Disney’s Christopher Robin shows what life is like now for the young boy who grew up and left behind the stuffed animal friends he shared countless adventures within the Hundred Acre Wood. As an efficiency manager at Winslow Luggage, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) spends more hours in the office than with his own family (Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael), who are growing tired of his broken promises, prompting Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett), Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed) and Tigger (also voiced by Cummings) to leave the Hundred Acre Wood for the first time, on a mission to remind their old friend of the endless days of wonder and make-believe that defined his childhood.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider (along with a handle of other outlets) was invited to participate in a roundtable interview with director Marc Forster, who talked about bringing these characters from the Hundred Acre Wood to life, in a believable way, being supported in his vision for the film, why Ewan McGregor was his Christopher Robin, the challenges of shooting these characters outdoors and in the elements, getting original songs from Disney songwriting icon Richard Sherman, and what filmmaking has given him.
MARC FORSTER: I had, in my office, these different fabrics for Pooh, and Jenny Beavan, our costume designer, knitted the red sweater and figured out the red. We recorded it in the live version of Pooh, and then we had to transform that into digital. It was very tricky to get the facial expressions so that they were not too much and not too cartoony. Because it was a cartoon, it was much more over the top. I wanted to go back to the early origin story of how Pooh was created, and how he has wear and tear on him because Christopher Robin played with him, as a boy. You get this feeling that he’s a bear that was played with and hugged, which adds to the emotional patina of them separating, and him leaving for boarding school and leaving Pooh behind. When he asks, “Why did you leave me?,” it’s that thing of how we all leave our childhood behind, and we all lose our inner child and ultimately have to find it again. It’s interesting because the story is very simple, and I thought that simplicity was important because that’s how Pooh is. Pooh is simple. You don’t want to have it be complicated. Life should be simple. That’s how Pooh sees us. All of the Pooh-isms and the Tao of Pooh reduces everything to pure essence. What’s important in life is to spend time with people you love and enjoy the things you do, and we all don’t do that enough. No matter who you are, you never find enough time to spend time with the people you love.
How much did you feel like you had to adjust your own personal tone and style to the established style of Disney and Winnie the Pooh?
FORSTER: To be honest, I didn’t. I went in and Sean Bailey and I sat down, and I presented him this very clear vision of the movie that I had. I basically said, “This is the world I want to create,” and it was very specific and clear because I didn’t want to have any conflict, later down the road. He loved the vision and supported it, and it just grew from there. They were great partners, so it was very positive and very happy.
Why was Ewan McGregor the right actor to play Christopher Robin?
FORSTER: Ewan and I did a movie before, called Stay, and we knew each other very well and had been friends for years. I knew him very well, as an actor, ‘cause we worked together. I knew that he’s comedically brilliant, and he is also brilliant, as a dramatic actor, but he doesn’t get to do much physical comedy. Peter Sellers’ performance in Being There was a physical comedy reference that I used for the animators. When Peter Sellers walks around, his facial features are so calm while he just takes in the world. That’s Pooh, walking into the world. Ewan has a Chaplin-esque quality with his physical comedy.
What challenges did this film present for you, shooting Winnie the Pooh and his friends outdoors and out in the elements in the woods?
FORSTER: I’ve done a couple of movies in England. My first one was Finding Neverland, which was tricky because, in London, it rains, and then it’s sunny, and then it rains again. There’s no continuity. Everybody got a headache thinking about it because we had exteriors in the woods. Somehow with this film, we were so blessed. The clouds were there when we needed them, and the sun was there when we needed it. On the log where Christopher and Pooh meet, we had the perfect cloud situation. We woke up in the morning and it was cloudy, but when we had shot on the log, the sun was setting and it was a sunset that I had never seen before. You could wait weeks for a sunset like that. I was very blessed. I bought into the magic of Pooh, that day. It went so smooth.
What techniques did you use to differentiate between the Hundred Acre Wood and the real world?
FORSTER: In London, at the time, it was always pretty foggy and, because of the cold, it was a little dirty and we have very little greenery. It’s all pretty much gray, and then he escapes to the country and the country gets obviously greener and more lush. When Christopher first enters the Hundred Acre Wood, it’s very foggy. He can’t find his way until he comes out of the Heffalump pit and the suns come out and the color becomes more lush. With that Heffalump battle, he fights his own demons. He’s pretending, but also fighting his own demons. From then on, he introduced a more voluptuous tone.
How was the experience of getting original songs from Richard Sherman?
FORSTER: I’m such an admirer of all the Sherman brothers and of the legacy with the work they’ve done. It’s extraordinary. I thought that if I could get one song out of Richard Sherman, who’s 90 years old, I’d be blessed. So, I called him up and said, “Look, Richard, I’m sending you a script.” He called me back and said, “I read the script. Fantastic piece. I’m gonna write you something.” I said, “I just want one song.” He said, “Okay.” At the beginning, when he says goodbye, they sing a little song for him, before Eeyore does his little poem. Then, he called me back, a couple days later, and he said, “All right, I’m gonna play the song for you.” I had it on speaker phone while in the car, driving back from the set. He was at his house, playing the piano and singing for me, into his phone, and I got goosebumps. I started crying. And then, he played a second song and a third song. I said, “How many songs did you write?” It was just so beautiful. The other two songs, I didn’t even have a place for, so I came up with the idea to do the beach scene, and stick a piano on the beach, and have him play the song and sing it.
You’ve given us so many incredible stories, as a filmmaker. What has filmmaking given you?
FORSTER: I grew up with no television at home, so I had no entertainment. I always went out and created my own stories, and it was always an escapism in my imagination. I always had to create my own entertainment. I believe that stories can change the world and affect you because they affected me, growing up. They were an escapism for me. With movies, you can entertain. You can make people laugh and cry, at the same time, and you can also inspire people. It’s a great medium for inspiration. That’s what it did for me. We are all here on this planet as humans, all interconnected. For me, the key is to grow and become more conscious while we’re here and to become a better person. It’s so hard because there’s so much disappointment or anger. So many people get older and become angry or disillusioned, or didn’t live their dreams. I’m an optimist. I believe that there’s light and hope, at the end of the tunnel. That’s the only way I can keep going and love what I do.
Ewan McGregor told us that you got to take home a set of the characters. Where are you keeping them?
FORSTER: Pooh is sitting on a chair in my house with Wonder Woman glasses on. The light just comes in right, and he looks very happy with his glasses on. It’s hilarious!
Christopher Robin opens in theaters on August 3rd.