Jennifer Merin interviews Marc Forster re “Stranger Than Fiction”

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FICTION PICTURE PERFECT

“Stranger Than Fiction”

Directed by Marc Forster

In “Stranger Than Fiction,” Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a by-the-numbers IRS agent, hears a voice inside his head narrating his every action– including his budding romance with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a free-spirited baker whom he’s auditing (her taxes, that is– the voice is someone else’s). Trying to track his narrator, Harold consults with an English Professor (Dustin Hoffman), and discovers he’s a character in a work of fiction that’s being penned by a novelist (Emma Thompson) famous for killing off her protagonists. Harold has to find her and convince her to spare his life– thereby abandoning her masterpiece.

As fantastic and unlikely as this plot seems, in reality, the film’s an entirely engaging, utterly delightful romantic comedy elevated by edgy and fascinating conceptual dimensions.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is one of this year’s most original and perfect films.

Swiss-born Director Marc Forster, who scored successes with “Monster’s Ball,“ “Finding Neverland,“ and “Stay,“ says “Stranger Than Fiction” was the best developed, most balanced script he’s worked with.

“There was no need for me to worry about pushing plot points to make the story work. Zack Helm‘s a talented writer, and (Producer) Lindsay Doran nurtured his script for years, really refining it and working everything out– which freed me to concentrate on detail, and apply other levels of storytelling like tone and music and visual effects,” Forster says. “When I read it, I felt the script was magical, and knew I wanted to direct it. But, so did many other directors. So, I had to audition– which was intimidating, and I almost didn‘t do it. But then I thought, why not?”

MERIN: How’d you audition?

FORSTER: We discussed my vision for the film– that Harold‘s world is cold, antiseptic, colorless, while Ana’s environment is warm and cozy and colorful, for example. But the discussions were more detailed than that.

MERIN: In Harold’s world, there’re graphic overlays of words, numbers and charts that actively illustrate the character’s obsessive behavior and moment-to-moment mindset. Were graphics scripted or your invention on another level of storytelling?

FORSTER: They were a directorial decision. The script’s about Harold Crick’s overly organized life, and I thought, how can I show that visually? That’s how the graphics arrived. But our first attempts were very cheesy. Then, my visual affects director found a group of artists called MK12 in Kansas City who designed the graphics now in the film. I saw immediately that they worked– they give further definition, another layer of understanding of Harold’s character and the qualities of his world.

MERIN: Harold’s world’s cold, but he’s a delightful character– and Will Ferrell’s performance is absolutely brilliant. He‘s so honest, and there‘s no shtick…

FORSTER: Yes, Will’s a very honest actor. When he was first suggested, I watched his other work and found it funny, but too broad for this film. I wasn’t sure about casting him– until I met him. He‘s so humble and open, I knew immediately he’s right for Harold.

MERIN: All the performances have a delicious sweetness– always achieved through engaging and humorous quirkiness rather than sentimentality. For example, the Professor pours his unfinished coffee back into the pot– was that yours or Dustin Hoffman’s?

FORSTER: Honestly, I think that was mine, but I’ve worked with Dustin before and we’re friends and we use things he does in real life. Like when he goes barefoot in one scene. That‘s the collaboration you try to have with all your actors.

MERIN: You say “Stranger Than Fiction’s” the best script you’ve had, but your lineup of movies has been spectacular. How do you choose projects, and do you see a through line in your work?

FORSTER: Each is different, but I guess I chose them because I find such human qualities in them. I think all the characters in my films are emotionally repressed– because that’s the culture I come from. In Switzerland, you never tell people you love them. You know you love them, but you never speak about it. It’s all closed within you, and it’s a very emotionally repressed culture and that’s what I grew up with. Even in “Stranger Than Fiction,’ the characters are emotionally repressed– but ultimately they free themselves one way or another.

In “Monster’s Ball,” it’s breaking the cycle of violence– when she forgives him instead of killing him at the end. When I read “Monster’s Ball,” I was overwhelmed by the pain in those people. I knew nothing about the South and that kind of racism– I grew up in Switzerland, where discrimination’s less about color than about class or culture. I knew I’d learn from making that movie.

“Neverland” reminded me of my childhood escapes into fantasy. Creativity and fantasy are our strongest tools, and must be supported. “Neverland‘s” the only script that made me cry. I knew I had to do it from a purely emotional standpoint– but the tricky thing was not to make it too sentimental. Restraint was a constant challenge because the script was so innocent, so emotional.

I made “Stay” because I’ve always been curious about how you know what’s real and what isn’t. But I was frightened about making a movie that doesn’t have reality as it’s framework. I felt it would be like doing an abstract painting– like an Escher piece or something. It was incredibly challenging. I knew people might not understand it, but felt it had to do it for my personal growth.

“Stay” prepared me for “Stranger Than Fiction,” which also challenged me to create a framework of reality around an abstract concept.

“Stranger Than Fiction‘s” a modern fairytale almost in the realm of “Neverland.” Ultimately, it asks how much of our lives is being written? How much influence do we have over fate, over crucial incidents– over whether we get hit by a bus or not? How much of that is written, and how much of that is not? (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).