This Week in Counter Programming: Phoebe in Wonderland

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Despite the fact that we all know that you will be seeing Watchmen this weekend, it would be almost unfair of us to not give some love to the other limited releases that might be hitting theaters this week. So for those of you who aren’t down with Watchmen and live in a few select cities, you might want to check out a dark little fairy tale called Phoebe in Wonderland.

Directed by Daniel Barnz, Phoebe in Wonderland follows the story of a young girl (Elle Fanning) who struggles to follow the rules. Perplexed by her inability to get along with the rule-obsessed world around her, Phoebe seeks enlightenment and comfort from her unconventional drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson). Phoebe in Wonderland explores a young girl’s self-discovery and her journey to find acceptance.

I was lucky enough to catch this one at Sundance two years ago where is made its debut, and if I remember correctly (by checking my review) I found it to be a very charming little film with a surprising amount of darkness and complexity, and a really great performance from young Elle Fanning.

As an added bonus for you this week, we’ve got a cool Q&A with director Daniel Barnz, which can be found below. To find out if Phoebe in Wonderland is playing in your area, I would direct you to go give your zip code to MovieTickets.com. Phoebe in Wonderland is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 96 minutes.

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Q&A with Phoebe in Wonderland director Daniel Barnz:

What was your inspiration for the film?

I was The Weird Kid growing up – probably less Phoebe and more Jamie (though without his guts). The irony of being tortured as a kid is that at a certain point in your life – if you’re a storyteller – you become grateful for the pain you experienced because it feeds you creatively.

So I began with the idea of wanting to make a film about a kid who was different, and who might learn something about the strength that comes from being different. Then, as I had children, it also became a film about being the parent of a kid who’s different. I’m interested by how we want our children to be special and unusual, but it’s also really painful to see them actually being special and unusual – it’s hard when you don’t have the kid who runs in and shows off for her class on the first day of school.

Since I wanted to make a film that was anti-conformist in spirit, and since I love theater so much, and I was kind of a theater geek growing up, it made sense to include it and show it as a haven for all us weird people.

Was it hard to get the movie made?

I wrote my first draft before Elle Fanning was born. So yes.

I think I was writing my third or fourth revision of a big studio movie starring Mel Gibson about biker gangs. (If you know me, this is funny.) And my husband Ben came down to my office after re-reading Phoebe and said, “You need to make this movie.” I said, “Can you help me do that?” And he – having never produced anything before – said, “I’ll try.” He first gave the script to Felicity and Patricia, and there were pretty hilarious moments of him on the phone with their agents at CAA while in the bathroom toilet training our kids. Then Ben helped us find our way to Silverwood, who came on board and really made it all come together after ten years.

But as for whether it was hard once Silverwood came on board, the answer is no. Lynette and Doug have spoiled me for life – they are the most collaborative, supportive, nurturing producers you could ever find. From day one, we have all been on the same team with the same objective – make the best movie we can with the resources we have. You always hear about these clashes between producers and directors – this was not true for us. A good producer cares just as much about creative issues as a director, and a good director is also a strong businessman. Plus, I have always felt that restriction breeds creativity, so every budgetary challenge became a creative challenge – how can we do this in a way that’s more interesting for less money?

As a first time feature director, how did you attract this cast?

My ballsy husband first gave the script to Felicity, who was our neighbor at the time. (Yes, that old cliché.) She called a few days later and she said, “I really think this movie needs to be made, and I’d love to play the role… but you may need someone with more juice to get your financing.” Two weeks later she was cast in the pilot of Desperate Housewives, and then came the Oscar nomination. So the juice issue – wasn’t.

Once Felicity was involved, we were able to get the script to Patti. She is one of those rare great actresses who reads all the scripts she gets, regardless of whether the film is greenlit or even fully financed. She had had a close connection to a drama teacher of her own, and I think there was some kind of kismet in all of this for her.

Ben and I met Patti in the middle of a heat wave in New York, and I remember sweat pouring off my face, Albert Brooks-style. She walked into the restaurant, took one look at Ben and me, and said (in her famous Louisiana drawl) “My god, you’re twelve.” But we hit it off quickly, and at the end of the meeting she offered to show the script to Campbell, who she’s very close to.

Campbell read it, and called to ask if he could play the Principal. I always admire actors who want to do something a little different from what they’ve done before, and as a director it’s exciting – you know they’re going to go the extra mile – so I immediately said yes.

With those three in place, we went to Elle Fanning, who had made an impression on me in both Door in the Floor and Babel. When I met her I was immediately struck – as I think many people are – by this kind of luminous quality she has about her. In fact, later on, when we were in the height of our pre-production stress and wondering how we were ever going to pull this all off – we did our hair and makeup tests. Elle’s face appeared on the screen – there were probably ten people sitting in the room – and there were audible gasps. It sounds like a cliché but it was true – she literally lit up the screen. It really reassured all of us, knowing that we had that kind of presence in the role.

