Director Marc Forster is perhaps best known for the award-winning Charlize Theron drama “Monster’s Ball” and the Brad Pitt zombie actioner “World War Z,” but he also helmed the acclaimed 2004 J.M. Barrie biopic “Finding Neverland” starring Johnny Depp as the creator of Peter Pan. That latter effort likely made him the ideal choice for Disney to bring A.A. Milne’s classic “Winnie the Pooh” characters into the live-action realm with the new adventure/dramedy “Christopher Robin.”
The film stars Ewan McGregor as an adult version of the title character, who returns to the Hundred Acre Wood to reunite with Pooh and his other stuffed animal friends. And during the “Christopher Robin” press junket last week, I had the fascinating opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Mr. Forster, who told our group of reporters about his love of film, explained why McGregor was the perfect choice for the title role, and spelled out his unique vision of Pooh.
Q: Seeing Winnie the Pooh and friends come to life in this movie was very impressive. Can you talk about how that realism was accomplished?
Marc Forster: Yeah, I had my office [laid out] with different fabrics for Pooh and Jenny Beavan, our costume designer, knitting the red sweater and picking out the red [color]. We then created the live[-action] version of Pooh, and then we had to transform that into the digital version. It was very tricky to get there with the facial expressions, that they’re not too much, not too cartoony, to hold it back, even [toning down] Jim Cummings’ performance. At the beginning, he was very much used to [the] cartoon [version], which is much more over-the-top.
So now [with] Pooh, I wanted to go back to the [E.H.] Shepard drawings, the early origin story, how Pooh was created. He has a little wear and tear on him because the boy played with him. You get this feeling that this was a bear that was played with and hugged, because I [thought] that would add to the emotional patina of them separating and him leaving [for] boarding school and leaving Pooh behind. It’s that thing how we all leave our childhood behind. We all lose our childhood and ultimately [with Christopher Robin, it’s] that journey of finding it again.
It’s interesting, because the story is very simple, but that simplicity I thought was important, because that’s how Pooh is. Pooh is simple. You don’t want to have it complicated, and ultimately I find life should be simple. That’s how Pooh sees it, and [he] has these Pooh-isms and “Tao of Pooh.” [He] reduces everything to just this pure essence. What’s important in life is to spend time with people you love, to 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 [with] people you love.
It’s interesting how [the movie] came about, I was on a plane with my daughter. We were going on a vacation and my daughter was watching on an iPad– [she was] six at that time– [a] Pooh cartoon. She [looked at me and] said, ‘You know what Dad, you should really make a movie I can watch. I can’t watch any of your movies. One is the zombies, the other one is this, I can’t watch any of these movies.’ And then [she] says, can you make some with me [in mind]?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we make a Pooh?’ And that’s when those stars aligned.
Q: How important was the music of Richard Sherman to you with this film?
Forster: I’m such an admirer of the Sherman brothers, all that legacy. The work they have done is extraordinary. So I thought if I can get [Richard Sherman]– you know he’s almost 90 [years old] I think, or 91– if I can get one song out of Richard Sherman, I’ve been blessed. [It’s a] blessing for the movie. So I called him up, I said, ‘Look, Richard. I’ll send you the script.’ He called me back: ‘I read the script. Fantastic piece. I’m going to write you something.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I just want one song.’
I said, ‘At the beginning, when [Christopher Robin] says goodbye, they can sing a little song for him, before Eeyore does his little poem.’ So then he calls me back a couple of days later and he says, ‘Alright, I’m going to play the song for you. So I have it on speaker phone. I’m in the car driving back from the set. He’s at his house starting to play the piano and singing for me into his phone and I literally get goose bumps. Then I started crying and at the end of the third song I said, ‘How many songs did he write?’ Literally in tears in the car.
And I said, ‘Richard, this is beautiful.’ And then I said, ‘Why didn’t I record this? Can you please sing that again? I didn’t hear it properly, Richard.’ So I record it. It’s the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing, him playing the song on the piano. The other two songs I didn’t know how to place. I said, ‘I have to put the songs [into the movie].’ And so that’s [how I] came up with the idea to do the beach scene [over the end credits] and stick a piano on a beach and have him play the song and sing.
Q: How much did you feel like you had to adjust your own personal tone and style to the established Disney take on the Pooh universe?
Forster: To be honest, I didn’t. I made the movie. I came in and [president of production] Sean Bailey and I sat down, and I presented [it] to him very clearly, ‘This is the vision of the movie I have. This is what I want to do.’ I basically said, ‘This is the world I want to create and was very specific and clear, because I didn’t want to have any conflict later down the road. And he loved the vision and supported it and it just grew from there. [Disney] was just a great partner. So it was a very positive, very happy [experience].
