Hannah Jayanti isn’t the only one to be affected by Norton Juster’s children’s adventure novel “The Phantom Tollbooth” (with illustrations by Jules Feiffer), but she is the only one on Kickstarter raising money for a film that will celebrate the book’s legacy.
“A friend of mine intro’ed me to Norton,” Jayanti told iW. “I had worked with her a few years back. She told me had met him. I was like, wow, I remember that book from being a kid. I remembered so many of the images from the book, notably, the Terrible Trvium, who makes you move a pile of sand using a pair of tweezers, transfer water from well to another with an eyedropper, and dig with a needle.
“After I expressed interest, I spent a weekend with Norton. There was so much more there. Above and beyond a publicity piece tied to the 50th anniversary. I asked everybody if they would be into us making a full documentary. To my great fortune, not only did everyone say yes, but they were super interested. We started in January.”
Jayanti has worked on films like “Rolf Harris Paints His Dream” and “The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” but this is the first indie film she’s directing. “It’s funny to do a movie independently. It’s a weird place. I was working on this on my own time while doing something else. It’s a risky thing to do, when you don’t know if you’re going to get any type of funding.
“There’s something about doing the Kickstarter that is really appropriate for the book. It wouldn’t work as a movie if people weren’t really moved by this book, if people weren’t affected by it.”
Asking for money from fans of the book has been successful; the film surpassed its Kickstarter goal soon after posting the project on the site. Jayanti called the whole experience “incredibly rewarding,” “People are emailing me their stories. A lot of people are telling me, ‘This book formed me.’ ‘This book changed my life.’”
As for the structure of the film, Jayanti is planning on mixing styles: “My hope is to do a nice combination of bringing the book to life as much as one can, through animation, through some live action fictional stuff. We’re working on figuring out how to tell that part of the story—keeping with the fun of the book—I would hate it if 8-year-olds saw this film and were like ‘Oh, boring!’
“We have some really lovely, really visual based elements. There are some overt elements and some much more matter-of-fact interviews.”
Don’t let this talk of a bored 8-year-old scare you, Jayanti is well aware of how much adults love the book. “As a kid, my mom read it to me, and she was really into it. I have to be honest, I’m loving it more now. Probably more than I was at the time. When my friend asked if I would do this, I re-read it and I thought it was brilliant. I’m really enjoying thinking about it and learning about it. I’m not gonna dwell on nostalgia.
“Why does it continue to be relevant now? Why is it good to reconsider at different stages of your life?”
The Kickstarter campaign is going for a week more, and there’s lots of rewards for donations related to the book. Jayanti was able to find a number of artists who made pieces related to the book. She came across a TOCK plush in Norton’s house and got in touch with the woman, Heidi Kenney, who gave it to him at a book signing to make more for the Kickstarter campaign. There’s also a map of the novel’s world by Jan Avendano.
“As a filmmaker,” Jayanti said, “you get into your own head. This has been the most re-energizing thing imaginable. I wrote to one of the backers when I was emailing them: ‘If i ever wonder why I am doing this—I can just read your message.’”
“The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50”
Director/Editor: Hannah Jayanti
Director of Photography: Jeremy Haik
Producer: Janice L. Kaplin
Camera: Sarah White-Ayon
Sound: Jarrett DePasquale