(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
THE REELER: How would you describe Phoebe in Wonderland?
DANIEL BARNZ: Phoebe in Wonderland is sort of the fantastical tale of a little girl, played by Elle Fanning, who longs to be in her school production of Alice in Wonderland. It's kind of a coming-of-age story that moves one from there. She's kind of different, and it's sort of about how her mother, played by Felicity Huffman, tries to understand her and her teacher, played by Patricia Clarkson, comes to kind of inspire her. The idea kind of came from I was that that different kid growing up. In elementary school, I was the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and I was called out on a daily basis by Teddy Vetterlein. The irony of being tortured as a kid is that you become weirdly grateful for it later in life. It feeds you creatively. I think I really wanted to tell the story of a child who was different and would learn something about the value of being different. Not just that it's OK to be different, but difference gives you a kind of strength.
R: As a first-time writer-director, how did you go about balancing out the conceptual ambition and personal sensibilities on a smaller, indie scale?
DB: The interesting thing about this is that it's the first screenplay I ever wrote -- 10 and a half years ago. Because it is so execution-dependent, and because it has 9-year-old girl right smack in the middle of it, it was a very difficult film to find financing for. What ended up happening was that in those 10 years it took to get made, I had also been working in the Hollywood system writing other films, then periodically coming back to rewrite Phoebe in Wonderland. When I first wrote it, I wanted to direct it immediately. But I didn't get the money. And because I was spending all of those years writing and becoming a better storyteller, I was able to write and direct a better version of it.
R: The talent here is really strong -- not just the cast, but with technicians like Therese DePrez and Bobby Bukowski working with you as well. How did you assemble this group for Phoebe?
DB: I was incredibly blessed and could not have made the film without them. My ballsy husband, who's also a producer on the film, gave the script to Felicity, who was a neighbor; we were friendly but not that close. That was about three or four years ago. She read it and said: "I love the script; I really want to play this role. But I know you don't have your financing in place, and you might need someone with a little more juice." Literally two weeks later, she was cast in Desperate Housewives. Then came Transamerica. Juice didn't wind up being an issue. Having her in place opened certain doors for us: CAA became supportive of the script. They passed it to Patricia Clarkson, who's one of those rare actors who's in demand yet reads everything. She sparked to it; she'd had a very special drama teacher in her life, too. Then more doors opened up. I'd admired Elle Fanning from Babel and The Door in the Floor; it was immediately clear that she had this inner light about her, which sounds hokey until you meet her in person or see her in the film.
In terms of the crew, I think they really responded to this as a very visual arena where they could stretch their genius limbs and create wonderful images. There's a whole magical realism element to it, and I'm sure it was very attractive to them to help create that. We didn't have all the money in the world; part of the challenge and the excitement of the project became how to create these elements without having all these CGI resources.
R: Now you're headed to Sundance -- in competition, on the market. You haven't been there before, right?
DB: No, I've never been there before. I was that guy who said, "I'm not going until I go with a film that I've done." I'll probably change the moment I get off the plane, but I've had so many ups and downs in my professional writing life, so it has taught me the value of savoring the ups. The triumph for me is just that the film got into Sundance and that it's being shown with all of these other incredible films. It sounds canned, but it's really true. That's the part that I'm focusing on. Do I hope the film finds a good home? Absolutely. Do I want it to be well-received? Yes. But I really feel very blessed to be there. Period.
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