Beastly Set Visit: Writer/Director Daniel Barnz

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We finally had a chance to talk to director Daniel Barnz late in our visit, since he was very busy trying to make his full day’s shot list, so while the crew set-up for the stunt that Pettyfer and Hudgens would be performing later that night, we sat in a tent for a decent-length interview. Having written the screenplay and been involved in every step of development, Barnz really knew what he wanted to do with every aspect of the film from the casting to the look, and we were able to get a great look into how his mind worked in terms of the creative process on Beastly.

ComingSoon.net: What got you interested in adapting the book? Did they just give you the book and suggest it as a project?
Daniel Barnz:
Yeah, the studio originally had the book and I immediately fell for it, because I saw that there was an amazing opportunity to tell a modern version of this fairy tale and I loved that there was this hypermodern version of this story and that it was told through his perspective, which we’d never seen before. Thematically, because it’s all about beauty and how you look and inner beauty, this was such a great story set in the teenage world and for teenagers ’cause it had such a great message to it.

CS: You came from “Phoebe in Wonderland” where you had basically an original story using elements of a fairy tale. Did you see this as a logical follow-up to try to play more on those fairy tale elements?
Barnz:
Totally. I’m so glad you said that by the way. Thank you for knowing about “Phoebe.” Definitely, I have that fascination with children’s stories and fables, so there’s a natural connection between this film and “Phoebe in Wonderland.” They’re also really, really different. I mean, “Phoebe in Wonderland” is an adult drama. This is a teen romance with a very sharp wit to it. So there was a great connective tissue, but it was so different for me it was exciting to challenge myself that way.

CS: How about when you brought Alex and Vanessa on. When you wrote this you obviously had very specific ideas about what their characters were like, so did you try to tailor the parts to play to their strengths?
Barnz:
Yeah, I mean, with Alex I was very generously given free reign to find the best actor for the role and when I met Alex I knew immediately that he had all of the qualities of both the Kyle character and the Beast character. He’s obviously somebody who is extraordinarily good looking and somebody who has gone through life with those kinds of looks. That played very much to the kind of Kyle character, and he has a bit of that sort of cheeky self-confidence as Alex, but he also has that sort of real kind of vulnerability and sensitivity that comes with the Beast character, so it was very sort of clear that he was a great fit for that. Vanessa, I’ve always thought is one of the most extraordinary young actors. I mean, she has phenomenal screen presence. We sat down and talked about who this character was and how Lindy is this kind of very independently-minded, kind of strong-willed character. Vanessa has so much of that sort of humor and kind of steeliness to her as a person, so she was again, the perfect fit.

CS: I was curious about the tone because from what I’ve read, it seems kind of dark with Lindy’s father having drug issues, but is there also humor in the movie or is it a mix of the two?
Barnz:
Yeah, I wouldn’t say that it was a particularly light thing. I think there’s a lot of humor to it, but it’s humor with a very sharp edge to it. I think what’s really interesting about this story and the way that Alex Flinn, the author, constructed it in the book is that it goes into some very dark and kind of modern territories and that’s what makes it such an appealing story to tell right now. It’s like that age group is so sophisticated and the worst thing that we could do would be to sort of underestimate them or pander to them. We really strove to create something that was as kind of edgy and sophisticated and sometimes as dark if we could.

CS: Did you have any contact with Alex the writer, while you were developing the script?
Barnz:
She came up with such a marvelous kind of concept and there was definitely things that I drew from the book, but I find it helpful to have that separation as a writer because it allows me to have as much objectivity as one can. I tried to just deal with the sort of source text and pull things from that and edit off of that.

CS: I haven’t read the book, but I understand that Mary-Kate’s character Kendra has different looks and that she actually plays a maid to Kyle. Can you talk about some of the changes you made?
Barnz:
Absolutely. I think the book is in some ways geared for a slightly younger audience than the film is geared for. The things that I loved about the book were the setting of the story and the modern environment, the idea that it was told from his perspective. I loved the fact that she has this sort of back story where the father has drug issues and so on. The Kendra character is different from the book. The thing about the Kendra character is that the idea of creating a modern-day kind of witch who is the other character in the high school setting, the sort of darker outcast character, that made a lot of sense to me. In the book, Kendra and Zola who is the housekeeper are one in the same character and you discover in the end. I chose not to do that ’cause I found it a little bit confusing.

