In Phobe in Wonderland, writer/director Daniel Barnz managed to pull a very mature, refined performance out of Elle Fanning, the 10-year-old sibling to Dakota Fanning, who is now graduating to more mature roles herself.
In Phoebe, Elle takes on the role of Phoebe Lichten, a precocious young girl who doesn't quite fit into her surroundings. Phoebe's life is inhabited by a group of adults who all have their own problems and insecurities, including her parents (played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman) and her school principal (Campbell Scott). Phoebe takes refuge in her school's production of Alice in Wonderland, and she strikes up a strong bond with her theater teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). Elle more than holds her own with her esteemed adult counterparts, and it's the kind of performance that marks a transition into something much bigger.
Barnz, who has two adopted children with his husband Ben, is aware of the trappings that acclaim holds for young actors in a modern-day Hollywood that is constantly being watched by the cameras of TMZ. He's pretty confident that Elle will be able to avoid the negative aspects of fame that so many other young stars succumb to.
"One of the things that I love about Elle is that in addition to being so enormously talented, she's a really good soul," Barnz told B OXOFFICE. "And she is very grounded, very grateful, very appreciative for the opportunity she has in life. So much of the credit goes to her family, which does such a fantastic job of keeping her life as real as possible. As a parent of two children in Hollywood, I know how difficult it is to keep your children with a strong sense of values in this environment and I don't have nearly the life that they have."
Barnz allowed his five-year-old son Dashiell and seven-year-old daughter Zelda to visit the set, and while Dashiell had fun hopping into the director's chair and putting on the headphones, Barnz doesn't think that either of them will make the leap into show business.
"I see them going in totally different directions," says Barnz. "They have absolutely no interest. We tried to encourage them to be extras in the Halloween scene. We thought it would be perfect, they'd dress in costumes and they'd run down the street, but they both adamantly refused to do it."
The family involvement didn't stop with visits to the set. Ben Barnz worked as a producer on Phoebe, and Daniel is quick to note that he encountered no problems working with someone he is so close to. In fact, he actually prefers it.
"It's a little bit hard to be so involved, you know, emotionally and creatively with a project that you're not sharing with your partner. So in the end I just really think its better to be doing it together than not," said Barnz.
Barnz is currently gearing up to direct Beastly, which he describes as "kind of a curious mixture of Juno, Twilight and Say Anything." Such a savvy pitch easily conveys the fact that even though Phoebe is his feature directorial debut, Barnz has been working in Hollywood for a while. He's written scripts for Sugarland with Jodie Foster, as well as Under and Alone for Mel Gibson and Rogue for Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.
As a first-time director, Daniel admits to having an immense amount of admiration for the work of Steven Soderbergh.
"I think it's pretty extraordinary how he keeps challenging himself to break out of whatever he's done before. He takes such giant risks with the movies he does."
Phoebe in Wonderland
is now playing in select theatres.