The moment after I read David Magee’s script for Finding Neverland, I thought to myself, “I need to figure out a way to get this film.” It was the spring of 2000, and I was still trying to get distribution for a little digital movie I had directed a year earlier called Everything Put Together. Sundance had welcomed the film, but it wasn’t your obvious blockbuster and Miramax, who owned Finding Neverland, felt the same—no one saw a connection between David’s script and myself. My agent and I wrote letters trying to convince the studio about my “vision,” but nothing ever came of it, so I went to work on Monster’s Ball.
Later that year, as I was finishing up Monster’s Ball, my agent mentioned that still nothing had happened with Finding Neverland; every director had either turned it down or Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein didn’t approve. I figured I might as well try again, so I screened Monster’s Ball for Finding Neverland’s producer, Richard Gladstein, who then insisted we set up a screening for Harvey as soon as possible. Harvey saw the film, and agreed to meet.
In our meeting, I told him that while the main spine of the piece was “growing up” and “Fantasy/Art vs. Reality/Life,” for me, it was, above all, about the transformation of imagination. In very few stories does one actually have the chance to play with the notion that storytelling is about an escape to worlds that we only wish existed, and it’s through visiting those other worlds that we can learn to better transcend the problems of our own world. I guess something between the two of us just clicked. The meeting became one the few magical ones a director can have: I had never met the man before, and after about twenty minutes he had offered me the movie and greenlit it all in the same breath.
● One of the fantasy sequences takes place in a Western town, and originally we were planning to construct it. Our budget was small and only allowed for two buildings, leaving us quite a pathetic town, but we were going to try and make it work. Then, at the last minute, I got the call from our scout saying that she had found a man who had built his own private Western town just outside of London where he and all his friends (fifty years and older) could play on weekends. This picture captures the moment in that “town” between Luke Spill, who plays Michael, the youngest of the boys, and myself. I am explaining to him how the showdown between J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) and he is going to happen.
● One has to smile when working with Dustin Hoffman, who unfortunately cut off part of his finger the day before this shot. He is under heavy medication, wearing his arm like Napoleon in his jacket. This scene is about J.M. Barrie trying to convince Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) to finance the production of Peter Pan.
● The final scene in the film between J.M.
Barrie and Peter (Freddie Highmore). We had to shoot the scene twice,
as we had
technical difficulties the first time around. Both of their
incredible, but the camera broke down. I didn’t know how to break the
we needed to come back and re-shoot the scene. Johnny was fine with it,
Freddie, who was ten at the time, only remarked that he was glad to do
it so he
could refine some of his performance. His performance had been so
truthful. I was
in awe. I didn’t know what there was to refine but he found something
● A scene Kate, Johnny and I loathed, as it was all about exposition. I tried to cut as much out as possible on that day. If you look at the script pages you can see how much I crossed out to simplify the scene as much as possible.
● Standing on a partially built pirate ship at Pinewood Studios. We’re discussing fantasy vs. reality. The reality part of the scene was shot seven weeks earlier, and was actually our first day of shooting. In fact, you can see it in the photo on the right between Freddie and Johnny. It is an important moment in the film, as J.M. Barrie gives all the boys different pirate names and Peter rejects his, maintaining that he likes his name as is: “Peter.” The moment in which fantasy is broken.
How did a Swiss kid become a Hollywood director?
It was coincidental, because I grew up with very little exposure to movies and television. I grew up in the mountains of Davos, where there are ski resorts and where the World Economic Forum is held. There was only one cinema in the area, and it showed movies that were years old. My parents didn’t have TV for a long time, because they felt it numbed your creativity and senses. They were very much into reading and education, the idea [being] that you would make up your own opinion. So, instead of being entertained, me and my friends had to come up with games to entertain ourselves. I was never conscious of it until I looked at other children later, but I think it stimulated my imagination.
When did the movie bug bite you?
When I was around fourteen, friends of my parents took me to see Apocalypse Now. I didn’t really get the movie, but I was overwhelmed by this dream state of cinema. I thought it was amazing, and I said, “I would like to do that.” Overnight, I became a movie fanatic. I begged my parents to get television, and then spent all my time watching movies.
Who impressed you?
