If you don’t already consider Paul King an equal to Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi, you will soon.
Paul King has just made The Godfather: Part II of talking bear movies. At least that’s what Paddington 2 co-writer Simon Farnaby believes. King, on the other hand, realizes for a lot of people a second Paddington is more than they asked for. I didn’t know the first talking bear film had done well enough at the box office to warrant a second film, but with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 268 million dollars earned at the box office why would you not make another? But even with these stellar statistics, another question arises: who the heck is Paul King, resident bear tamer, and director of the Paddington series? The answer is he may be cinema’s next Edgar Wright or Taika Waititi.
All three directors have found their own repertory company of comedy actors and writers, building a collective of creatives through which they can consistently create their brand of filmmaking. King and Wright even share some of the same actors and writers between their crews. Noel Fielding, co-creator, and star of The Mighty Boosh was featured in Wright’s music video for Mint Royale, Blue Song. You can catch a shot of Fielding in Baby Driver when Baby is flipping through the channels in his apartment. Additionally, Julian Barratt, the other co-creator, and star of The Mighty Boosh was cast in Wright’s first TV series Asylum. The company someone keeps tells you a lot about a person, and in this case, it’s safe to assume King is just as brilliant as Wright, Fielding, Barratt, and all the other members of their band of troublemakers.
Including King in a list with Wright and Waititi is high praise for a director that has only made three feature films, but hear me out—there are a lot of similarities between King, Wright, and Waititi. On a closer look at the three directors’ careers, you can see they all use the medium of television to refine their distinct visual and comedic styles. Edgar Wright used Asylum and Spaced to sharpen his ability to pull homages out of thin air. You can see that Wright is not producing run-of-the-mill television directing specifically in the intro to Asylum (the crane shot that slams into the title card is unlike anything else coming out of the BBC in the 1990s) and the Resident Evil sequence in Spaced is a proverbial dry run at Shaun of the Dead. Watching either show with the sound off is just as engaging as watching it with the sound all the way up. Motivated camera moves are integral to both shows.
Taika Waititi’s practical-yet-flashy visual style and wit were refined in his work with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie on the idiosyncratic comedy series Flight of the Conchords. While only directing four episodes of the series, the exercise worked as an extension of Waititi’s feature film work including the stellar Eagle Vs. Shark which came out nearly simultaneously with the first season of Flight of the Conchords. Two Cars, One Night (Waititi’s Academy Award-nominated short film) shows off the distinctly New Zealander sensibility of subtle comedy accentuating mundane subject matter and locations. With Waititi’s signature mix of hope and sadness, Two Cars, One Night defined his aesthetic three years before his work on Flight of the Conchords.
In Waititi’s latest, Thor: Ragnarok, the director’s signature characters are front and center in the film. They come fully fleshed out, benefitting from each of the director’s previous films. His features all showcase outsiders and bratty children (or man-children), not least of which is Thor. By infusing his particular sensibility, Waititi was able to create a fresh interpretation of (in my opinion) the least interesting Marvel hero. Thor: Ragnarok gives a glimpse at what an Edgar Wright Ant-man would have felt like—a distinct film that fits in the oeuvre of the director. Waititi’s success with Thor: Ragnarok shows that an auteur can find his or her place in the MCU, and Wright’s statement on leaving Ant-man, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie,” becomes that much more depressing.
Paul King is showing the same promise as Wright and Waititi by using television to develop his unique ability to create heightened realities set in mundane worlds (or in the case of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a mundane TV show). As an associate director on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, he contributed to making a stilted reality delivered in the packaging of a paranormal hospital drama. Though it would not seem like an associate director would impact the tone of a show very much, King’s role was different. King directed the original stage versions of Garth Marenghi at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which made it possible for the show to be picked up by the BBC. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace could be mistaken for an Edgar Wright creation purely by virtue of the overt film genre homages.
The most surprising thing about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is not the exorbitant amount of blood used in the show, but the emotional impact of the terrible acting, editing, and camerawork. The show is suspenseful and at times fleetingly heartfelt. This heart has been the through-line of King’s career.
King had an even greater role in shaping another heartfelt, iconoclastic BBC show the same year as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: The Mighty Boosh. As the director of all three series of the show, King navigated the uniquely surreal comedy to cult status. The home setting of each series is a dilapidated zoo, an apartment, and a second-hand shop respectively. While these locations seem mundane, King’s sensibilities informed the spaces, creating wonderfully peculiar sets for characters to inhabit. This kind of elevated world is carried into the Paddington universe where London is portrayed as a kind of storybook version of the actual city.
King’s first feature, Bunny and the Bull expanded the surreal world in which he places his narratives. In The Mighty Boosh, settings felt like they had been built on soundstages—jungles had shiny plastic and dull fabric leaves; an icy tundra was filled with iridescent white confetti instead of snow. With Bunny and the Bull, the set design and the camera work become even more hand-made and idiomatic. Sets are constructed almost out of craft paper, drawn on with crayon. This style is echoed in Paddington 2 where Paddington sees the world as a pop-up book.
From King’s very first foray into television to his latest feature film, the director manages to infuse a handmade sensibility to all his work. His movies and TV episodes feel like Rube Goldberg Machines, barely keeping together but somehow clicking along with childlike efficiency. The ease with which he injects this sensibility into the Paddington films (his most visually true-to-life projects to date) shows that this quirky style is not going to stay on the margins for long. The consistency and emotional execution of his distinct style should put King in the same conversation with Wright and Waititi. I’m going to predict we will see a King-helmed Marvel movie by the time the MCU reaches its conclusion.