How director Marc Forster stood up to Miramax wanting to tinker with the final cut of the movie Finding Neverland, and how he ultimately got his way.
You don’t tend to have to look too far across the film press to find stories of creative struggles. Of the moment when a filmmaker finds themselves in dispute with a studio, in the latest chapter of what happens when commerce meets art. That said, there are some such stories that fly under the radar, and I happened upon one surrounding the Oscar-nominated drama Finding Neverland. What makes this particularly interesting, at least to my nerdy brain, is how director Marc Forster broke the impasse.
Finding Neverland is described as a historic fantasy drama, and it’s the story of writer J M Barrie in his younger years. Barrie would go on to create the character of Peter Pan of course, but a story exploring his relationship with Sylvia Llewleyn Davies was harnessed for the successful play The Man Who Was Peter Pan. This is the tale that led to Barrie coming up with the idea for Pan, and the play itself debuted in 1988 from writer Allan Knee. Eventually, a film adaptation project was put in motion at Miramax.
There were problems in mounting the production. The film had a release date originally inked in for 2003 before Columbia Pictures objected. It had the film rights to Barrie’s original Peter Pan play, and – in collaboration with Universal Pictures – it was after all making a fresh movie of the story set for release the same year. You might remember it: it featured Hello To Jason Isaacs as a quite splendid Captain Hook.
A deal was thus brokered whereby Miramax’s film could only use extracts from the Peter Pan play if it delayed the release date of Finding Neverland, and thus the movie found itself shunted back to autumn of 2004.
Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet led the cast of the film, with Marc Forster directing (after many others had passed on the opportunity), his first helming outing since helping steer Halle Berry to an Academy Award with Monster’s Ball in 2001. David Magee wrote the screenplay to the movie, and the movie shot in the summer of 2002.
What the extended post-production period on the movie allowed, though, was a battle over moments within the movie. No spoilers here, incidentally. It’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation that a Miramax project was mired in a battle over the final cut of a picture (it would be one of the last Miramax films overseen by convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob). What makes this story different is how Forster reacted to the studio pressure.
The detail is hidden away at the end of a Premiere article from its November 2006 issue. The piece is primarily about the film Forster went on to make next, the outstanding Stranger Than Fiction. Yet it reveals that at one stage Miramax bosses wanted changes made to the final cut of Final Neverland, and that they were changes Forster disagreed with.
No hissy fit on his part here, though. Instead, Forster tried something different, as revealed by Dustin Hoffman – who appears in both Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction – in the article. “He told then ‘no, I don’t agree with you and I’m not going to do it’”, Hoffman relates as to when Forster was ordered to make the changes.
But then Forster added in his conversation with the studio: “But it’s your film, you can do whatever you want. But take my name off it”. As simple as that. No fight, an acceptance of who held the purse strings and contractual final cut, and a very straightforward willingness to quietly walk away if Miramax pressed ahead with the version it wanted.
Hoffman queried as to whether Forster really wanted to do that, and was told ‘the film’s not me. It’s not my identity. My identity is me’, and that was the fuel for his decision. As Hoffman would note, it was something he himself had taken a lifetime to learn.
Miramax, faced with what was ultimately quite a passive protest, relented. Forster got the cut of Finding Neverland that he felt was the right one, and it’s hard to not suggest history has proven him correct. Not only was this modest $25m production a hit – grossing $116m around the world by the time its box office run was over (only just shy of the takings for Sony and Universal’s far more expensive Peter Pan) – but it also became a major awards contender too.
The film would earn seven Academy Award nominations in 2005, include one for Best Picture (at the time when just five movies got nominated for the top prize). It took home Oscar gold too, for the original score by Jan A P Kaczmarek.
But more importantly than that, it got to be the film that its director felt it should be, without a drawn out public dispute. And by – appreciating that this tactic may not have worked with Miramax a decade earlier – a director willing to cut their losses and walk away rather than having to fight against executives for what he believed in.
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