Looking at your earlier work, you’re not the most obvious choice to head up a Beatrix Potter adaptation. So why Peter Rabbit?
Why me Peter Rabbit? Because my parents read me Peter Rabbit when I was a kid. My dad’s name is Peter. He loved the character so much, and I loved it. When I had kids I read it to my kids and I realised how much I’d loved it when I was a kid, and I thought hey, this could be fun, to take this character, this little bit that Beatrix Potter did, and expand it into a movie. We were lucky enough to get the rights to it, and with their consultation, we did it.
It’s not the most obvious jump.
You know what happened? Kids happened. I think I always change depending on what I’m doing in my life and when you have kids you realise that that’s the most important thing and I wanted to do a movie with them and for them. It’s just fun coming home every day and talking about what you’re doing with them, do that’s why I did it.
Did you find you had to adjust your narrative or authorial voice for the material?
I approached this movie the same way I approached every other one of my movies. Even though it was CGI I approached it as a live action movie – I didn’t change it at all. The only kind of difference is that I showed this movie, before I realised it, to many, many, many more people than I usually do, to make sure that certain things I didn’t think of wouldn’t rub people the wrong way – although I missed one big one! I usual screen a movie quite a bit, but I really screened this one – in different parts of the country, of the world, to see how it would be reacted to.
Was it a challenge to adjust Beatrix Potter’s literature to the demands of the feature film form?
Yeah well, this is based on The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book which would take you 17 seconds to read if you had a phone call in the middle of it. There’s not much to it. So we took everything that happened and then we put him in a new adventure as well. We didn’t really change it, we just kind of gave him more of an adventure based on what we thought was his character. But the whole way we were conscious of Beatrix Potter, and what she would do in this situation. Which we were guessing, because nobody knows.
Were you very conscious of tone? Potter’s work has a very wistful watercolour kind of mood to it.
You know, she was very dark. She was a very dark writer and a very ironic writer – people tend to forget that. On the third page of the children’s story you find out that Peter’s father was put in a pie and eaten and you see the fork and knife. She has stuff in her books about rabbit tobacco, meaning lavender. If you read it again to your kids, everybody has the same reaction – whoa, these are much darker! In Johnny Town Mouse she had a big contempt for the city. Jemima Puddle Duck does things wrong and she wants to punish that character. She was much less saccharine than people remember she was, which is what attracted me again to her material when I read it to my kids. There’s a little bit of mis-remembering of Beatrix Potter.
How did you go about assembling your human cast?
So, I’d worked with Rose [Byrne, who plays Beatrix] before, we’re friends, and I’d wanted her to play Bea from the beginning and she was nice enough to say yes, so we wrote that for her. And with Domhnall [Gleeson] as the young Mr. McGregor, we needed someone who could be the protagonist, the antagonist, the enemy, the person who falls in love with the person we love – it’s a very tricky role that he plays in this movie. And he had to be really, really funny as he did it, but the funny had to come from a real place. I’ve been a huge fan of Domhnall’s from Ex Machina, for About Time, and the Star Wars stuff – and he’d done a lot of sketch comedy before that time, so I knew he was a guy who could do it all. And he’s also an actor who throws himself into the role, so we were very lucky.
And you’ve got Sam Neill in there as the old Mr. McGregor.
Sam! My favourite! People don’t even realise it’s Sam Neill! He really threw himself into it. It was 40 degrees when we shot those scenes and he was in a huge fat-suit, and it was so hot that we had to build an air conditioning unit into the suit, so every time we yelled cut the guys would run in with the tube and shove it right in there to cool him down!
You’re working with human actors and an immense amount of CGI. How did you represent the CGI elements on the practical sets?
Shorthand is that they have to act with facsimiles to things, so stuffed animals, guys in blue suits, tennis balls and sticks, lights, puffs of air – not only do they have to act themselves but they have to create the character they’re acting against. It’s super difficult and as a director it’s kind of like a mime puzzle to figure out, and as an actor it’s doubly difficult, especially in the scene with Domhnall when he has the big fight with Peter.
That scene was basically on the complete utter expertise of Animal Logic, the visual effects house that did that, and the effects supervisor, WIll Reichelt, who mapped the whole thing out. That was done in five days in a little teeny cottage that we built, with rain coming down because it was raining in that scene. Every time we did something I had no idea if it was gonna work. It’s a combination of VFX – Animal Logic being able to figure it out – and Domhnall being able to react to things that are not there.
You forget after about the fifth minute of this movie that all the animals are computer generated, and in that moment, and in the emotional moments with Peter at the end, the audience has completely given up the fact that there are just ones and zeroes up there on the screen.
Peter Rabbit is in cinemas now.
Pic: By Felix Kirng – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38730445