'Christopher Robin' Screenwriter Allison Schroeder On Writing Pooh-Isms And The Works Of A.A. Milne [Interview]

Writer Allison Schroeder sure knows how to write a real deal feel-good movie. The screenwriter behind last year's monster hit, Hidden Figures, and the co-writer of this year's delightful Disney reimagining, Christopher Robin, can seamlessly pull at the heart strings with big or small fireworks, whether in a major tearjerker scene or during a tender moment between two characters sitting on a log. There's a refreshing earnestness to the Oscar nominee's work, which rings especially true in her elegantly simple and heartfelt adaptation of A.A. Milne's classic stories.

When Schroeder's name appears in the opening credits of Christopher Robin alongside Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth), you know right away the iconic characters are in good hands. Schroeder recently told us a bit about her work with the director, being inspired by Milne's words and stories, the trick of writing Pooh-isms, and her first job in the business, working on Pineapple Express.

Where did you begin when you were hired? Did you first immediately go back to A.A. Milne's writing? 

Of course. I think we were trying to put in any reference we really could, especially for the fans and the people that grew up loving Pooh. Even down to the signs you see in the Hundred Acre Wood or Pooh's little song, you know, we were constantly referring back to A.A. Milne and what nods we could make.

I got some of the big nods, but are there any deep cuts, nods it'd take a diehard fan to spot? 

Probably the sign at the bottom heffalump pit. You'd really have to know what that is, and woozles I think you'd have to be a fan to know exactly what they look like. Another nod I don't think everyone got was his co-workers, his business workers, actually represented the Hundred Acre Wood characters. The man with the glasses, and the guy who's always down is Eeyore. Each represents Hundred Acre Wood character.

There's some really lovely images in this movie, like Pooh and Christopher Robin on the log together. For you, what were the pivotal visual moments on the page? 

That was definitely one, and I actually saw a photograph of it, the special spot, where they were going to shoot it, and the bridge. So they were definitely in my head, and the train station. Just that imagery of the war, coming home with it, and being on the train with it. It's just the idea of travel and the tree. I was really lucky they went and shot where the Hundred Acre Wood were inspired. I didn't get to see all of it, but it inspired us so much we had so many scenes in the Hundred Acre Wood we had to pick and choose which ones to use and show.

There's a very effective simplicity to the story; it's not busy or overly crowded with plot and it's characters who need to get to where they're going. Is it easier or more difficult when you're working with a more simple narrative than a movie that requires more exposition?

It's very hard. It's just less formulaic and you don't have a villain where you have to save the world from a bomb by defeating so-and-so. You kind of know the formula for that, so we had to dig deeper into the storytelling. The thing about Pooh, and the thing that makes it tricky, is the stories are so simple, so humble, and so sweet, and so relatable, so how do you still resonate with modern day audiences who are used to really big stakes? That's why we had to lean into the everyday moments and nostalgia and character beats, where we really feel Christopher Robin lost and really feel his joy in finding his friend. It takes a lot more exploration, actually.

What was it like writing the Christopher Robin in the first half? I like how cruel he can be to Pooh, but was there a certain line you couldn't cross?

We were very careful about it, and it was a line we walked constantly. We ultimately realized he wasn't this way because he was the boss or nasty CEO, but more in the middle and caught. He does care deeply for his office and doesn't want to lay anyone off, but at the same time, he didn't want the whole company to go down either. I think it was the idea of when a lot of us just feel helpless and aren't the top decision makes and can't change the world on our own. It's, what can I do? How can I fix things? You can really get dragged down by that in life, so even though he's cold at first, we tried to make it so you can understand he was a good guy, but he didn't know how to be the hero anymore. He wanted to be the hero, but he'd just forgotten.

When Pooh asks Christopher Robin if he let him go, it's a little heartbreaking. How did that moment come about? 

That line came up pretty naturally for me. A lot of the work I did was in act two and what was the journey. I realized the first thing that needs to happen is Christopher needs to lose Pooh again, but then try to actively find him and recognize the loss. When he talks about having to let people go, I remember turning it in and everybody just being like, that's staying. It just took a little bit to get into the head of Pooh, A.A. Milne, and what the tone was and what his jokes would be as an efficiency manager. Of course, it leads to that scene on the log where he says to Christopher Robin where he says, "I found you," which I think is another really sweet moment in the film.

Absolutely. How did you get into the head of A.A. Milne? How do you want to capture the spirit or tone of his language?

Well, it was so interesting, because it's hard to be simple and profound. You have to do very simple things, but they have to have a greater meaning. I remember after doing drafts and drafts of this movie, I kept saying, "We need a Pooh-ism, a Pooh-ism to sum up this movie." I would read through every page, and there wasn't one that was perfect, so I wrote, "Doing nothing often leads to the best something." I thought they realized that I made up that Pooh-ism, but when we were on set and saw it one of the picture, I said, "You guys know that wasn't A.A. Milne, right?" They were like, "No! Really?" It took a while to channel A.A. Milne and, yeah, getting that dialogue was tricky, but ultimately, I think we did a pretty good job. I hope we did.

