The indie drama ‘Green Street Hooligans’ landed writer/director Lexi Alexander on the radar of virtually every studio head in Hollywood. In this edition of ‘Unseen Hollywood’, Lexi and writing partner Fabian Marquez, talk about how they used the opportunity to mount an epic trilogy of films based on Michael Ende’s classic children’s book, ‘The Neverending Story’..
For a relatively low-budget film, writer/director Lexi Alexander’s feature debut, ‘Green Street Hooligans’ generated a lot of buzz.
“‘Green Street started opening doors right after it won both the Jury and Audience Award at SXSW,” she said.
“I also had a powerful agent, who was trying to prove they were better than the agency they’d poached me from.
“So, you end up getting projects you were never considered for before.”
The buzz was so great that Alexander ended up getting the ear of every major studio head in Hollywood, and she already had what she hoped would be her next project in her sights.
“We’re all taught to have the next project in our back pocket,” she said.
“I grew up in Germany and Michael Ende was very famous there - even before ‘The Neverending Story’.
“I saw the movie in 1984, and then read the book afterwards. I very much remember - even as a child - feeling disappointed that the film had so obviously skipped the best parts of the book. That had always stayed with me over the years. I think that was the only option he (original ‘The Neverending Story’ co-writer/director Wolfgang Petersen) had at the time. They probably told him to reduce the screenplay to a normal length and write something that fit into a certain budget. People have to remember, this was before ‘Harry Potter.’ Not a lot of people calculated there would be a sequel or part two from the get-go - certainly not in Germany. It seemed like a no-brainer to remake the film and I’m not really a fan of remakes.”
Fortuitously, as Alexander was setting her sights on adapting Ende’s classic novel, her one-time writing partner had inadvertently set the ball rolling on a series of conversations that would help the director secure some much-needed support.
“I was doing a rewrite job on a screenplay that took me to Munich,” writer Fabian Marquez (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated short film Johnny Flynton with Alexander) recalled.
“While I was working on this movie, talk with the producer on that project turned to ‘The Neverending Story’. And I said ‘You know what, this director friend of mine, Lexi, has thought this is something she’d be really interested in. He said he had a relationship with Dieter Geissler (who had produced the Petersen film and was the rights holder at the time) and I suggested they should talk. I didn’t really keep tabs on what happened after that, but a few months later I was back in the States and Lexi reached out to me to say that a lot had happened since that initial conversation. She said she was working with Dieter, who at the time represented the rights for the Michael Ende estate and asked if I would be interested in working with her on the project. That’s really a testament to Lexi. She’s a very honourable person - and it was a real treat that she came and brought me into the project that way.”
For Marquez, the chance to adapt the novel for the big screen led him to realise just how much of the novel had not been touched.
“I was a huge fan of the Wolfgang Petersen film; it stayed with me and touched me in the same way it had touched so many people,” he said.
“But it wasn’t until I started working with Lexi, and she pulled me in that I went back to the source material. It blew my mind when I realised that Petersen’s film had only scratched the surface of that world, and what that world is about. There was so much more there to explore, so many more layers and this treasure trove of material we could draw from. It was a wonderful surprise for me.”
It was that treasure trove that also drew Alexander back to the source, saying one of the great appeals was the fact that some three-quarters of the book had never really been adapted for the big screen. However, the sheer scope of the book meant that Alexander felt it couldn’t be contained to just one movie.
“The pitch I presented with Fabian and Dieter was based on turning the entire novel into three movies that would be shot back-to-back,” she said.
“Lexi really wanted to make the most out of the subject matter,” Marquez said.
“It’s no critique of Petersen’s film, but the book had so much more than was represented in a two-hour film. Lexi really wanted to bring to life the whole world of Fantastica, and Michael Ende’s vision for the material. I didn’t take much convincing once she’d laid out her plan and her expanded vision.”
For Alexander, the connection to Ende’s book was deeply personal.
“I was a kid who was often scolded by teachers for staring out of the window and daydreaming, my parents were frequently called to the school because of it,” she said.
“Only now, as a grown up, working writer/director, I realise that those hours daydreaming was me honing my skills and nurturing my imagination… which essentially became my bread and butter. So, a story in which the hero needs to save a diseased world with his imagination was like therapy for me!”
A tale with a mythology as rich and detailed as Tolkien’s, ‘The Neverending Story’ begins telling two stories in parallel - the first, set in the ‘real’ world, centres on a young outcast by the name of Bastian Balthazar Bux who, while fleeing from some bullies, seeks refuge in a bookstore owned by the enigmatic Carl Conrad Coreander.
While there, he finds a book called ‘The Neverending Story’ which he steals and proceeds to read in the school attic.
The second story is that of the book Bastian has stolen, ‘The Neverending Story’ - a fantastic tale of magic and monsters, set in the mythical world of Fantastica. In the story, Fantastica is being threatened by an evil entity known as ‘The Nothing’, and the world’s ailing ruler, The Childlike Empress, seeks the help of a boy warrior, Atreyu, to help save the land. As Bastian becomes more involved in the tale it becomes clear that he is, in fact, Fantastica’s saviour and the two stories intertwine when Bastian is revealed to be the world’s true saviour. (It’s at this point where the film comes to something of an abrupt end, with Bastian saving Fantastica from The Nothing in record time, and wreaking vengeance on the bullies who tormented him with the help of Atreyu’s trusty companion, Falkor the Luckdragon).
“If you look at the book, that’s not the whole book… in fact it’s less than half of the book when that happens,” Marquez said.
“There’s so much more that happens after that as Bastian saves the Empress and starts to rebuild the world, he becomes part of that world… and more adventures happen. We felt we could go much deeper and, I think, came up with a pretty solid plan to do just that.”
