The adage that directors should never work with kids or dogs seems to have meant nothing to Swiss-born filmmaker Marc Forster.
Halle Berry may have taken home the Oscar for Forster’s acclaimed 2001 film “Monster’s Ball,” about a romance between a prison guard and a death row widow, but many noticed the sweet, poignant turn he got out of young Coronji Calhoun as Berry’s overweight son. Now, with “Finding Neverland,” Forster can’t think of enough positive things to say about his experience working with the four children who play Kate Winslet’s fatherless brood, the boys who inspired Scottish author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) to write the classic “Peter Pan.”
“I’ve never met kids who were more real, more down to earth and better behaved,” says Forster, who knew above all he wanted to avoid the sentimentality trap so often associated with movies featuring children. In this case, handling a story that deals with grief and death, it wasn’t easy. “You have to keep it restrained, honest and truthful, so that’s what I was watching for, like a hawk.”
Casting the famously low-key Depp was a natural fit for the soft-spoken Forster, whose movies usually favor silences over speaking. When going over the script, Forster sought to exchange dialogue for looks and glances wherever he could without hurting exposition. But finding the right young Peter Llewelyn — a boy without a father whose anxieties over his mother’s illness are some of the movie’s most affecting and intense scenes — was also paramount.
To that end, 10-year-old Freddie Highmore was “a gift from God,” says Forster.
In fact, Forster slated a crucial emotional breakdown scene of Highmore’s for the second day of shooting for a particular reason. “I wanted Johnny and Kate to know we weren’t doing a little kiddie movie,” says Forster. “I wanted them to respect the children as real actors and real people.”
To that end, Highmore didn’t disappoint. And though the script called for Depp as Barrie to leap out of his chair to tend to young Peter’s meltdown, Depp was so awed by his child co-star he stayed still and Forster used that take. “He was so taken by (Highmore), he didn’t know what to do, and we kept it!”
Forster’s affinity for the sadder stories in life — there’s also his grueling 2001 “Everything Put Together” — is unique for a rising Hollywood director, but he stresses that what he loves about “Finding Neverland” is that it’s a tale of both wondrous imagination and inevitable loss. “When you get older, you see the darker side of ‘Peter Pan,’ ” says Forster. “It’s the mortality of the child within us becoming an adult.”