Paul King: What I learned writing ‘Paddington’ by Cassi Camilleri

By Cassi Camilleri 

Stories are trial and error, and that is a maxim writer director Paul King practically opens this session from the London Screenwriters’ Festival with.

There is an awareness of the tribulations (Paul uses apt descriptors such as ‘agony’, ‘painful’ and ‘tearful’) that the craft brings with it that is refreshing.

Even more invigorating are some of the exercises and revelations he blows through in quick succession through this whirlwind of a talk. Here are three I thought were particularly wonderful.  

1. Start with what you like.  

From the very first meetings, to the messy middle where Paul threw away all the work done and started over three times, down to the reshoots, the thing Paul was constantly asking himself was ‘what do you like?’ and ‘why?’

He used those as references to hone in on the tone and feeling of what he wanted his film to be. His pitch ended up being something along the lines of; ‘It should be the story of an outsider coming to London with the emotional integrity of a Pixar movie, the comedy and heart of a Chaplin movie, set in the visual world of Amélie.’

Now, this exercise has become an important part of his process. ‘Write a single side of A4 listing what you hope the film will be. […] A few words that capture the spirit of what you want to do.’ He would go back time and time again to remind himself what it was that excited him about the project in the first place. Something like a north star.  

2. Story opportunities may be disguised.  

In adapting Paddington for the big screen, Paul dove deep into the source material, reading all the books and becoming something of an expert on the topic. It was then that he realised his unique challenge with the project.

The stories were five minute episodes, domestic in scale, while David Hayman wanted the script to feel ‘movie sized’, as opposed to a series of TV episodes strung together, and he wanted it to appeal to a wide audience.

The first four chapters of the book had all the fan favourites; seeing the audience through the station, the tea room, home to Windsor Gardens and the sequence in the bathroom. The snag came with chapter five which starts with the words, ‘Paddington soon settled down and became one of the family.’ ‘I was kind of livid,’ Paul laughs, ‘because you go well where’s my story gone? But then I had a bit of a lightbulb moment which was that that sentence was the story. Paddington has lost his family and he finds a new one.’

The gap in the original allowed Paul to invent new material and new sequences, and to try out a million other things before they came to their version.  

3. Not every screenwriting lesson is going to work for your film.  

In the films that Paul was analysing, the Pixar catalog especially, the inciting incident tended to reveal the character flaw that the film’s story will heal. He spent two years trying to find a flaw for Paddington to fix in the second act.

Among others, Paul considered overconfidence and the need to learn one’s limitations as the flaw and lesson, but he scrapped the idea because it wasn’t a message he wanted to communicate to children.

‘If I didn’t have the source material, I would have probably changed Paddington,’ he admits, but he didn’t and then the penny dropped. Paddington didn’t have to change. He wasn’t perfect but he was the one who brought about change in others. Paddington taught Henry not to fear strangers and to be open, a message that is very relevant today. It works for contemporary society.

‘No single model will ever have all the answers for your film,’ Paul concludes.  

Maltese screenwriter and filmmaker in love with redemption arcs, awful jokes and all things cute. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook @CassiCamilleri.