How Indie Mainstay Alex Ross Perry Came to Write 'Christopher Robin'
Alex Ross Perry has, to put it lightly, an unorthodox résumé for a writer on an all-ages Disney movie. The indie writer-director and sometimes actor has become a film festival mainstay for penning stridently unlikable characters (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth), homages to Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon (The Color Wheel, Impolex) and an infamous incest scene (The Color Wheel). Sure, he once directed a music video for the rock duo Aly & AJ, who have worked on Disney projects, but that’s about as close as Perry came to catering to a juvenile audience before writing Christopher Robin, which bowed Friday.
As it turns out, his writing credit on Disney’s latest live-action adaptation stems from a fairly on-brand project: a failed attempt to make a movie about animatronic toy bear Teddy Ruxpin. Perry was “fruitlessly” attempting to get the rights to the character for a stop-motion animation project in 2014 when his agent asked if he would be interested in chatting with a producer who was seeking writers on a Winnie the Pooh movie. Perry — who says he loved the show Welcome to Pooh Corner as a child — jumped at the chance.
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The resulting film (whose script was also co-written by Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder) has at least a few familiar Perry touches: It was inspired by the 1979 political satire Being There in addition to A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh books and centers on an adult man’s “alienation” and resulting quixotic journey from a city to the countryside, a recurring theme in Perry’s more adult films. Before Christopher Robin’s release, The Hollywood Reporter talked to Perry about Roth, writing happy endings and his upcoming film Her Smell.
I feel like I have to start a little off-topic, which is with the death of Philip Roth in late May. So many of your films are inspired by Roth or are a little Rothian. How did you take the news?
I was pretty shocked. I mean, he was an old man, so it's a little less shocking than when someone who is younger and slightly more publicly active suddenly passes away, but it's shocking because I feel like as recently as the winter he was kind of out in public. Not literally, but he was giving interviews in The New York Times or writing little pieces or talking about The Plot Against America in relation to current political situation, so it seemed like he was still kind of around. It's very sad, but I'm always happy when somebody passes away leaving behind a life that is just irrefutably something that nobody could possibly top.
So, to switch back to Christopher Robin …
It's all connected.
I would love to talk about that. People I’ve talked to who have seen your previous films are a bit perplexed about how you got involved with this project. So, how did you get involved?
After my movie Listen Up Phillip was at Sundance in January 2014, I delivered to my agents a dossier of sorts that contained a laundry list and breakdown of all the kinds of projects I would be interested in. One of the projects in the document was my lifelong dream of tracking down the rights to and making a stop-motion animated movie about Teddy Ruxpin, a very important figure and character in my life and in my childhood. Long story short, it's now August, September and we spent six months completely, fruitlessly chasing this. It's just this total dead end, it's never going to happen.
My agent — Craig Kestel at WME — also represents my friend David Lowery, who at the time was in the process of making Pete's Dragon. In the midst of Teddy Ruxpin, he says, “Kind of out of the blue, and I never would have thought of you for this, but the fact that we've been chasing this Ruxpin property for six months, would you want to get on the phone with a producer who's hearing pitches from writers about a new Winnie the Pooh movie he wants to make?” And I said right away, “If there's anything that would mean more to me than Ruxpin, it's this. Yes. Get me on the phone with him.” That was, like, four years ago, like, the fall of 2014. And one thing led to another.
It really comes from this weird desire to [realize] weird ideas you have, things that clearly are not in your existing work but that you want to try to do. And then working with people who like connecting the dots and seeing what your peers have gone on to do and don’t write anybody off from wanting to write or make studio entertainment because they've made this specific kind of independent film. That desire is invisible until you find it in somebody.
It’s the kind of thing where I think I have this very specific relationship to the material, and then I learn talking to every person I've met for the last four years everybody has this relationship to this material. Everybody has these memories of these books, the Disney shorts and the feature that comprises the three initial Disney shorts.
Everybody comes from a different perspective of what the seminal pieces in the Pooh canon were for them. So for me, in the '80s, I was very into the puppetry show called Welcome to Pooh Corner, which, in a weird twist of fate, had animatronics designed by Ken Forsse, the designer of Teddy Ruxpin. I really liked the look and feel of the giant animatronic puppets. Currently in my own home, I've retrieved my childhood Eeyore that I won at a library contest, and I have a Pooh from the '70s or '80s as well.
Unlike Teddy Ruxpin, where you have to occasionally pause and explain what it is, saying “Winnie the Pooh” is just an instant look on people's face: It's one of the most universally acknowledged, recognized, cherished and beloved characters.
I'm assuming that this movie is hoping to reach a really wide demographic, whereas I'm not supposing a lot of children went to go see The Color Wheel. How did it affect your writing style to be writing for both kids and adults?
That was a Brigham [Young] — Christopher Robin’s producer — conversation with me. One of Brigham's visions, which he said to me when we were on a call in October 2014, was, “I want to take Pooh out of school,” which I thought was a very clear directive. The 2011 animated film, which is lovely and as simple and elegant as can be, continues a 20-year trend that you see in things like the Tigger movie or the Piglet movie that infantilizes these characters as much as possible, to the point where seemingly no one over the age of 6 could have a relationship with the material. And of course with these Disney live-action movies, whether they are Beauty and the Beat, Maleficent or Pete's Dragon, the goal is to find a way to make these stories reach a broader audience than people under the age of 8. That was something we took very seriously. That really just meant looking at the books every day, of course, but also approaching the story from the perspective of influences like Being There rather than from influences that are more traditionally thought of as something aimed at a toddler.