Q: What made Ewan McGregor the right choice for the title role?
Forster: Ewan I did a movie before in 2004 called ‘Stay’ and we knew each other very well, and [have been] friends for years. I knew him very well as an actor because we worked together, and I just figured he’s comedically brilliant. He is also brilliant as as a dramatic actor, obviously, but he doesn’t get to do much physical comedy. I felt like, there’s something about this physical comedy [that fits] him.
I always said as a reference for the animators, Peter Sellers’ performance in “Being There,” him leaving the house into the world. That was for me like Pooh leaving [the] Hundred Acre Wood. It’s like also Peter Sellers, when he walks around [and] his facial [expression] is so calm, and he just takes in the world… that’s sort of Pooh walking into the world. And then Ewan I felt has this sort of more Chaplin-esque physical comedy that Pooh brings out of him, because of irritation. The pivot of that was at the train station, when he loses Pooh and ultimately grabs the bear back from the kid.
Q: What kind of challenges did this film present for you, shooting outside in the elements of mother nature?
Forster: Yeah, it’s interesting talking about mother nature. You know, I did a couple of movies in England. My first one was actually ‘Finding Neverland.’ I always wanted to find that magic realism piece again, but the weather can be so tricky in London, because its rains, then it’s sunny, then it rains again, so [there’s] no continuity. I’ve already got a headache thinking about that, because we had so much exterior in the woods.
And somehow, in this film we were so blessed. The clouds were there when we needed them, the sun was there when we needed [it]. When we had that log, where they always meet at the beginning, middle and end, we had the perfect cloud situation. When he woke up in the morning, it was cloudy. Then, when we had shot in the log, the sun suddenly was setting. I said, ‘That’s a sunset I have never seen before.’ You could wait weeks for a sunset like that. That was very blessed.
Q: Which techniques did you use to differentiate between the world of the Hundred Acre Wood and the real world?
Forster: The real world, it’s basically in London. At the time it was always pretty foggy and because of the coal, a little dirty. And we have very little greenery, it’s pretty much gray. This is a sort of metaphor for [Christopher Robin’s] world. And then he escapes to the country, and the country gets obviously greener, more lush and he enters the Hundred Acre Wood, which to begin with is again very foggy.
He can’t find his way until he basically comes out of the Heffalump pit, and the sun comes out, and the color becomes becomes more lush. And then coming out the other side, on the log where he comes to a realization [of] who he is and what he has become. That’s sort of the sun setting. And from then on, it was trying to introduce more of a lusher tone.
Q: What has filmmaking meant for you in your life?
Forster: My parents had no television at home, so I had no entertainment. I always went out and created my own stories and it was always escapism. And ultimately, I’ve always believed that stories can change the world and can affect you, because they affected me growing up. They were escapism for me once I got into movies. And I feel like if you like the movie or you don’t, it still raises questions.
You can entertain, you can make people laugh and cry, but at the same time you can also inspire people. I think it’s a great medium for inspiration, and that’s what it did to me. I think all of us humans, we are all interconnected. But for me at least, the key is to grow and become more conscious while we’re here, and to become a better person at the end of the day. And it’s so hard because you’re constantly [met with] either disappointment or anger.
So many people I know, who I truly love, suddenly they get older, become angry or disillusioned [because they] didn’t live their dreams, or didn’t do this. And I think I’m like the optimist. If the boat would sink, I still would say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not sinking.’ [laughs] But I just always believe that there’s light and hope at the end of the tunnel, and I think that’s the only way I can keep going and love what I do, is to have that mindset, even if everything about the world sometimes it seems [like] it’s going to crumble.
Q: How did Ewan, yourself, and the rest of the movie’s cast go about recapturing that childhood spirit to go along with Christopher Robin’s return to his childhood?
Forster: I think once you are surrounded by Pooh and the animals, you just start laughing at these lines that come out of them. Sometimes [I was wearing] my headphones and said, ‘Oh my god, I have to stop myself laughing, otherwise we can’t get the recording.’ It just brings it out of you, this joy of life.
When you spend a year, or more sometimes, with a movie, it affects you personally. When you do something with a dark subject matter, it affects you. I remember doing ‘The Kite Runner’ in western China. Movies like that affect my life deeply. And here [with ‘Christopher Robin,’ I’m just smiling all day long. So you know what? Maybe that’s the way to live life.
Disney’s “Christopher Robin” opens tomorrow, August 3, in theaters nationwide.