I Wish I Made That: Willow & The Neverending Story
Welcome to the first edition of ComingSoon.net’s I Wish I Made That, a new feature in which filmmakers Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here, Mohawk) and Victoria Negri (Gold Star) each pick a film they wish they had actually made! This discussion focuses on the fantasy epics The NeverEnding Story (1984) and Willow (1988). Check out their conversation below!
Victoria Negri is an actress, producer, writer and director known for The Walk (2020) and The Fever and the Fret (2018). Gold Star, her 2017 debut feature as director, served as the final onscreen performance by noted actor Robert Vaughn. You can purchase Gold Star by clicking here!
Ted Geoghegan studied screenwriting under the tutelage of the late Carroll O’Connor. After writing numerous genre features in Europe and The United States, he made his directorial debut with the 2015 horror film We Are Still Here, then followed it up with the Native American revenge movie Mohawk (2017). Click here to purchase We Are Still Here, and click here to purchase Mohawk!
I WISH I MADE THAT #1: FORMATIVE FANTASIES
Ted Geoghegan: Hello Victoria! I guess this officially marks our first “I Wish I Made That”. I’m stoked to be talking with you about a film that I grew up watching obsessively, because I feel like it pairs perfectly with your selection!
Victoria Negri: Hey Ted! Yeah, I’m really excited for our first chat. Some of my earliest film-watching memories surround the film I picked, “The Neverending Story,” so I’m glad we both have some sentimental attachment with our picks.
Geoghegan: Yeah, mine’s Ron Howard’s “Willow,” so I feel like we’ve got a good amount of formative fantasy cinema to discuss!
Negri: 80’s fantasy specifically! What about “Willow” made you watch it obsessively when you were a kid, do you think?
Geoghegan: I was obsessed with Warwick Davis, who played Willow Ufgood. I always had a very strong affinity for people who were… different, and I just glommed onto this totally unconventional hero. I desperately wanted to root for him in ways that I never wanted to root for Luke Skywalker. What about you and “The Neverending Story”? Similar feels?
Negri: Yeah re-watching it last night really reminded me… because honestly a lot of my initial memories were around the fun I had in watching it, like jumping on beds as a kid and pretending to be the different characters. But that’s still in line with why I think I latched on. I identified with the quiet kid who feels misunderstood, but also what I loved about it and maybe didn’t even understand was the power of storytelling. How something can move you so much that you feel like you’re experiencing it with the characters.
Geoghegan: I like how it seems like both our love for these films come from our own desire to get out of our own skin for a while. I mean, I guess that’s what fantasy, as a genre, is all about though…
Negri: Totally. And seeing someone on screen that is different and being in their skin. The way characters are “different” is less obvious in “Neverending Story” than “Willow.” It’s definitely much more internal for “The Neverending Story.” And also, I think these films are a great watch now, deep themes with a wonderful escape for our times… But I really want to talk about Val Kilmer in “Willow.”
Geoghegan: Haha! It’s my favorite role of his, ever.
Negri: It’s insane. I actually had never seen the film growing up so it was, overall, a huge surprise. And was, like, an incredible role for him. He’s so out there and fun.
Geoghegan: It’s that lovable rogue type that everyone falls for! It’s so obvious that producer George Lucas, having recently finished the “Star Wars” films, was looking for the fantasy version of Han Solo.
Negri: Such a good point. I also love how there are so many opportunities for “Willow” to get rid of him for good, but he keeps finding a way to come back in the film. Like everyone knew this character should be in the whole film and accidentally keeps reappearing in one way or another. It’s funny because the world is so small, and we continually bump into the same characters.
Geoghegan: Haha. The way-too-small world/small universe is another classic Lucas trope. And it’s interesting you say that, because “The Neverending Story”‘s world feels MASSIVE.
Negri: Yes, that’s what I love about it! So different than “Willow” in that way. I also love how the landscape continually changes, like we go from earthy mud to this icy, otherworldly place. It’s always moving forward in that way which I love.
Geoghegan: It’s also a darker world… it’s definitely more foreboding and scary. I think that’s one of the reasons I shied away from it when I was young. I kinda couldn’t handle it. If “Willow” was fantasy “Star Wars” to me, “The Neverending Story” was fantasy “Alien.”
Negri: Such a good comparison! Yes, I was always drawn to the darker stuff. Something I noticed in “Willow,” too, was how similar a lot of it felt to “The Lord of the Rings” to me. Like the homes they all live in are literally like Hobbit homes with the round doors. I feel like Peter Jackson pointed to a lot of that film… I know we’re bouncing all over the place with references, but there’s so much!
Geoghegan: And yet, unlike “The Neverending Story,” which Wolfgang Petersen was always very proud of, Ron Howard practically disowned “Willow,” which always bummed little Ted out.
