Why Inkheart director Iain Softley fought to keep star Brendan Fraser

Iain Softley, director of the upcoming Inkheart, said that he thought star Brendan Fraser was perfect for the role, though reports suggest that some studio types wanted a bigger star.

Softley added that the effects-laden fantasy film marks a natural move for him after the more intimate Backbeat and The Skeleton Key.

Speaking in group interview in Marina Del Rey, Calif., earlier this month, the director also explained why his star, Brendan Fraser, was perfect for the role of a bookbinder named Mo who has the ability to bring literary characters to life when he reads aloud.

Following is an edited version of our interview. Inkheart, based on Cornelia Funke's novel of the same name, opens Jan. 23.

Would you call this a departure for you from the other films you've made?

Softley: I would say it's more of a development than a departure. It felt like it was a development of some of the processes I used on The Skeleton Key in terms of trying to do as much of the work in real locations as possible—a combination of really creating an atmosphere by being in a real place and the benefit that an actor gets from doing things in a real environment. There was a little bit of special effects in The Skeleton Key, but there was quite a lot of on-set action, and I wanted to make as much real stuff as possible in this movie. For example, the hurricane was mostly done with real, on-set effects—massive wind machines and stunt guys and walls being exploded around the actors. There were medics standing by with lots of eye ointment for all of the bits of grit that got blown into people's eyes.

We understand that Brendan Fraser was already connected to the material, but what made him right to you as the star of Inkheart? [Softley fought to keep Fraser, though some studio execs reportedly wanted a bigger star.]

Softley: I was told that Brendan inspired the character of Mo, and I thought that was a great idea for the role. Brendan graciously flew himself over to London when he found out that I was the director and said, "I want you to cast me as Mo in Inkheart. You're the director, and I don't want to be in the movie if you don't want me to be Mo." There was nobody else I could think of who would do it better, and it was such a no-brainer, really. If you've got the guy who inspired the role, I was delighted that he wanted to do it.

What was it about the book that attracted you to this project?

Softley: I just think the idea of this magical environment that existed in present day—the idea that you can go to these places and you can image medieval brigands; I think that's what's fun about going to those places, and that's what's fun in the movie when you go somewhere. I think there's a couple of messages, and one of the messages is that people from different backgrounds can find a common goal and pool their resources and achieve more than they would individually. But I think that there's also the idea that the world of literature and storytelling is a world that you can kind of go into and experience it as an equally real, parallel but different reality from our own.

Notwithstanding the specific references the story makes to books and characters, how much effort was made to create a world that was directly informed by these classic works of literature? The Shadow looks a little bit like the balrog from Lord of the Rings, for example.

Softley: In the scene where Eliza does her trial reading, there's Rapunzel, there's Ebenezer Scrooge and Huckleberry Finn. That was a nice moment to do. But the Shadow actually was a painting reference. I was looking and gathering together references for the visual-effects guys as to what I wanted as a sort of jumping-off point, and I collected pictures of gargoyles and demons by William Blake and a number of paintings by the Spanish painter Goya, particularly the massive Colossus that loomed over the battlefield. I thought that would be amazing, because the landscape was rather like our landscape in Northern Italy—it would be fantastic if he just appeared over the mountain. That was really the inspiration, and then I wanted him scaled down. In the script, [the finale] takes place in an enclosed church, and I wanted it to be in the open air so we could have this massive scale and then scale him down.

How tough was it to create this film's meta-universe, where you have a palpable reality, and then literary characters come to life, and then authors of those characters interacting with them?

Softley: We talked about what kind of effects would occur when guys come out of the book, and I just had the idea that it's like something out of the corner of my eye—did I miss that person arrive, or have they been there all along? I thought of something that had some connection with the way people might experience everyday life, so that it wasn't a totally fantastical environment with stars appearing or something.

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