By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Hugh Grant reunites with his “Notting Hill” co-star Hugh Bonneville in the highly anticipated sequel to 2014’s family friendly adventure “Paddington,” starring the beloved children’s book character, an anthropomorphic Peruvian bear that appears lifelike courtesy of some advanced visual effects wizardry.
Bonneville, best known for his role as Robert Crawley in the British TV drama “Downton Abbey,” reprises his role in the kid-friendly film as Henry, the kind and understanding patriarch of the Brown family who treats the young bear like one of his children. Grant is introduced as Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissist actor, who covets a pop-up book that Paddington (voiced again by Ben Whishaw, “Perfume”) has put on layaway at an antique shop for his aunt’s upcoming birthday. Buchanan stages a robbery at the shop and Paddington is falsely accused, arrested and sent to prison. Of course, the sweet and gentle bear quickly makes friends in the Big House, and inadvertently becomes part of an escape plot by some of the inmates. Meanwhile, Phoenix tries to piece together clues within the pilfered pop-up book that leads to a secret fortune. It’s a race against time as the Browns attempt to clear Paddington’s name by catching the real book thief and Paddington hopes his escape will allow him to find the thief as well.
The 2014 film, which starred Nicole Kidman as an evil taxidermist with designs on adding Paddington to her collection, combined live action and the flawlessly cute computer-generated bear, took in a whopping $267 million worldwide. Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, was pleased with the original film adaptation of his beloved literary character, first introduced in 1959 and appearing in numerous subsequent adventures. He saw parts of the sequel before he died last summer at age 91.
The two Hughs were joined at a press conference by returning director Paul King who co-wrote the screenplay with writer/actor Simon Farnaby, based on Bond’s collection of stories about a young bear that turns up at London’s Paddington train station and winds up being adopted by a family of humans. Sally Hawkins (“Shape of Water”), Julia Walters (“Billy Elliott”), Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin reprise their roles as members of the Brown household. The cast is seasoned with other venerable British actors including Peter Capaldi, Brendan Gleeson, Eileen Atkins and the voices of Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton. Grant was characteristically deadpan, poking gentle fun at the director and himself while Bonneville looked on, amused.
Q: What was the challenge of bringing this beloved literary character to the big screen for the first and now the second film?
King: We wanted to find a way for him to exist in the universe. Part of that was making the bear look as realistic as he could be. Another was making the world come to Paddington. We tried to make a heightened, sort of storybook, magical London where a bear walking down the street seems like the most natural thing in the world. There’s a sort of unreality that allows you to delve into this storybook world.
The pop-up book was an attempt to get into Paddington’s head. We have this high-tech wizardry but I also wanted to have this home-made low-fi feel to it as well. I didn’t want it to feel like you’re watching “Transformers 47.” With the pop-up book, everything you see in it is genuinely hand-painted. We tried to keep the special effects as organic as possible.
Q: Hugh G., did you base your character, Phoenix Buchanan, on any actors you know?
Grant: There’s a bit of me. My earliest jobs were in the theater, especially the provincial theater in England, and there were wonderful old boys who were like that. They were wearing grease paint, makeup and doing voice exercises just before the show and taking an enormous interest in the younger actors in their underwear.
Q: Do any of your friends or neighbors remind you of Paddington?
Grant: (deadpan) Yes, look at Paul.
King: Not physically.
Grant: Personality-wise as well. It’s quite spooky, really. That’s why the film is so good. It’s an autobiography, a heartfelt autobiography.
Q: Hugh B., since you didn’t know what Paddington would look like when you made the first film, was it easier coming back to do the second?
Bonneville: It made it easier knowing what you’d be projecting and using your imagination. Although we had a reference on the first film of what the bear was going to look like, we didn’t know if that was going to translate onto the screen. I’ll never forget the first clip I ever saw was when Paddington was in the bathroom and he stuck his head down the toilet, and I was so blown away by the quality of the CGI animation, it left me stunned. I hadn’t realized it was going to be that technically brilliant, and emotionally and visually real. On the second film, the animators have gone even further in terms of the subtlety and nuances of the character of the bear. So, to me, he seems entirely real.
Grant: At the London premiere, I took my 89-year-old father. Halfway through the film he turned to me and said, “Is that a real bear?”
Q: We don’t see you go over the top with a character like this too often.
Grant: Maybe “Nine Months?”
Q: Was this film more fun to do or was it a challenge?
Grant: I didn’t realize (my performance) was over the top, actually. I have almost bottomless reservoirs of what (the character) Phoenix has—self-regard, paranoia, loathing, all these things. It was lovely just to wade around in them like that. If I ever actually tried to be subtle or find psychological motivation for what I said or did, Paul (King) soon pooh-poohed that. He wasn’t interested in those things, just cheap laughs.
Q: Is there some stop-motion animation and time-lapse technology?
King: Some of the things that were tricky aren’t things you’d think were tricky, like the way Paddington’s fur vibrates when he’s holding the razor. It was insanely complicated. We started creating that scene in January but by June it looked dreadful, and then by September, it looked like he was in an earthquake. It was the last day of October, and the film was out in the U.K. on November 10, we finally found the right algorithm, the sign wave, that made his fur shake the way we wanted and his face looked right. What we all learned about from the first to the second was the character. This time around we had Ben Wishaw around from the start whereas in the last film we changed the voice about halfway through because we were still trying to find the character. So, knowing more about who Paddington was, was really the challenge.
