German-born, Swiss-raised filmmaker Marc Forster studied Film at New York University, moved to Los Angeles, made the dark dramatic feature Everything Put Together, then made a deal for a little movie called Monster's Ball, with Oscar winners Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry. Before he made Monster's Ball, though, Forster intended to make Finding Neverland, a fictionalized account of J.M. Barrie's inspirations for Peter Pan. No one would bankroll the film until Forster proved himself with the Oscar-nominated Monster's Ball; now, Finding Neverland is Miramax's Oscar hopeful of 2004. I spoke to Forster on October 8, 2004 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
Groucho: Finding Neverland might appear, in some way, to be a departure for you because it has period and fantasy elements, but it's also powerfully cathartic. Do you see a thread through your films or, put another way, what do you respond to in material?
Marc Forster: Yeah, no, there's definitely a thread...Everything Put Together, which was my first feature and then Monster's Ball and then Neverland: all three deal with mortality. And in Neverland, it's not only the mortality of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies character, mortality of innocence, of dying to the boy within you, and becoming grown up. I mean, Peter Pan in general, the subject of Peter Pan deals with that anyway. So, you know, all of them have definitely cathartic elements, like Everything Put Together and Monster's Ball, as well. And, y'know, all of them, at the same time, the characters are, y'know, all, in a sense, very lonely, in all the movies. You know, and find, try to find a bond, like J.M. Barrie finds a bond with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and the kids, Billy Bob Thornton's character, Hank, with Leticia, Halle Berry's character...because of the death of both their children and so on. So I think that there's, y'know, obviously the films deal with different subjects...in Monster's Ball, it's for me breaking the circle of violence, here I think the main subject matter for me was the transformation of imagination and following this path of, like, how the creative process is, but they all do deal, indirectly, with similar subject matters or a similar constellation of characters.
Groucho: I want to talk a little bit about the function of art in Finding Neverland. It seems to me that art can provide an escape from reality or put the mirror up to life. How do you see Barrie's art as a function of his own personal concerns and also in its universal appeal?
Marc Forster: I think, in its universal appeal, y'know, the interesting thing is that this script, this Peter Pan is still modern today; it's, obviously, because of the obvious reasons—I mean, ultimately, our culture right now is so youth-obsessed...all these people using Botox and plastic surgery and this incredible also fear of age. It used to be fear of death, now we have fear of age. So it just seems to be that we all want to stay forever young, so it has this Peter Pan quote unquote Syndrome is so embedded in our culture this day and age, especially in Western culture that it's almost frightening. But, at the same time, I think Barrie himself when he created the piece, obviously the mirror, I think, of his own life because he, y'know—which was a reflection of his own bringing up because he had almost—when he—you know, he lost his brother very young, and then he stopped growing at the same age when his brother died. Which he stayed—he was a very short man. So, and he had to take on the responsibility of, take care of the mother. So he never really had a proper childhood. So ultimately, he was forced to grow up and didn't want to grow up, and I think a lot of—. At the same time, he also was an asexual, and, you know, he didn't like to be touched, because I made a lot of research before I made the movie to make sure he's not a pedophile. And, uh, with the whole sexuality issue with him. And he didn't like to be touched, didn't want to be touched, so that a lot of--. And Peter, actually Peter Pan, says, in the Peter Pan play, says, I don't ever want to be touched. So, y'know, there's definitely certain reflections of his own life and mirrors of his own life. But I think with everything one does as an artist, you know, there always--especially if it's...truthful art, I think there must be something of your own life and a reflection and mirror of yourself in it, otherwise it wouldn't be--it would be fake. I mean, at least for me, I'm only attracted to things that I'm passionate about, and if I'm passionate about something and it attracts me somewhat really deeply, I lived something similar or there's a reflection of me in it.
G: The film also touches on the communal aspect of art, in theatre and his generosity to the orphans and whatnot. What is it like to watch one of your own films with an audience, or do you wear down the carpet in the lobby?
MF: No, no, I have watched the film a few times with an audience. It's different, interesting, y'know, I—with every audience is a different experience. But it's more nerve-wracking than enjoyable, because you don't know how the audience will react, and it is a very emotional experience because you're looking at the film, you're looking at certain things you could have done different and/or mistakes or this or that and the thing is, when you look at a film, you look at the audience. And at the same time, you think, okay, I should just let go. It doesn't matter what they think, it doesn't matter—it is what it is. Because I can't change anything what's on the screen. It's not like a play, where I might be able to improvise something. But I can't change anything on screen, and I can't change their opinion but just should let go. But ultimately, I think all human beings want to be loved, and we all want to be somehow embraced. Nobody wants to be hit, rejected, and hated. I think, ultimately, otherwise I don't think it would be truthful. And, you know, if someone embraces your work, it still, you know, makes you—inspires you to keep going, you know?
G: The tone of the film and the style of the film are very striking and perhaps delicate. Can you explain your approach to striking that balance?
