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In darkness, he see the light

Rather than be derailed by the tragic events of his early life, 'Finding Neverland' director Marc Forster managed to come away from the experiences with his own brand of pragmatic optimism.

November 21, 2004|Janelle Brown | 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."

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