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Daniel Barnz

When I wrote the script, Phoebe originally walked out of her door into her back yard and immediately saw the Red Queen running. Bobby hit upon the magical idea of creating a sequence out of it – Phoebe sees flashes of the Red Queen behind a tree, then chases after her – the Queen is always just out of reach. This ended up creating exactly the kind of visceral, infectious excitement we needed in introducing Wonderland.’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on the filmmaking background of a particular filmmaker and the nuts and bolts of that person’s upcoming feature film release. This month we feature: Phoebe in Wonderland‘s Daniel Barnz. To view his top ten films list: (click here).

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?

Daniel Barnz: I have such vivid memories of seeing The Red Balloon for the first time. Even today I think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Still so moving, still suspenseful. To tell a story that powerful – without words – is genius. I love that it won the Oscar for best screenplay.

Phoebe in Wonderland Daniel Barnz

EL: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
DB: Please God I hope I haven’t grown out of my formative years… But as a teenager, I sucked down Merchant Ivory movies (I was a geeky old-fashioned romantic) and John Hughes movies (The Ducky Phenomenon) but when I fell in love with the art of filmmaking it was through Todd HaynesPoison and Safe.

EL: At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker? 
DB: I wish wish wish I could describe myself as the boy film wonk who watched movies non-stop, or that I watched one film that changed my life forever — it’s such a better story than the truth (which is that my path was a little more circuitous). I loved directing theater in college, and that’s what I thought I’d go on to do. But something – probably post-graduation panic – prompted me to apply to film school in my senior year. Then I got in, and felt I couldn’t say no, so I went. That was lucky for me, because that’s when I realized that everything I loved about directing theater I could do in film – but more, and with endless possibilities.

Phoebe in Wonderland Daniel Barnz

EL: What is the genesis of the project? How did you get involved?

DB: I always wanted to write a story about a child who was different, and who would learn something about the strength you ultimately derive from being different. So that was at the core, and then there were certain other things that were close to me that I wanted to write about – a celebration of theater, and teachers, and the imagination.

When I started I was writing from the experience of having been a kid who was different. (In elementary school I was the (ahem) Pillsbury Dough Boy.) 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.

EL: What kind of characteristics/features were you looking for your main characters/during the casting process?

DB: I loved Felicity Huffman from Sports Night, and marveled at her perfect union of warmth, strength and natural intelligence. My ballsy husband (Ben Barnz, also a producer) first gave the script to her – she was our neighbor at the time. (Yes, that old cliché.) She called a few days later and she said, “I really think this movie needs to be made, and I’d love to play the role… but you may need someone with more juice to get your financing.” Two weeks later she was cast in the pilot of Desperate Housewives, and then came the Oscar nomination. So the juice issue – wasn’t.

Once Felicity was involved, we were able to get the script to Patti Clarkson. She is one of the very few actresses who I knew could ground Miss Dodger and make her feel otherworldly. She had had a close connection to a drama teacher of her own, and I think there was some kind of kismet in all of this for her.

Ben and I met Patti in the middle of a heat wave in New York, and I remember sweat pouring off my face, Albert Brooks-style. She walked into the restaurant, took one look at Ben and me, and said (in her famous Louisiana drawl) “My god, you’re twelve.” But we hit it off quickly, and at the end of the meeting she offered to show the script to Campbell Scott.

Campbell read it, and called to ask if he could play the Principal. I always admire actors who want to do something a little different from what they’ve done before, and as a director it’s exciting – you know they’re going to go the extra mile – so I immediately said yes.

With those three in place, we went to Elle Fanning, who had made an impression on me in both Door in the Floor and Babel. Since the film can veer into darker territories, I always felt it was crucial to have someone in the center who innately radiates hope and optimism. When I met her I was immediately struck – as I think many people are – by this kind of luminous quality she has about her. In fact, later on, when we were in the height of our pre-production stress and wondering how we were ever going to pull this off – we did our hair and makeup tests. Elle’s face appeared on the screen – there were probably ten people sitting in the room – and there were audible gasps. It sounds like a cliché but it was true – she literally lit up the screen. It really reassured all of us, knowing that we had that kind of presence in the role.

The last coup was Bill Pullman, who’s also represented by Elle’s management team. They passed the script on to him and we met on an incredibly windy night in the West Village. Within five minutes all of these startling coincidences came out (he has a daughter at the same small college Ben went to; he’s a fan of the (fairly obscure) playwright Edward Bond, I had directed a play by him, etc.) And he had been a college professor and immediately understood the character and the world, and I think as a parent he connected deeply to the family drama. And after an hour and a half, he shook my hand and said he was excited to do the movie.

