'Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey' Director on How to Use Public Domain IP
Mickey Mouse's copyright is up. So is Bambi's and Peter Pan's. 'I've got a goal to ruin all 7 billion childhood memories,' chuckles Rhys Frake-Waterfield
When images from Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey first dropped over the summer, the internet went crazy. The idea of a feral Pooh and Piglet seeking revenge after being neglected by a grown-up Christopher Robin, who is heading off to college, grabbed people. The media wrote dozens of stories on the low-budget project which is now poised for a short theatrical release starting on February 15.
Such a film is possible not because the Mouse House lost its mind, but because A.A. Milne's original 1926 stories went into the public domain at the beginning of 2022, allowing writer/director Rhys Frake-Waterfield and the team at the U.K.'s Jagged Edge Productions to come up with their own spin on the character. (For works created before 1978, copyright generally lasts 95 years).
Beloved characters entering the public domain is going to be a recurring — and contentious — issue over the next decade as copyright intersects with something the Founding Fathers never anticipated: huge corporations keeping characters in the public eye for decades. Among the famous characters coming into the public domain, we have Popeye, Buck Rogers and the Hardy Boys this year, the original Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse next year, and King Kong, Flash Gordon and Donald the Duck by the end of the decade. Given the value of pre-existing IP in Hollywood, many people will jump on the idea of trying to develop projects with these newly available icons.
But you can't just pencil in a knife on the familiar Disney version of Pooh and call it a day. There are restrictions on what can be done. While the original stories are in the public domain, the Disney version isn't — so that means Blood and Honey can only draw inspiration from what's in the first book (no Tigger, for example, since he wasn't introduced until 1928). Also, because the beloved illustrations are not yet in the public domain and Disney has a trademark on the animated version, the character can't look like the cute bear we've all come to know and love.
As Optionist readers know, I've been interested in how public domain material fits into the Hollywood eco-system — I've recommended numerous PD titles in the newsletter — so I thought it would be interesting to talk to Frake-Waterfield about the project. So much of the coverage has focused on personal reactions (“thanks for ruining my childhood”) or aesthetic ones ("thanks for ruining my favorite character"). But I am curious — as I think you will be — in the mechanics of it: Where did the inspiration come from? How do you avoid competing against the existing versions of a character, or worse, running afoul of trademark protections and ending up sued by Disney? What kinds of public domain characters are ripe for a horror spin? There's a lot of creativity and hard work that goes into adapting a public domain character. It's much more than just dropping a free-use character into a film.
Frake-Waterfield, 31, has been working on low-budget movies in the U.K. with Jagged Edge for several years now, first as a producer and now as a writer and director. Blood and Honey is his fourth effort with them, with the other three released in just the last year. I caught up with the director, who was in London, over Zoom in late December to talk about all this, the public reaction to the project (and why he thinks it got so much attention), and what’s next for him and Jagged Edge.
Optionist: Where did you get the inspiration to rework Winnie the Pooh into a horror movie?
Rhys Frake-Waterfield: I'm a big horror fan myself and I always want to see unique takes on different characters just to spice up the kind of villains we see all the time. I just asked myself, ‘Would I like to see a Winnie the Pooh horror film?’ And I was like, ‘absolutely.’ We went running with it because I realized at that point that it got into the public domain and it's kind of free rein to do what you want with it — at least the 1926 interpretation of it.
What's Winnie like in this film?
It's completely different to the Disney one. There's a lot of creativity involved — we could have taken him down a Chucky route that made him really small, running around causing havoc and pretending to be all nice. The difficulty with doing that is it's extremely VFX dependent. It's almost competing directly with Chucky at the moment, which has a TV series and everything. So we thought, what if we go for a bit of an anthropomorphic route where they're kind of half bear, half human? It enables a lot of horror with it, because you want your villain holding something quite sinister like a weapon and slashing away.
Your Winnie the Pooh is based on the text of the original story — you can't use the drawings by E.H. Shepherd that are in the book and you need to avoid overlap with the Disney version. How does that work?
All you can really work off of, in a sense, is the wording in that 1926 version, so you kind of infer how the book was interpreting his looks. We started off there, but then we just went on a complete tangent — we intentionally did that because [Jagged Edge] is a minuscule company in comparison to Disney [laughs]. You don't want to go anywhere near their IP. We didn't watch any of their cartoons, we didn't take any inspiration from what they've done. We actively tried to make differences. If we came up with an element, we would look at it and ask, ‘Has it even coincidentally become similar?’
“It does force you to be more creative because you need to go to extremes, and you need to massively extrapolate and go on tangents to come up with something which is, without question, unique.”
In a weird way, does aggressive trademark protection force you to be more creative? Necessity is the mother of invention. I'm reminded of how Spielberg didn't think the mechanical shark looked right in Jaws, so it forced him to come up with unique ways to shoot around that limitation, which ended up making the movie scarier.
I think you are definitely right. At one point a company would've paid a lot of money for that IP. It's an investment and they want to protect that investment. So anyone who's actively trying to kind of jump off the back of it and do something which is really close, hoping they'll kind of mix up the audience’s perception of what is and isn’t Disney… [challenging] that is completely defendable. In Blood and Honey, it's not the Disney version running around, stabbing people. I don't think people would be that interested in that. I think a lot of people have actually gathered interest in this because he looks menacing, and he looks intimidating in ways Disney's version doesn't at all. We wanted to go big and intimidating — make the villain dwarf the people he's attacking. To answer your question: Yeah, it does force you to be more creative because you need to go to extremes, and you need to massively extrapolate and go on tangents to come up with something which is, without question, unique.
What's the key to doing this on a very low budget when you're competing against films with much bigger budgets?
