his career turning to (or into, if you’re inclined) dog food, how did you and Simon Farnaby arrive at this idea? —Milan
I’m not sure where it all comes from. Mind you, they do say ‘write what you know’, and I know eating.
Phoenix’s dog food commercial just felt like a pretty funny idea for something humiliating for him to have to sell. We wanted the idea that he used to be famous for Shakespeare and is now only known for this terrible jingle. We even had a song he was going to be forced to sing: “No more snuffles, with Mr Wuffles, ’cos it’s the world’s best medicated dog food.”
We note that you’ve worked with Gary Williamson for ages, including on your film Bunny and the Bull. There are so many wonderful sight gags—how many of those were scripted by you and Simon, versus brought to the table by Gary and his brilliant artists, and the animation team, for that matter? What’s the collaborative flow like at this level? What’s Gary like? He must be hilarious. Please tell us he’s hilarious or at least as lovely as his design is!
Gary is very lovely and very funny. I first met him when he was suggested by Mary Burke, the producer of my first, wildly unsuccessful film, Bunny and the Bull.
I was immediately attracted to him because he didn’t turn up all sharply dressed. He looked like he’d slept in a hedge. And instead of producing thousands of reference images, he’d done a pencil drawing of the whole film as he saw it. I realised he was the man for me then and there. He worked with the late, great Dennis Potter for years, so knows everything about heightened reality.
In terms of the in-camera jokes, they’re very laborious. But I love films where you can pause the DVD, read the whole newspaper or letter and get about five jokes you’d miss watching at 24 frames per second. It’s easy enough to spot where they might go, but a lot of work at the last minute when you’re trying to film! Simon helped out a lot but the newspapers in Paddington 2 are mostly written by Jon Croker who helped out a great deal on both films. [Fun fact: Jon Croker has signed on to write the script for the animated feature version of Sir Paul McCartney’s book High in the Clouds.]
Aunt Lucy teaches Paddington some of the most important things in his life—who is your Aunt Lucy? —Debbie
My Aunt Lucy is… Aunt Lucy! I’ve spent so long in the world of Paddington she’s become my moral compass.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant were both incredibly entertaining in these movies. Are there any other actors you’d like to see as Paddington villains? —Guy
I’d love Javier Bardem to come up against the bear.
Finally, Allison speaks for all of us when she asks: when and where can I buy a ‘Free Paddington’ pin?
I don’t know! But if you find one, can you let me know?