One of the best movies of 2017, Goodbye Christopher Robin, tells the story of A.A. Milne, his son, and the birth of a character named Winnie-the-Pooh. It is, in turns, a charming and disheartening movie. Milne is far from purpose and his son, fictionalized as Christopher Robin, turns out far from happy. But it is also beautiful in a way most down-and-dirty biopics are not. There’s a simple reason for this. It takes place largely in the Hundred Acre Wood, the forest playground where Owl, Tigger, Eeyore, Rabbit, and all of the rest would ultimately reside. On film, the forest feels both as remarkable and as distant as childhood. To watch the film is to want to go there.
Fatherly spoke with Goodbye Christopher Robin director Simon Curtis about the challenge and thrill of bringing the Hundred Acre Woods to life onscreen.
The scenes in the Hundred Acre Woods were some of the best in the entire film. As a director, how do you approach recreating an iconic fictional location informed by an actual real location?
The heart of this film is that summer when Milne and his son got to build this world together in the forest. They feed each other’s imagination and out of their games, they begin creating these characters like Tigger and Eeyore. And a massive part of what allowed those moments to feel real and feel magical was the forest itself.
Fortunately, we were able to go to the real Hundred Acre Wood, the beautiful Ashdown Forest in England. We got to recreate these moments in the forest where the Milne family actually lived, which was incredible. The bridge where Milne and Blue played Pooh Sticks in the film was the bridge where the two really played Pooh Sticks. It was amazing getting to trace the footsteps of where these characters actually played and explored.
That’s interesting because it’s these real locations, but it’s also an abstract idea about childhood. How did you bring the innocence to screen and make it feel special and removed from society despite, you know, all the cameras?
Of course, it started with these great scenes being written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the screenwriter. And then there were a series of happy accidents that allowed us to successfully bring imagination onto the screen. The chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilson was so much stronger than any of us could have imagined. They immediately enjoyed each other, which made the whole process easier.
In what ways did it make the process easier?
It brought a natural energy that is nearly impossible to fake. In the scenes when they were playing games, they were really playing games. And we had a schedule that allowed us to give them a lot of freedom to roam free in the woods and explore, which led us to these great moments we would not have had otherwise. One of the crew members found a frog in the grass and he handed it to Domhnall and Will. They ended up playing with the frog as their characters. It was a very exciting for me as a director because the actors were giving me everything I wanted and more.
Was there a lot of improvisation in the Hundred Acre Woods scenes? Did you go to the woods to do scenes or just go to the woods?
It was a mix. A lot of it was planned but being out in the forest let us put the actors in different places and see what would happen. All of a sudden we would notice the way the light was hitting the stream and we would send the actors to play with sticks down there. It was an incredibly rare mixture of having the right actors in this freeing location along with the time to actually let scenes play out.
The final scene of the film also takes place in the Hundred Acre Woods, except everything has changed and Christopher Robin is all grown up. What was it like directing such a bittersweet scene?
It was a very important scene in terms of resolution and we had Alex Lawther as the older Christopher Robin. He hadn’t been with us the entire way, which can sometimes become a problem but he’s such a talented actor that he rose to the challenge. And for the final scene where Milne and Christopher Robin are sitting on the rock overlooking the woods, that rock has a sign on it in real life that is dedicated to Milne for introducing this view to the world. Being in that same space added a great deal of poignancy to it.
It’s a movie about a place and also a time. How did you think about the Hundred Acre Woods as being not just a forest but a moment?
One of the things that attracted me to this project in the first place was the fact that it told the unknown story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh. It gave a real look at this family during the time this iconic world was being created.
The Milnes were not really parents by the modern definition of parenting, but they are representative of parents of a certain class during this time in England’s history. And like all parents, they did their best. They just didn’t always get it right. And I’ve loved hearing from people who enjoyed the film because it captures the agony and ecstasy that comes with being a parent.