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Daniel Barnz in

Daniel Barnz in


Out filmmaker Daniel Barnz arrives on the scene -- attended by the likes of Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson -- with his first film, Phoebe in Wonderland .

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 about the film's relatable gay themes, as well as the effect that becoming a gay parent has had on his story. 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 introspectiveaEUR|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.

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.

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.

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