In darkness, he see the light

Special to The Times

YOU would be forgiven for expecting Marc Forster to be a dark and gloomy kind of guy. This is a director, after all, whose films -- including his latest, "Finding Neverland" -- have covered terminal illness, the execution of a convicted killer, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide (twice), fatal car accidents (twice), and, for good measure, racism and poverty. "Monster's Ball," his Oscar-winning drama of 2001, was so harrowing that it was hard to keep your eyes on the screen.

And then there's the German-born director's own wrenching family history, which includes his brother's schizophrenia and suicide and his father's sudden poverty and terminal illness.

But the 35-year-old Marc Forster who loped into the Tortilla Grill in Venice on a recent sunny afternoon -- looking as if he'd just been on a hike in the desert, in jeans, a green long-underwear top and sturdy black boots -- was not the least bit bleak in temperament. He was, in fact, quietly good humored. And he explained that although he may be drawn to darkness in his films, he is actually an optimist.

"I went through my own tragedies in life with my father and brother, and I think on a subconscious level making these movies is a part of the grieving process as well," he explained. "I think all my films ultimately are hopeful."

In Hollywood -- an industry town that staunchly believes in grand hyperbole -- it's difficult to explore the darker aspects of life without veering into either morbidity or mawkishness. Forster has managed to walk that fine line, gaining in the process a reputation for directorial restraint and emotional depth. Consider this a direct reflection of Forster's character.

As Richard Gladstein, the producer of "Finding Neverland," said, "Most films bear the imprint of the director's personality, all the good and possibly bad." Forster is, Gladstein continued, "a very gentle soul."

You might be able to glean from "Finding Neverland," then, that Forster is not someone who likes to dominate a room. While he may be physically striking -- well over 6 feet tall and broad-shouldered, he is possessed of a smoothly shaved architectural skull and deep-set green eyes -- he is in person a calm and thoughtful presence.

At the same time, however, Forster is certainly driven to persuade people to see things his way. Even though he didn't speak English when he arrived in the States in 1990, he is prone to talking so passionately that his sentences occasionally end up in a jumble. He still carries the trace of a German accent in his speech: "Idea" is pronounced "idear," as in, "If a studio doesn't respond to my idears, it wasn't meant to be."

Not that this has been happening with much frequency lately. While four years ago, Forster was a mostly unknown indie director whose first two films barely saw the light of day, these days he is everywhere.

"Finding Neverland," a reimagining of the life of J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan," which stars Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman and Radha Mitchell, has been well reviewed, and Miramax is making an energetic play for Oscar nominations; the hotly anticipated "Stay," a psychological thriller with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, hits theaters in the spring.

Forster said he would rather not discuss his reputation in Hollywood, though, and instead poked nervously at his cuticles with a piece of plastic. ("It's hard for me to judge," he said.) Having found his way into an industry that puts its people through the mill -- leaving behind either pulverized souls or massively bloated heads -- and come out one of the rare winners, Forster prefers to cope with success by keeping his head down and maintaining a low-key earnestness. "As an artist, you have to be a bit selfish, because your work comes before everything else," he explained. "But as a human being it's important for me to be slightly understated; it's important that your ego keeps a balance with yourself."

Forster has called Venice his home for almost a decade, but he was born in Ulm, Germany ("where Einstein was born too, so that was a good omen," he jokes), and grew up in the wealthy Swiss ski town of Davos. His father, a Swiss doctor and scientist, spent his time in the laboratory; his bohemian German mother was often in the Amazon or in India, writing poetry and meditating among indigenous tribes; his two brothers lived away at boarding school. He, like the children in "Peter Pan," was raised mostly by nannies.

Strength through adversity

Ironically, it was family tragedy that improved Forster's home life when he turned 17. His father's money manager managed to lose the family fortune; almost simultaneously, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and his older brother with schizophrenia. It was, in its strange way, an emotional windfall for Forster.

"It brought us together as a family," Forster said. "In Switzerland, people have extremely repressed emotions. For the first time, we could express our love for each other."

Because his newly impoverished parents couldn't afford to send him to New York University film school, Forster wrote letters to 30 rich Swiss citizens, looking for financial support. He found a patron in Swiss financier Robert Louis-Dreyfuss (uncle to Julia): "He said, 'OK, I pay for the first year, and if you have any talent, I pay for the second.' "

Forster's second-year tuition apparently wasn't a hard sell, but Hollywood took longer to convince. Forster's first film, "Loungers," an experimental musical about lounge singers, won awards at Slamdance in 1996 but never made it to the screen, thanks to music-rights issues.

Forster moved to Los Angeles and spent four disillusioned years writing scripts that he couldn't get produced. In the meantime, his schizophrenic brother committed suicide, and his father, who had survived cancer for 11 years with a regimen of positive thinking and holistic medicine, lost his will to live and quickly followed him to the grave.

