EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Screening in the Dramatic Competition program at Sundance ’08, Daniel Barnz‘s feature directorial debut, “Phoebe in Wonderland” is a rich investigation of the complexities of growing up. “Phoebe” details Phoebe (Elle Fanning), a young girl, her mother (Felicity Huffman), a woman who desperately seeks success in an academic career at the expense of her parenting, and a drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson), who is directing a school production of “Alice in Wonderland” in which Phoebe seeks a role. Sundance’s Geoffrey Gilmore calls “Phoebe” an “honest and thoughtful work that is not to be missed.” He explains that “as an examination of normalcy and madness, this is realistic and cerebral storytelling, but it is also extravagantly magical, a metaphorical fable that examines childhood, our attempts to understand it, and the way we, as parents and teachers, navigate its treacherous shoals.”
“Phoebe in Wonderland”
Director: Daniel Barnz
Screenwriter: Daniel Barnz
Producers: Lynette Howell, Ben Barnz
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Robert Hoffman
Principal Cast: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Campbell Scott, Peter Gerety
U.S.A., 2007, 96 min., color, 35mm
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Daniel Barnz. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, did my undergrad work at Yale (where I majored in English), then received my MFA at USC in the film production program. I’ve been blessed to be paid to write films pretty much since graduating, though before my first writing job I did have a brief stint selling linoleum. (I was terrible.)
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
Growing up I was definitely a theater geek – I did all those ridiculous, completely exhilarating summer theater camps. In college I got more serious about directing – Yale is a great place for theater – and I spent my summers at Williamstown Theatre Festival. After college I moved to LA to work with Tim Robbins‘ theater company, The Actors’ Gang. Then I found out I had been accepted to USC, where I had applied primarily out of the what-am-I-going-to-do-after-college panic. Even though I was still pretty much in theater mode, USC didn’t seem like something I could possibly turn down – and lucky for me I didn’t. Because I soon realized that everything I loved about directing theater I loved a thousand times more in film.
Have you made other films?
After USC, I realized no one was going to hire me to direct, so (like many others) I started writing. My first script was “Phoebe in Wonderland” (which, ten years later, is my first film to be produced). Phoebe was well received as a sample, and helped me to land other writing gigs. After several years I teamed up with Ned Zeman and we wrote a number of films together, many based on his Vanity Fair articles. It’s been a fairly wild ride – we ended up writing a number of projects for incredible actors (Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc.) – but for one reason or another, none of them have been made. Still, each script has also been an opportunity to learn how to tell stories better. It’s probably good that I didn’t get to direct “Phoebe” when I first wrote it. Those years in development hell have made me a better storyteller.
What prompted the idea for “Phoebe in Wonderland” and how did it evolve?
I was definitely “The Weird Kid” growing up. But 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.
And since I wanted to make a film that was anti-conformist in spirit, and since I love theater so much, it made sense to include it and show it as a haven for all us weird people.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
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 Steve 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.
Creating the visual world was a very inspiring collaboration with Bobby Bukowski (DP), Therese DePrez (Production Designer) and Kurt and Bart (Costume Designers). Lynette Howell (Producer) 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 Felicity Huffman‘s character 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.
The casting process was, overall, exhilarating, since I was able to work with a cast that I only imagined in my wildest dreams. Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson – my top choices for those two roles – signed on early and passionately, and their commitment helped enormously with our financing. Then Bill Pullman and Campbell Scott sparked to the material and leant their great talents to the project. And finally, of course, I met Elle Fanning and realized that at the center of the film there was going to be this brave, intelligent, luminous presence.
Every day I got to work with these actors was nothing short of a gift.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Honestly, I’m not sure what challenge I didn’t face, and my guess is that they’re not so different from many other indies – finding financing, budget, scheduling, etc. But I will say that my producers – Ben Barnz and Lynette Howell – were among 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?
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
Certainly I hope to find a good home for the film, but mostly I’m just excited to show it to the people who created it with me but have yet to see it. Truth be told, I’ve never seen it with an audience larger than fifteen, so I’m looking forward to that as well. Some of the material will be challenging for audiences, and I welcome the debate. Also, since I’ve been pretty enmeshed in the studio system, I can’t wait to meet the other indie filmmakers – and there’s so many people going that I’ve admired for such a long time.
But all in all, I’m pretty determined to simply enjoy the fact the film is showing, and showing at Sundance. That in itself is a dream come true, and I’ve experienced enough ups and downs in my film career to know how important it is to savor the ups.
What are some of your recent favorite and all-time favorites films?
My most recent favorite film is the extraordinary “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” but my favorite film of all time is “Ordinary People.”
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
Success, for me, is the opportunity to continue directing films.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
Later this year (strike-willing) I’ll direct “Wisecracker“, which I also wrote, and which Ben and Lynette will also produce. Set at the end of the Jazz Age, it’s the fascinating true life story of William Haines, who was the number one matinee idol/ Capote/ luminary of his day.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.