Peter Pan Complex

Features

If only he had grown up, Peter Pan would be 100 this year. The birth of fantasyland's eternal boy--which occurred, in a roundabout way, in the mind of Scottish playwright James M. Barrie--is a matter of Finding Neverland, some handsomely produced (circa $20 million), sweetly tempered, sentimental speculation "inspired" by the actual events.

Miramax's Oct. 22 release is, as a sprite flies, light years away from Monster's Ball, 2001's grim, earthbound drama about a Georgia prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who executes a criminal and then falls in love with the criminal's vulnerable widow (an Oscar-winning Halle Berry). Nevertheless, "The minute I saw Monster's Ball, I knew Marc was right for Finding Neverland," contends the man who made the connection, producer Richard Gladstein.

Then, putting his money where his mouth is, Gladstein hired Marc Forster--a 35-year-old German-born, Swiss-raised director with a 1993 degree from NYU film school--to make the leap from Halle Berry to J.M. Barrie. The culture shock wasn't as severe as you might imagine, because Gladstein had indeed detected the same emotional undercurrent in both.

"Pretty much all my work--from Everything Put Together on--is concerned, in one way or another, with death," Forster acknowledges. This eliminates his first time at directorial bat--Loungers, a non-narrative experimental film about lounge singers--which got the Slamdance International Film Festival Audience Award in 1996 but didn't get released. ("The music that the people sang was never cleared, so the film stopped in its tracks.")

Right after that invisible debut, Forster went through a rough patch of life that has since informed and defined him as filmmaker. First his brother committed suicide, then his father died three months later, and three months after that his grandmother died. Such a series of emotional body blows in such a short span of time inevitably affected his work.

"Death has had a central part in my life, and you always work issues in your life out in your work. There is definitely a process of grief. It brings out different aspects in people."

Everything Put Together put him back in the cinematic business in 2000, and his new grave tone was apparent, even palpable. It told of a woman (Radha Mitchell, who plays Barrie's neglected, resentful wife in Neverland) coping with the death of her newborn child from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In Monster's Ball, aside from the execution that connects them, both lovers suffer in the course of the film the loss of a son.

In Finding Neverland, Barrie creates Peter Pan as an escapist entertainment for some neighborhood brothers who are well on their way to becoming orphans. Stay, which Forster just finished, is a tense thriller about a psychiatrist (Ewan McGregor) whose suicidal client (Ryan Gosling) makes some bizarre predictions that begin to come true.

The professional look of the above has also been the same, a natural by-product of using the same cinematographer (Roberto Schaefer) and the same editor (Matt Chesse). "They did Everything Put Together for free, so I fought for them to do Monster's Ball so they'd get some money--and I kept them on for Neverland and Stay. It's a good collaboration."

The cast Forster assembled for Finding Neverland is deliberately, and delightfully, against type. The incompetent Ed Wood, Johnny Depp, is the craft-conscious and acclaimed Barrie; the Titanic ingenue, Kate Winslet, is the TB-doomed mother; the campy Captain Hook, Dustin Hoffman, is the producer who doubts Peter Pan's power; the promiscuous Darling, Julie Christie, is the prudish grandmother who battles Barrie.

"It was very hard for Julie to play this woman because she's so warm and lovely in person," says Forster, "but she was very committed to that character and did beautifully. The only person who wanted to rework his dialogue a little bit was Dustin Hoffman, but the writer and I loved his input. He had some very good ideas about how to make the character more specific. When the writer wrote the script, he was concentrating mostly on the Barrie role, so smaller parts often got overlooked a little bit or weren't dimensional."

There is a lot to Hoffman's character that doesn't meet the eye here (or has to, given the film's focus): Barrie's loyal producer, Charles Frohman, was a London-based American moneybags who brought Ethel Barrymore and Maude Adams to Broadway and had hits with Oscar Wilde and W. Somerset Maugham as well as with Barrie. He drowned when a German sub sank the Lusitania 11 years after his Peter Pan triumph; reportedly, his last words were from Peter Pan: "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life."

Such errors of omission were necessary to Finding Neverland. David Magee's screenplay, in fact, is based on a largely fictionalized play by Allan Knee (The Man Who Was Peter Pan) which plays fast and loose with the facts and condenses like crazy. "Obviously, there are a lot of different changes," Forster allows. "When Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family, the boys' father was still alive and died later of cancer of the jaw. When we filmed it, we had him already dead. Also, we eliminated the youngest of the five boys, Nico, who was born just as Barrie started to write Peter Pan for his brothers."

Nico's daughter, Laura Duguid, is the last of the Llewelyn Davies lineage and contributes a cameo to the picture: She plays the aristocratic theatregoer who suggests at the opening-night party that young Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore) must be the original Peter Pan, only to have Peter point to Barrie and reply: "But I'm not Peter Pan--he is."

"I was only trying to capture the spirit of the story, not the literal truth," Forster admits, "and essentially this comes down to the fact that the kids--and their mother [Sylvia du Maurier Llewlyn Davis]--inspired Barrie to write Peter Pan." Certainly, Barrie's credits seem to confirm that contention. Nothing in his canon, before or since--Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, What Every Woman Knows, et al.--came close to the flamboyant flights of fantasy of Peter Pan. He needed a special set of muses to get there from here.

Of course, there were suspicious cynics then, as there are now, who questioned if Barrie had a sinister ulterior motive in hanging with the Llewelyn Davieses. (The movie touches on this issue, ever so lightly, wondering if he had a thing either for Sylvia or for her sons.)

"I've researched this very well because it's an important point to the movie," says Forster, "and most historians say he was asexual. Also, the children themselves said he was not a pedophile--but, of course, all the pedophiles in the world claim him, just to have a famous person on their side. But nothing was ever proved. All the historians and all the people who have lived around him say this was not true. He was simply inspired by the children because, basically, he was a child, too." Consequently, Forster dearly hopes nobody reads Michael Jackson's Neverland into the title. "You can't control the media in this day and age, but I do sincerely hope that people see that Finding Neverland is quite different."

Next stop is a comedy, but death won't necessarily be taking a holiday: "It's called Stranger Than Fiction. So far, I've only cast one person: Will Farrell. It's about an IRS agent who suddenly has a narrator in his head who tells him he's going to die…"