(The animators) can create a bear but doing a bear acting well is the really difficult thing. The stillness is the hardest bit. There’s a shot where he’s in prison and a single tear goes down his snout and he’s hardly moving at all. For that to feel like he’s alive and it’s not just a freeze frame is so weirdly difficult. That shot is so emotional and he’s doing so little, and yet we all think it’s one of the best visual effects shots we’ve ever seen. I forget he’s not real and I’ve spent six hours a day looking at visual effects shots. So, I think they did an incredible job.
Q: Michael Bond’s Paddington stories are beloved by generations of fans. How did you put your own spin on the story for this film?
Farnaby: I helped out with the first one so I knew the world. Paul asked me to come and write the second one. I was a bit nervous because I wanted to be useful. Early on, we came to the engines of the films. We knew we were going to send him to prison. Here we have this sweet bear with his wonderful values and kindness and looking for the good in people, so let’s do the worst thing to him without killing him, which is send him to prison. Once we had those beats, we were up and running and had the sequel.
Q: You have a cameo in the film, right?
Farnaby: Yeah, my character is a guard that has a penchant for men dressed as ladies. Once we had Hugh Grant disguised as a nun, there was only one man for the job.
Q: Paddington author Michael Bond died before you finished this film. What would he think of it?
Bonneville: He passed away on our last day of filming which was poignant, but he had been a father figure not only to Paddington but also to the first (film) project and the second as well. His daughter, Karen Jankel, passed the family’s verdict onto the movie.
King: (Bond’s death) was incredibly sad. One of the things that gave me such pleasure with the first film was having Michael watching it. I had spent about five years working on it, but he had spent 55 years writing the Paddington stories. It was in his soul. When I got the call from one of the producers that he loved it, I doubled over and was so relieved. That was the only audience I cared about because he was like Paddington’s dad. He was like a member of their family. He was so pleased with the success of the first film, and the fact that the film was true to the spirit of his creation, so it meant a huge amount to me that he was so happy. It was sad that he never got a chance to see (the sequel). We showed him a few sequences, which he really liked but never got a chance to see the finished film. I hope, wherever he is, he is smiling down on our creation.
Q: Hugh, you’ve played a lot of different roles over the years. What has been the most favorite character you’ve played? What’s on your bucket list of roles to play?
Grant: (deadpan) It’s very nice of you to say that I’ve played lots of roles when we all know I’ve only played one. I’m not enjoying any of them; I hate my job. That’s a simple answer. Is there something I’d like to play? No. Afraid not. I always hope the phone will not ring.
Q: How do you see those religious references in the film giving the message of love thy neighbor?
King: We found this incredible song that perfectly encapsulated the message of the film. Paddington has this amazing set of values that he’s inherited from his aunt—to be kind and to always look for the good in people. What we were interested in doing with this film was testing him. He’s not a flawed character; he’s a noble character, which is unusual for a film hero. So, we wanted to see how his values would withstand the cynical, real world. Simon Farnaby and I were enormously inspired by Frank Capra’s 1930s films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” where the main characters have what may seem these naïve, old fashioned values and they end up in this big, bustling modern workplace. It seems to work just as well today. Does he lose faith in those values? And will he try and fight for them? The joy of the film is that it turns out to be entirely justified. That message and those values are absolutely important.
Q: What about creating the villain in this, Phoenix Buchanan?
King: We wanted a villain who is the antithesis of everything that Paddington is. Paddington is kind and does good turns without thinking twice about it and thinks of other people. And the villain is narcissistic and inward-looking, but he’s a successful, famous and handsome man. Paddington is this little bear, so it felt like a lovely juxtaposition.
Q: For audiences who stay through the credits, there’s a fun musical production number with Hugh Grant. Was it always planned to run through the credits or was it meant to be shown during the film?
King: We always wanted it to be in the credits. From Day 2, we felt that the (final) hug was the end of the film.
Farnaby: It wasn’t always going to be a song either. It was originally going to be (Phoenix) acting out “Hamlet,” with all the prisoners performing it dreadfully. Then, it became a musical number.
King: (deadpan) That’s why we cast Hugh (Grant), one of the world’s greatest singers and song-and-dance man.
Q: Hugh, did you enjoy doing the musical number?
Grant: (deadpan) No.
King: We shot that on Hugh’s first day on set. We were quite nervous because here we have this big movie star, ad we wanted to make him happy because he has weeks of work to do, and we ended up shooting about 18-1/2 hours straight. (He laughs.) He was all harnessed up and wearing these Uber-type pink sequined trousers.
Grant: Yeah. I hated Paul very much. No, I’m extremely proud of my song and dance number. If I had my way, it would be the law that theater owners in this country and around the world would not be allowed to bring the lights up before we’ve had the song-and-dance number. In fact, if anyone decides to leave their seats, including children, they would get electrocuted.
Q: Why are the values of the Browns so important to teaching generosity in today’s families?
Bonneville: Paddington shows us that acts of kindness go a long way. Courtesy and mutual respect still count for a huge amount. We’ve all been a Paddington, at times. We’ve all been strangers in a strange place and needed the kindness of strangers to get us through, whether taking on a new role, a new job, moving to a new city or a new school. If we can, in any way, reach the simple qualities of courtesy and kindness, then that is a pretty good place to be. Audiences will come out of the movie feeling a little better about the world, and I think that’s a nice thing to be part of.