Daniel Barnz in Wonderland

By Kyle Buchanan

Originally published on Advocate.com March 08 2009 11:00 PM ET

After years of work in
Hollywood as a successful screenwriter, Daniel Barnz has
finally seen one of his scripts reach the screen, and it's the
one he made his directorial debut on. The out filmmaker's first
film,
Phoebe in Wonderland

, is about a creative 9-year-old (Elle Fanning) who begins to
act out in ways that stymie her academic parents (Felicity
Huffman and Bill Pullman). Though they've long encouraged
Phoebe's free thinking, they have trouble suppressing their
desire to see her lead a safer, more conventional life. Barnz
spoke to Advocate.com about the film's relatable gay themes, as
well as the effect that becoming a gay parent has had on his
story.

Advocate.com: You've said that much of the film is derived from your own
feelings of being different as a kid. Can you tell me a little
bit about that?
Daniel Barnz:

I was definitely, like, the weird kid growing up. I think
it's just so difficult to people when you're an outsider
and you're different, and yet you do come out the other end and
feel like it's given you a different perspective on things,
which you're grateful for.

Which, of course, is a journey any gay person can
appreciate.

You know, I'm particularly interested in things where society
confuses issues of choice and biology, which obviously plays
out in the film in a very specific way, and it sort of plays
out in the gay world as well. Frequently, these issues are
considered an issue of choice when, in fact, they're not.
People try to respond to that by setting rules and stuff, and
so for me, having gone through that experience, it sort of
naturally segued into what the movie would become about.

That's what struck me while watching the film: A lot of the
time, the arguments and discussions that Phoebe's parents are
having about her could be the ones made by parents raising a
gay child. They appreciate what is special about her, but
they're worried about how other people will react, and how it
might make her life more difficult.

Yeah, absolutely. Over the course of the 10 years that it took
to get this script made, I became the parent of two children
and it really did sort of change my perspective on how I wanted
to portray those parents. I think that we're living in this
really confusing age where we really want our kids to be
special and different, and then when they are special and
different, it's also really painful. Like, I have a
daughter who is very introspective…a little bit reticent and
kind of shy. She's not the kid who, like, goes in on the first
day of school and wows everybody. I really value and I'm in
love with that sort of quiet, introspective quality that she
has, but then it's hard when you go to the class and
you're like, 'Why don't you go up and show off for
everybody too?' So I think it's very interesting how,
as parents, there's this sort of conundrum that faces
us.

Phoebe in Wonderland Elle Fanning and Paticia Clarkson x390 (publcity) | Advocate.com

Did you feel growing up that there were elements of your
personality that you tamped down, then once you got out of that
crucible of school, you realized they were strengths instead of
weaknesses?

Yes, definitely. It's really interesting, the generational
differences. When I was growing up, I went to this very liberal
school outside Philadelphia, and there was not a single gay
person at all. I constructed this very bizarre
intellectualization of my life [
laughs

], and happiness was this very amorphous thing. "Maybe I
would be happier if I was heterosexual, it would be safer"
... Literally, it was these boring, on-and-on rationalizations
of my life, and then in college I was like, "Of course I
should just come out." So I definitely felt a tamping
down, although there was nobody encouraging me not to be
artistic.

At the same time, I
went to film school, and then I immediately wanted to direct
movies. It's taken a long time, about 10 years, and
I've been screen-writing in the studio system, and it's
really interesting. I sort of learned from that process about
restriction and struggle, which ended up making me a better
filmmaker. So it's sort of like there's these two
parallel things: my identity as a gay man was tamped down once,
and then there was my experience of working in films [for other
people] until I finally got to do what I wanted to do.

Are you still working on a biopic of openly gay silent-film
star William Haines?

Yeah, it's written. It's based on this book
Wisecracker

by William Mann. We're in the process of putting together
the cast. You know, it's really interesting, because
he's this amazing personality. He was wildly witty, a
prankster, the life of the party, and yet he had these fits of
fury and this dark, brooding aspect. That world is very
interesting to me too, 1925-1934 Hollywood, moving from that
wildly sexual, orgiastic time, and then the Depression hits.
Values changed, and everybody became so conservative. So
it's interesting that I wrote that, and then this recession
happened. It'll be interesting to see if those kinds of
conservative values from the '30s play out again. Tight
pocketbooks lead to tight minds.

Haines also had a very long, successful relationship with
another man.

It's a historical same-sex marriage that lasted for 47
years. That seems like such a great story to put it out now,
because of all that's going on with same-sex marriage.

Phoebe in Wonderland Elle Fanning and Daniel Barnz x390 (publcity) | Advocate.com

Your partner produced this film, and you both live in
California. What has that Prop. 8 fight been like for you?

We've been together for 13 years, and then about 10 years
ago we had our commitment ceremony in New York that was not
legal or binding. Then we had our civil union in Vermont and
our domestic partnership in California. We did get married in
California [this past year], and everything that happened with
Prop. 8 was very upsetting because it revealed this antigay
sentiment in the world at large, but I don't feel like our
personal relationship has been invalidated. Where it became
really complicated was in figuring out how much to explain to
our children. I wanted them to be aware of what was going on at
this point in history, but also didn't want to open up a
Pandora's box of "By the way, here's this
homophobic world that you live in."

How old are your children?

Five and 7.

So how did you ultimately broach the subject with them?

We said that there were people who wanted to determine who
could get married and who couldn't get married, and we
thought that was unfair and wanted to fight that. We sort of
left it at that. We didn't really get into the same-sex
thing because the kind of beauty of their world right now is
that they live with us, they have lots of friends with same-sex
parents, they go to a school where there's multiple
same-sex [parent led] families per class, so it's kind of a
part of their world. Our feeling is, without putting them in a
bubble, let's let them build a sense of confidence and
self-esteem, and when it's age-appropriate, we can start to
talk to them about all the other people in the world who might
not be like the people they know.