While many of us fondly recall Winne-the-Pooh as indelible nostalgia and a collection of some of the most enduring characters in all of children’s literature, far fewer are aware of the story’s bittersweet origins. In director Simon Curtis’ new picture, Goodbye Christopher Robin, an examination of post-war England milieu and the personal dynamics that set the stage for author A. A. Milne to create the stories of the cherished teddy bear and friends that have become some of the most beloved of all time, we learn the backstory and personal costs.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, Margot Robbie as wife and mother Daphne and Kelly MacDonald as the nanny integral to the upbringing of their son, Christopher, played by newcomer Will Tillson, Goodbye Christopher Robin explores the notion that great art means sacrifice, but it also means healing.
I caught up with Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold) recently to discuss the picture’s complex Edwardian family and his experiences working with his note-perfect cast. The spirited filmmaker has a bit of a live-wire personality, informed by a rapid-fire speaking style and generous give-take. Hailing from the theater, he’s an actor’s director bar none, eyes alight when I mention his estimable cast.
One of the things the film does well is to explores the joys and spoils of the artistic process. Specifically, the idea that to create something great you may have to give something else up. There is a cost.
I’m very pleased you think that. I was very struck by that quality of the script, because it does take you behind the creation of Winne-the-Pooh but it’s about so much else as well.
Domhnall Gleeson is playing very much against type in this movie.
Very much so. He is a naturally gregarious guy and his instinct about this man was to really dig into the PTSD. It is very important to remember as well that these were parents of a certain class and time; it would be wrong to make them lovey-dovey modern parents. The physical affection in his life was from the nanny. That is typical of a whole generation of English men.
It’s funny I remember even not so long ago that parenting seemed quite different as well than perhaps it does today. I never remember our parents telling us they love us and how great we were every five minutes.
Totally. There’s a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up on Netflix I believe where he is talking about childhood being like wild dogs and he says, “Our parents didn’t even know our names.”
They never saw us. We would get called in from a field when the sun was going down.
Exactly. But I think the film is a timely reminder for parents and kids to spend time together. Put the phones and iPads down and engage.
Your other two pictures, and now this one, are highly focused on their rich performances. You clearly love actors. One might call you an actors’ director.
I come from the theater, so I pride myself on the actors with whom I work. In this case, we had a lot of rehearsal to mold this perfect Edwardian family with those very good actors.
Margot Robbie is quite something in the film. It’s a tricky role and she really delivers. How was directing her?
Fabulous. She is very brilliant. In addition t o being attractive and clever and talented, she was not afraid to be that woman who is so tough. In Christopher’s memories, he only saw his mother for a half-hour at the beginning of the day and the same at the end. She was not there 24/7.
Her Daphne is quite interesting—there are different ways to take her and she has original relationships with her husband and son. How should we take her?
She was a woman of her time and ambitious for her husband. She married a successful writer who was back form the war and she wanted him to be that again. But it is clear she loves him and loves their boy, even though she is not prepared to be there always.
The movie deals with PTSD before it was called such a thing.
Yes, it was called shell-shocked.
It also suggests art as a healing force. Great art can heal the psyche of an individual or even a country. Do you believe that’s true?
Yes. I had not realized that Winnie the Pooh had become so famous so quickly; it enabled readers to connect with the innocence before the war.
Do you think the same could be true today?
Yes, but probably different things. There is purity and simplicity to it and nice reminder that children should be able to, as you said, roam free with a random group of odd friends and get up to adventures. In these more cynical times there is something to that. I think so many films now are about absolutely nothing and this one seems to be about a lot.
How do you feel about the way adolescence is depicted in most movies today?
I don’t know if I can generalize on that, but I think there is nothing wrong with going back to the notion of reading a book and talking to your parents.
The movie is quite beautiful to look at; I was impressed with the different looks you employed depending upon time or location.
Yes, there are lots of different worlds; obviously the trenches, London and the forest. We looked at Terrence Malick and that sort of dreamscape quality. But we mostly put our heart and soul into the forest because that is the heart of the film—a father and son bonding and finding a way to love each other and trying to create this material that then causes a rift in their relationship so it’s a complicated thing.
What’s the best part about your job?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s having a passion for a script and then bringing a team of people together to work on it.
You have a very young star here in Will Tillston, who plays Christopher. Why him? He’s refreshing and able to convey complex emotions.
Yes, I don’t know how much credit I- apart from having the luck to cast him, he is just a great kid. I remember talking to the continuity person who had just watched the rehearsal and we were just enamored. He’s incredible.
Why was it him and not another?
I don’t know. It wasn’t a “eureka” moment when we first saw him; we kept recording people, and on the last callback for the top three boys he worked with Domhnall and it just became clear he was the one.
Earlier you mentioned Olive, the nanny, who is so critical to Christopher’s development. Kelly MacDonald has a certain goodness even in movies where the circumstances are perhaps harsh, like the work she’s done with Danny Boyle. She always projects a sort of centered, good person.
Yes, I adore her. I have admired her work for years and always wanted to work with her. She also has a very quirky sense of humor as well which is my favorite part.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite performances of the last several years, which was Michelle Williams in your My Week with Marilyn.
She was so brave to take that on and delivered a magnificent performance. I’m eternally grateful that she took the chance.
I mentioned to her once that it really impressed me; we awarded her our Chicago Film Critics Association Best Actress prize. She credited Marilyn and said it was “all her.”
She knows that she herself definitely deserves the credit!