[Laughs] There's something very zen about that and Pooh. I thought some hippies were definitely going to connect with that belief.

I read all the philosophy books on Pooh-ism to channel [him]. I remember when I was trying to wrap my brain around it, someone asked me what I was doing and I said, "Pooh-isms. I gotta come up with Pooh-isms." [Laughs] Definitely spoke in Pooh-isms for a few months.

Christopher Robin Trailer

The handling of magical realism in the movie actually reminded me one of my favorite movies, Harvey. You had a lot of source material to look at it, but were there maybe any movies you thought of as references?

I think everyone thought of Hook a little bit, and I definitely thought of [Pixar's] Up, and the magical realism in that. At the end of the day, we just kept going and going back to the books. Oh, and Big Fish was another one, obviously because of Ewan. I think we just kept looking at the images that had been drawn over the years by Disney and kept that as our touch point.

I thought of a Ewan McGregor movie during Christopher Robin, too, but it was T2: Trainspotting. Both deal with the passing with time and friends reuniting, there's some funny similarities to me. 

[Laughs] It's been a long time since I've seen Trainspotting, I'll admit that, but there were certainly moments where you'd see Ewan and think of all of the roles that came before and just smiled at, here he was with Winnie the Pooh.

And of all references, the movie has a Gladiator reference. The fact that Marc Forster added that, it just gives the movie even more personality. 

Marc has a great droll sense of humor, and it was something we would work on. He likes the slapstick silent film sort of humor, and that's how we came up with gags like shelves collapsing and Christopher Robin staring at it. It had to be very visual humor and very dry humor. It was fun to work with Marc. I like working with someone who knows exactly what he wants.

When you write a Disney movie, do you consider at all the studio's legacy and hallmarks and what people expect from a Disney movie?

I was going 90 mph at the time, and I try not to think too big. I try to think about the page. I am someone inherently who always wants to write a happy ending, and inherently want to look for the good in people. Luckily, that's just the projects I'm drawn to, which is very Disney. You probably won't finding me writing one about really horrible people and terrible violence. I just wouldn't know what to do. I think whenever you step into these characters, there is a certain weight and a certain pressure you don't want to let people down. I would say, there was a lot of love poured into this script. I cared so very much about it. It was my first really big studio film, and it was an amazing experience. I really didn't want to mess it up [Laughs].

[Laughs] How did it compare to your past experiences?

Well, Hidden Figures started out as a little indie. It was just [producer] Donna [Gigiliotti] and I, and nobody thought it would be anything. With this one, whole team was already assembled, we were in pre-production, and there were images already coming in, so it was so much realer, in a way, and more tangible, that I knew from the get-go what the expectations were for this, and I was trying to live up to them.

As you said, you were moving at 90 mph on this project, so what was your writing schedule like on Christopher Robin?

I did a draft every week for 12 weeks. We would be in a room and I would turn in pieces constantly, bits and pieces from acts, and we'd go back-and-forth. It was nonstop fun of writing hundreds of pages for about three or four months, and then I went to set. Actually, in post-production once the animals started coming to life in CGI, we realized there was so much more we could do with them, so I'd be in the edit bay writing and adding little jokes and little bits.

A lot of time on features as a writer, your job is done and you say goodbye, but on this, I was with it until the final cut of the film. That collaboration was something I hadn't experienced as much. I really appreciated the producers Kristian Burr and Brigham Taylor, Marc Forster, and our executive [producer] Renée Wolfe, it was the most collaborative group I've ever been a part of. It reminded me of a theater in a way: all for one, one for all. I think that's the healthiest way to do a movie, taking an idea from anywhere it comes.

Were there every any moments where you thought of a line or moment, but then realized, you couldn't do that with these characters? Not in a bad way, but was there ever anything that just wouldn't feel right for Pooh and these characters?

I think a modern language, which we kept pulling back. Honestly, some of the concepts or the antagonism would get too big, so we'd have to keep reminded ourselves to keep it small and stay to the truth of the characters. You'd think about a big mudslide and it's huge catastrophe, but then we'd say, a mudslide in Hundred Acre Wood, it's just a tiny little fly with tiny little characters. That's actually how we came up with the moment where he jumps in the river, and the twist is, it's not a huge rabid river. In his imagination and from when he was a kid, it was bigger. We had to subvert some action tropes, like, how would it be done in Hundred Acre Wood?

I want to ask you about another movie you worked on, one of my favorite movies I've seen in a theater, Pineapple Express, which recently turned 10 years old. Looking back, what do you remember from that experience?

[Laughs]  That was my first job in the business. I remember creating root beer float day as a PA, that was my big thing. I remember just laughing at all the hysterical things I was buying or getting from the set. You know, "Can you go get a soft vacuum cleaner? A really soft vacuum cleaner." OK, sure. That was just a very fun first job.

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Christopher Rob is now available on home video.