'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey' director shares details from the 'unfilmable' first draft of his bonkers horror movie
Rhys Frake-Waterfield explains how he turned the beloved children's character into a killer
Winnie-the-Pooh... serial killer? If you think that's a crazy idea, the first draft of the horror movie that became Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey would have been even more problematic. "It was unfilmable," writer-director Rhys Frake-Waterfield confesses to Yahoo Entertainment about his initial stab at transforming the gentle stuffed-with-fluff children's character into a grisly murderer in the (bloody) vein of big-screen psychos like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. "I had to literally trash that script and start anew."
The problem with that junked first draft wasn't that it was too gruesome. If anything, the English filmmaker says that he wants to take the R-rated carnage even further in a Blood and Honey sequel, which is already in the works ahead of the movie's global release on Feb. 15. But that script would have made him a potential victim of even scarier foes than a knife-wielding Pooh Bear and Piglet — Walt Disney Company copyright lawyers.
The versions of the characters that appear in Blood and Honey are based directly on A.A. Milne's 1926 Winnie-the-Pooh novel, which entered the public domain last year. But the images of Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood pals that endure in the popular imagination tend to be based on the Disney-made animated films and TV shows, which date back to the 1960s. Because the Disney iterations are under trademark for decades to come — and the Mouse House is famously litigious when it comes to copyright infringement — Frake-Waterfield was forced to be extra-cautious about what elements of the Pooh-verse made it into Blood and Honey... and what had to be left out.
"I had to be really careful about what I was drawing inspiration from," he says of Blood and Honey's story, which takes place years after Pooh's best friend, Christopher Robin (Nikolai Leon), put away his childish things to go off to school. Returning to his childhood stomping ground as an adult, he's horrified to discover that Pooh and Piglet have gone feral, even killing one of their own. After taking their old friend hostage, the duo stalk a group of female college students who have rented a nearby cabin, picking them off one by one in increasingly bloody ways.
"Only the 1926 version is in the public domain, so those were the only elements I could incorporate," Frake-Waterfield explains. "Other parts like Poohsticks, and Tigger, and Pooh's red shirt — those aren't elements I can use at the moment because they're the copyright of Disney and that would get me in a lot of trouble. The first script had a lot of those elements in it, and those elements would have really encroached onto Disney branding and IP."
Even Pooh's deranged personality in Blood and Honey was first and foremost dictated by an understandable urge to avoid a court summons from Disney lawyers. "I took him down the Michael Meyers slasher route rather than making him a bit like Chucky, which might be a bit closer to Disney," Frake-Waterfield explains. "I wanted to embrace the horror of it, and try to make something quite scary and menacing. That led me towards a completely opposite end from the Disney version, which is obviously designed to be friendly and cuddly."
In fact, the director says that this Pooh's commitment to dishing out hard-R violence unnerved some potential distributors, who envisioned a PG-13 film along the lines of Universal's recent horror hit, M3gan. "We're trying to embrace the horror market," he says, adding that he also tried to embrace the Terrifer method of pursuing practical effects for Pooh's gory kills whenever possible. "There are other films like Halloween Ends which people were disappointed with — I was disappointed with it, too — because you didn't get to see much of the villain. I watch horror films for the villain, basically, so I wanted Pooh to be in this film a lot and when you see him there is payoff to the deaths."
Some elements from the filmmaker's "unfilmable" Blood and Honey script might still find their way into the follow-up once he sees how audiences (and, of course, Disney) react to this first chapter. Viewers who saw the film in Mexico — where the film opened last week to successful box office numbers — have already posted Letterboxd reviews that mention missing familiar Hundred Acre Wood faces like Kanga, Roo and Tigger.
"I do want to introduce more characters in the later ones," Frake-Waterfield says, admitting that budget was another reason for keeping the cast limited to Pooh and Piglet, played by Craig David Dowsett and Chris Cordell respectively. "I also felt like it would be a bit much on a first iteration to have more characters involved in the horror, because it would be a bit like a boy band walking around, breaking into houses and killing everyone! I wanted the focus to be on Pooh for this one, whereas later on more characters will be introduced."
Reportedly made for under $100,000, Blood and Honey seems poised to follow recent micro-budgeted horror fare like Terrifier 2 and Skinamarink to big box-office numbers. The buzz has been building since the film's first trailer dropped in August, leading Frake-Waterfield and his partners at ITN Studios to scrap the original October release date in favor of a global February launch.
Fathom Events came onboard in November to handle the movie's U.S. release, and expanded a one-night-only plan into a bigger run. "Fathom and ITN is the perfect partnership for this film," Fathom CEO Ray Nutt tells Yahoo Entertainment via e-mail. "In fact, our deal was negotiated and inked in less than 24 hours. This movie will definitely resonate with the horror community, so get ready!" (The movie was not screened for U.S. press prior to the Feb. 15 opening, a choice that Frake-Waterfield says was primarily due to piracy concerns. "It was a difficult decision, but with the next one we know the scale and I think we would organize physical screenings ahead of time for press.")
If the film does take off with audiences, the director knows that's owed to the novelty of seeing a twisted take on a childhood icon. Frake-Waterfield says that he had originally considered building a horror movie around Sherlock Holmes — another pop culture staple now in the public domain — but realized that the "shock value" of giving Winnie the Pooh the slasher treatment trumped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective. "It has to do with the contrast, right?" he says. "I knew it would have a lot of potential, but I never expected this degree of excitement. There's something special about Pooh that some of these other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, don't have."
Frake-Waterfield also confirms previous reports that he's planning an entire cinematic universe filled with "twisted" versions of public domain children's characters, from Bambi to Peter Pan. "Bambi has a lot of attraction," he says. "It's the same thing as Pooh: People are like, 'How can Bambi be a killer?' It makes people's imaginations run a bit wild."
But there's one animated icon that he plans to leave alone, one who also happens to be Disney-related. Next year, "Steamboat Willie" — the 1928 cartoon short that made Mickey Mouse a household name — will enter the public domain after years of the company's well-documented attempts to keep their signature character under trademark.
"I'm still very on edge about that," Frake-Waterfield says about the prospect of giving Mickey the Blood and Honey treatment. "I have a feeling that laws can change, and he's already been extended multiple times in the past. There's also a big, big risk factor because he's very tied in with Disney so they may get more litigious." (It's worth noting that only the "Steamboat Willie" version of Mickey will be in the public domain; the character's later incarnations in everything from 1940's Fantasia to 2004's The Three Musketeers are still owned by Disney.)
But the director says he has another logical reason for not wanting to make Steamboat Killie: If Blood and Honey becomes a big hit, the market may be flooded with rival Mickey Mouse projects in 2024 and beyond. "A lot of people have their eye on this concept now," he notes of the race to mine fresh IP that's fallen into the public domain. "I feel like a lot of people are going to be wanting do this [with Mickey Mouse] and what could happen is you get five versions of it out there and that filters out the uniqueness. So I probably won't do it to be honest."
Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey premieres Feb. 15 in theaters.