When Forster finally scraped together his second film, "Everything Put Together," in 2000, it was, not surprisingly, bleak. And although the horror film, which starred Radha Mitchell as a mother whose child dies of sudden infant death syndrome, received accolades at Sundance, it never found widespread distribution. "People thought it was too dark; not accessible enough; too small; not commercial enough," explained Forster, dryly. "Too that, too this."

It did, however, catch the eye of agents and managers, who signed him on and eventually passed him the script for "Monster's Ball" -- a dark story about the widowed wife of a death-row convict and her romance with the prison guard who electrocuted him.

The script had been circulating Hollywood for five years and was generally considered unmakeable. Forster battled for the chance to direct it and persuaded Lions Gate to give him $3 million and 24 days to shoot, if he could talk Billy Bob Thornton into starring for a pittance.

Which he did: Persuading people to follow his lead is, apparently, not much of a challenge.

As Radha Mitchell put it, "He has a lot of authority on set, but it's because people respect what he does and who he is. He doesn't have a lot of ego that a lot of directors seem to have."

Forster's one concession to ego may be that he wants his audiences to engage intellectually rather than simply sit back and be entertained.

"I want them to experience a journey which is ultimately an enlightened one," he explained. "They come out of the movie and they might question things."

When it comes to "Finding Neverland," the topic about which he hopes audiences will be enlightened is death. If Forster's films are part of his grieving process, he seems to have worked out a sanguine position on our ultimate end. "I believe that in Western society we have lost our death rite," he observed. "We see death as something tragic and dark. I believe that death is something natural."

Although Forster himself never saw "Peter Pan" as a child -- "I'm Swiss; I was raised on 'Heidi,' " he joked -- he was drawn to the universal appeal of "Finding Neverland."

"For a child, the amazing thing is the flying," he explained. "For a grown-up, they see the whole mortality aspect. At this point today, we are more youth-obsessed than ever: We live in a culture where there is more plastic surgery and Botox than ever before -- I find it sad that we are afraid of aging."

"Finding Neverland" had been circulating Hollywood for some time while the producers hunted for a director who could manage its melodramatic nature -- the prolonged death, unrequited love, and flights of imagination.

"My fear was that the movie could have been overdone and glossy as opposed to ... simple and pure," producer Gladstein said. "The kind of restraint that Forster used in 'Monster's Ball' was what I felt would be really the right thing for 'Neverland,' therein avoiding veering into the territory of cheese."

'Less is more'

To keep the movie's sentiment in check, Forster subdued the fantasy sequences, so that the special effects were in line with the actual production value of a child's imagination (cardboard waves, makeshift costumes). His actors were instructed to follow the rule of "less is more."

"Most of the actors came to the set with expectations of what it needed to be: a period movie. There was a sense that theatrics was going to be the way the story would be told," said Mitchell, who plays Barrie's estranged wife. "We were all surprised when he said 'No, no' and brought the performances down. And that's what really made the movie in the end."

That restraint has become a hallmark throughout Forster's otherwise radically different films. "I think films are too on the nose. Nothing is hidden anymore. Everything has to be explained," he complained. His own approach is to dial it back -- taking away dialogue, eliminating all exposition, and focusing instead on small moments: "There is so much said in silence, so much said in expressions and looks and details."

What frustrates him the most, then, is the media's insistence on parading the unsubstantiated allegations of Barrie's pedophilia -- an overly simplistic explanation for what Forster sees as Barrie's complex motivations for writing "Peter Pan."

"It's all anyone wants to talk about," he said. "I bet you they wish they could find one piece of evidence he was a pedophile, and they would be so happy."

He shook his head in disbelief and leaned in emphatically. "There is none! He wasn't a pedophile! The evidence suggests he was an asexual man who didn't like to touch or be touched."

Of course, "Finding Neverland" is not really a biopic anyway: The screenwriter reimagined vast portions of Barrie's life. "I only was interested in how he got inspired to write the story," said Forster. "I wasn't interested in his life before or after. Before and after was pretty depressing."

(Those downer moments included those suspicions of pedophilia; a possibly unconsummated marriage; ill health; and the deaths of two of his adopted wardens, the Llewelyn Davies children.)

Rather than being depressing, Forster has tried to pull off a hopeful sort of tear-jerker.

Consider Forster's favorite moment in the film, when Barrie re-creates his production of "Peter Pan" in the Davies household, as Sylvia lies on her death bed. The famous line "Clap if you believe in fairies!" has the entire family -- including Sylvia's cynical mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie) -- applauding frantically, as if their efforts might somehow save Sylvia from death.

"I love that moment -- that someone that doesn't believe in imagination and miracles suddenly believes," Forster explained. In Hollywood, as in life, after all, you have to hang on to something to survive with your optimism intact.

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