MF: Yeah, when I read the script, I thought the script was very sentimental. I liked the script a lot, I loved it, but I felt I really had to be careful to restrain everything and simplify everything and that the acting is very restrained because as soon as you push too much, it just would be, get cheesy and corny. So it was real--I was really working on that hard. I also wanted to visually not make a typical period piece. I wanted the fantasy sequences not to be too flashy and showy-off, so I tried to make them—when you read fantasy sequences in a script, as a director, you say, "Oh, what I can do is show off," y'know, or show how creative one can be. And I didn't want to do that, I wanted to do a very theatrical, naïve, childlike, simple--and just steer everything back to simplicity, because I thought the only way this thing would work--the simpler the performances, the simpler the visuals and the simpler--unnoticeable I go in and out of fantasies, the better it will be. Because people, in generally, know Peter Pan. So if it's about a story how he got his [inspiration] to write Peter Pan, if I show the hook, they already know what that means. The audience is ahead of me constantly. So usually in a film, if they don't know what it's about, I am ahead of the audience, and I can almost pull the strings. But like if the audience pulls the strings, that could not help me.
G: You mentioned the extensive research you did for the film. It's also a film that is—though based on a true story--liberated by fictionalization. How did you feel about stepping away from reality a bit?
MF: I feel the trick about it—I read the script, and I thought, "Okay, there are two ways to do a film here." There's the totally biographical film of Barrie, either from A to Z or biographical piece how he got inspired, or there's this fictionalized version, which I prefer, which is about how--which I was important for me, to capture the spirit, how he was inspired throughout the story. And for me, it was a more modern piece: it doesn't matter if it was there or someone else, but it was just about how he got inspired, the process of art and the mortality issue and so on and all that other different themes. The real story, obviously, and then the truth—if you read about it or not—but the real story, y'know, took place over many, many years; the husband--he first met the kids in the park with the maid and the parents later at a social gathering; the father died later of cancer of the jaw, which he blamed the doctors; there were five kids instead of four, you know; and then the father died, and he still—he wanted to actually get engaged with Sylvia, then bought her an engagement ring, but she died before and then took care—y'know, paid a lot of the children's school education and so on. But there are a lot of inconsistencies throughout, and to make a movie about that would have been, first of all, not very interesting and, you know, it would have been over many, many years, it would have been meandering, boring period piece: a film I'm not interested in making. I mean, if someone—and even then, if I would have stuck to the truth, it still wouldn't be the truth! Because I don't have—I still wouldn't know if it's really J.M. Barrie, I didn't know him, nobody—. I mean, I've talked to a lot of people who knew him when he was still alive, but still, they're very old now, and they have their memories; everybody has that perspective, you know? And for me, I feel like always with biographies, even if you are as truthful as you want to be, you're still not truthful because you're just slapping up in two hours, an hour and a half a person's life or piece of his life. Okay, how much more truthful is it than in real life? It isn't, it's a fictionalization, it always is. For me, it was about trying to capture that spirit of him. (Laughs.) I don't know if that answers your question.
G: I think so, yes. You mentioned having talked to some people who knew him, and I know that Barrie's goddaughter is in the film. Though she was only nine when he died, did she or the others offer any personal insights?
MF: Yeah, no, she offered definitely personal insights, and she, y'know, offered a lot of her father, Nico, who died in 19—I think 19—probably '70s. And he obviously spent a lot of time with Barrie, too, and talked to her a lot. And from her, it's like childhood memories. And most of the people who I met who still knew him are obviously very—like she's in her seventies, I believe. But she's such a great character. That's why I wanted to cast her in the movie because she was so larger-than-life. But, you know, but I gave her the script, I said, "Look, you will see the inconsistencies. By the way, I cut out your father." Because Nico was the youngest child. "But I wanted to know what you felt, if it captured the spirit how he was inspired." And she felt it did. And she felt that, you know, it's sort of this spirit of him, how he sort of was in there. And I think if it was truthful enough, I think, you know, that that was the main thing for me. But she—they're all—mainly, y'know, what I wanted to all speak about with them is about his sexual thing...Because it was mainly that, you know, that I really wanted to make sure that he wasn't a pedophile. And he, and everybody keeps saying he was asexual, he didn't like to be touched or touch other people and so on.
G: You've worked with two leading men, two stars, who have a reputation for eccentricity. Can you comment on the styles of Johnny Depp and Billy Bob Thornton and what your working relationship was like with those actors?
MF: You know, my working relationship with both was phenomenal. I love them both, I think they're both incredible talented, and just wonderful, wonderful people. What's funny, actually, I read in a magazine just when I was about to board a plane to go to England to start pre-production that, in some—on the plane, that's what the journalist said: Billy Bob Thornton and Johnny Depp are both, I think, afraid of dwarves and clowns, something like that, and I was thinking, "I have clowns in the movie, with Johnny. So, so he's afraid of clowns?" So...I thought, I really, he knows the script so number one, I'm turning around the plane: finally, "No, we can't shoot these clowns, we have to shoot with whatever." But both of them are so wonderful and so loving and so creative. And like they are—they know their lines, they are on time, they are humble, kind, and they are there for the other actors. They're really very giving.