All of the Europeans, like Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky. Then I started looking at John Hutson, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick. I got inspired by Kurosawa and Japanese directors. I don’t have a favorite because there are so many great ones, and I was left to marvel over how a director like Fassbinder could make thirty-eight films in fourteen years. Some of them were great, some of them were shit, and you couldn’t believe the same person could do that. Then I graduated high school and read in the paper that NYU was a good film school. I applied there and got in, buy my parents couldn’t afford it.
What did you do?
I wrote letters to thirty wealthy people in Switzerland, asking for help. My dad was a doctor, but he didn’t know about investments and lost a lot of money and wasn’t able to pay that expense. A man agreed to finance my first year of studies, and said if I showed promise and good grades and a commitment to my dream, he’d pay for the second year. Ultimately, he paid the whole way, and when I tried to pay him back, he said no, that it was a gift. It was Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who was the president of Saatchi and Saatchi, and later the president of Adidas. He is also the uncle of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He was fifty, divorced, with no kids, and a lot of money. He said he was happy to help fulfill my dream, and he certainly did.
Outside of Fassbinder, it is very unusual for a director to have two films in the market place at the same time, as you will this fall. Finding Neverland, based on J.M. Barrie’s inspiration Peter Pan, stars Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie; and Stay, a thriller by Troy Gosling. Either you are very prolific, or there is a backstory here.
It’s back-story. Neverland was supposed to come out last year, but it couldn’t because Peter Pan was owned by Sony, and that studio wouldn’t allow ours to be released [because Sony was releasing a version of Peter Pan]. They feared confusion [in the marketplace], which was confusing because our film was about how Barrie inspired. But it built up to premiere of Peter Pan onstage, and we used lines that actors performed onstage. Sony which owned those underlying rights, said we couldn’t use them until ninety days after their film came out in December 25. That put us at March 25, and Miramax felt this was a fall movie better suited to October.
Did Monster’s Ball allow you to pick and choose your projects or do you still have to chase assignments?
I read Neverland before Monster’s Ball, and loved it, but I was not big enough. Afterward, I discovered it hadn’t got made, and we screened [Monster’s Ball] for [Miramax co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein [who owned Neverland]. When I told him how I would make the film, he offered it to me then and there. Stay was something I loved, but it didn’t instantly jump at me as something I wanted to do. Maybe it was because David Fincher was [originally] involved, or because the emotional arc was missing for me. Then, when it got offered to me, I worked with the writer, David Benioff, and found the arc necessary for me, and then I got very passionate about it. It was something very different, that I hadn’t done before. Both Stay and Neverland are very different films, and I like that.
The sex scene between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball got enormous press attention. Given that it followed shattering scenes in which both characters lost their sons, it was hardly an erotic context in the film. Were you surprised this was what people fixated on?
Yes, and I thought it shifted the focus from some of the essence of the piece. Then again, it shows what an interesting society we live in. It seems violence is much more acceptable than anything else. Nobody was concerned about the teenager shooting himself in front of his father, or the woman’s son being run over by a car, or even P. Diddy being electrocuted. Three people died horribly in the first half of the movie, and nobody seemed to pay attention to that.
What was your favorite scene in the movie?
The ending. For me, it ultimately broke the circle of violence these people lived in. That moment when they are eating ice cream, she sees the gravestone and she has to make that decision to either shoot him or forgive him. Forgiveness broke the circle of violence, and I hoped we, as human beings, could learn from that.
There has been a recent influx of foreign-born directors who are doing well directing big Hollywood films. As a filmmaker born in Germany, and raised in Switzerland, do you think having an outsider’s perspective helps you make better movies?
When I watched Ang Lee direct The Ice Storm, and Sam Mendes direct American Beauty, they captured an incredibly accurate perception that felt genuine. For me, when I made Monster’s Ball and my earlier, even darker films, I feel like when you are not from here, you are like a child who sees something new. The child observes, but doesn’t judge. If I was back in my hometown, I’d bring all sorts of judgments and preconceived notions, and I couldn’t be objective. Not being from suburbia, or being familiar with the violence of Monster’s Ball, I just wanted to tell the story. I didn’t want to say this is good, or it’s bad, or impose my opinions on the screen. A lot of people might have wanted to put forth their opinion about the death penalty or racism. For me, it was about what happened to these different characters. I’m not out to preach; I’d rather people make up their own minds.