The last coup was Bill Pullman, who’s also represented by Elle’s management team. They passed the script on to him and we met on an incredibly windy night in the West Village. Within five minutes all of these startling coincidences came out (he has a daughter at the same small liberal arts college Ben attended; he’s a fan of the (fairly obscure) playwright Edward Bond, I had directed a play by him, etc.) And he had been a college professor and immediately understood the character and the world, and I think as a parent he connected deeply to the family drama. And after an hour and a half, he shook my hand and said he was excited to do the movie.

Getting all these people in place (and keeping them there) was a very, very, difficult – the movie kept almost falling apart – but the beauty of it is that they were all in it because they really wanted to be, and it meant that no matter how grueling the shoot was, no one complained because they were there for no other reason than that they really cared. I really applaud these actors for having the courage to commit – you hear so many actors complaining about the dearth of good roles, but that’s not really true. The truth is that there just aren’t that many at the top of their field who are really willing to take a risk on an independent film with a first time filmmaker.

I remember at the end of our second week of shooting, it was very late, and I was doing a scene with Bill and Felicity. We had finished shooting for the night, and the sound people wanted to record some room tone. But Bill hadn’t heard them call it, so the whole set was quiet, and he turned to Felicity and me with this fire in his eyes and started going off on how wasn’t this all amazing, and wasn’t it so exciting to work with people who cared so much. Felicity and I were really moved, but also really tense because everyone else was silent, and when Bill finally figured out what was going on we couldn’t stop laughing. (I think the other fifty people waiting to go home were less amused.)

Did you always have an interest in Alice in Wonderland?

Not as a kid. I always found it kind of a weird story – it was too non-linear and confusing for me. I began to appreciate it more as an adult, it’s a great text for an English major (which I was). When I first began writing the script, Wonderland didn’t figure into it at all. Miss Dodger was inspiring the kids to make up their own play. Then I think I read a review in the paper of a production of Alice in Wonderland, and something clicked for me. I realized that it would make sense for Phoebe to retreat to Wonderland in her imagination – everything there is opposite, different, exciting (until, of course, it’s not). Better yet, I realized that Phoebe’s experience in our world is almost exactly analogous to Alice’s experience in Wonderland – there are all these rules, and she can’t quite follow them or make sense of them, and it’s very confusing.

I also love how Alice in Wonderland deals with language, how words can be twisted and wrangled or powerful or meaningless. Like that great line “You might just as well have said I am what I eat is the same as I eat what I am.” All the characters in Phoebe have their own relationships with words and language. Phoebe can’t help but speak her mind: “You’re fat!” Hillary and Peter are at the opposite end of the spectrum: they’re highly articulate academics who have the damnedest time being honest about their emotions.

It’s probably fairly obvious to say, but as a writer I’m fascinated by the power of words — how Phoebe’s brain is wired such that words just come out, how her parents use words to help them deny certain truths, and how when any of them try to suppress words, they find a way of popping out anyway.

Was it hard working with so many children?

Of course. Production is very stressful, and you have to be extremely careful not to pass that on to the kids. If you have two minutes left before you hit overtime and a kid needs to go to the bathroom, all you can do is smile and say, “Of course.” We really tried hard to keep it a kid-friendly environment – my two children (who I adopted with Ben) would frequently visit and take over the director’s chair. (Is that telling?)

But basically the children in Phoebe were all incredibly professional and tireless. And Elle was nothing short of amazing. I don’t how she did it – she never gave a dishonest take. On the day we were shooting the scene where she wakes up from a nightmare, she arrived at set a bit quieter and more introspective than usual. Her grandmother (who was taking care of her) told us that Elle hoped people didn’t think she was being unfriendly, that she just needed to be a in a certain state of mind to do the scene (which was pretty emotional). We were all impressed that a nine-year-old understood that, I remember Felicity quipping “It took me most of adult life to learn to do that.”

That said, there are child labor laws, which make your days pretty short in what was already an impossibly short shooting schedule (25 days). So I would say to first time directors — don’t, under any circumstances, make a first film with twenty children in it.

Where did you shoot?

The first two weeks we shot in the Douglaston area of Queens. We were looking for a small Northeast college town feel, and I was pretty amazed by how convincing Douglaston was. It looked just like where I grew up – near Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges. Plus the Lichten house had this amazing two hundred year old tree that was very Wonderland-ish.

The last three weeks we shot in Riverhead and Calverton (on Long Island). We found an elementary school theater from the 1920’s, and the moment you walked into it you felt that this was a place that had a kind of history and magic to it. We did end up shooting with school going on around us, so there are some pretty hilarious outtakes when the principal would come over the PA system to make announcements. Which naturally happened pretty much any time we were shooting something emotional.

