Simon Farnaby interview: Paddington 2, Yonderland, Star Wars

Simon Farnaby chats to us about writing Paddington 2, appearing in Rogue One, and making Yonderland...

Simon Farnaby is a man already keenly admired around these parts for being part of the Horrible HistoriesYonderland and Bill ensemble. But he’s also the man who co-penned the script to the incoming Paddington 2, which seemed like a good enough excuse for a chat to us. Here’s how it went…

How did you end up joining Paul King [director/co-writer] on writing duties this time round?

Paul and I are friends, and we met many, many years ago in the comedy fringes, shall we say. We met and got on, and we did a one man show; we co-wrote a show, which I was acting in, and Paul directed for Battersea arts centre, this was 2004, or something. So we wrote it together, and we enjoyed that process, and it wasn’t even funded, we had £200 budget from the arts council, and we bet it on a horse to try to get some more money, and we lost that money, so we had to fund it ourselves.

So we go that far back. We did a film together which Paul wrote, and I helped a bit writing. And the same happened on Paddington, Paul got a job to write and direct it, and he asked me if I’d talk to him about story ideas and a few jokes, but Paul wrote it, and I helped a bit. And for the second one, Paul just went, “Do you want to co-write it this time?”, because we get on well, and I think it’ll be less lonely for him. And thankfully, David Heyman agreed that I could be useful to the project, and I got to write on it, which is great.

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I’ve just been speaking to Paul about Bunny And The Bull; obviously you two have both gone on to such wildly exotic and exciting things since then.

Yeah, I mean, Bunny And The Bull was a very loved film, It’s a bit of a cult film, but it wasn’t very commercial, if you like, we don’t think like that, but we’re very pleased Paddington was a success and reached a broad audience; it’s nice to reach a broad audience, but we think we’ve probably retained a lot of our very – shall we say, artistic, thing that we like.

I’m assuming one of the first things you did when you were writing the film was ensure the security guard you play came back.

Barry, well really it was the only reason for doing a sequel. We started with Barry and grew the story from there. The thing is, in the stories, in Michael Bond’s wonderful stories, there’s quite a lot of security guards – he always gets into trouble at somewhere like a museum or a bank – and usually runs into a security guard. Funnily enough, when we started writing it, we didn’t have any inkling that Barry would return, but there’s about three or four security guards in it anyway, so I thought, “I’ve got to play one of them”, and when we had the idea for the master of disguise, we went, “Well, Phoenix has got to be a woman at some point, and it seems only right that Barry should be there to fall in love with her a little bit.” 

I’m quite looking forward to, over the course of the next Paddington films, the arc of Barry coming to terms with his sexuality.

Well yes, that’s true. Who knows, we may well open that can of worms at some point.

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Was working on Paddington significantly different from working on Yonderland or Horrible Histories?

Yes, I think with a film, obviously, you’ve got one story, especially in Horrible Histories, they’re sketches, so if you’ve got one funny idea, that’ll do it. Yonderland is a bit more challenging, in that you’ve got to sustain half an hour, or twenty-five minutes. Film you’ve got to sustain an hour-and-a-half. And it’s a much bigger job, it’s more than three times the work of doing the half hour. With Paddington you’ve got the challenge of, you’ve got this character who everyone loves, and you’ve got to be faithful and careful about the tone of that character, and it’s a big film for kids, so you’ve got to be wary of the philosophy you’re espousing. You can have a lot of humour in many ways, but the overall thing has got to weigh up to something meaningful. So for me as a writer coming in, there were challenges, but they were things that I learned about making a family film, I suppose.

MINOR SPOILERS FOR PADDINGTON 2 IN THIS BIT: WE’LL MARK AGAIN WHEN THE SPOILERS ARE GONE

I’d like to get back on to the meaningful thing in a second, but I’m curious – you’re presumably working on Yonderland and Horrible Histories with relatively tight budget constraints compared to Paddington; was this more freeing?

Yeah, definitely. We were told not to worry – I don’t think we ever – David Heyman is such a brilliant producer, he went, “Just create, have fun.” When we came up with the train chase idea, we went, “We’ve never seen a train chase. We’ve seen the climax of a film on a train, a sort of Mission Impossible type thing, but not two trains, one chasing the other.” And we went, “Can you do that?” and so we actually looked at The Lone Ranger, there’s two trains in that, they’re not chasing each other, they’re running side-by-side.

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Is that the Disney one?

Yeah, the Armie Hammer one. We looked at that, and when we were looking at it, we read all this info saying that train chase blew the budget to two-hundred-and-fifty million, or something like that. So we were thinking, ‘Are we making a mistake here?’, but at no point did anyone say, “Stop thinking of a train chase”, they just went, “Great, that sounds like a lot of fun. Jonathan is ashamed of his love of steam engines, and in the end he gets to steal a train. Brilliant.” So in that regard it was incredibly freeing, I don’t think we had any – no one came and said, “You can’t have a hat made of metal, we can’t afford it”, which happens in Yonderland, someone will come in and go, “We can’t afford a stick?”, “Yeah, because we’ve got to build it from plastic, and there’s no budget”, and you go, “OK”. So that was very different.

The thing there you mention with Jonathan’s steam engine, it touches on something meaningful, and it touches on something else: it was nice to see a film resolved by someone’s embarrassing hobby.

Yes, indeed.

Was that from your personal experience at all?

I think we both really loved that idea of being ashamed of your childhood toys, especially things like steam trains. When Paul and I were trying to work out the dynamics of the train chase, we got a train set in, a Hornby train set in the writing room, and we were playing with it for hours. I think that’s how we came up with that idea, because if one of our wives came in, they’d look at it, and we’d feel rather ashamed we were playing with these toy trains. And we thought, ‘lets build that in, let’s give that to Jonathan’, he puts his steam trains, he thinks they’re not cool, and in the end he embraces it and goes, “Look this is just who I am.” I think that chimed with both of us, I have to say.

