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Director series: Marc Forster

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By Bill DesowitzAfter the raw intensity of Monster’s Ball, German-born director Marc Forster found the quieter and more lyrical Finding Neverland quite a different cinematic challenge. A fanciful depiction of author and playwright J.M. Barrie’s journey while penning Peter Pan, Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp, concerns the Scottish writer’s encounters with the four fatherless boys and their recently widowed mother that inspired the legendary tale of innocence and imagination. The challenge was finding a way of visually melding turn-of-the-century London with the dreamy quality of Barrie’s child-like musings.Below the Line: How did you arrive at a way of combining these two distinct visual worlds?Marc Forster: When I started speaking with [production designer] Gemma Jackson, [director of photography] Roberto Schaefer, [costume designer] Alexandra Byrne and [editor] Matt Chesse, I told them I didn’t want to make an archetypal period piece. I would like to do something slightly modern, slightly different, but not in a way that people would be jarred by it. So I said to Gemma and Alexandra that in the design we are within the period but still the fabrics are slightly different in the way they look. I wanted them to be ahead of their time. For instance, Barrie’s house. It is more modern and slightly cold. And the Llewelyn Davies house—because they are kids—should be more lively. And so I collected a lot of images, particularly Art Deco, of how I wanted it to look. And Gemma had her own images and her own artists, and Roberto had his ideas, so we had these discussions and married all of our ideas. It was very key for me because, for instance, I hired Alexandra on the basis of her work on Elizabeth, because it was so untypical of a period piece. The clothing on that is exquisite, and so I thought she would understand what I was going for. It was a very lively, very positive collaboration. I did my two previous films, Monster’s Ball and Everything Put Together, with Roberto and Matt, so we were all very close and there was this interesting shorthand. And I wanted to make sure that we had two Brits, and that we had two female perspectives. Alexandra has only done period films and even though Gemma had done Bridget Jones’ Diary and other things, they both had an understanding of England and the culture that was very key for me as well.BTL: What did you learn from Gemma and Alexandra during this process?Forster: I’m very detail oriented and even though we were going slightly modern, the intrinsic details, like buttons and shoes, really are part of that world. We really hit it on the nail and they both understand how to go in and out because that’s the sort of world they were trained in. In fact, I think they may have gone to the same school because Gemma originally was a costume designer but didn’t want to work with actors anymore and changed to production design.BTL: What was your approach in making these two worlds collide?Forster: The approach was to have the worlds of adults and children be parallel to one another. I was very keen on having the fantasy sequences be from a very naïve childlike point of view—theatrical, primitive, rudimentary and innocent.BTL: What was it like recreating, in the film, the very first stage production of Peter Pan?Forster: It was interesting because Gemma had done a lot of research and collected images of how the first production looked. The drawings were like drug-induced artists who were hallucinating. All of these enormous leaves and fairies and interesting creatures. And we used some of that for inspiration for the benevolent part, but ended up creating our own production.BTL: The big camera move in the theater by Double Negative was very impressive.Forster: Yes, it was impossible how they went up to the chandelier and over the audience and ended up on Peter. We actually did the move itself with a real camera physically and then put each piece of the move together through motion control.BTL: And how was the look of Neverland at the end achieved?Forster: I wanted it to have the look of an old Hollywood movie that was fake but beautiful and warm. We used some of the work of these hallucinating-like artists to bring into Neverland, and Gemma brought in some artists who had these big leaves that Peter Pan could sit on. Originally I wanted Peter and the fairies to jump from leaf to leaf, but Gemma told me they were too delicate, so I had to alter my plan.BTL: Was there anything special in your use of lighting?Forster: Roberto had this idea that I really liked about the lights moving through Neverland, and he had them rigged up through the computer on the ceilings so the lighting changed, and also the colors of the flowers shifting, which I was a big fan of. For the rest of the movie, I wanted it to be very naturalistic, which is my usual preference, and Roberto knows that. However, sometimes the lighting frame was very difficult, like the country cottage, so all he could do was light from the outside. But Roberto was always open enough to embrace my locations and give me what I want. The tricky thing for him was that the weather always changed in England. So to keep it consistent in a small amount of time was hard, and I felt bad for him.BTL: And location manager Emma Pill found everything you needed?Forster: She was incredible. If ever I shoot in England again, I will go to Emma. I told her I wanted to use as little as possible on stage, and she brought us to some great spaces and exteriors. This enabled us to avoid doing too much digital brush-up work later on.BTL: And what was it like working with Matt Chesse, your editor, in finding that right rhythm?Forster: It was interesting because this was so different from Monster’s. It starts slow and builds and it was important not to jump too fast. We just cut and recut and I usually cut very tight on my first cut—I think we ran 104 minutes—and we ended up at around 97 minutes. And Matt knows that my attention span is pretty short, and we have very good communication because he is the opposite of me and we’ve built a great symbiosis. I think working together we really find the truth and more interesting ways to tell the story.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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