G: You grew up in Switzerland, and I wanted to ask you about your perspective on living in America. You lived in New York for a while, in film school, right? And now in L.A. I guess—I'm not sure exactly how I want to put it, but do you feel at home in the culture here, or how do you see American culture?
MF: You know, I like New York a lot; really, I just love New York I like L.A., and I do actually like San Francisco; it reminds me a bit of Switzerland a little bit, just size-wise. But I do feel at home here, yes. Because what I love about America is that if you really believe in something, that people give you the opportunity to make it happen. And they really—you have the chance to manifest your dreams. And you really, you don't have that in Europe. It's really—people are much more judgmental, much more conservative. And you always find some people who give you chances if you work harder or have ideas or—you just can convince people much easier to invest in you and make things happen than you can do in Europe. I mean, I tried in Europe to, when I finished film school in New York to raise money to make a movie, and nobody would give me anything! You know, and...I mean, I had someone—my parents couldn't afford it—that sponsored paying for my film school. And I wrote all these letters, and there's so many wealthy people in Switzerland, and I love Switzerland, you know, but it's just people are—don't—aren't that—they don't have that mentality. And I think here they have much more this mentality of taking risks.
G: I also wanted to ask you: I read that you, when you were in New Orleans, you lived in Francis Ford Coppola's home for a little while. That must have been a slightly surreal experience.
MF: Yeah, very much so, and, you know, it's an amazing house, and it was very expensive. All these drawings of Kurosawa on the wall, and I was thinking, "Oh my God," like—. And then they had the furniture of The Godfather in the house. It was the main, big house, so it was very surreal, especially, y'know, Apocalypse Now was sort of the first film I saw in the theatre, the movie theatre. So then I feel it has more meaning. And in Monster's Ball, the opening of the film, I never could come up how I wanted Billy Bob Thornton to wake up in the, in bed. I never could come up with the shot, and I was going nuts, and I was thinking, sitting there in Coppola's house, and TV, and there was a tape of Apocalypse Redux in front of me. And I was thinking, 'That's it. That's how I'll open it." Now it opens, you know, with the fan, and the fan going through the credits, and him waking up. Because I thought, you know, it's just the Martin Sheen shot, and I'll have the fan. But I just opened the movie like that.
G: That's interesting. I read also that, after Monster's Ball, you had a project in development about medicine, about HMOs and all that. Did that project fall by the wayside, or is it something you might return to?
MF: No, it's still in development. We're still having issues with the script and then there are a lot of, you know, with these kind of projects, especially if it's based on a real person, and you have to, you know, it deals mainly with AZT and with HIV and AIDS and stuff. And it deals with a character who refuses to die and basically all the doctors say "You have six weeks to live," and he says, "No, I'm not," and he follows an untraditional path of healing himself. And eventually, many, many years later, he dies, but he—and, but no, it's a very—I love that project, and, you know, I've been trying to get it right, but somehow we still—it's not working very much.
G: Finding Neverland wrapped some time ago. You have some projects—one completed project, is that right?
MF: Yeah, no, I'm finishing a project right now, called Stay. I'm doing the sound of it.
G: Right. Can you tell me a little bit about what we can look forward to there?
MF: With Stay? It's about a psychiatrist who has a patient who is suicidal, I mean, (laughs) and trying to—convince him to live...
G: There certainly is this theme of mortality in your films.
MF: (Laughing) That's my obsession slightly, okay.
G: Why is that, do you think? Why so many films that deal with death?
MF: You know, I think it's exactly because I experienced it in my family and friends and stuff, but also—and it's some people work their grief out different ways, but after three movies, I should say "Oh, great," and move on. But the thing is, it's also because I feel like society is sort of—turned that back over to death. It's something very fearful and people are frightened of, and then sort of, it's like, you know, when somebody has a terminal illness, he [goes] to the wayside. And I think it's sort of—you know, we celebrate birth, and death is something we just don't want to deal with. And I think it's something important that we organically realize, making it being part of life. You know, it's a part of the cycle, and a part—and we can't—we shouldn't fear. And we should—we should embrace. I mean, it's not that—we shouldn't have somebody celebrate it, but we should at least make sure that it's part of us and not try to shy away from it. And try to be able to open—talk openly about it with our children, with the younger generation because I think people say, "Oh, he's going to die. It's bad." Y'know, obviously it's bad, but I think if someone is dying, there's not much you can do. You should make sure that they have at least a chance to go peaceful. Whatever someone's belief system, if they believe in afterlife or not or whatever it may be, I still think it's important to have to understand the cycle and see it as something natural.
G: Alright, it's been great chatting with you
MF: Same here. Good to meet you.
[For Groucho's review of Finding Neverland, click here.]