The unlikely adventures of Paddington 2 creator Paul King
Endearing, unassuming and in 'perpetual crisis', he spun Paddington into the UK's biggest- grossing film but shares a lot with the little bear who made his name
He is currently the hottest property in British film but, at first glance, you wouldn't peg Paul King, director of Paddington 2, as a powerbroker.
For one thing, his body language is pure humility - rounded shoulders, hands wedged meekly between his knees. He's wearing an outfit you might describe as adorably off-beat - navy cords, a school-uniform-grey cardigan, and a pink shirt printed with teeny tiny cartoon mushrooms. He has a long, dishwater-brown forelock of hair that falls in front of his clear blue eyes and a softness in his face that would melt a mother's heart.
Hugh Bonneville, whom he has directed in both Paddington movies he has helmed, said of him, "he is Paddington Bear, basically." And it has to be said there is a certain cuddliness about King. "I do feel pretty close to him," he says of the bear who has made his name.
I meet him in a suite on the 36th floor of London's Shard. We sit side by side on a sofa facing a wall-sized window, rendered speechless for a moment by the jaw-dropping view of the city below.
Despite his unassuming bearing, there must be a quiet audacity lurking somewhere in Paul King's soul. How else to explain how he managed to engineer his leap from being a largely untested director with only one art-house flop, Bunny and the Bull, to his name, to the man behind the biggest grossing non-Hollywood film of all time in one deft move. Though warmly received by critics, King's debut feature was not a commercial success. "It lost every penny it cost to make," he says. "I'm very glad that Paddington 1 didn't match Bunny's box office, or I would definitely not be sitting here today."
The Paddington movie was in development when he read about it on the BBC website, "and I really wanted to go for it", he says. "For some reason I just immediately felt, 'I could do that', and I don't really know why. I think more than anything I was just worried that somebody else would mess it up and make it awful. And that he would be, you know, break-dancing and just awful and it would be Hollywood-ised and just dreadful."
Certainly his possession of a certain cosy, rumpled quintessential Britishness meant he already had a feel for the tone. And though he was born in Winchester and grew up in a village in Scotland, he has a deep love for London, which is as much a star of the film as the bear. "I came back to London after university," he says. "And strangely felt I'd come home."
"We wanted to see the London that you dream of," he says of the world of the film. "And obviously London house prices are famously comedic and nobody is really living in these enormous houses... but it's the London that exists in your heart from Mary Poppins or Peter Pan."
Though he was instantly confident he had what it takes to transfer Paddington from the cherished children's books by Michael Bond to the big screen, his hiring was a bit of a wild-card choice. Besides Bunny and the Bull, he was perhaps better known in television circles, for his work directing the absurdist comedy series The Mighty Boosh, for which he won his first Bafta nomination. "I'd done the Boosh and I'd done some talking animals and I'd done some comedy and I really had this sense of how it should be," he says.
It was on that basis that he managed to swing a meeting with producer David Heyman, the man who shepherded the legend that is Harry Potter from book to screen, and who, he says "is an extraordinary producer with a track record of taking a punt on people who haven't proved themselves on that scale before".
Eventually, he won Heyman's trust. "After about 25 interviews and a year-long process", admittedly. "But I eventually convinced him that I would be able to handle it."
King grew up with the marmalade-loving bear. "I had a Paddington, which I still have," he says, "who is dressed in clothes I wore at that age. Given he's only about 2ft tall, I must have been very, very small when I liked Paddington. I read the books and I hugely enjoyed them."
But it was only when he came back to the stories as an adult that he really appreciated their richness - their profound and universal human themes. "I think one of the things that is so lovely about him - that he's the little bear trying to make it in the big world and to hold on to his sense of self. And I think one of the things that is universal about Paddington is this feeling that he's making his way, the visual metaphor of the small cub in the big city is very clear, but I think we're all like that, from the first day at school or playgroup to the first day in a new job, or coming up The Shard for the first time," he says, gesturing at the whole of London, laid out below our feet. "And just sort of hoping to navigate things, and making lots of mistakes along the way and hoping the world will greet you with enough kindness to put you back on your feet, and I think one of the reassuring things about Paddington is that it generally does. Which is rather lovely."
It is a description which mirrors quite neatly his adventures in big-budget cinema. He was pretty much green coming to the first Paddington film and, as if that wasn't adventure enough, shooting was fraught with problems, all followed closely by the press, and a defensive British public anxious about this new imagining of a national icon. Halfway through filming, it was announced that Colin Firth, the big-name star who had been cast to voice the bear, was leaving the project. "We got the voice wrong to begin with," King says. "What Colin was doing was great, but it didn't quite match the bear. And we had this animation and there were some very tricky corners to negotiate, where you sort of go, 'I think I may be screwing this up, and it doesn't work'." (Firth was replaced by the much younger Ben Whishaw.)
Luckily for him, on set he was among friends. "Having somebody like David (Heyman) who can go, well maybe we can do this, maybe we can do that, and to see paths through, is brilliant. That said, I think the whiff of the world, the sensibility of what Paddington's London should be like, and the sort of performances and the sort of style of the film, was pretty clear in my head from very early on, that I wanted to do a sort of Chaplin-esque mixture of slapstick and heart, in a kind of Genet-inspired London. And some of those very early references you sort of cling to, because you go, well what would Chaplin do? Is this too mawkish and sentimental? No, because he would do that. And is this too silly? And is this too heightened? No, I think Genet might film Paddington Station like this. And if you can hold onto that sort of smell of it, I think that's really important. You are the custodian of the tone as the director, and there are a million ways of filming London. To just hold in your head, well I think it should be this angle rather than that angle, is really what it's about."
Did he suffer a crisis of confidence at any point? He smiles wryly. "I think I am in perpetual crisis, so I don't think I ever get confident about everything."
It must be nice then, to be bolstered and supported by the talented people who surround him. He is married to the milliner and artist Eloise Moody, who designed Paddington's hat for the film. "She made all the bear hats. Deep nepotism," he quips before thinking better of it. "That sounds terrible, like she didn't deserve it! She's also a world-class hat-maker," he hurries to add.
King's route to film was through comedy and theatre. "I always fancied being a film director. I didn't really fancy acting for some reason, and it sounded like a cool job. I definitely grew up reading film magazines and watching lots of films and thinking it was a very exciting world. But at the time there wasn't a huge British film industry and it seemed very alien and unachievable.
"I fell in love with theatre as a teenager and started doing school plays and going to see lots of plays and then did that through university. And then did comedy afterwards," he says.
He studied English at Cambridge. There, just like the creators of Monty Python decades before, he fell in with a little clique of future talent, including Richard Ayoade, Matthew Holness and Alice Lowe, all of whom have gone on to build successful careers in comedy. Together, they devised a show, Garth Marenghi, which became a Channel 4 TV series. He became a known face on the comedy scene at the time, through which he met Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh. "When they were looking for a director for their TV show, they asked me. So the first thing I got to direct was the Boosh really, who were absolute comic heroes of mine and whose material I loved. And obviously they are a boundlessly inventive pair of writers. So I was very lucky at a comparatively young age to work with real talents on a project which let you let rip with your imagination. And went from there."
He came of age as a director in a special little pocket of talent emerging at the time. "There was a cross-fertilisation of ideas, and you see each other's stuff and you talk to each other... and that's a very nice collegiate atmosphere I think, and very good for being funny, to feel like you are with like- minded souls and trying to build a world view of things that you find funny and strange. And it was a good time for BBC3 as well who were taking risks. There was a little pot of money to make these quite strange shows. It was a good time."
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