Goodbye Christopher Robin gives a rare glimpse into the relationship between beloved children’s author A. A. Milne (Domhnall Geeson) and his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whose toys inspired the magical world of Winnie-the-Pooh. Along with his mother, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Christopher Robin and his family are swept up in the international success of the books, the enchanting tales bringing hope and comfort to England after the First World War. But with the eyes of the world on Christopher Robin, what will the cost be to the family? I sat down with director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, My Week with Marilyn), to talk about this complex portrait of a family caught in the crosshairs of fame.
Danny Miller: To be honest, I had the same trepidation going into this film that I had going into your first movie, My Week with Marilyn. Why fiddle with these icons? And yet I loved both films. I guess I came to believe that if you’re not going to look at the complexities of these human beings, why bother making biographical films at all?
Simon Curtis: That’s exactly my feeling. I thought that both of those stories said so much about the people involved and the way they looked at the world. I was so taken with this script when I first read it. There was this amazing story about the writing of the Pooh books but it was about so much more as well — things that are really important such as war, loss, the creative process, family dynamics.
I was pretty obsessed with Winnie-the-Pooh as a kid but knew nothing about Milne’s life or how much Christopher Robin was based on his own son. Still, I wasn’t totally surprised by some of the author’s own darkness. The Pooh stories always reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories in terms of their multiple layers. And the Milne characters that I most identified with were Eeyore and Rabbit — not exactly creatures who were all carefree and light.
I think that’s part of the appeal of the books, they work on so many levels. And I’m sure you read the books in different ways during different parts of your life, too. I never wanted to shy away from that complexity. I think the books became so phenomenally successful because they enabled readers to connect with the innocence before the trauma of Word War I, but they also touched on great human vulnerabilities. But despite the difficult moments in this film, I still see it as a love letter to family, in a way. I also think there’s a message here that says, “Pay attention to your children because they’re not going to be around forever!” I also liked the story because I don’t think there are that many films that delve into the complex relationships between fathers and sons.
Everyone in this cast is so amazing but I want to point out Margot Robbie’s performance because I think that was a very difficult part and she totally nailed it. I love how she balanced the character’s personal issues and challenges in a way that still never made me question how much she loved her child.
I agree. When she was focused on her son, she adored him, that’s very clear, but she was able to switch him off — that was the way many people were parents in that class at that time. I recently saw Jerry Seinfeld perform in New York and he did a funny bit about how we tend to our children now like they’re little emperors but his parents barely knew his name. Daphne obviously had her own interests and personality quirks, but she always knew that her son was with his nanny. In those days it was assumed the nanny would give up her life to care for their children.
When you think about it, it’s so extraordinary how famous Christopher Robin became in a time so long before the Internet or social media, and only because of his association with a book.
Yes, that’s very spot-on. They had no way of predicting that the books would become so famous or shine such a spotlight on the boy. There hadn’t really been a child celebrity like that before, so that’s a bit of a defense of the Milnes as well — it was sort of uncharted territory.
It’s true. Today we’re so much more aware of the pitfalls that come from that kind of attention at a young age. I’m sure the parents of the wonderful young actor Will Tilston, who played Christopher Robin, know what to look out for as their son becomes more well known.
Yes, Will has a really wonderful family. And you know the last nine-year-old boy that I cast for the first time who had never acted before was?
Yes, Daniel Radcliffe in the TV version of Great Expectations! From what I know about Radcliffe, he handled it remarkably well, too, considering the unbelievable success and worldwide fame he received from those movies.
Yes, he also has a very wonderful family.
I admit that when I was younger, I was completely in love with your wife, Elizabeth McGovern, from the moment I saw her on screen as Timothy Hutton’s classmate in Ordinary People. Did she have any insights about childhood fame?
Well, it’s true that she went through all the ups and downs of that. And you notice she moved very far away from Hollywood — she’s been in England for many years.
My wife knew her in school and had her mom (who she loved) as her high school English teacher. Your wife always seems to have been very grounded — I’m sure that’s how she escaped the usual pitfalls.
It’s funny — around the world people always want to talk about Downton Abbey when they mention Elizabeth, but when I’m in Los Angeles I always hear about Ordinary People and from the folks who had Katie McGovern as their teacher!
It’s amazing how so many of the locations in the film echo the illustrations in Milne’s books. I assume that amazing tree that we see at the beginning was CGI?
No, it was real!
Whoa! it looked like it was lifted from the pages of the book.
It was an actual tree. We were able to shoot in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex which was the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood. That’s the real Pooh Bridge you see in the film, and when they’re sitting on a rock at the end of the movie, that rock actually has a plaque on it that’s dedicated to A. A. Milne which was very moving for us. But that tree you’re mentioning we found in the queen’s private woods at Windsor Castle.
I was surprised to read after I saw the movie that Christopher Milne didn’t talk to his mother for many years before her death. Did you consider mentioning that as part of the postscript at the end?
Yeah, their relationship got even more complex in later years, and we frankly didn’t want to end the film on that kind of sad note. But Christopher Milne did come to terms with his role as Christopher Robin later on. As you see in the film, he ended up running a bookstore with his wife. A friend of mine who’s a very well known director actually visited that bookstore when he was a child and the grown-up Christopher Robin signed his copy of Winnie-the-Pooh which made me think he was at peace with it at the end of his life.
I got a chance to talk to Kenneth Branagh when My Week with Marilyn came out. Talk about perfect casting! I felt the same way about Domhnall Gleason here.
In the case of Ken, he couldn’t have really played the 25-year-old version of Laurence Olivier when he was 25, but he was absolutely perfect for the 50-year-old Olivier. Ken understood the agony and the ecstasy of being in your 50s and no longer the person who’s the hottest person in the room. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, let alone directed. However directing Ken Branagh as Olivier in your first film is not for the faint-hearted!
And, of course, Michelle Williams was extraordinary as Marilyn Monroe, even though I was worried going in that she was nothing like her.
Oh, the slaggings we got in the press when we cast Michelle! But she confounded everyone. She understood herself that Marilyn was an invention, and there was something about her playing that part that just worked.