'Four Kids and It' set visit: Reinventing the Psammead for the 21st century

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
A still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

This week sees the release of new family adventure film Four Kids and It via Sky Cinema, two years after it was shot on the Wicklow coast of Dublin.

Directed by Andy De Emmony and written by Simon Lewis, the film is based on the 2012 Jacqueline Wilson book Four Children and It, which was in turn inspired by E. Nesbitt’s 1902 classic Five Children and It. Both novels tell the story of a group of kids who stumble across a magical creature – a Psammead – which possesses the ability to grant wishes.

In this updated take on the story, the children are two pairs of siblings who come together as a new blended family: David's kids Robbie (Billy Jenkins) and Ros (Teddie Rose Malleson-Allen) and Alice's daughters Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) and Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame). David and Alice (Matthew Goode and Paula Patton) decide to introduce the children and reveal their relationship while on a summer holiday in Cornwall but the news doesn’t go down well.

However, when the four meet a sand-fairy (voiced by Michael Caine) on a beach their summer turns into a wild vacation. The Psammead is able to grant one wish a day and it only lasts until sunset but when a peculiar local called Tristan (Russell Brand) takes an ominous interest in the creature, it forces the children to get along and come to terms with their new family dynamic.

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Back in 2018, Yahoo Movies UK spent a day on set at the idyllic cottage serving as the hub for much of the story and watched scenes being filmed.

Here’s what we learned…

Michael Caine did more than just voice the Psammead

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
A still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

The veteran actor not only voiced the titular It, but also provided the facial performance necessary to bring the magical creature to life through CGI.

“We did very close up shots from head-to-neck and he was very energetic and enthusiastic,” De Emmony said. “He'd never done this before and we will be translating a lot of that movement directly into the face of the creature. So it's all those little idiosyncratic moments that you get from an actor which you don't get if you just animate.”

Caine didn’t need to be on set to record his scenes, instead a puppet - created from concept designs devised by Brian Froud (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) - was used in his stead. However, De Emmony says his presence was very much felt by all.

Four Kids and It (Sky Cinema/AP)
Four Kids and It (Sky Cinema/AP)

“We cheated with the children and used a puppet to engage them and played Michael's voice through [it],” the director explained. “So he sort of is around oddly, you know, from their point of view, they sort of see this and hear that voice.”

Caine was also the first choice for the role as they wanted to make sure their film has a bit more edge than your typical children’s literary adaptation.

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“We didn't want to go for a sort of Enid Blyton version of this film and I think he gives us a more oddball, grounded character to this creature,” De Emmony said. “He’s very old, sort of curmudgeonly and a bit mischievous and actually, Michael loved that idea.

“So he's quite rude to the children, quite playful in there as well, and somebody whose voice is just so remarkable.”

It champions a modern representation of family

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
L-R: Billy Jenkins, Teddie Rose Malleson-Allen, Matthew Goode, Paula Patton, Ashley Aufderheide, Ellie-Mae Siame in a still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

Jacqueline Wilson is famous for depicting the modern familial experience with many of her characters being orphans, children of single parents or part of blended families. In the book, the four children are half-siblings however the movie makes them step-siblings instead. It’s this contemporary approach to family life that attracted both Patton and Goode to roles.

“I've never done a children's movie and it's based on this great novel and something my kid could finally see,” Patton said. “I thought it was a modern take on a family that you don't see very often. [That shows] there's life after divorce. I can attest to that.”

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“David is the dad of two children which is one less than I have in real life so in some ways this is an escape,” Matthew said, “he's a fairly solid individual, he’s been through a divorce which is quite nice to see in a children's thing and it’s certainly a different approach to the original.”

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
Teddie Rose Malleson-Allen and author Jacqueline Wilson on the set of Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

The film is also more diverse than both Wilson and Nesbitt’s novels by casting the biracial black actors Patton, Siame and Aufderheide and making it an interracial family. However, race isn’t a specific part of the storyline.

“I think that what's nice is that we don't talk about it because it's life,” Patton said. “I mean, you see [interracial relationships] happening all the time and the screen needs a little catching up to do.”

“I didn't think it set out to be a, ‘let's make this as modern and accessible for everyone’ but it's good that we're challenging and putting it in front of, hopefully, a huge base of children all around,” Goode added. “Children don’t really see colour anyway, not when they're very young. It tends to be us that puts those problems in front of them later on.”

Russell Brand’s eccentric villain is a new addition to the story

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
A still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

Brand was the first person attached to appear in the film but his character didn’t appear in Wilson’s novel. “Tristan is an invention for us because we wanted a good antagonist to our children,” director Andy De Emmony explained. “Jacqueline was very generous about the script to the book adaptation, which can be tricky.”

