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Through the Looking Glass: Phoebe in Wonderland

Tribeca talks with Daniel Barnz about working with the likes of Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, and the extraordinary Elle Fanning in his wonderfully human drama about "a different kid."


"One of the very first scenes that flashed in my head," said writer/director Daniel Barnz, talking about his new film Phoebe in Wonderland, "was the scene on the catwalk where [drama teacher] Miss Dodger is talking to Phoebe and saying—and I'm going to misquote myself—'at some point, all of this struggle ends up making sense.'"

In Barnz's debut, young Phoebe Lichten (the incredible Elle Fanning), is struggling in life and in school because she's a "different" kid. Showing signs of obsessive compulsive disorder—she's strange and methodical, counting constantly, and obsessed with numbers—Phoebe is acting out and spitting at her peers. Her frustrated academic mother, Hillary, is frustrated, harried, and worried about her. But whatever troubles Phoebe melts away when she's cast in her school's theatrical production of Alice In Wonderland, which is spearheaded by her serene and eccentric drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson).

The result is a curious and original look—with true, rich acting across the board—at how one special girl figures out how to be happy. Tribeca talked with Barnz about the ten-year process of making a sweet and complex film about a sweet and complex girl.

Tribeca: You've worked as a writer in Hollywood for ten years before Phoebe, but your IMDB entry is fairly short. Why is that?

Daniel Barnz: I have had that Kafka-esque experience of being paid to be a creative and not having anything produced. I've been paid to write 15 or 20 screenplays, and none of those appear [on my entry], they sit on a stack on my bookshelf—which is a great blessing and curse of the industry. It’s been a rollercoaster. I've been involved with such extraordinary projects, stories, actors, and filmmakers, and with each one you have such hope—it's Mel Gibson, this one’s gotta be made—and then it falls apart. Now on the other side of it, I can look back and get some value from it. It’s made me a better storyteller and able to make Phoebe.

Tribeca: What's in the water at the Fanning family house? Both Elle and Dakota (The Secret Life of Bees, Coraline) are fantastic young actors. How did their parents do it?

DB: I wish I knew. But I have some guesses. Their parents are just extraordinary people, and they manage to keep Elle and Dakota grounded, grateful, and appreciative of the opportunities they have. It’s a pretty remarkable feat—it’s not easy to give your kids a strong sense of values and moral compass. I really feel like the Fannings do an amazing job. I think the reason that both girls deliver such extraordinary performances is because they have a sense of realness to them as people, and a sort of innocence/sort of purity that their parents create.

PhoebeTribeca: How was it working with Elle? She carries the movie, and it's really quite a feat, considering her age. 

DB: We had a very short shoot and child labor laws to boot. It was always a race. She didn’t have bad days, she was so completely consistent. Elle really approached the role as any adult professional approaches a role. She had done an enormous amount of prepatory work and research. We met with a lot of people who have a similar condition to Phoebe. Elle is such a kind of intuitive person and actress, she listened to all these stories from people and I think that really affected the kind of honesty she had with the performance. She would show up to the set in certain moods knowing she had to play certain scenes.

The whole shoot she was just this sprite on set—except the day that we shot this emotional scene where she wakes up from a nightmare. Her grandmother, who was taking care of her, was saying Elle was a little worried that people would think she was being unfriendly, but she just needed to be in a certain state of mind to film the scene. Felicity overheard the exchange and quipped, "It took me most of my adult life to learn to do that." I was totally blown away by this. She had just turned nine.

Tribeca: What was it like working with Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson? It's such a pleasure to see them playing nuanced, real, big roles in a film.

DB: They’re so different in their styles. Felicity is wickedly smart. She will sit with you at a table and go through the script word by word until she understands completely what everything’s about and why it was there. It was the greatest compliment I could be paid as a director. She approached the role physically and mentally—we talked a lot about academics and the disconnect between mind and body—then she fills it out with this kind of extraordinarily honest emotional life. It was just breathtaking to watch.

Patricia is quite different. We had talked about the character of Miss Dodger in more general ways, vibing it out together. Then she created this whole image in her head of who this person would be—the braids, the dress, the vocal quality, the presence, and how she held herself. She arrived on set complete, and then we would dial her emotional presence up by degrees while shooting. I would literally sit there at the monitor and pinch myself. To work with two such brilliant talents felt like such a huge prize.

Tribeca: It seems like the film is set in the Northeastit felts kind of Pennsylvanian to mebut apparently you filmed a lot of it in Queens? Also, Phoebe's wardrobe is pretty amazing (I was completely jealous) and I want to know more about these costume designers [Kurt & Bart, downtown fashionistas who have dressed Britney Spears] that you brought on. 

DB: Most of our incredible creative design team were based in New York, so it really just made sense that we were going to start our search in New York. It was really amazing when we went to Douglastown, right on the outskirts of Queens, and on the border of Long Island. It's this incredible rural/suburban community. That house that we found [used as the Lichten house], there’s really something magical about it. It has a 200-year-old tree in the front yard that was very important to the film. There’s definitely something in the process of scouting locations, where you walk into a place and think, "Wow, yes, there’s magic here, and we have to shoot here."

Kurt & Bart are the most genius costume designers ever. They had all these different eclectic styles that they had to create. Patricia Clarkson had her look, there were the "Wonderland" sequences that had to be fantastical, and with Phoebe, the thing that we really wanted to do was to set up that she is a complete original. But not in that kind of clichéd, thrift store, John Hughes/Molly Ringwald way. There’s a certain kind of self-consciousness to the alternative thrift store thing that we wanted to shy away from. We wanted to create something that's kind of real, that’s old and kind of funky.

Tribeca: In the film, when it comes to the root of what makes Phoebe different, the film seems to shy away from putting a label on her. What's driving that choice?

DB: I think that the film is fundamentally about difference, and it’s about a child who is different and comes to learn about the strength you get from being different. I tend to not talk too much about [the root of Phoebe's behavior] before the film because I think that people end up approaching it from a slightly different perspective. What I want is for people to see their own experience in being different with Phoebe’s journey. There’s a sort of metaphor for this particular neurological disorder—and Oliver Sacks puts it beautifully in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—where this disease sort of teaches a way to approach life and the value of breaking rules, especially in Phoebe’s case where you’re forced to break rules.

Tribeca: What are you up to next? 

DB: Don't believe the logline on IMDB! Beastly is a dark teen romance that is a curious mixture of Juno, Twilight, and Say Anything. Very fun, and a great next step for me.



Phoebe in Wonderland opens at the Angelika and AMC Empire 25 in New York on Friday. Click here for ticket information.

Curious? Watch the Phoebe in Wonderland trailer.



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