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Sundance 2008 Interview: Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland)

I wish wish wish I could describe myself as the boy film geek who watched movies non-stop, or that I watched one film that changed my life forever. But the truth is that it was a little more organic than that. I loved directing theater in college, and that’s what

[ is proud to feature the rookie and veteran filmmakers showcased and nurtured at the 2008 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. This is part of collection of emailer interviews conducted prior to the festival – we would like to thank the filmmakers for their time and the hardworking publicists for making this possible.]


Daniel Barnz

Daniel Barnz Phoebe in Wonderland

When did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
I wish wish wish I could describe myself as the boy film geek who watched movies non-stop, or that I watched one film that changed my life forever. But the truth is that it was a little more organic than that. 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.

Can you discuss your filmmaking background that
have led you to where you are today…

When I left film school, I wanted to direct immediately – and I had this expectation that that’s what was going to happen. But it didn’t, and the fact that it didn’t is something that I’ve actually become grateful for. What ended up happening was that I got hired to write studio screenplays. For a while I was writing family films, then I teamed up with Ned Zeman and we began writing screenplays based on his Vanity Fair articles for incredible actors and filmmakers – Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc. And twice we had films actually greenlit that then fell apart during pre-production. So on the one hand I was enjoying a very blessed creative existence (I was being paid to write!), but on the other hand I wasn’t ever getting to see the fruits of my labor realized.

That frustration led to The Cutting Room, a short film I wrote and directed, which was about all the characters written out of every book, play, TV show, and movie. It was cathartic, and a good way to vent creatively, and kept me directing.

And then, finally, miraculously, the cast and financing came together for Phoebe in Wonderland. And in addition to getting to direct, I also got to see something I wrote produced. What I came to realize — fairly quickly — is that those ten years writing made me a stronger storyteller. In the end, it was better that I didn’t get to direct right out of film school.


*[Ed’s note: Projects mentioned above: Under and Alone Sam and George)]

Can you discuss the genius of Phoebe in Wonderland – how did the initial idea come about or how did this become a story you wanted to tell?
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.

Can you elaborate on what kind of work went into the pre-production process (how long you’ve been working on this project prior to pre-production and what specifically you did to prepare, and were there specific people involved in this process that are worth signaling out?
In some ways I had ten years (!) of pre-production, and 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.

And real pre-production was a pretty wonderful collaboration – truly – since I think everyone felt excited about the work. Lynette Howell (producer) made it possible for me to spend a weekend with Bobby (Bukowski, DP) Therese (DePrez, Production Designer) and Kurt and Bart (Costume Designers). 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.
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.


Daniel Barnz Phoebe in Wonderland

Casting for the film: how did it come together (perhaps discuss the Scott/Clarkson pairing from Craig Lucas’
The Dying Gaul prior to?)
My ballsy husband (Ben Barnz, also a producer) first gave the script to
Felicity Huffman, who 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 (
Patricia Clarkson). She is one of those rare great actresses who reads all the scripts she gets, regardless of whether the film is greenlit or even fully financed. 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 (Campbell
), who she’s very close to, and whom she had acted opposite in The Dying Gaul.

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. 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 liberal arts college Ben attended; 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.

Getting all these people in place (and keeping them there) was a very, very, difficult – the movie kept almost falling apart – but the beauty of it is that they were all in it because they really wanted to be, and it meant that no matter how grueling the shoot was, no one complained. They were there for no other reason than that they really cared. I really applaud these actors for having the courage to commit – you hear so many actors complaining about the dearth of good roles, but that’s not really true. The truth is that there just aren’t that many at the top of their field who are really willing to take a risk on an independent film with a first time filmmaker.

What aesthetic decisions did you make prior to shooting?
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.

If you could name just one – what stands out as your most favorite experience you had during filming?
Hokey though it is, a stand-out moment had to be the moment before I called “Action” for the very first time. It hit me — how many years I had waited for this moment, and how much work had gone into the film already, and I just kind of paused and savored it. It was fantastic. (By the same token, I was loathe to call cut for the last time, so for the longest time, I just didn’t.)


But at the same time, I experienced stand-out moments a hundred times a day. Watching those brave, wickedly smart actors was always a rush.


Anatomy of a scene: What was the most difficult sequence during production?
The hardest sequence to shoot was a sequence that originally was to begin the film – a series of birthday parties which show Phoebe growing from baby to six years old. Their purpose was to show the great love between Phoebe and her mother, Hillary, and to show a dizzying, breathless time of freedom and joy, before the world of “rules” (a.k.a. school) sets in. Each scene was to move seamlessly into each other. We carefully storyboarded the whole sequence, which was fairly ambitious, and involved a lot of steadicam and extras.

On the day, pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. The steadicam couldn’t move fast enough, the weather turned bad, the baby was screaming, one of the toddler Phoebe’s froze in front of the camera, the child extras were whining, etc., etc. There were a couple of shots that turned out spectacularly, and we use those in the title sequence, but most of the footage looked like a Hallmark commercial – and not a very good one at that. It was a great lesson in how, no matter how prepared you are, you need a certain amount of magic on the day to make it come together. And there’s no forcing that.


Daniel Barnz Phoebe in Wonderland


What was the most challenging aspect of the production?
We were faced with a very short shooting schedule – which is not unusual – but we had a lot of children, and there are those pesky child labor laws which shorten your days even more. On the plus side, we were blessed with pretty extraordinary and tireless children, so we were able to move relatively quickly. And we did have two cameras on some of the days where there were a lot of children.

The challenge for me, personally, became to not worry about the time. It’s just wasted mental energy – it doesn’t pay off on the screen. And I would have to remind myself to stop worrying about whether I had enough time to get what I wanted so I could just worry about whether I was actually getting what I wanted!

What are you hoping that future audiences will take away from this film?
The film touches on a lot of themes and issues, but ultimately I want audiences to take away a message about difference – not just that being different is okay, but that it fundamentally strengthens you. That’s where I hope the film hits emotionally.

At what part in the timeline did you consider submitting the film to Sundance?

Honestly, we were thinking about submitting to Sundance throughout the entire process. In fact, we wanted to make sure that we were shooting early enough to give us time to submit a rough cut. Screening at Sundance means a great, great deal to smaller indie films like ours.

And while you’re courting actors, you find yourself uttering phrases like, “It’s a Sundance kind of movie,” because you can’t offer them much in the way of creature comforts and you want them to get excited about the potential prestige factor. When we found out we got into Sundance, I experienced – in quick succession – thrill and relief – I was so happy I didn’t have to call my cast and tell them why the Sundance-kind-of-movie wasn’t!

Phoebe in Wonderland is
part of the U.S Dramatic Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film
Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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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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