Paul King interview: Paddington 2

Director Paul King on the box office failure of Bunny And The Bull through to the heights of the new Paddington 2...

Returning to the world of Paddington following the huge success of the first movie is co-writer and director Paul King. It’s a magical film he’s fashioned too, and he spared us some time to chat about it. Here’s how that conversation went…

I interviewed you about eight years ago for Bunny And The Bull at the MCM Comic Con…

And look how well that went.

How things have progressed…

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There was no suite then, was there?

There wasn’t much of a view, either.

No. I think we pretty much had to hitch to get there.

Pleased with the progress?

It’s been very nice. God bless Paddington and all who sail in her.

Yeah, it’s been very nice. It was very lucky that Heyday and StudioCanal were able to see through the appalling box office figures of Bunny And The Bull and give me another chance to redeem myself.

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£55,000 was the total. In fact, that might have been dollars. I don’t think that covered the posters.

To be fair though, that’s more than most British films make.

That’s true.

Was that profit, or box office?

No, that was total gross. I think it must have somehow lost more than it cost to make. It was a catastrophe.

How much did that cost to make though?

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A million. Not nothing. Not the sort of money you want to lose.

No, no. Indeed. I was of the few people who saw it, and spent a long time raving about it. 

Well that’s great. Hooray! You should come round for Christmas dinner. We could get the entire audience round and split a pizza.

Me, you and David Heyman?

Pretty much. [Simon] Farnaby saw it, he’ll come. My wife liked it.

But that’s the thing, watching Paddington, and Paddington 2, there’s so much of Bunny And The Bull in there.

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There’s a total joke steal. The spitting on the hand is the same joke. There was a great moment, when I was sitting next to Simon, we did a couple of test screenings where you show it to – not a random audience, but a real audience of not people who have worked on the film – and the moment where Paddington spits on Nuckles’ hand got this enormous laugh, and we turned to each other going, “I knew that was funny. How come no one laughed eight years ago?” Well, they did laugh at that, but it just never really found an audience. It’s a hard thing with films, I think the people who saw it, liked it, but it never really broke out of its very, very small niche.

Too experimental?

I don’t know.

You mention the hand spitting, but for me there’s something more. It happened in the first Paddington, where he approaches the screen, and walks into it, it happened in this one with the model of the prison; it’s what I’ve come to expect from you, where all of a sudden, something that’s quite literal merges with the impossible.

What a nice thing – I’ll put that on my gravestone, that’s a lovely way of putting it – I suppose what it’s always been, really – probably more so in Padding… I don’t know, actually that’s not true – is a way of getting inside the character’s head, in a way that takes you to somewhere quite extraordinary, hopefully.

Generally, it’s the – especially the pop-up book, and the Peru dream in prison – it’s where Paddington is right now without having to cut to a dream sequence. It’s hopefully about the impossible around the corner in the world, making the world feel slightly more magical and full of possibility than it is. There’s nothing too literal about the Paddington universe. And I suppose, just given the stuff I did when I was starting out with Garth Marenghi and Mighty Boosh and those things, it was never set in a literal universe, and its always felt like a fun sandbox, and a really nice thing that film is almost uniquely good at.

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You wouldn’t describe somebody’s inner monologue in a novel through that visual representation, but hopefully it gives you a way of telling the world what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling and what he’s going through without having to use too many words, and that’s sort of what cinema is best at, I think. It goes back to Milier, and Tarkovsky, and some really, actually very good people.

You’ve sort of alluded to it there, I suppose Paddington is your most reality-set work.

Yeah, it’s gritty. This is my Ken Loach meisterwerk. Yeah, it probably is, distressingly, the most realistic thing I’ve been involved in. Which doesn’t bode well for kind of, you know, going on to make Dardenne Brothers movies, really. I think there’s always going to have to be a bit of magic in there somewhere, but that’s OK, that’s what I like in films. I’ll take that.

This is something I was going to get on to at the end of the movie, but we have kind of touched on it here. Presumably, assuming the film does well at the box office, there will be cries for a Paddington 3, and maybe a Paddington 4, and maybe a spin-off: Brown’s Avengers, or something.