Geoghegan: I mean, “The Neverending Story” was the most expensive European film ever made at the time. I suppose Wolfgang Petersen HAD TO be proud of it. It was probably in his contract. Haha.
Negri: Yeah I was reading up on it last night to get some info I didn’t know as a kid. And even watching it, it’s clear the budget was massive. Those landscapes alone. Huge pieces… I read there might be a “Willow” series though! On Warwick Davis’ IMDb, it’s listed with Ron Howard attached. So maybe he’s realizing people love the film?
Geoghegan: They’ve talked about it for ages. There was a sequel trilogy in novel form, “Shadow War,” about Elora Danan as a teen. George Lucas co-wrote it. But they kill Madmartigan at the very start of the first book, and I couldn’t go any further.
Negri: Oh man! Yeah, can’t get rid of Val!
Geoghegan: I find it funny that, when given the opportunity to write a column about films we wish we made, we both chose these lavish examples of escapism that we loved as kids. Why on Earth would we claim we’d ever want to make them? I mean, would we have done it any better? Why did our minds go in this direction?
Negri: I was thinking that last night after I watched “The Neverending Story.” I was like, “Maybe I just wish I was Wolfgang with that budget!” Haha
Geoghegan: I can absolutely see that. I can’t imagine the freedom that would afford, but, at the same time, the weight of steering a 30 million dollar ship would be… intense. I have the utmost respect for my friends who have gone from micro budget to studio pictures. I dream of the opportunity, but am intimidated by it – which I think everyone should be.
Negri: I can’t imagine. $30 million. Yeah I don’t know what I’d do with it. I think a lot of the money goes really quickly, but for me it’s also thinking about, am I willing to abdicate a lot of control to others? And I wonder how that’s changed? Like Ron Howard and Wolfgang Petersen still probably had a lot of say and control over the final product, I’m assuming, because those films have such specific voices. Maybe I’m wrong and idealistic about the past when it concerns bigger budgets in Hollywood.
Geoghegan: See, I’d love to have that collaborative opportunity on a huge film. The action setpieces in “Willow,” while a touch cartoony, are so precise and complex. You can see that in all of Howard’s films. I can’t help but feel like his work with Lucasfilm on “Willow” helped the decision-making process of having him come aboard “Solo: A Star Wars Story” decades later. (Even without George running the show there anymore)
Negri: Yeah I think it’s all about agreement on tone. Like are we going to do a lighter, cartoony version of “Willow” or darker? It could’ve gone a complete other direction. As long as all the decision makers and collaborators agree about the kind of movie it is, that’ll make it much smoother because you can point to it and say — hey, it should be more like this because this is the KIND of version of “Willow” we want to make. Whereas yeah, “The Neverending Story” is tonally pretty consistent. There are some moments that are a little whacky and fun with side characters to break it up, but consistency in the tone of these bigger budget films, specifically these two, makes me really enjoy them. They know what they are and really lean into it. Although, I admit, the ending of “The Neverending Story” feels kinda like, “Whoa. Okay. Lotsa fun now!”
Geoghegan: Haha. Yeah, those final bits with Falkor are stand-up-and-cheer moments… In truth, I suppose why I said I wish I’d made “Willow” is because of the adventure of it all. I don’t know if I could have made the film any better than Ron Howard, but the idea of telling the story of a magical underdog in a faraway world sounds pretty, well… epic. What about you?
Negri: It’s weirdly the first thing I thought of when thinking of this piece. I was like, why can I not get that movie out of my head for this piece? And I just went with my gut on it. But yeah, I think also being trapped in my childhood home right now is making me feel extremely nostalgic for the films that made me really happy as a kid, wanting to escape. I think overall that’s it. I’ve always loved films like that. I’d love to make one.
Geoghegan: Between “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” marathons, I’ve heard there’s been a huge surge in the viewing of fantasy films since the pandemic started. I can’t help but feel that there’s a reason why we both gravitated toward the genre for this first conversation, too.
Negri: Totally. I’m writing this as I’m surrounded by “The Lord of the Rings” posters from my youth! Haha!
Geoghegan: We want magical escapism.
Negri: Yeah, I think we’re all hungry for it. I wanna find Falkor and cruise around.
Geoghegan: Bastian wanted to get the hell away from reality for a while. To go on an adventure. And, in a way, Willow wanted the same thing. I think we all want that these days.
Negri: Yeah, and to feel like hey, I may not be powerful on the surface, but I am capable and stronger than even I think. We all need to be reminded that we’re strong right now, too, in addition to the escapism.
Geoghegan: I’m also a big fan of how “Willow” is played rather straight, but is also nonstop silly. While one might not get that from the films I’ve directed, that’s very much my jam… I mean, did you notice that the bad guys in it are all named after film critics? The evil general is Kael (after Pauline Kael), and the two-headed monster is the EborSisk!
