When German-born, NYU-trained director Marc Forster came to Dallas for a special screening of “Finding Neverland,” his film about the background to J.M. Barrie’s creation of “Peter Pan” with Johnny Depp playing the turn-of-the-century playwright, he admitted in an interview that the picture seemed almost a distant memory to him: he’d shot it in London as long ago as 2002 as the follow-up to his surprise hit “Monster’s Ball.” (“With ‘Monster’s Ball,’” he said, “I was surprised that it actually became commercial, because three people die in the first half of the movie, and no character’s likable. The one woman is abusive to her child, he gets run over by a car, the other person gets electrocuted, the third person–the only likable character–shoots himself on screen in front of his father. And the studio said to me, ‘Look, nobody’s going to see this–let’s be clear about that. So we’re not going to give you any money for it, but we’re going to make it.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, if ten people go and see it, it will be a blessing.’ Then suddenly it became this almost commercial film.”) When Forster took on “Neverland,” it seemed an unpopular project, too. “I read the script before I made ‘Monster’s Ball,’ and I really loved it,” he said. “I did like what the script was going for, because it was always focused and concentrating on the inspiration of how this man got the idea to write ‘Peter Pan.’ And I loved how it captured the spirit of that….When I finished [‘Ball’] my agent called me and said, ‘You always loved that script. It’s still available.’ They couldn’t find a director. Everybody passed on it, or the directors who wanted to do it, Miramax didn’t want to give them the project. I met with them and talked to them about it, and it was before ‘Monster’s Ball’ came out but was about to be released, so I showed them ‘Monster’s Ball’ and they really responded to it. And I basically signed up….A lot of my friends who knew about the script said, ‘Why do you want to make this movie? It’s not for kids, it’s not for grownups. Who are you making the movie for?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I just think it’s a great story, and I love it. And I think it has [so many] wonderful aspects.’ They didn’t get it. I said I can’t make a movie thinking about my audience or just because of commercial reasons. I only can make it when I’m passionate about it.”
Forster finished post-production work on “Neverland” in mid-2003, but the release was held up until the fall of 2004, after he’d completed another picture in the meantime. The delay wasn’t due to any interference from Harvey Weinstein, the mercurial head of Miramax, who’s notorious for involving himself in a final cut. “I guess I’m one of the few lucky ones,” Forster joked. “I’m giving you a lot of good press here, because he really left me alone. He saw the movie and said, ‘I love it,’ and said ‘I don’t really want to change anything,’ and I said, ‘Thank you!’ Because that would have been very bad.” The hold-up resulted instead from an issue over rights. “The film was finished a year ago, and Miramax wanted to release it [in 2003] in the fall, but…all the play, the stage stuff was owned by Universal, [which] released that other ‘Peter Pan’ film [P.J. Hogan’s live-action version], and they didn’t want another ‘Peter Pan,’ or film on the subject matter, in the marketplace at the same time.” So “Finding Neverland” was postponed until spring, and then rescheduled for fall, 2004.
But now the film is generating a good deal of buzz, especially for Depp’s performance, which could earn him a second Oscar nomination after “Pirates of the Caribbean” (which he actually shot before “Neverland”). “That’s great for [Miramax], because they didn’t have to pay him his [current] price,” Forster said, laughing. After ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ made $300 million, his price definitely went up. He always had a following, but his following is now much, much wider.” He added: “I thought of him immediately because he still has this childlike quality, [and] because he’s one of the few actors who make decisions not because of commercialism–he makes decisions because he’s passionate about something. That the ‘Pirates’ movie became so commercial was a fluke, because all the people told him, ‘Why do you want to do “Pirates”? This is making a movie off some ride in Disneyland. It will, like, end your career.’ And he said, ‘No, I like the character, and I can see it with my kids.’ It all comes back to the William Goldman quote–‘Nobody knows anything.’” As to the talk that “Neverland” might land Depp an Oscar, the director had mixed feelings. “It’s a tricky [business], because if people call it that, people will have high expectations of the film, and I feel that if they come into the movie not knowing too much, or having less expectations, sometimes they come away saying, ‘Oh my God, I loved the film.’ But if they come in with high expectations, it’s much harder to please them. In a sense the Entertainment Weekly cover [featuring Depp with the headline ‘His Oscar Movie?’] helps the movie…because it makes it more accessible to people and brings the word out there, but at the same time…I hope people will not be disappointed.”
One special problem for Forster was directing the scenes which Depp had with co-star Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barrie’s producer. “Their approaches are definitely different,” he explained. “Dustin comes from a different school than Johnny does. Dustin is like a wonderful–I don’t know too much about cars, but people say when you have an engine of, like, an old Ferrari, that it has to run a while before it sounds perfect–so after eight, nine, ten takes, he starts running. He’s warming up and then, like, on take fifteen, sixteen, it’s like you’re getting to the jewel of his work. And Johnny is, like, take three, take four. After take ten he starts getting tired. So if you have a scene where they’re both in the shot, Johnny’s best work is between take three and take five, that’s when he peaks, and Dustin peaks between eight and twenty-five, somewhere in between there. I think it was hard for Johnny, because, you know, it’s Dustin Hoffman–we both love him, he’s an icon of ours. So you just try to keep going.”
Forster sounded a bit like his picture’s protagonist when he talked about working with the four young boys who played the children of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), to whom Barrie became a second father and who became the inspiration for his play. “They were so easy and lovely and wonderful,” he said. “And I made sure that I really looked at a lot of children–and chose those [four] children afrer I brought them in two, three, four times just to work with them. Once I got close to a bunch of them, I worked with them two hours at a time with a video camera, just me and them in a room. I gave them directions and did some scenes. I just wanted to see how long is their attention span, when do they get tired, how much are they willing to take direction or work with me. The first person I cast was Peter [Llewelyn Davies], Freddie Highmore–he was sort of the beginning–casting around him. And he was such a great actor and spirit. He was just so focused and just great to work with. The little one, Michael, was this cute boy Luke Spill. He was, like, five and a half, and sometimes after take four or five, that was as much as you can get. But he was so cute and wonderful that you didn’t need more. It was just lovely.” In fact, in choosing a favorite scene, he mentioned one involving Highmore: “I really do like the final scene between Johnny and Freddie. It has a certain honesty, how he treats the child. I loved shooting that scene, as well.”
In another case, a scene involving the children was memorable for a different reason. “There are a couple of other scenes we just had fun shooting,” Forster said. “A great scene where we had so much fun was the dinner scene, where everybody is there–Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Johnny and the kids. Johnny had this great idea. He had this fart machine, and he said, ‘We should use this fart machine for the kids. It’s hysterical.’ I said I knew exactly where I’d use it, in the dinner scene. He had a remote control setup, and I stowed it under the chair of Julie Christie. And Julie didn’t know; nobody knew except Johnny and I. I had the remote control, and when we’re shooting the scene and they’re eating, suddenly poof! It was very subtle, and Julie was like [embarrassed]. And you just got these great natural reactions. By take seven or eight, I was just, like, going nuts with it, and then they realized it was a machine….But the laughter we got from the kids, the reactions from Julie–how she got more and more tied up during the whole thing–were worth it. It’s very funny.”