Mrs Bird Leads the Pack. The EU.

As one of the six people who did watch Bunny And The Bull, and would be interested to see the other…

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Where is the Bunny And The Bull Extended Universe?

Well, to see the other world of Paul King, the alternate universe Paul King, is this going to be something you keep coming back to?

I think it’s a really nice place to spend time creatively. For me, I really like the combination of – Chaplain was a huge cornerstone of everything growing up, and certainly as I discovered comedy properly – So Paddington is really nice, it has that same mixture of pathos and humour and magic, and dream sequences. It sort of has a lot of the things that I love doing in it, inherently in its DNA, and it’s a very nice world to spend time in, and very nice people to work with, both of which, that doesn’t always happen. And I’m aware from the Bunny And The Bull experience that not everything I touch will turn to box office gold. In fact, all other experiences. So it is nice to spend time in.

But obviously, that said, there are other things that you’d like to do, and I wouldn’t like everything I did for the next fifty years to be talking animal based, I would like to explore some other things too, but I think it would be hard to entirely let go of Paddington Land. After eight years, you sort of go, ‘I really care about it’, especially this sort of a film, with so much bespoke hand animation. And just the sets and every – it’s very forensically detailed, and that’s how it gets whatever quality it has, through an obsessive attention to detail, and it would be quite hard to go , ‘now somebody else can just do that’, and then wonder ‘Why have you moved the toaster?’, ‘Why have you changed that?’, ‘But the radio was…’, ‘But the thing…’, ‘…and the symmetry’, ‘and he shouldn’t…’, ‘That’s not how Paddington looks worried, it’s with more up his furrow, and his eyes would flick over to the left, and you’ve got too much white’. There’s just too much detail to completely let go. So I don’t know, is the long way of saying I have no idea.

I get the impression from what you’re saying that you’re very – that you like to have oversight of your heads of department.

Definitely. And it’s very hand crafted. I think there’s a sense, obviously not from people who know, in the industry, but there’s a sense that it’s all done in the computer, and therefore it’s done by the computer. It’s all done by the computer in the same way that you might use a word processor to write a novel. It doesn’t mean it did it for you. And it really is incredibly nuanced – every shot is x-hundred iterations of revisions, and its hours and hours and hours for months and years. So you do end up with this quite obsessive thing, I think especially because of Paddington. You realise the huge difference between him looking up nervously and excitedly. And you go, “What was the difference?” It’s a slight flick of the eyebrow, and it’s a slight brightness of the eye. And so it’s quite hard to not take that level of detail to every other thing and go, “well let’s talk about the costume”, “well let’s talk about the socks”, “the socks?”, “Well you know, because the socks might be important, they do walk through…”. And then you sort of start going mad.

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I think I need you to clarify something for me…

The bear?

The actual on set Paddington-ing. Because this time round you had Ben Whishaw from the get go.

Which was really helpful. So we knew what he would sound like, and we knew what he would act like, and we knew, roughly, what the end product might look like, to a certain extent. Much more than the first one. And he rehearsed with the actors, so we had run through the scenes fifty times before we got on set. And they presumably had some memory of that, and were able to hold it. But he’s not on set every day, for multiple reasons. One, I think he would go mad, two it’s probably quite expensive to have a movie star hanging around, not even being filmed. And I don’t think it would actually have been terribly helpful. I think he’d have got very bored, and I think the film would have suffered. I know Seth MacFarlane did that on Ted, but he was also directing, so it makes more sense.

Seth MacFarlane did it on Ted, but with Guardians Of The Galaxy, James Gunn has had his brother sit in for Rocket.

Yes. And it’s great to have somebody there. So we work with this actor, Gus Brown, who’s brilliant, who I’ve known for ages, who’s very funny. And he is able to channel Ben, to a certain extent. And it also means, when we’re improvising on set, and things are changing, inevitably, on the day – especially with our cast, who are unable to say the same thing twice – there’s a kind of, you can respond to it. And you can try a fast scene, or a slow scene, and it’s not like somebody pressing ‘play’ on Ben’s tape recorder, where it wouldn’t make sense anymore. It’s able to be quite organic with him.

