Interview: Paul King for PADDINGTON

We talk to the director of PADDINGTON’s big screen adventure…

It’s always the quiet ones.
Paul King walks into the Merrion Hotel looking like he’s here to do their accounts. Or check their rising damp.
Mild-mannered and polite to the point of blending into the plush wallpaper, it’s hard to imagine that King has been behind the camera for such surreal and colourful offerings such as THE MIGHTY BOOSH TV series (which ran from 2004 to 2007), the big-screen oddity BUNNY AND THE BULL (his 2009 feature film debut) and now, the rather wonderful PADDINGTON.

The latter is a $50m big-screen adaptation of the much-loved marmalade-chomping, duffel coat-wearing, Peru-born little bear who arrives somewhat lost and lonely at London’s Paddington train station. Luckily for Paddington, the kooky Brown family take him home, and a beautiful if accident-prone friendship is born, Paddington being your traditional cuckoo-in-the-nest foreign body who’s desperately looking for somewhere to lay his little red hat.
It’s STUART LITTLE with a hint of LSD, it’s Gondry does E.T., it’s Gilliam’s GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE. Most importantly, it’s damn good.

These leaps rarely work, especially when you’re dealing with such an iconic if, for most people, vague creation. When did you know that your PADDINGTON worked?
PAUL KING: I think I only truly knew when I saw it with an audience, and they all laughed when I laughed, and they all kinda had a lump in their throats when I kinda had a lump in my throat. There was also the issue of making sure that Paddington himself was believable. That was a major concern – will the CGI work. When the bear started to move, there was a relief in seeing him work so well – because the movie was always going to live and breathe through him. And we did think about these kinds of films – the dysfunctional family helped by the outsider; films like WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND or E.T. But we wanted to do was see the world through Paddington’s eyes. We weren’t going to concentrate on the dysfunctional family, and just bring this character in to cure them. And Paddington is the most interesting character in the movie, coming from Peru with this rose-tinted idea of London. And to see the city through the bear’s eyes, and the people through his eyes, we could see how strange people can be, and how strange the city can be. Which is a lot to put on an animated creature.
The first test we did was the animation director and Paddington walking outside the office where we were working, and it was just so great to see that it worked.

The producer, David Heyman – the cunning mind behind bringing HARRY POTTER to the big screen – and Paddington creator Michael Bond know a thing or two about franchises. How about you? Was that crippling in any way as an artist, knowing this film had to satisfy a committee, had to feed, potentially, a series of films?
PK: I think it was good and bad. What was tricky was that lots of people in the world have their own idea of who Paddington was. There were three Paddington TV series, and I was a fan of the stop-motion outing. But I quickly realised, going back to the books and beyond, that there were other Paddingtons. What relaxed me early on was meeting with David Heyman, and him saying, “It’s a bit of a delicate thing, and we don’t know if it’s really going to work. They’re very short stories, and we’re not sure it can sustain a feature film. We’ll write the script, and if we don’t like it, we won’t make the film”. No one ever says that! He’s made so many massive hits, he didn’t need the work. It was good to have that safety net, of knowing that this wasn’t a do-or-die situation. We were only going to make the film if we believed it was going to be great.
So, we wrote three completely different scripts, three different approaches to the story, and then found the one we believed in.

Given that you have a distinct style established through THE MIGHTY BOOSH and BUNNY AND THE BULL – part Michel Gondry, part Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and a homemade aesthetic – were you able to make PADDINGTON a Paul King film? It’s the most expensive film StudioCanal have ever produced, so, I’m guessing they were keen to keep it mainstream.
PK: I suppose it felt nice that although it’s a hi-tech thing that helps make this bear breathe, but I never looked at it like that – I felt he was just there as a character. I like Tim Burton and Jeunet films, Gondry and all that, and I just wanted to keep a sense of this film being homemade. If you start getting too excited about the special effects, you’ve probably checked out of the film.

A kick-ass cast – Bonneville, Hawkins, Broadbent, Walters and many other British actors approaching national treasure status are supported by some of your kookier friends, including Alice Lowe, Matt Lucas and Art Garfunkel lookalike Simon Farnaby…
PK: Yeah, Simon’s there, merrily stealing every scene that he’s in. It keeps the tone right. This is a story with a lot of heart, but it’s not full-on Hollywood schlock. This is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, so, that sense of humour was important.

Like many a British comic light, you came out of university, getting a first-class honour in English at St. Catharine’s College in Cambridge University. This is where you hooked up with Richard Ayaode, Matthew Holness and Alice Lowe. Did you know then that this was the life for you?
PK: I did hope to do shows from the start. Plays was what I started with, but I met Richard on that first day, and he said he wanted to try out comedy. Richard did five minutes at this open mic night, and I just thought, okay, I’m probably not going to become a comedian, because my mate is incredible at it. So, we met later, after we had left university, and Richard was putting the GARTH MARENGHI show together, and I directed that. And then, you just follow your nose, as one show led to another. For a while, I was just happy to be working in theatre, but then I met Julian (Barratt) and Noel (Fielding), and they were putting THE MIGHTY BOOSH together. So, then I became a TV director, with no real understanding of what I was doing, at all. But hopefully understanding how a joke works. Live comedy is pretty brutal – people let you know straight away when they’re not enjoying something.

Woody Allen has always said that it’s a very thin line between comedy and tragedy. You mentioned wanting to do plays starting out – do you harbour a deep desire to make serious drama instead of all this charming, bonkers comedy?
PK: I don’t want to just do something that it’s just a dark drama. All my favourite art has some mischief in it, some humour mixed in. My all-time favourite is Chaplin, and THE KID is just incredible. That’s the funniest slapstick you’ll ever see – there are so many great visual jokes in that movie, and we steal a few in PADDINGTON- or reference, if you want to be more polite. What’s great about THE KID is that you laugh so much, you just fall in love with that character. You fall in love with The Tramp, and it’s really close to the Paddington film – a reluctant adoptive father who, by the end of the film, would cut his own heart out to save this child. And it’s really such a beautiful story, where you can’t help laugh and cry all the way through. Which makes the emotional impact all the stronger, when you’ve been having such a good time.

PADDINGTON hits Irish cinemas Friday November 28th

Words: Paul Byrne