Straight on Till Morning
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Marc Forster's new film, "Finding Neverland," exquisitely fuses fantasy and reality in portraying how J.M. Barrie alit on the inspiration for "Peter Pan." At first glance, this sumptuous retooling of Edwardian London, circa 1904, with its lavish nights at the theater and bouts of fanciful child's play, seems an unusual choice to follow up "Monster's Ball." Yet with these two films, and with Forster's "Everything Put Together," a horror-comedy about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, certain common threads emerge: the issue of mortality, how each of us responds differently to grief, and in Forster's words, "the deep human need for illusions – even in the face of tragedy."
Johnny Depp stars as Barrie, whose most recent play, a stodgy, drawing-room comedy, fails miserably at the Duke of York's Theatre. On a stroll through Kensington Gardens the morning after, Barrie meets the four young Llewelyn-Davies brothers and their beautiful, recently widowed mother Sylvia, played by Kate Winslet, who here projects a peach cobbler radiant earthiness, equally robust and refined. In time, Barrie becomes a father figure to the boys, playing games of pirate ships and cowboys 'n' Indians, giving the lads the male chi they've been missing since their father's death.
Forster, working with David Magee's lovely, perceptive (if not always factual) screenplay, garners excellent performances from the entire cast. Depp masters the Scottish cadence without overdoing it; he shows great range here and does so unfussily. Young Freddie Highmore is outstanding as Peter, the brother who's initially unimpressed by Barrie, but with whom the playwright forges the deepest bond. As the American impresario Charles Frohman, the reluctant producer of Peter Pan on-stage, Dustin Hoffman has his first movie role in a theatrical setting since "Tootsie"; his astute line readings summon a bit of the sardonic mood from that film. And "Finding Neverland" offers a meaty role for the magnificent Julie Christie. She plays the imperious Emma DuMaurier, the boys' grandmother, who disapproves of Barrie's friendship with her kin. In one memorable image, Barrie views Mrs. DuMaurier as a prototype for Captain Hook. Wagging a coat hanger at the boys, she storms, "Tomorrow, we're going to have some discipline around here!"
What was it like to work with Julie Christie? I've had a crush on her since I was eleven. And it hasn't diminished over time. She's still beautiful even though she is ... matronly.
Funny you telling me you have a crush on Julie Christie. I love her. It was tremendous to work with her, and I had to pinch myself sometimes, working with both her and Dustin Hoffman – two icons together. There's a scene late in the film where Johnny Depp and Julie walk down these arches to discuss the future of the children, and she briefs him on how she sees it. As we're shooting this, Johnny comes to me and says, "Marc, I can't believe what I have to tell you. This woman is 60 years old, and I still feel like kissing her!" Julie's so beautiful and so warm and stunning, you still feel like, my god, she's gorgeous! You just want to hug her and take her in your arms because she still has that... [indescribable quality].
In the movie, she actually plays more of a cold character, very stern, but when you meet her in life, she's this warm, crazy, eccentric, loving person; you look in her eyes and you just see "Dr. Zhivago," you see all these great movies she did, like "Petulia," "Don't Look Now," "Far from the Madding Crowd." Whatever she made in that time frame, she's still resonant with.
"Petulia" holds up really well. I just saw that again a few months ago.
It's such a great movie. I love the look of it, and Julie and George C. Scott together.
The scenes between Julie and Johnny Depp in "Neverland" also have a nice friction of opposites. They're combative, albeit in a civilized way, and there's a kind of sexiness in that; I can see why he wants to kiss her. Even when Mrs. DuMaurier gradually changes her perception of J.M. Barrie, her character never goes completely soft. She never turns into an old sweetheart or anything like that.
The only time she softens up, and I love that moment, when the play is performed at their house, and Kelly MacDonald [as Peter Pan] asks, "Do you believe in fairies?" – and no one reacts; then Julie starts clapping. That wasn't a direction of mine. It just happened. It was the first take and she started clapping, and I said, "Julie fucking rocks! She's so brilliant!"
Usually on first takes, I do the blocking of the scene and then I want to see instinctually what the actors do, because you get always surprises. I said, "Let's just shoot this one and see what happens. Let's have Peter Pan performing off-camera and see how you guys react." And we shot it, and there was this tension, this moment, nobody did anything. The kids didn't know what to do, and suddenly, Julie starts clapping, and it came from within.
Do you have a background in theater? To me, the opening credits, with all the visual detail that goes into what happens before the curtain rises, seem to suggest a great fondness for backstage life.
I don't have any theater background, but I think that's the most exciting part – all the tricks people have, the sounds they make, and what they do with the lights; it's more thrilling than what happens on stage. That's why I shot the stage in a wide angle and everything behind the scenes is in close-up.
The process is somehow better, or more fulfilling, than the final result. The bowing of the strings in the orchestra pit, for instance, that was an image I loved. One thing I noticed the second time around that I missed the first was that Mary Ansell Barrie was a former actress.
Yes, that's correct. I'm glad you picked that up.
Because at first I couldn't quite explain why she's so bitter. It adds a whole new dimension to that character, knowing that Mary's an actress who gave up her stage career for her playwright husband. She isn't just a cardboard bitch who insists on separate bedrooms.
The tricky part for Radha [Mitchell] and me was that, on the page, Mary was written very two-dimensionally. And it was like she was the distant, bitchy wife, and we really tried to infuse a sense that these two people weren't meant to be together. And I hope that comes across – they love each other. But everybody who was well off in that time period had separate bedrooms. It was very common in England. Even in this day and age, wealthy Brits – [laughs] – it's a strange thing. Why are these people married?