CS: “Phoebe” was a really ambitious movie to make. I’m assuming it was fairly low budget for an indie movie.
Barnz:
Pennies. (Laughs)

CS: I was curious about coming into a movie like this and knowing that you’d have a little more money to do bigger things. How has that been as far as that transition from doing that movie to doing this one? Has it made things easier or does it just mean you have more people to deal with?
Barnz:
It’s really great to have more resources for sure, but I very much believe that restriction breeds creativity. I felt like when I did “Phoebe,” even though we had so little money, it really forced you to think about imaginative ways to tell the story in that film, because you do go into her imaginary life and we didn’t have the opportunity to have expensive visual effects or CG things. It just really made you think about how to use practical filmmaking to tell the story. I find that very exciting ’cause I think that it really forces you to think about what’s narratively important and about how to tell the story. The same thing kinda applies here. I mean, yes there is a bigger budget, there is more people, there is bigger things, but you also are operating within a box and certain limitations and you have to be really careful. You have really think about how do you tell the story when you don’t have unlimited resources?

CS: I wasn’t sure if when you’re writing you can be thinking about the scope of the film and how you can do things as a director?
Barnz:
I knew that I would be directing and I try not to think too much as a writer about this scope issue of it. I think about it in terms of for example, a lot of this story takes place in a house. So I think, “Well, you need to construct scenes that are gonna bring you outside and are gonna have a lotta breath to them. You’re gonna want to have a big scope and a camera circling him and the top of the crane and looking out over Manhattan.” I think of that in terms of a film and its overall scope, but I don’t think about it in terms of, “Can I accomplish this shot or this scene? Or is this too big for the movie? Or is this too small for the movie?”

CS: You gotta be creative with it.
Barnz:
Exactly.

CS: Since you knew this was going to be a New York story but you’re shooting in Montreal, did you know you’d have this many locations and that you’d have to move around so much?
Barnz:
Insane. No, we didn’t know that we were going to be jumping around so much. But what we are trying to do is to really make use of Montreal. The thing that New York and Montreal share is that they both have a sort of fairytale element to them. There are places in New York that are cobblestone streets or kind of stone arches or things that sort of transport you into kind of another world and to sort of an old feel. Montreal has that, too. So we have made a really conscious effort to exploit what’s great about Montreal and to use that sort of slightly gothic quality that Montreal has that New York also has to our favor.

CS: I also wanted to ask about the look of the movie because you have an amazing cinematographer. (Mandy Walker shot Baz Luhrman’s “Australia.”) I was curious about the look of the movie and also the fantasy element. This is very much based in reality and I was curious how you brought the fantasy element into it and balanced it with reality and how the look of the film plays into that.
Barnz:
For me, the film is very much about looks obviously, but it’s also very much about the act of looking and learning how to look past all surfaces so I began there and with Mandy and Rusty Smith, our production designer, and with Suttirat Larlarb, who’s our costume designer, we figured out how to kind of realize that thematically. In the film, we begin in a very modern kind of hypermodern world that’s all about reflections and glossy surfaces and facades. It takes place in really, really modern environments. The idea is that it’s sort of all about false surfaces and this character who’s confused about what real beauty is, is sort of living in this world that’s all about these sort of false reflective surfaces and that over the course of the film, as he learns what true beauty is, is that we move out of that modern world old into a world that feels kind of old and has a sense of history to it and age. Then we go into, for example, this Brooklyn townhouse where you see the moldings and whereas in the first act it’s very propulsive and fast-moving. In the second act, it becomes much more kind of fluid and organic and we move from the cool modern tones to much warmer, romantic tones over the film. So we sort spelled out that whole arc together very carefully with Mandy and Rusty. One thing I always do on my films is that I have a creative retreat early in pre-production where we basically hole up in an apartment for a weekend and we spend the first part talking thematically about what the film is about in a very kind of general way, and then we all share clips from different movies and we look at paintings and photographs and all of these sort of visual references. That’s the first day. Then the second day we go through scene by scene and we start talking about how these things will all apply. What I find is that it creates a very strong cohesiveness of vision and then everybody is able to go off and work, especially in compressed periods like we had. Everybody has a very strong understanding of, “Well, the look of this scene at this point in the film should be this way,” and they can kind of make all of their creative decisions in that way. So that’s a really helpful way for us all to develop the vision. For those two days, everybody is everything. Everybody is a writer, director, cinematographer, production designer, costume designer. We’re all just creators and then we kind of go off and do our roles after that.

