“I don’t think it’s a kids medium. I think it’s a medium that allows everyone to return to their childhood selves.”
The Little Prince is a world-wide best-selling classic that’s been translated into multiple languages. However, due to the complex, profound nature of author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beautifully intricate narrative, the titular character’s previous cinematic outings haven’t been nearly as successful at capturing the emotional pull of the source material. Until now with director Mark Osborne’s THE LITTLE PRINCE. This iteration has an over-scheduled Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) discovering the magical story through her eccentric neighbor, the Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges).
We sat down with the talented director at the recent press day in Los Angeles, where we not only magpie’d out on “the magic suitcase” (a.k.a. his “pitch kit”) he brought along, but also had an enlightening discussion about a handful of the film’s highlights.
The original text is challenging to adapt. Did you know immediately how you were going to do it?
No. It took like nine months. Honestly, at first, I said, ‘No. There’s no way to do this.’ I was familiar with previous adaptations I never quite felt could do the book justice because it’s such a challenge. But then I was just inspired by what the book meant to me – what my memories were of it. The pieces of the book that stayed with me for twenty years of my life were sort of calling to me and I started to realize this was an opportunity to adapt the book and protect it. That was my biggest idea I went back to the producers with; I want the book to stay small. I want the book to stay poetic and I want to build a larger story around the book to cushion and to celebrate the power of how the book works in someone’s life. When the book is significant to somebody, it’s really significant. I wanted to tell as big a story as I could about that kind of powerful relationships and connections that can develop as a result of that book being shared with you, or you sharing it with somebody.
Did you know exactly which thematic elements you wanted to pull from?
It took time to figure out which were the right ones. Eventually, as we developed the character of the Little Girl, and the character of the old Aviator, the correct pieces started emerging. I think the idea at the beginning was to adapt as much of the book as possible, but there’s too many themes and ideas. So we focused in and I chose the one key idea – that quote ‘It’s only with the heart one can see rightly what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ That’s the central idea that the entire movie is going to be built around. We really drew all the material that focused on that and focused on the struggle between grown-ups and children and imagination and reality – those bigger themes about love and loss. To me it was the themes I gravitated towards and the themes that were the most universally appreciated.
I think this movie is profound and introspective. Especially for kids, it’s good for them to have these “grief” movies. Europeans have been making these kinds of films for years. But Americans – there’s not a lot.
The biggest example was UP. There’s a lot of emotion in that dealing with loss, dealing with grief and I think that gave us the feeling that this isn’t crazy. We can kind of go down this road. If you’re going to adapt the book, you have to go down those paths.
Was that a difficult sell?
It’s difficult on every level. Because of the fact this is really powerful stuff. But look, you can point to BAMBI. You can point to FINDING NEMO. It’s always there. It goes back to the tradition of fairy tales – the tradition of how I think animated movies work and the beauty of animation. I don’t think it’s a kids medium. I think it’s a medium that allows everyone to return to their childhood selves – and that’s what the book does beautifully. It brings you back to your own childhood. This was the perfect opportunity to do what was really powerful in animation. It’s a safe way for a parent and a child to deal with big scary issues – that’s really what our mission was to try to go to those lengths. When a parent is reading the book to a child, it’s quite possible when you get to the end the parent is crying and the kid is looking up and saying, ‘Why are you crying?’ And that starts a conversation. That’s part of the power of the book is its ability to create conversations.
What was the segment that changed the most from first story reel to the finished product?
A lot of story reels and a lot of exploration and development. There’s one sequence that changed, and changed, and changed, and then we threw it away. I think the thing that was hardest to get right was…I’ll give two examples. The relationship between the Prince and the Rose was very, very difficult to figure out. There’s some visual ideas in there that communicated the emotion of what we were trying to get at with those characters and the nature of love and complication of love in relationships. That scene was really, really hard. We were constantly tweaking it.
In the larger story, there was a stage where the Little Girl had a mother and a father present in the house and they were both working all the time. The movie never worked until we pushed the father out of the frame and made him more of a ghost – made it mysterious as to where he was and why he wasn’t there. It gave us a greater chance to tap into, oddly, not only the themes in the book about abandonment and dealing with loss – giving the girl some real stuff she needed to deal with – but it actually helped me deal with stuff from my own childhood. I’m a child of divorce and there was some stuff that happened in my life that happened as a kid I never quite understood. The book is one of those things that helped me deal with that in my own life. In the end, when I was trying to make a mother and father work in the story was trying to revise my own history in a way. It was much more meaningful and deeper to get at the truth of it. Kids feel and deal with abandonment even if there is two parents at home. There’s always some situation where work intervenes. I think it’s very common. And so we had to do an extreme version of that in order for that to be understandable and emotional. But also to give the old Aviator an opportunity to be a strong, positive influence in her life.
Tell me about these two different animation style– the CG world and the stop-motion one. The look of the stop-motion world was like paper mache.
Everything is made out of paper. It’s very uncommon and a trademark of Jamie Caliri – my co-director and partner on the stop-motion sequences. Jamie is super talented and done a lot of work using paper.
Which I just found out he did my favorite credit sequence of all time for LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS.
He’s brilliant. For me, stop-motion, I love it and I felt like it was the best way to protect the book. It was the best way to portray the imagination of a child. It’s the best way to create something that’s both magical and artistically created. The hand of the artist is so clear and present. And it would give us great contrast to the reality that the little girl is living in, but the reality of the animation marketplace where CG is bankable and stop-motion isn’t necessarily bankable. Somewhere deep in the layers, that’s there as a sort of commentary. I’m always trying to get stop-motion projects off the ground. After twenty years of trying to get a stop-motion feature off the ground, I managed to get 18% of a movie in stop-motion. That’s a huge victory – a hard fought victory. I really wanted to use different techniques in order to create an emotional experience – this contrast, division, separation between the imagination of a child and the Aviator and the world of the Little Prince. The CG reality that we create is a satire. But it’s a satire that’s rooted in the satire the book creates.
The music really strikes a chord – no pun intended. Did you give the direction to Hans Zimmer to use Camille’s voice as the Little Girl’s inner expression?
When I approached him I said, ‘I don’t know what to do with the music in this. I really need you to collaborate and come up with something.’ Rather than to tell Hans Zimmer what to do, it’s better to go, ‘Hey! Hans?’ He was incredibly inspired. He had a deep connection to the Little Girl character. There were a lot of things that hooked him. He had a very close relationship with the book. He had three brilliant ideas; He wanted it to sound French. He didn’t want it to sound like any other animated movie and didn’t want it to sound like an animated movie. Second was his idea to bring on Camille. He showed me examples of what she could do with her voice and the way she creates her art. Perfect example of him being super smart putting elements together. The third thing that was genius was he had a friendship with a composer, Richard Harvey. He said, ‘I know what I want to do. I can’t do it, but Richard Harvey can. I want to partner with him.’ He put together the band. They co-composed. They worked together to create something that’s quite magical unlike any other animated movie score. Camille was invited in as one of the instruments in the orchestra. What’s great about Hans is he’s a filmmaker. That was really incredible to work with him in that way.
THE LITTLE PRINCE begins streaming August 5 only on Netflix.