I was wondering where the idea for a particular image came from: the scene at the cricket match where an acquaintance of J.M. Barrie's tells him, "People are talking about you and the Llewelyn-Davies family; once you have a bit of notoriety, they will look for ways to tear you down." The speaker's voice continues as the camera pans to the Llewelyns, and sure enough, no one's sitting with them; they're plainly being ostracized, even though Kate Winslet and the boys look the picture of Edwardian respectability. And then – and I love this – you cut to a high society matron acting terribly haughty as she dunks a chocolate biscotti or some type of biscuit into her coffee, and the camera lingers on the dark swirl against the china cup. It's so curious, yet it seems like the most apt visual metaphor.
The image came from when I was with my grandparents. My grandmother was always trying to be very proper and she baked marble cake. As a child, I was always forced to go to her house to have this marble cake and tea. She always sat cross-legged and said I ate like a pig and behaved like a pig and that I had no education whatsoever because my mother was way too hippie-like. My mother lived like the Amazon Indians or with the monks in Tibet and my grandmother thought, "Your mother doesn't know anything about real manners." I visited her a few times a year and it was always tea and marble cake, and I couldn't behave the way I wanted, but I was allowed to dunk the cake in the tea. And I just saw the English society of the Llewelyns and DuMauriers as so proper. It reminded me of my grandmother. Everyone's gossiping about everybody else, talking bad behind their backs, and I thought that dunking image is an appropriate parallel for me – it's what my grandmother sort of represented. My grandfather, though, despised her manners, so he started spitting. He wasn't right in his head anymore, so he could get away with it. If he didn't like someone, he spat right at them!
And my grandmother was infuriated by it.
His mental health was deteriorating, so people forgave him, like in a bad comedy.
I wanted to ask you about the waves on the pirate ship in the fantasy play scenes between J.M. Barrie and the four Llewelyn-Davies boys. You said last night in the Q&A that the waves were made of wood. I'd been trying to figure out how that was done, because the first time I saw the movie, the waves looked a little like claymation, but I thought, well, they can't be.
They were thin painted slices of wood, and they're moved parallel to each other - that creates a wave effect. I wanted it to look like simple, like puppet theater. I didn't want them to be "Perfect Storm" waves.
What aspect of filmmaking gives you the most pleasure? Post-production, or the preparation ahead of time?
It varies from film to film. With "Monster's Ball," the pre-production was hell, and the shooting and post were bliss. With "Neverland," the pre-prod was bliss. Because we planned all these costumes and how we were going to stage the fantasy sequences, it was constantly a creative force. Then the shoot was just an execution of what we planned. And then the post was quite pleasant; Miramax left us alone.
I love how the movie is edited. Some of the cross-cuts, such as the (twin) reactions of Radha and Julie after the dinner party scene, where they're separately having near-identical responses – they almost seem to be the same person – and the cuts between fantasy and reality back and forth are viscerally exciting without being flashy. One of the things I really like about Neverland is that it's kind of a children's movie, but it isn't afraid to be grown up when it needs to be. The example that really leaps out at me is after Sylvia has had her first coughing fit, when the boys are staging Peter's play, and Peter, who's still never really grieved for his father, goes berserk and tears up the set, smashes props, rips up the book - and what's fascinating to me is that J.M. Barrie doesn't try to stop him or reprimand him. If something like that took place in contemporary America, the parental figure would try to stem those emotions before they're spent, whereas Barrie just watches, and lets the anger and grieving process do what they need to do and play out.
I love that you like that, because I enjoyed that, too. He just let the kid be. It was written like that, it wasn't me. When I directed the scene, I thought it was beautiful how Johnny just sits there and observes.
All throughout, the film gets grief right, especially what grief is like for a child. The way those feelings are portrayed feels accurate. Tell me about Hoffman. You were saying last night that he would bring you over to his kitchen to watch him improvise.
Yeah, most of his improvisations ended up in the film. Usually, he was being Frohman. He was pacing around like this, actually like this [he stands up and imitates Hoffman's walk] and mumbling and talking, and sometimes, he goes over the top, saying, "Hello, mistuh!," getting right up close to me as I'm sitting there taking notes. And it was this really abstract thing. He's one of these iconic film actors. There are ten great male actors of the 20th century starting from Brando, Laurence Olivier, and so on, and one of them is Dustin Hoffman. From "The Graduate" to "Kramer vs. Kramer" to all these amazing performances – and "Papillon." He's done so much interesting stuff in his life, and I'm sitting there, having grown up in this little town in Switzerland, and just questioning, How did I end up here?
How did you end up here?
Less from belief, maybe, and more from a love for storytelling. I just love stories, and I love actors and I love human beings, and it's such a wonderful way of living one's life, telling stories. If I could write novels, I probably would do that. But film somehow... so many visuals come to me so quickly, I can't stop them.
It's interesting that you mention novels, because the critic Terry Teachout made the point in one of his essays ["Tolstoy's Contraption"] that the reason why the novel isn't what it used to be, why it's a dying if not dead art form, is because the artists today who would have written novels in an earlier era are all making independent films now.
Yeah. He mentions John Sayles and Whit Stillman as two examples. Say, if they had come along in the 50s, they would likely have written novels before, if ever, moving on to screenplays.
John Sayles! [claps his hands]
Johnny Depp's rapport with the four young actors who play the Llewelyn-Davies brothers is pretty incredible. I think that's the toughest kind of acting to do well because so much of it is listening; most people can't listen in real life, let alone in front of a camera.
Johnny is the opposite. The less dialogue you give him, the happier he feels. We went through the script and cut dialogue, until I said, "No, you need to say this line!" He loves to listen; he doesn't have a problem with that, and he loved those boys, and the kids were so breathtaking. I loved watching his rapport with them. They had such synergy and chemistry together that it just made everybody bloom.
Seattle-based critic N.P. Thompson writes for the alternative monthly Vigilance and frequently updates his own site, Movies into Film.