Besides Being There and the work of A.A. Milne, what were some of your influences on the script?
The movies that Brigham and I relied on very heavily early in the process were Being There first and foremost; Regarding Henry we looked at for the father relationship. In terms of the tone, relentless pace of storytelling and visual information that you can't aspire to unless you're in this league, which I'm not, we looked at Fantastic Mr. Fox quite a bit. Which is to me as good as that kind of thing gets — a 90-minute movie that, when I got to look at the script for it, I couldn’t even believe you could write that much information and know that it's going to be executed that way.
Ultimately, in talking about the man-in-a-flannel-suit kind of predicament, we were just talking about Carey Grant movies [like] Holiday and Monkey Business, about this guy who works at this drab office and all of a sudden his entire life is upended by all this madcap zaniness. So ultimately we were looking at anything with a guy like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart and thinking about what that tone was and how classic and how fun it is, and thinking of Christopher as that kind of a guy.
A challenge — or maybe an opportunity — here is that Christopher Robin only appears as a child in the books, and your task is to imagine him as an adult. How did you go about doing that?
I wouldn't have thought that I could have brought anything to this movie other than pantomime were it not for the fact that adult core of the story is, for my money, what most of my movies are about anyway. Looking at something like Christopher's alienation — he’s in this relationship, and he's not seeing his family as much as he should be and it's creating difficulty in the home, and he has this idea of going out to the country, the Hundred Acre Wood, to solve his problems — it’s almost the same basic premise as Listen Up Philip. It's a guy who's trapped in the city, feels like things aren't working out, and then meets this character who, in the case of Listen Up Phillip, is a writer he'd admired for years, and in the case of Christopher Robin is a childhood friend he's not seen for many years. Both of these new elements, which occur at roughly the same page mark, create a scenario where the main character has an opportunity to leave the city and in doing shake up their life. It's not that I'm copying myself, I just had a very clear in as to what this movie would be about from the adult, human perspective.
Characters in your indie work are not sympathetic in the traditional sense, and they don’t always end the film having learned a lesson. Did you feel an edict to have a tidy conclusion to this pic, given that this is a Disney movie?
Of course, that goes with the territory. When you hear "a Disney movie," as an audience member you can tell what the resolution's going to be. But I want to learn how to turn on that dime in the third act as a writer; I wanted to learn how to create that [conclusion] in a way that actually makes sense, because it's not inherent to my own brain and thought process. I wanted to do it because 90 percent of the movies I watch are that.
As an educational experience, trying to do that was a bit intense. Not only did it enhance my appreciate of other movies, but it's improved my writing since then. The benefit is that you don't have to think of what that this [resolution] is — it's a Disney movie: Whatever my problem was on page two, I'm wrong about that and I know that now. You don't have to invent the lesson that the character learned; you just have to know that whatever that lesson is, it's only to reinforce a positive sense of love, growth, togetherness, family, friendship and stability. I just had to think: How do you get there in a way that feels real?
You've been on projects on so many levels — how does writing the material and handing it off to Young and director Marc Forster and others change your relationship to the final product?
Well, I haven't seen the final product, so I don't know. But when I saw cuts of it earlier in the year, ultimately my perspective was that I love seamless, clockwork, efficient studio blockbuster entertainment. I love it and I go see it and I support it. And every time Brigham and I would sit down on the phone or sit down and talk, we would spend the first hour and a half of our day talking about whatever movie we had most recently seen. When he was in New York for an intensive week on the script, we spent two and a half hours talking about Civil War before we did anything, and it was like 1 p.m. before we started work. To be a part of something that I acknowledge is so vastly huge and important to so many people, not just for what the characters mean but also in terms of the stakes involved in making a movie of this size, my attitude now is just as it was when it was just me and Brigham working on this.
Having worked on this, do you want to do something for a mass audience anytime soon?
Well, it depends. I've been searching for and trying to find other jobs and opportunities either with Disney, Brigham and Kristin [Burr, Christopher Robin’s producer] or anything else that is out there. The amount that I learned from Brigham and Kristin and Jess [Virtue, overseeing for Disney] over the years was so profound, I want to keep putting myself in situations where I can be getting a job that I care about, want to be the best movie that it can be and is basically functioning as an educational program for me and is affecting the way that I look at my own work. Because this taught me that I have more to learn, and it's really fun to learn, and it was fun write a movie that needs to function for an 8-year-old and for someone hopefully like myself, someone in their early 30s and loves the character and doesn't have kids.
[But] I do feel like if this is the only thing like this I ever do, it's a perfect one-and-done. I certainly could do no better in terms of prolificness or excitement or importance of reintroducing Winnie the Pooh to audiences in a brand-new way for the first time in a generation.
I get sent scripts that are looking for a rewrite or a page-one rewrite and studio movies and more often than not the question is, what is the point? Why bother to make this movie? Considering that you're spending four years on something if you're writing it, from conceiving of it to releasing it, it would be a real drag if that was anything other than something where I was like, “Yeah I believe so strongly that this process has to happen so that the world gets to see this movie.”
On that note, are you still working on Her Smell?
I am — I'm in the editing room right now.
Anything else coming up?
I don't know. There are jobs, which are nice. I will say that making Her Smell has been the most exhausting process of any of my own movies I've ever undertaken by leaps and bounds. Afterwards, I don't really know what I can do. I spent like all of 2016 and 2017 sitting in my house writing, and the fruits of that are just all coming out at the same time in terms of Christopher Robin, finishing Her Smell after shooting it earlier this year and whatnot. As soon as Her Smell is finished, I will probably spend most of the next two years doing the same thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
by Graeme McMillan