One thing neither Alexander nor Marquez wanted to shy away from was the inherent darkness of the material.
“We didn’t want to scare kids or limit our opportunities… but we were talking about a German children’s book… it came from the land of the Brothers Grimm,” Marquez said.
“We were saying that kids go through a lot of tough things and art is a form of catharsis we felt we could be true to the book because we felt it was OK to be a little scary it was OK for kids to feel sadness and loss.
“I remember watching the original movie and feeling gutted when Artax (Atreyu’s horse) dies in the swamp.
“I was petrified of the dark wolf, the servant of The Nothing.
“We wanted to tell a story that treated children with respect, recognising that they’re a lot tougher than we give them credit for.”
That story would include Bastian coming to terms with his mother’s death, underpinning the themes of identity that come up throughout the film (as Bastian uses the mystical amulet Auryn to rebuild Fantastica, he begins losing his memories - ultimately putting him at odds with Atreyu and the world he had originally come to save).
“There was just so much there to unpack it really was enough to give viewers time to see the interesting arc Bastian takes from when we meet him as this bullied kid, to becoming this guy who becomes an emperor of a kingdom, before coming full circle to be a kid again in our world,” Marquez said.
In another fortunate coincidence, Marquez’ earlier experience gave him some insight into how such an ambitious story could be told in three parts.
“I was at New Line Cinema right after college… when the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy was greenlighted - it was such a revolutionary idea of the time, it had the whole town talking and really turned that company around,” he said.
“I got to be on the inside of that environment, hear the conversations and learn a bit about the approach that was taken to parsing the material and organising it in that specific way. I think that made me a bit more brave about approaching ‘The Neverending Story’ in the same fashion.”
For Alexander, a lifelong fan of ‘Labyrinth’ and other creations of Jim Henson, another huge incentive was the chance to visualise the amazing creatures Ende had imagined that populated the world of Fantastica.
“I’m a fan of brilliant visual effects artists, but I’m an even bigger fan of special effects and puppetry, the latter being one of the most ancient art forms there is,” she said.
“Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to work with puppeteers, and my resume doesn’t really make me a natural candidate for open director assignments in that arena. I knew that if I wanted to do it, I’d have to create my own opportunity, and pitch a project that included special effects and puppetry myself.”
Both Alexander and Marquez say Dieter Geissler was tremendously supportive of their efforts.
“He was pretty involved… and he let us have free rein, especially once he realised we wanted to be as faithful to the source material as possible,” Marquez said.
“He’s a consummate gentleman and a true professional, pure class. He went with us to every pitch meeting, and really helped us try to sell the idea as convincingly and passionately as possible. He also shared a lot of details about Michael Ende with me that I hadn’t known,” Alexander said.
“Like the fact that he (Ende) was a young badass Nazi resistor in Germany (Ende was to be drafted to the German army towards the end of World War II, but destroyed his draft documents and, according to some, even joined an anti-Nazi underground movement).”
And while the reaction in the room was positive, it unfortunately wasn’t enough to get Alexander and Marquez across the line.
“They (the studio heads) were interested enough in the IP to take the meetings themselves, instead of making me go through a bunch of junior executives first,” Alexander said.
“At the time, I compared it to Peter Jackson, who’d pitched the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy after ‘Heavenly Creatures’. I was naive then. I hadn’t yet realised that people assuming “great potential” in a filmmaker wasn’t a privilege extended to all filmmakers. I had an Oscar nominated short film and a cool indie feature to my name… but the buzz I had wasn’t enough to convince them they should trust me with a project of that size. Unfortunately, just getting into the door isn’t going to get you the job - even when your presentation is great. You have to sit opposite people who need to think you have the potential to become a Spielberg or Nolan and I think this is where a lot of women directors’ careers for off from the path that male filmmakers take. I’ve also only found out very late in my career that a lot of directors spend serious money on some of their pitches and presentations. It was always somewhat of a secret in Hollywood. But, as you can imagine, if people of colour and women filmmakers only get a mere eight per cent of jobs in the first place, how are we ever going to accumulate the kind of money it takes to randomly invest thousands of dollars into job interviews that we may or may not end up booking? Unless you have a family trust fund, you’re screwed. I often wonder if it would have made a difference - if I’d been able to blow $50,000 on a miniature puppet set, if that would’ve given them a little bit more confidence in me adapting ‘The Neverending Story’. In any case, I never had 50K to blow on a job interview, so it’s a moot point.”
Adding salt to the wound, some months after Alexander and Marquez had done the rounds of the studios, Warner Brothers bought the book’s rights for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. While the pitch notes and the concept art that was developed have long gone, Marquez said he’d be willing to revisit the world if the opportunity presented itself.
“Do I think the opportunity would ever present itself to me? No,” he said.
“But, if it did serendipitously come back and I could have a hand in bringing ‘The Neverending Story’ back to life, I wouldn’t think twice… I’d jump in with both feet.”
Alexander, on the other hand, feels the moment has passed. The filmmaker, who went on to generate a huge cult following with her second feature ‘Punisher: War Zone’, has since accumulated a diverse range of credits on TV - including ‘SWAT’, ‘Arrow’ and ‘Supergirl’.
“The rights are with someone else now. … also, I think my stock now is a lot lower in the feature world that it was right after ‘Green Street’,” she said.
“So, if they didn’t believe in me then, they definitely won’t now. But that’s how Hollywood is, and I’ve moved on as well. The world of 50-million-dollar features is almost dead there are a few two-million-dollar films, and a lot of 500-million-dollar films but the feature world - as in features distributed theatrically - has lost a lot of its magic for me. I’m all about TV now.”
Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.