Negri: Oh my god I didn’t notice that!!! That’s incredible… And yeah we’re seeing it all through Willow’s eyes, who approaches everything in such a genuine way, no matter how silly, so it grounds the humor. It’s absurd, like the stakes are really high for these characters, and yet, the world is still ridiculous.
Geoghegan: And yet, in your pick, the childrens’ fantasy is played with deadly seriousness. If you remade the film, would that be your sensibility, or would you add more levity, like the sequels did?
Negri: That’s something I’m always considering because I feel like I’m generally really drawn to darker stuff and my first instinct when writing a script is to explore the unexplorable. But, I also try to have moments of levity. I was trying to think last night of how I would do it and the main thing I thought of was letting the “real world” that Bastian is in, become even more affected by the other world. So make it maybe more supernatural, rather than dark vs. levity. But I think the supernatural is fun, so might have a natural levity to it, because it could be a fun way to throw Bastian off. At the end it goes there, with Bastian riding Falkor in a fun way, but even before then, maybe there could be more opportunities for something.
Geoghegan: Absolutely. One of my ONLY grievances with “The Neverending Story” is that I always felt as though the two stories were very separate. We see elements of crossover in tone, but ultimately, they exist as two parallel stories.
Negri: Yes, I want them to blend more! Exactly! The storm comes in and it gets metaphorically intense in the room, but I’d love to see more literally in the room with him.
Geoghegan: And like “Willow”‘s Ron Howard, you’re also an actor… Any desire to play The Childlike Empress?
Negri: I would’ve killed someone for that role when I was a kid! Haha! She’s so awesome
Geoghegan: That said, I don’t think Ron Howard has ever directed himself! Is that something you’d be comfortable doing? Have you ever done that?
Negri: Yeah, I did it for my feature “Gold Star”! It was intense. Really glad I did it. Was lucky to be surrounded by people I really trusted.
Geoghegan: Good lord, I need to see “Gold Star” again! I had no idea that was you in it. I hope the two years since I saw it will count as a passable excuse!
Negri: Totally counts as a passable excuse! Now wait, when you watched “Willow” when you were growing up, did you want to be a director by that point? Were you watching it as pure escapism or were you thinking — I’d love to make something like this one day?
Geoghegan: Never in my wildest imagination did I see myself making a film one day. I was always a writer. I never had the desire to direct until 2015.
Negri: Oh wow. Now I want to ask you questions about discovering that, but might bring us off the subject of our films. But screw it. What made you want to direct at that point?
Geoghegan: I wrote my first produced screenplay at 21, back in 2000. And managed to get a writing project off the ground every few years after that. When the films turned out good, the director got all the credit. When they turned out bad, it was always because of the script. I couldn’t win. And after writing “We Are Still Here,” I told myself, “I really love this. A lot. If this movie turns out good, I want it to be because of me. And if it’s bad, I’m willing to take the heat.”
Negri: That’s awesome. And you can’t make a great film out of a bad script, so the credit cannot go completely to the director for a great film. The writer is a MASSIVE part. Making that jump and taking that risk is tough, because it’s like, all right, it’s on me.
Geoghegan: What about you? Did you always have the directing bug? When little Victoria watched “The Neverending Story,” was that idea ever in her head?
Negri: When I was really little I always loved movies. I ran around with a camera making stuff with my siblings, but I didn’t really know what a director did, so I did what was the most obvious thing about films to me — acting. So I did that through college, graduated, acted in as many things as would cast me and quickly realized that I had so many ideas and wanted to be in more control. And realized I didn’t agree with notes I was getting from directors, or heard how they talked to actors and was like, wait. I would say this. So I was thinking like a director and never really realized it. And I was always writing. I’ve always loved writing so that’s never stopped. It just transitioned from creative writing to screenplay format for me… Fantasy films were my huge thing though, “The Lord of the Rings” really set me off on a path toward film overall. So “The Neverending Story” as a first pick for this convo makes sense overall.
Geoghegan: Well, I feel like our wishful conversations about film are off to a good start! Any final thoughts about “The Neverending Story,” and why you wanted to see yourself at its helm?
Negri: Yes! The epic child fantasy film with dark existential themes at its core really is something that speaks to me, so I’d love to explore something like that. What about with you in regard to “Willow”?
Geoghegan: “Willow” made me – an awkward little kid in rural Montana – very happy. I fell asleep to it hundreds of times, like one would against a warm blanket or close friend. I can only hope to one day make a piece of art that offers that much solace to someone who really needs it.
Negri: That’s awesome. It’s so great to have these films to come back to and to conjure those feelings again.
Geoghegan: And, if ComingSoon will have us back, we’ll get to wax poetic about more of these! I can’t wait to hear what you come up with next!
Negri: Yes, I can’t wait to chat more film with you!
Geoghegan: Here’s to movies, and happiness – now more than ever.
Negri: Amen to that.
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