CS: I was curious about the post-production. Is there going to be a lot of CG involved? Did you design it so you didn’t have to do a lot of that stuff later?
Barnz:
I think that there is some amazing… we’ll do wire removal. There’s some special effects scenes that go at the heart of the romance. We have one thing for example where the two of them are reading to each other and we’re doing kind of a slow track-in through this greenhouse and we watch as the seasons change from winter to spring to summer. You see the flowers kind of growing and dying and growing around them. For me, that’s an amazing visual effects shot that goes right to the heart of the romance as opposed to, for example, trying to do tricky things with him morphing from his Kyle character to his Beast character, which can sometimes feel very cheesy. You asked earlier about his look and the other thing for me is it was very important from the beginning… I think the heart of this story is about this incredibly beautiful man who’s made to look ugly. In all of the traditional incarnations of the story, he’s always taken on something as kind of animalistic. It’s very important for me to move 180 degrees away from that. I think that’s immediately what people think. When they think “Beast” they think fur and fangs and stuff, so I went back to the thing is that it’s not really about him becoming an animal, it’s about him becoming ugly. So I thought about, “What are the things that would be ugly for this character and for the people around him?” For teenagers, you hate your hair, you have bad skin, you’re pierced and stuff. So that’s how we arrived at the conception of his look. I wanted to create something that would feel just like, totally original like you hadn’t seen it before and stuff.

CS: I was really taken aback when I first saw his make-up ’cause I saw him from a distance and he just looked like he was bald with scars, but then I saw him close and I was like, “Wow.”
Barnz:
Oh, good. Hopefully the audience will also have that reaction, too, where they get kind of jarred by it and then sort of come to see beauty in it like the Lindy character does. The design of it has a lot of beauty in it I think.

CS: It’s also like “The Phantom of the Opera” movies where you’re always jarred the first time you see his unmasked face until you get a chance to see his humanity.
Barnz:
Yeah.

CS: One thing you’ll probably be asked about a lot is the “Twilight” comparison. Obviously, this isn’t as well-known a book and it’s not as big a fanbase, but it’s obviously a movie that the same audience can enjoy and it’s the same genre. Has anyone said anything to you about that?
Barnz:
It’s a complication – I think the movies are very, very different. I think in terms of the idea that they are both sophisticated teen romances, that’s true, then at that point, there’s sort of nothing similar. That film is very much about a girl who steps into this sort of supernatural world. In our film, there’s an element of supernatural, but it’s really secondary to the core story which is this romance between these two people. So it’s really not about the supernatural. I think that obviously our film has a very strong thematic core about what it is to discover true beauty. So I think thematically it’s sort of polar opposite to “Twilight.” So I think they’re very, very different stories. I mean, I would be very happy to have the success that “Twilight” has had, (Laughs) but I think that the only similarities really come on paper. I think when you see the two films next to each other they’re just gonna feel like different genres.

CS: Obviously women will be into it more because the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is generally popular among women. Do you feel like you might find an older audience than just teens? Did you try to tailor it so that it could be enjoyed by older women as well?
Barnz:
Definitely, I mean, I think there is something really classic about the story that appeals to all ages and I don’t think this is going to play as a teen movie. I think it will appeal to teen audiences, which is great, but I think that this idea of finding true beauty and falling in love with somebody and looking past the way that somebody looks is something that is of interest and of appeal to everybody. I think the other thing is, is that because the film is told through his perspective I think that we will reach out to both female and male audiences and we have some cool action sequences in there too. You’ll see it right now, the climbing of the wall, but today you saw when he was running along the thing. Yeah, there’s some good stuff. So my hope is that for that teen audience it will appeal to both boys and girls and that it will have an even more universal appeal for adults and everybody. I think it’s such a great message that I’d love for this film to be seen by a lotta people. It would be really great.

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