EL: How did you prep for the performances (was there a rehearsal process?).
DB: Too often you hear stories of first time directors who confuse inflexibility with strength. I didn’t want to be that guy. So I decided the best thing I could do was consult with my actors and determine what rehearsal techniques were most helpful for them. They’ve all been doing this for a long time (including Elle) and they know how to craft their best performances. I think it’s a mistake to force actors to rehearse in a certain way — everyone has different needs. So I tailored it to their needs. I used my rehearsal time with Felicity to pore over the script, take it apart word by word, question every beat. We talked about the lives of academics, how they can be shut off from their body, experimented with how to physicalize it.

Patti was different: she constructs images in her mind for her character – this is a very private, internal, instinctive process. She had a very complete vision of Miss Dodger, and we would dial up or down by degrees on set without much rehearsal.

Elle knew that rehearsal would only deaden her performance, so I used rehearsal time to take care of the mechanics – line running, blocking – and to let her feel as comfortable with me as possible. Then I would let her work her magic on the day.

EL : How did you prep for each scene (was there storyboarding involved?)

DB: Because it took so long to get the financing, you could say I had ten years (!) of prep. During that time I collected photos and images and clips from other films, and spent my time honing a vision and thinking, endlessly thinking about what it would look and sound like. So I had a very clear idea of what I wanted once I began real pre-production.

We did minimal storyboarding, but shot-listed everything. Even if it all went out the window on the day, that preparation was invaluable – those discussions force you to think about what is critical in each scene.

The other thing I did during pre-production was begin this giant book that had the script in it and every thought I had about every moment in the film (shots, performance, design, tone, etc.) I kept this book all through shooting, and would refer to it multiple times each day. It really helped to have everything written down as a reminder amid the pressure of We-Need-to-Move-On-ness.

EL: What ideas did you have for the style of the film? What inspirations (other films, location, paintings etc…) did you draw upon for the look/style, aesthetics of the film?

DB: We started with the idea that this is a film about battling conformity, and we tackled each of the visual worlds (home/ school, theater, Wonderland) 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 Hillary 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.

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 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. David LaChapelle was a great inspiration for thinking about color, particularly in the Wonderland sequences.

EL: For this final question, I’d like for you to underline three key people/departments that contributed the most in creating your film?
DB: I was surrounded by phenomenal talents every step of the way; selecting three is impossible, so I flipped a coin to decide between production and post-production. Production won, so I’m going to talk about the work of….Bobby Bukowski (DP), Therese DePrez (Production Designer), and Kurt and Bart (Costume Designers).

We began by spending a weekend retreat together, where we talked generally about the film and its themes, watched film clips, sorted through photos, and then we went through the script scene by scene. Those two days were invaluable – it gave us reference points to use all through pre-production and shooting and really united us as a creative team. Those guys are geniuses, and they really inspired me. A few examples of their ingenuity:

Kurt and Bart hit on the idea of creating “signifiers” for each of the real characters that reappear in their Wonderland characters. For example, Campbell Scott plays the Principal and the Mad Hatter. On his desk in the Principal’s office is ribbon candy; in his Mad Hatter costume his collar is made to look exactly like ribbon candy. Madhur Jaffrey wears a beret as Miss Reiter, which becomes her knave’s cap in Wonderland. This kind of subtle connective tissue – whether it registers consciously or not – helps to make the Wonderland sequences really feel like a natural outgrowth of Phoebe’s imagination.

When I wrote the script, Phoebe originally walked out of her door into her back yard and immediately saw the Red Queen running. Bobby hit upon the magical idea of creating a sequence out of it – Phoebe sees flashes of the Red Queen behind a tree, then chases after her – the Queen is always just out of reach. This ended up creating exactly the kind of visceral, infectious excitement we needed in introducing Wonderland.

You can see Therese’s unique vision in every frame of the film. But one of her most extraordinary accomplishments was the Wonderland diorama that appears throughout the film and is the basis of the title sequence. Every bit of Wonderland that you see later in the film is introduced and referenced here – the characters, the checkerboard patterns, the spirals, the colors. It was a true work of art.

Thinkfilm releases Phoebe in Wonderland on the 6th of March.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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