In terms of where the money goes, it's not just the tangible elements like the costumes. It's also the time on set. We really prioritize allowing a good amount of time towards the deaths and towards the horror stuff because that's what people are wanting. Horror films which only have 10 or 15 minutes of actual villain in them, people often just walk out a bit disappointed.
One thing that's great about doing Winnie the Pooh as horror is the way the film inverts our expectations, flipping the script on our understanding of the character.
The 1926 Pooh without question is an innocent, lovely, endearing little bear. What's shocking is when people see you've gone from one extreme to the other. There are many other ideas we've thought of. But for example, if I was thinking a Lion King horror, I don't actually get the buzz of this would be cool. I instantly think, it'll just be like that recent film Prey (i.e., a thriller, but not a horror film). Whereas people hear [horror] Bambi and they're like, rabid Bambi is kind of like Cujo. You can build an image in your mind of this deer with a foaming mouth, stomping people on their heads and stuff. As a horror fan, that's actually something I'd want to go and see. I'm sure there's a lot of people who are just gonna jump on any kind of public domain character. It doesn't mean there's demand for it just because it's in the public domain.
[Note: Disney’s Bambi is based on the 1923 book Bambi, a Life in the Woods, which is in the public domain.]
The earliest fairy tales were darker, and the violence was used as a way to teach children lessons (don’t wander into the woods alone, for example). Victorian-era stories like Winnie the Pooh arrived at a time when childhood was evolving. These authors present a softer, gentler version of childhood, which makes it easier to scramble the audience’s expectations.
I've not looked at it in terms of like time periods. I've not drawn a link of what I think has a bit of an X factor or that contrasting element to it, to when it was originally written. Hans Christian Andersen's stories were quite brutal as well. I don't think a horror version of The Little Mermaid is actually that gripping. It's just gonna be a siren film and then I'm not even interested in it. It's identifying that which is unique because so many people honestly are just gonna be banging on this door almost blindly — ‘Oh look, that's in the public domain and it's a bit well known. Let's just make a horror film from it.’
You and the Jagged Edge team come up with great taglines for your movies. For example: Pooh is "We'll Be Friends Forever, Won't We..?" Jack and Jill: "Bodies Come Tumbling After;" Curse of Humpty Dumpty: "He'll Crack You Up." If you can't think of a good one right away, is that a sign to move on?
It's almost a logline, isn't it? There's something there like Bambi and rabies — instantly I'm like, ‘Oh, that's really cool.’ But with, say, Little Mermaid I might struggle to think of a cool concept that will hook people. You're right; if you can't think of that cool logline, then potentially it's just a rubbish idea.
What's next? Is a Peter Pan horror in the works?
Yeah. The title [of the film] Neverland Nightmare hooks me straight away and tells what's happening. We're still in the early phases of developing that because we need to be careful about some elements. When you touch on a concept like this, you really need to do a lot of research and you really need to be confident in what you're doing, because you are about to put a load of money behind it. The stronger one of the two — Peter Pan and Bambi — is Bambi. That's the one we'll be pushing full steam ahead.
Are you looking ahead to other characters entering the public domain? Will we get a Steamboat Willie horror movie?
We need to be kind of careful with that. To be honest, it's something I need to research a little bit more because there's a trademark element to some of these concepts — where even though they're in the public domain, if they're trademarked, I think it can supersede it. But I'm not a lawyer, so I don't completely know. And we've got concepts which are gonna keep us very busy as is anyway; obviously Winnie is gonna get a sequel.
So many of the stories about the movie start hilariously hysterical, like the Independent opining "Blood and Honey: A Winnie-the-Pooh horror film that ruins all our childhoods is peak 2022." What do you think of takes like that?
When I hear it, I'm almost confused. How can they think that? It's being made for an audience of horror fans, right? I don't want parents dragging children into the cinema and making them cry watching the film. I sometimes play into it a little bit for fun. On my Instagram the bio reads ‘ruining childhood memories since like 1991.’ I've got a long-term goal to ruin all 7 billion childhood memories.
What Else I’m Reading
Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, publishes today. Looks like it’s off to a good start, sales-wise at least (on the PR front, Harry hasn’t done himself too many favors). Harry’s U.K. publisher, Transworld, a part of Penguin Random House, announced first-day sales of 400,000 (trying to clarify if this is just U.K. or global. Consensus seems to be U.K. but the reporting isn’t clear yet). I figured PRH would need to sell 1.7 million copies to cover the $20 million advance so even if that’s a global number, the outlook is promising. And if it is just the U.K. number then PRH is gonna be like:
There’s a ton of coverage. The NYT alone has done at least a half dozen stories on it in the last couple of days. We’ve got recaps of his media interviews here and here to start, on the sales rollout and leaks, and the NYT even takes us into the world of ghostwriting. If you want the quickie guide to the book here are 11 Takeaways in the NYT and a list of revelations in USA Today. Reviews in the NYT, the Independent, the BBC and the Times of London. Predictably, the British press comes down hard on Harry. The Independent also rounds up some reviews.
Lastly, Patti Davis, who wrote her own tell all about her parents during dad Ronald Reagan’s presidency, cautions Harry that he might regret writing the memoir. She did. (This really is a great piece FYI.)
Also, Publisher’s Weekly has its list of the 25 best-selling print books of 2022 based on BookScan data. Take a bow, Colleen Hoover, who sold an astonishing 14.3 million books (across multiple titles) last year.
Vulture has a list of podcasts to put on your radar but it also thinks 2023 could be rough for the industry.
Apple Podcasts offers recommendations from around the world in this thread curated by its in-house editors.
Bye! Thanks for joining me. See you on Friday with this week’s IP pics, for paid subscribers only.