What are your influences?

For this film specifically, there were a couple of key films about children that were immensely inspirational – Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which I consider one of the greatest films about young girls ever made. It captures so perfectly that sense of childlike infectiousness and giddiness, and the fine line between the beauty and the horror of children’s imagination. Also, Searching for Bobby Fischer in the honesty of the performances, the visual style that puts you into a child’s head, and the brave way Zaillian used so few establishing shots, which also went toward creating that subjective, childlike perspective. Fanny and Alexander, of course, which is so beautiful and heart-wrenching and I only didn’t mention first so I wouldn’t sound pretentious. David LaChapelle was a great inspiration for thinking about color, particularly in the Wonderland sequences.

How did you create the visual style for the film?

For me, it was a very inspiring collaboration with Bobby (Bukowski, DP), Therese (DePrez, Production Designer) and Kurt and Bart (Costume Designers). Lynette made it possible for us all to spend a weekend together before we even officially began pre-production. So we basically camped out in a NY apartment talking about the movie’s themes, looking at hundreds of photographs and paintings, watching clips from various movies. That weekend was invaluable, and put us all on the same page.

We started with the idea that this is a film about conformity, and we tackled each of the visual worlds from that idea – the school, for example, has lot of graphic lines, a more monochromatic color palette, wider angle lenses that force perspective. Likewise, we wanted it to appear as if the architecture of the house was boxing Hillary in — books pouring off shelves, doorways closing in on her.

The theater is the “freeing” space, where you’re encouraged to break out of molds – so we accentuated the vastness of the space, kept the camera moving, the colors increasingly vibrant.

And of course we spent a lot of time debating Wonderland. This is also a “freeing” place, but much more dangerously so. What we felt from the beginning was that it should be grounded in Phoebe’s reality – that the Wonderland characters should come into her world and make it (at least initially) better and more colorful and more fantastic. We didn’t want it to be like she was stepping into another world where we’d be distracted by CG and visual effects. When I was a kid, I always imagined things in the real spaces that surrounded me — we wanted to remain true to that, and always try to put ourselves in Phoebe’s head.

Can you discuss the editing and scoring?

We came back from shooting to a rough assembly. Ten days later we were scheduled to show a director’s cut. So Robert (Hoffman, Editor) and I immediately began moving stuff around and throwing scenes out. This process felt pretty organic since it’s so like the writing process. Certainly ten years of writing in the studio system has taught me the value of killing your babies. And like writing, if you edit a scene for a long time, it’s very hard to let go of that scene later on. So it was liberating to let go of everything – the script, the shooting – from the very beginning. And we got the cut done in ten days. We tweaked and experimented for a couple weeks after that, but it cleaved pretty closely to that first effort. This was a great example of how having limited resources – i.e. we could only pay for the Avid for so long – actually helped us. It forced us not to indulge ourselves.

Chris (Beck, Composer) began working on themes while we were still editing. There were a couple things Chris and I agreed on from the beginning – first, the music should be an expression of Phoebe’s interior state of mind, that it should echo her need for order and repetition. Second, since the narrative revolves around a young girl, the score should steer away from anything that appears light or delicate – it should be muscular and rich. Third, we wanted to make sure there was something very rhythmic and forward-moving about the music, which I think is key in more interior, less action-y movies. Lastly, while many dark things happen in the film, I always saw this as a very hopeful film, but I discovered while editing that minor music choices significantly affected whether audiences did too.

For example, Phoebe and Miss Dodger have a scene up on the catwalk in the middle of the movie, where Phoebe admits to being scared and Miss Dodger reassures her in her characteristically non-warm-and-fuzzy way. In the temp music, we had a more neutral solo piano, and the scene played as very bleakly existential. But what you need at that point in the film is the sense of connection between these two characters, and a sense of possibility. So Chris’s score was also solo piano, but nudges it ever so slightly in that more hopeful direction.

What I admire about Chris’s score is that it doesn’t just reinforce what we’re seeing visually and hearing in the dialogue, it works as counterpoint, it offers up another layer to the storytelling – sometimes it’s almost the opposite if what you’d expect. And he wasn’t afraid to make bold musical statements within scenes – there are several cues where you are really meant to notice the music – i.e. Phoebe is filled with rage, so the music comes crashing in, that kind of thing.

Why is it that you shy away from talking specifically about what’s going on with Phoebe?

I guess no filmmaker wants his or her audience to know too much about what happens in their film. But with this film, if people know too much going in, then they tend to pigeonhole Phoebe and – to be honest – the narrative. While the film does reveal certain things about Phoebe towards the end, it’s not really what the film is ultimately about. The danger of people knowing this information in advance is that they tend to think it is what the movie’s about. In my opinion it’s better if you go in not knowing anything about Phoebe other than the fact that she’s different.