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It is interesting, though, in terms of having something meaningful, having a message, how far along in the writing process do you get before you sit there and ask yourselves, “What are we actually saying?”

The short answer to that is, very early on, you think about that. At the very starting point you sort of say, “What can Paddington learn?” the first film was an immigrant story, really; he comes, and he finds out that he’s different, but in London, everyone’s different, so anyone can fit in. The second one, we went, “He’s got a home, he’s got a family, let’s take him in the community, how would the community respond to him?”, and then when we thought of prison, we were like, “That’s the ultimate test of his values”, so then we started thinking, “Well what are his values? What did Aunt Lucy teach him?” and that’s where we got all the stuff with “Look for the good in people and they’ll show you their goodness”, and, “Be kind and polite and the world will be right”.

Prison, the middle of the film, really tests his values, and we wanted to feel like you come out at the ned of it, and go, “If you do stick with those principals, it is generally best to look for the good in people”, we also wanted to say that these tiny acts of kindness are very worthwhile, doing nice things for people will mean that people are on your side. We were thinking about it all the time – Paul more than me – Paul’s brilliant on that stuff. Often I try to think of silly jokes, I go, “Yeah that’s good, and then he crashes into a window and slides down”, but you need a bit of both. You need the fun and the humour, but you want it to amount to something, because I think when it does amount to something, that’s when people feel emotional, and I think people do feel emotional at the end of the film, so maybe we’re succeeding in that.

I guess it’s what’s carrying the silly jokes.

Yeah, anyone can do an hour and a half of silly jokes.

SPOILERS ARE GONE!

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That gets back to Bunny And The Bull, and Yonderland, and a lot of these projects that are silly jokes, but they are serviced by an emotional core…

That is the idea.

It does seem that the things where you’re prominently involved follow that thread. Presumably that’s conscious?

Yes it is, yeah. Paul and I looked at – the films that we like, and we actually looked at Little Miss Sunshine, and Michael Arndt, who is the screenwriter of that, he talks about how the film’s got to mean something, and he works very hard on that, the sort of winners and losers thing on Little Miss Sunshine. But you watch that film and it’s hilarious from start to finish. So that’s the goal, we look at the films we like, and go, “They’re really hilarious and funny, but they amount to something, and they mean something.” That’s what we aspire to with the screenplay.

There is, certainly looing at the stuff that you’ve done, that Paul’s done, there seems to be a core of very funny actor/writers/comedians/directors at the heart of the British entertainment industry. Are you consciously aware of that?

Do you mean in our circle?

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Yeah, you guys worked with Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, and I know you did Mindhorn with Barratt recently, but then you’ve got Mackenzie Crook, who’s an actor and comedy guy, plus director and writer of The Detectorists. You’ve got lots of other people surrounding you – there is this little core of British comedians and filmmakers who are working together frequently.

Yes, I know what you mean. We are aware of that. I’d put Alice Lowe in there, and Gareth Tunley in there, who did a film called The Ghoul, Steve Oram, I don’t know if you know Steve Oram, did Sightseers. It’s the difference between TV and film, Mackenzie – I think he is working on some film stuff actually – TV’s great, you get to do it, and make it, and there’s a bit of money in it. Film is different, because you can make something like Prevenge, which is brilliant, but it’s not commercial, it doesn’t make money at the box office – I mean, Mindhorn didn’t – we were pretty disappointed with Mindhorn, because people didn’t actually go and see it – so the challenge for us is to make those films, because that’s what we know how to make, but to try to persuade people to go and see them in the cinema. It’s quite a tricky one, because Mindhorn, I thought was going to be commercially successful, but wasn’t, but what do you do? You just keep plugging away.

There will eventually, I suspect, come a critical mass, where people realise who you all are.

I would hope so, yeah.

In the mean time, I suppose, there’s things like Paddington 2, and 3, 4, 5 and 6, Barry’s Date.

Barry’s Return.

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That will keep you guys pushing along, I imagine.

Yeah.

There’s one thing before we wrap up that’s almost entirely off topic, but you were in Rogue One

Blue Five.

How did that happen?

Weirdly, that was in the middle of – we were right in the middle of writing Paddington 2 – we were just hitting our stride, actually. We were a couple of months in, and we’d got the story nailed down. And then the producer rang me, and said, “Do you want to be in Rogue One as an X-Wing pilot, Blue Five?”

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I initially said no, because we were really pushed for time, and we had a deadline, Paul and I, and I didn’t want to let Paul down. And he just went, “No, go, it’ll be great, you should go”. So I went and did it. I don’t know why they chose me, they wanted characterful faces, so I ended up doing that. It’s quite a weird job, but it was good, it was great. I got to sit in an X-Wing and fly around. Well, not fly around, you get put on a gimble, and there’s a big screen around you, so it was like being in a fairground ride, a very expensive fairground ride.

Boyhood dream come true?

Well, I’m not an uber Star Wars nerd, I do love Star Wars, but – I would say it’s an extremely gratifying experience – but I know, like Larry [Laurence Rickard] from Yonderland, our Horrible Histories/Yonderland team, that would have been a dream come true for Larry, he’d have wet himself. But I wouldn’t go that far, but I did enjoy it, yeah.

So there’s now some bitter jealousy from Larry?

Yeah, he hates me, yeah. He hasn’t spoken to me since.

Simon Farnaby, thank you very much!

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Paddington 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday.