November 14, 2004|Looking more than a little like Michael Stipe, German-born, Switzerland-raised director Marc Forster speaks with a soft Swiss accent, supplementing his thoughts with delicate hand gestures and a nervous self-deprecation. He seems almost too fragile for the world, and in fact admits that he retreats into fantasy, the womb of fable, when he can. His instinct to fashion metaphor out of life's cruelties drew his debut and sophomore features--the festival darling Everything Put Together (about the loss of a child) and arthouse smash Monster's Ball (which won an Oscar for Halle Berry while making of race and class a fairy tale of the reconstruction), respectively--their fair share of criticism. A gauzy look at the South, Monster's Ball, for instance, reminded me of Faulkner but many others of Jim Crow. Taking the harsher edges of life and rounding them into allegory rubs me, where Forster's first two films are concerned, the right way. I can't say the same for his latest, Finding Neverland.
A fictionalization of author J.M. Barrie's relationship with a widow and her sons, who serve as inspiration for his play "Peter Pan", Finding Neverland skirts the matters of import (unlike how Monster's Ball and Everything Put Together address the major issues broached by their themes, if through the scrim of archetype/stereotype). It's a fantasy about a fantasist with no grounding in the realpolitik that is its foundation--the ice cream-sharing moment that closes Monster's Ball without the understanding that the widow has unearthed the subtext of her paramour's attentions. Finding Neverland doesn't have a thought in its head, and that's something that sets it apart from Forster's calling card films. Indeed, from the impression Forster himself gave me.
Chatting with Mr. Forster in a suite of Denver's Brown Palace the morning after he held a Q&A at a screening of Finding Neverland sans moderator (never an easy task), I was stricken by his shyness--and gratified that he came out of his shell to discuss a mutual hero, cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg. Outward apperances suggest that Forster isn't tough enough to survive in the Hollywood shark pool, but with two high-profile films in the works, there must be reserves of strength (or at least a few cunning defensive strategies) that aren't obvious to the casual observer. Hard not to wish him well, and even his harshest detractors can't argue the miracle-in-hindsight that he coaxed a complex performance from Halle Berry.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You started out with documentaries--tell me about connections, if there are any, between one you did with children who are burn victims [Our Story] and Finding Neverland.
MARC FORSTER: Sure. The incredible thing about children is that they have this point of view on life and the world. The world is new and unfiltered, uncoloured, for them--they see things with so much more, I'm searching for the word, "purity." It's through education, parents molding that worldview, that they gradually become worldly and judgmental, more painted by the world--and I find so much sadness in that transition. It's forced upon the kids in Our Story of course by the horrible circumstances of their injuries--and to a different, but certainly as traumatic effect, by the death of a parent in Finding Neverland. The loss of both parents, really. That moment of change is fascinating to me and terrible, too. I feel like often as a grown-up that I want to be a child, I want to resurrect that childlike purity, to detach myself from black-and-white valuations and understand that everything is relative. It's hard--but I think for a child, it's easier.
Tied with that is your affection for fable.
Yes, I think so. Fables are such an ancient form of storytelling--fairy tales, too. Something very magical about them for their position just parallel to our own modern lives. They're things, they're metaphors for the modern world. Through fables you can communicate to people difficult things in ways that are less threatening or proselytizing. Through fables you can avoid preaching. I have a point of view that I want to express, but I really want to avoid that right vs. wrong mentality in expressing it. I want to be more open to raising a point for discussion or encouraging a thought-process, and with fable you're closer to presenting an opportunity for a blank slate with your audience.
To encourage a more "pure" childlike acceptance of difficult themes?
I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes.
|Forster directs Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Joe Prospero in Finding Neverland|
Aiding in that fable-like quality to your films is their look. Tell me about your collaboration with cinematographer Roberto Schaefer.
I first worked with Roberto on my unreleased film Loungers...
Why is it unreleased?
It was well received, but we couldn't get music clearance.
But Roberto did Loungers for free and on Everything Put Together I called him up and said, "Hey, Roberto, I'm putting this thing together, but can you do it for free again?" (laughs) Finally, with Monster's Ball, it was a case of, man, I need to hire Roberto again so I can pay him something. (laughs) No, really, we have such a comfortable relationship and such a good collaborative process that I find that working with Roberto really saves me a lot of time and gives me a lot of confidence. For Monster's Ball we made the decision... I don't like blues very much for lighting the night, so we used a lot of yellow filters throughout the entire process. It lends everything a muted sort of tone. That coupled with a slight bleach bypass process that muted it a little more--it gives it a feel, a feeling of timelessness that you get. I wanted it to be a little out-of-time so that it would be easier, visually, to access that fable-like quality for the story.
How do you feel about the criticism that race relations shouldn't be made metaphor?
I think that anything that is hard, that anything that is frightening or difficult, or complicated or sensitive--I think that those are the subjects that most need to be treated as an allegory so that the conversation is broader, and the pain becomes something more basic instead of intellectual.
Does that instinct to allegorize in your films reflect a similar instinct in your personal life?
Yeah...I mean, sure, in my own life I find myself trying to escape reality. I like to create my little fantasy worlds. It's the reason that I stopped doing documentaries, actually--I thought that they were traumatic, you know. Documentaries weren't for me because reality's not for me. (laughs) It doesn't make me happy, too much pain and suffering in the world.
Did the dislocation of going to NYU and now living in Los Angeles lead to that urge to withdraw?
I'll tell you, the most disorienting time in my life was when I first arrived in New York City. I mean, before that I was living in a little village in the mountains. It was a shock. I had never even lived in a city. I was walking around, I couldn't speak English, I didn't know where the hell I was, I had to take these horrible intensive English classes. At school, you know, I couldn't even write voiceover or dialogue so when other students were doing that to move their films, I had to figure out ways to do it without dialogue. It's something that really has helped me, I think, shooting what were essentially silent films. When I go into a project now, I try to pare out dialogue that I feel is superfluous--too many movies nowadays are overwritten I think. And, yeah, moving from New York to L.A. was another strange experience. L.A., it's a desert. But here you have palm trees and glass buildings, it's all fake, it's not meant to be there, and I wonder if that hasn't bled into the people as well.
There are echoes of your documentaries in current your work--you did a piece called Silent Windows about teen suicide, and your next film, Stay, is also about teen suicide...
That's interesting. Yeah, it's true. Stay is Ewan MacGregor as a psychiatrist who has a patient, Ryan Gosling, who wants to commit suicide and MacGregor tries to talk him out of it. Naomi Watts is MacGregor's girlfriend in the film, a character who has attempted suicide and survived, who tries to help both of them understand the other and that there's beauty in life. It's not a supernatural film, I think, but more a psychological thriller type of thing. I was working towards a more experimental quality, a more confusing quality like a Parallax View where you're never really sure what direction the ground is, you know. I wanted that 1970s quality to the picture.
Did the 1970s also influence Monster's Ball?
It did--I was looking at Five Easy Pieces--and for Stay I was thinking of Don't Look Now, Performance...
The Man Who Fell To Earth?
(laughs) Yes, a Nicolas Roeg fan? Yeah--just beautiful. I don't know that there are many people better than Roeg when he was right.
As he was when shooting Richard Lester's Petulia.
Yes, yes, one of my favourites. And of course one of the reasons I cast Julie Christie in Finding Neverland was for not just Don't Look Now, but Petulia. You can feel Roeg you know, even in films that he just shot. You feel like he operated in a larger radius.
Polanski was more of an influence for Everything Put Together, though.
Right, true. The Tenant in particular.
I have to confess that I thought that the best part of Everything Put Together were the end credits.
That's an interesting story, you know, we were fading to white at the end and obviously we had to stay in white. At the time I was working with a Danish composer [Thomas Koppel] whose wife has this incredible voice, and I felt like I wanted something childlike for the end--the whole thing childlike, baby-like almost, and that's how we came up with the credits. I like them very much, too.
Lots of death and loss in your films--what's Stranger Than Fiction?
Ah, that's a comedy. We just got Will Ferrell in the lead. It deals with death, too, but in a humorous way this time. (laughs) I just couldn't go back to another dark film, you know, in fact after Stay I was planning on taking some time off. But I read this script by Zach Helm and I just couldn't say no to it--it's like a gift when something like that falls into your lap--so I postponed my vacation. It's basically an IRS agent who develops a narrator in his head who tells him that he's going to die and the film is about him trying to stop that.
How's your career going?
(laughs) What career? I'll tell you that for the longest time, 20-30 it was just trying to survive--and now suddenly I'm 34, life has changed, I can pay my rent and buy my groceries--and I've made four movies in four years and I feel very fortunate to have found a creative path. But you work so much you don't have any time to experience any other art--paintings, books, other movies--you lose touch with what's happening in the world and for me, now, it's about taking a break and re-locating myself in the world. When you have a thought, I think it's a bad mistake to believe that you're the only person to have that thought--we're all connected, we all need to find that connection now and again. It's the only way you can evolve is to stay conscious and aware of your debt to other people: to distance yourself from that hubris that you're responsible entirely for what you create and when you create it. But in answer to your question, I think as long as I enjoy what I do, I want to keep going, but once that ends, I need to find joy somewhere else. Life is chasing bliss and as soon as this stops being fun, I need to chase it somewhere else.