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The magic of 'Neverland'

Director Marc Forster brings the world of imagination to life

By Stephanie Snipes

"Finding Neverland" stars Johnny Depp, center, and Kate Winslet alongside a quartet of child actors, who play the inspirations for "Peter Pan."
Harvey Weinstein
J.M. Barrie
Johnny Depp

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "Finding Neverland" tells the inspiring story of author J.M. Barrie, a man who created a magical land of wonder, heart and spirit in his famous story "Peter Pan."

Barrie first made a splash in the literary world in 1902 with the popular "Quality Street." But it was "Peter Pan" that created a lasting legacy for the Scottish dramatist.

In "Finding Neverland," director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") delves into Barrie's experience writing "Peter Pan" and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys who inspired the timeless fable.

"I'm a great believer of storytelling and about the transformation of imagination," the director said in a recent promotional stop in Atlanta.

According to Forster, he first read the "Neverland" script years ago but was turned down by Miramax for the directing job. Still interested in the script, Forster said he returned to the studio with a copy of his critically acclaimed 2001 film, "Monster's Ball," in tow.

After screening the film for the studio, Forster said he met with Miramax's head honcho, Harvey Weinstein, and in a passionate 20-minute pitch described his plans for Barrie's story. The next thing he knew, "Neverland" was his, he said.

While the story has some factual inaccuracies (one change was casting four Llewelyn Davies boys instead of five), Forster maintains the small liberties he took enhanced the storytelling.

"It was about capturing the spirit and how [Barrie] was inspired to write the piece," Forster said, "even though the historical facts weren't correct."

Casting the right actor to play Barrie was critical, Forster said, which is why from Day One, he courted, and ultimately cast, Johnny Depp, a man he describes as "humble" and a "director's dream."

When asked about the dramatic physical differences between the average-looking Barrie and People magazine's 2003 "Sexiest Man Alive," Forster shrugged it off as "not important."

In Depp, Forster said he found the ideal actor to portray the kid-at-heart personality Barrie channeled into his professional life -- a trait the star possesses.

'Can you do it right next time, Johnny?'

The next challenge was casting the children. Forster said the studio started with 500 kids before whittling it down to the final four. While the quartet, Freddie Highmore (Peter), Joe Prospero (Jack), Nick Roud (George) and Luke Spill (Michael), had little acting experience, they were big on personality, Forster said.

Depp will star again with Freddie Highmore, right, in the upcoming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

One of the director's favorite stories involves Luke, the youngest of the group. On a particularly long day Forster had to break some bad news -- they had more takes to do.

According to the director, Luke looked up at him and said, "I just can't do it any better," to which Forster, feeling bad for the young actor, explained that it wasn't him but Depp who required another take.

Immediately, the child walked up to the Oscar-nominated actor and said, "Can you do it right next time, Johnny?"

With respect to all the children, Forster said it was Freddie as Peter, the inspiration for Pan, who steals the film. Depp and Highmore got along so fantastically that Depp suggested him for the coveted role of Charlie in the upcoming Tim Burton film, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Highmore will play opposite Depp's Willy Wonka.

Rounding out the "Neverland" cast is Oscar nominee Kate Winslet ("Titanic") as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the dying mother of the four boys, and Oscar winners Julie Christie ("Darling") and Dustin Hoffman ("Rainman" and "Kramer vs. Kramer").

While "Finding Neverland" is marketed for adult audiences (even with the film's PG rating), Forster said he's thrilled to see younger crowds embracing the story at some of the word-of-mouth screenings that he has been to.

"My favorite part [of making the film] was being able to do something that I believe was magical and stimulated my imagination," Forster said. "And I hope I conveyed that in the film. That it will stimulate people's imagination, that they will write things or do things or believe in things that they didn't believe in before."

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