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And we have this great clown, Javier Marzan, who’s like a physical comedy god, and so if there’s physical moments, like the squirting of the ketchup, for example, where somebody’s got to squirt ketchup on Brendon at the right point in the sentence, and with a rhythm, and a comic [style]. You don’t want to leave that to some sort of random stage hand, so we have him there for all of the bits of physical interaction, and he’s able to find funny ways of doing it, which are incredibly useful.

And then there’s the year of animation, and our animation director is very, very funny, and kind of has Paddington’s soul, and without the whole team, you feel it would fall to pieces.

And Ben, we spent 120 hours doing the voice. And because you’re discovering the performance, it’s iterative. You do it, and then you do a pass at the animation, and then you go, “It doesn’t seem quite right, and actually wasn’t as moving as I thought. Can we try saying this? Can we try animating it like that? Can we do it again, and again, and again?” Until everyone’s had enough. And then, when you’ve run out of time, you release it.

I’m curious where someone finds a clown in this day and age.

Well there’s this guy, Cal McCrystal, who taught me to direct, who’s like a comedy director. He works with lots of very good people, he works with Sascha Baron-Cohen, and he worked on the Spider-Man movies – the Emma Stone one – he’s like a physical comedy, theatre guy, for the most part. He did that show, One Man Two Guv’nors, he did all the comedy in that. So he sort of – he does direct shows on his own, which are brilliant – and he quite often comes in as a sort of comedy guru. And he taught me to direct, so I’ve known him since I was twenty. I was his assistant, and he’s still the maestro, and so he’ll come in, especially for the physical comedy set pieces, like the barber, and he’ll come in half a dozen, a dozen times over the course of a year or two, and we’ll spend a day breaking down the sequence going, “What you want to do is, that.”

So some films have stunt directors, fight co-ordinators, you have a…

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Clown. Additional clown directing should be the [credit].

It feels right, somehow.

It’s very good, isn’t it. I need my assistant clown. All the clown help I can get.

There is another influence I’m curious about. Hugh’s playing – Hugh Grant, sorry. The two Hughs in the film. Some conHughsion there.

Very good.

Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself.

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Hugh’s next? Oh dear.

Hugh Grant is playing Phoenix in the film. He reminded me a little of Vincent Price in Theatre Of Blood.

Did he? I have embarrassingly not seen that, so I can claim no direct – this is where I should be able to go, “of course, dear Vincent” – I’d never, no. Is he? He’s the guy who gets revenge on all his critics, and kills them? Well that’s to my shame an omission, but I will put it right. Maybe Hugh’s seen it. Are you seeing Hugh?

I’m not, sadly. But when you see him, you should ask.

I will ask. And go, “Did you steal all this from Vincent Price? I’m being hauled over the coals for it”.

So, very quickly, then. I know previously you’ve said the first Paddington isn’t a political film, it just touches on things. I’m going to avoid the European immigrant issue, because I think you’ve addressed that. Prisons.

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This is my prison campaign movie. It’s basically Hunger, for talking animals. I think, to be honest, the biggest reference, in terms of historical film references, apart from Chaplain, the biggest thing was definitely Frank Capra, and that sort of little bear in the big world, and the Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Meet John Doe, those three were real cornerstones, and what we were most interested in was more how do Paddington’s values withstand an onslaught of cynical real-world-ism, when they’re such idealistic, pie in the sky, preposterous levels of kindness and politeness, and is that really going to survive – he’s survived Mr Brown, who’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but ultimately was a jolly good soul – and then you go, ‘let’s put him in prison’.

And Simon loves Stir Crazy as well, and we love the idea of the little innocent in the big house, it’s a fairly familiar trope, and it felt like it could be very funny with Paddington. But it’s not really a campaigning for prison reform movie, although I think it’s jolly good if everyone started a tea room, and there are prison kitchens that become – you sort of start Googling things, and you go ‘it’s real, bloody hell’, and the world’s always more surprising than you think. So I think the message of looking for good in people and finding it, and not judging a book by its covers are timeless, and timely as well. But that’s a happy coincidence.

Paul King, thank you very much!

Paddington 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday.