STRANGER THAN FICTION directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm, with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. 113 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (November 10). For venues and times, see Movies, page 145. Rating: NNNN
Marc Forster wants to direct The Terminator. Well, not The Terminator exactly, but a big sci-fi action spectacle with lots of artillery and explosions and special effects.
But Forster directed Halle Berry to a searing, Oscar-winning performance in Monster's Ball and Johnny Depp to an enchanting Oscar-nominated performance in Finding Neverland. There's also awards buzz around his new movie, Stranger Than Fiction, an Adaptationesque serio-comedy starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson.
So he'll probably never get the chance to blow stuff up in any meaningless summer blockbuster. Hollywood's already made up its mind about him: he makes movies full of humanity, not alien worlds.
"They like to put you in your corner he's the guy for drama, he's the guy for comedy, he's the guy for action or suspense or horror because it's like McDonald's: they want to know that when they order a Big Mac they'll get a Big Mac," he says.
Fortunately, Forster, who looks a little like Michael Stipe, refuses to be put in any corner. "I get bored easily and need to be challenged by different things," says the German-born, Swiss-raised NYU film school grad.
Forster's flown into the city for the world premiere of Stranger Than Fiction at the Toronto International Film Festival and conduct a few interviews. Half a world away in China, a film crew is waiting for him to call "Action!" on an adaptation of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner, about two childhood friends in pre-Taliban Afghanistan.
"No aliens or robots in this one either, I'm afraid," he says.
We're here to discuss a film in which Ferrell's uptight IRS agent discovers that his life (and death) is being written by Thompson's crusty chain-smoking novelist, whose voice narrates his every move. But it's obvious that Forster's mind is very much in China. He says The Kite Runner will be shot almost entirely in Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages, and that the mostly unknown cast includes children he found in schools in Kabul.
"It should be an adventure," he says.
Meanwhile, there's Stranger Than Fiction. Written by first-time screenwriter Zach Helm, it was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. And despite Forster's track record, he had to pitch himself to the studio.
"I basically had to sell them on my vision," he says. He surprised everyone by settling on Ferrell to play the straitlaced lead after seeing him as the buffoonish Frank the Tank in Old School.
"I met Will and found him very normal and down-to-earth, an Everyman," says Forster. Not that the producers agreed. "Anchorman had just come out, and they called and said, "Are you sure you want to cast him?' Actors have their corners, too, it seems."
Stranger Than Fiction is about not letting your life be dictated, Forster says, even as he admits to hearing an inner voice that wrestles him for control.
"Sometimes it says to take the money to do a movie I don't really want to because it's a job and there are bills to pay," he says. "Of course, if my heart isn't in the film then I shouldn't do it. I should become a banker."
Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster) Rating: NNNN
Stranger Than Fiction is Charlie Kaufman lite by way of The Truman Show. And, like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell eschews Ricky Bobby buffoonery in favour of actual acting. His is a subdued, even subtle comic turn as Harold Crick, a sweet but awkward auditor who, with the help of an oddball lit professor (Dustin Hoffman), discovers he's the doomed protagonist in a tragic story by a writer (Emma Thompson) struggling to finish her book - and Crick - off.
Smart writing and assured directing turn this fluffy high-concept premise into something genuinely funny and surprisingly touching.