The author worked with the director and screenwriter to make some changes to the story in order for it to translate better as a movie, but it was Brand’s natural eccentricity that informed much of the character.

“It's sort of so purpose-built for him really,” De Emmony said. “And he's got a lot of energy and enthusiasm so that in certain scenes you can just riff on him. We did a scene about the Americans on the cliff tops and he just ran and ran and ran with it.”

Brand looked to Dustin Hoffman as Hook and Christopher Lee’s character Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man for inspiration and said he enjoyed the darker themes the movie is offering.

Director Steven Spielberg and actor Dustin Hoffman on the set of Spielburg's film Hook. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Director Steven Spielberg and actor Dustin Hoffman on the set of Spielburg's film Hook. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

“[Tristan’s] a very eccentric and solitary character, and in a children's film, villainy and antagonism are interesting forces to play with,” he said. “I've been thinking that as a genre, children's literature and children's stories have a lot of parallels with horror. Even when you look at Roald Dahl, there’s scariness in there.

“In a way, why would children's entertainment be any less sophisticated than adult entertainment?” Brand added. “Perhaps they have a better facility for dealing with less acculturated information in fact, purer, good or bad, moral lessons.”

Brand certainly appealed himself to his co-stars, especially Matthew Goode. “People are often like, Oh god, Russell,’ but he's amazing and he's very different in real life,” the actor said. “I mean occasionally he can get wound up a little bit, when he finds he has an audience, and then he’s like, ‘oh no there’s a group of children around,’ but, he's really spiritual and lovely and sweet and incredibly erudite.”

It’s all about the children

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
A still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

Although the adult cast has far more recognisable names – pop singer Cheryl also makes a cameo – the kids are the main focus of the film. Patton says she had the greatest time working with the young actors and even between takes, Yahoo observed her happily playing with her onscreen children and step-children. She recalled how easily they got along with each other and with the job.

“What's amazing is that the two 13-year-olds became best friends,” she said. “With 13-year-old girls that could go either way but they’re having sleepovers, and, straightaway the little girl, Ellie Mae, just sat in my lap.

“Billy is so loving and he came over and hugged me - you can't make these things happen,” Patton continued, That's the thing with kids they don't have all the screens and walls up that we adults have, you know, they can love straight away.

“I don't know how many movies they've done but we all got on. That's the truth.”

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
Teddie Rose Malleson-Allen, half-sister of Lily Allen, in a still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

Aufderheide has previously appeared opposite Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo in the indie Infinitely Polar Bear as well as prestige TV shows like The Slap and Preacher but her on-screen sister makes her debut. Malleson-Allen had appeared in the BBC adaptation of Swallows and Amazons while Jenkins played a young Prince Charles in The Crown before shooting this film. According to producer Anne Brogan, the young actor said, upon arrival on set, “I do all my own stunts,” and he did during a scene that sees him doing a bit of magical rock climbing.

“The whole film is about children so we're just window dressing,” Goode added. “Glorious window dressing.”

Brand said the four were beautiful children to work with but it was “a pain in the arse” too.

“They work limited hours,” the comedian said. “And a set is an unusual environment for a child and children have not yet been conditioned to give up their freedom in order to submit themselves to the economic demands of a system that can never understand their essence!”

They loved shooting in Ireland

A still from <i>Four Kids and It</i>. (Sky Cinema)
A still from Four Kids and It. (Sky Cinema)

The production made the most of the country’s Section 481 tax incentive by shooting on the Wicklow coast that boasts more than a passing resemblance to the Cornish seaside. Brand had all his family with him on location for the shoot while Goode said he enjoyed the fact that he got to spend more time enjoying Ireland than the last time he was here. The actor filmed Leap Year with Amy Adams in Dublin a decade earlier.

“I was staying in the centre last time, just staying off Stephen's Green, actually the Marriott Hotel, which is fabulous,” he recalled. “This time I’ve been to Dalkey which is right on the coast and I’ve played a lot more golf. I’ve seen a lot more of Ireland than I have filmed so far.”

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Paula has praised the Irish crew, commending their “soulfulness and kindness,” while also appreciating the beauty and the traditions of the area.

“This is a magical place and I've learned so many things about it besides this beautiful scenery that we're in,” she said. “They won't cut down certain trees because they say this is where the fairies live, you know, they'll build roads around it. I love it.”

“The Irish setting has allowed my inner child to come out.”

Four Kids and It is available to watch exclusively on Sky Cinema from Friday, 3 April.