Warner Bros. Presents a Mark Johnson/Baltimore Pictures Production of An Alfonso Cuaron Film: "A Little Princess," starring Eleanor Bron and Liam Cunningham and Introducing Liesel Matthews. The film is edited by Steven Weisberg; the production designer is Bo Welch; and the director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki. The music is by Patrick Doyle. Alan C. Blomquist and Amy Ephron are the executive producers. The screenplay is by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. "A Little Princess" is produced by Mark Johnson and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. It is a Family Entertainment film distributed by Warner Bros., a Time Warner Entertainment Company.
Raised in the distant jungles of India, a young girl lives in a world filled with luxury, magical tales, exotic experiences ... and the adoring love of her father. But when she comes to New York to enroll in the strict boarding school that her late mother once attended, the girl finds the realities of her new life insufferably grim. Then suddenly, using only her will and imagination, she finds a way to bring the magic of her childhood from India into every corner of Miss Minchin's School for Girls.
"A Little Princess" is the story of the power of one girl's spirit and its ability to change her life and the fortunes of those around her. It is adapted for the screen by RICHARD GRAVENESE and ELIZABETH CHANDLER from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote some of the most enduring children's classics.
Sara Crewe (LIESEL MATTHEWS) is a wealthy, precocious and loving child. When her widowed father, Captain Crewe (LIAM CUNNINGHAM), is called to war, Sara is sent from the carefree environs of her home in India to a strict New York boarding school--under the stern, disapproving stewardship of its headmistress, Miss Minchin (ELEANOR BRON). Sara must use her inner resources of warmth, imagination and principle to overcome hardship when she suddenly is informed that her father has been lost in battle and that she is penniless and alone in the world.
Miss Minchin's harsh treatment of Sara is tempered by the girl's friendship with her classmates, the bashful servant girl, Becky (VANESSA LEE CHESTER), and Miss Minchin's perpetually flustered sister, Amelia (RUSTY SCHWIMMER). Although she is unaware that she is under the watchful and protective eye of Ram Dass (ERROL SITAHAL), the mysterious Indian manservant who lives next door, Sara ultimately discovers that she was never really far from home.
MARK JOHNSON produces "A Little Princess," and director ALFONSO CUARON makes his American film debut. The executive producers are ALAN C. BLOMQUIST and AMY EPHRON, with DALISA COHEN as co-producer. Warner Bros. will distribute the film worldwide.
The filmmakers have gathered an impressive group of behind-the-scenes creative talent for "A Little Princess" including cinematographer EMMANUEL LUBEZKI ("Like Water For Chocolate"), production designer BO WELCH ("Batman Returns," "Edward Scissorhands, " "Beetlejuice"), editor STEVEN WIESBERG ("Miami Rhapsody," "Mistress"), and costume designer JUDIANNA MAKOVSKY ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Big," "Reversal of Fortune"). The score is written and conducted by PATRICK DOYLE ("Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing").
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Producer Mark Johnson first read Francis Hodgson Bumett's A Little Princess nearly six years ago and was immediately taken with the story. Executive Producer Amy Ephron had brought the children's classic -- a book that had been a childhood favorite in her family for generations - to his attention at about the same that Johnson and his wife adopted a little girl.
"I thought 'what a wonderful story,"' recalls Johnson. "It's very much about the relationship between a daughter and her father, which is an important relationship for me and, I know, for a lot of people."
The producer had never made a family film before, and he found the prospect an intriguing challenge. He comments, "I wanted this to be truly family film, not just one for little children. There is a remarkable lack of sentiment in the way children were viewed at the time of the First World War -- they were expected to behave like little adults, although they were often put in situations over which they had no control. Those circumstances make Sara's story even more powerful, both to children and adults. It's my hope that families will be able to watch this movie together and enjoy it."
Johnson also noticed few films being made with young girls as protagonists and was attracted to the idea of developing this story. "I thought it would be a wonderful legacy for my daughter. It's important for girls to see examples, in movies and books as well as in real life, of other girls who can be strong and resourceful. I thought that this story, in particular, capitalizes on the inner strength of Sara Crewe and how it rewards her and many of those she encounters."
Richard LaGravanese, who instilled "The Fisher King" with such a strong sense of lyricism and magic, wrote an early version of the screenplay. "I thought Richard's script was just magical; after I read it, I could actually visualize the movie for the first time," says Johnson.
After additional contributions to the script were made by Elizabeth Chandler, whose prior credits include the critically-praised HBO telefilm " Afterburn, " the film was ready to begin pre-production.
Johnson met with director Alfonso Cuaron, a talented young director from Mexico who is among the fresh new wave of filmmakers making their presence felt in Hollywood.
"Alfonso has a real spiritual side to him; he brings a sense of mystery to the movie so that you always feel that there's an active fantasy life both in the characters and in the world the characters inhabit," says Johnson.
Cuaron says he knew he wanted to make the film after reading just 20 pages of the script. He, too, was moved by the relationship between Captain Crewe and his daughter Sara and found similarities in his own relationship with his 10-year old son. But the director found his excitement about the project ran to a deeper level.
"I think the movie is about the power of magic, and for me it's very important because I've been learning that there is not such a difference between magic and reality," muses Cuaron.
For Sara Crewe, magic is life. Growing up in India with the tradition of storytelling and mythical legend handed down to her from her Indian nanny, Maya, Sara comes to America with a highly developed imagination and a sense of a greater power watching over her. At Miss Minchin's School for Girls, Sara transforms the lives of the other girls at the school. She shares with them the stories Maya told her, wins their friendship and leads them to the knowledge that all little girls are indeed special -- all girls are princesses.
However, after her father is reported dead and she is sent to live in the attic, even Sara begins to question the truth of her beliefs. "Sara's a girl who takes magic for granted," says Alfonso Cuaron. "But after her father is presumed dead, she loses faith in the storytelling and magic. Through the course of her ordeals, she eventually discovers that the magic is inside her."
Central to that discovery is Sara's relationship with the waiflike servant, Becky. Sara shows Becky a heretofore-unknown kindness, and the two girls forge a strong bond.
"Alfonso told us that Becky and Sara are both like matches; Sara's match is lit and Becky's is not," says Liesel Matthews, who plays Sara Crewe. "When Sara comes to the school she lights Becky's match and they start to become friends," adds Vanessa Lee Chester, who portrays Becky. helps keep the flame alightin Sara."
Running parallel to the story of Sara and her separation from her father and subsequent banishment to the attic is a tale from the Indian myth of Ramayana. It is a story Maya tells Sara and Sara later recounts to the girls at the school. The Ramayana tells of Prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Princess Sita. Rama and Sita are separated -- like Sara and Crewe -- when the evil monster Ravanna abducts Sita and imprisons her in his tower.
Sara is linked to her home in India, to the Ramayana and, finally, to her life in New York by Ram Dass, the impassive Indian manservant living next door to Miss Minchin's School. The literal translation of the name Ram Dass is "servant of Rama." Ram Dass, then, is the link between the two stories; he is the catalyst bringing Sara and Crewe, Sita and Rama back together. "Ram Dass helps Sara to recognize the inherent strength in herself," says Errol Sitahol, the actor who portrays the mystical figure. "In addition, he is the force of good to counteract the evil in Miss Minchin."
Months before cameras were set to roll, the filmmakers embarked upon a search for Sara Crewe. Says director Cuaron, "We understood from the very beginning that this script has a soul, and this soul is Sara Crewe. So we knew that no matter what we did, the movie was not going to work if we didn't have a great Sara."
The filmmakers conducted a talent search that encompassed cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. They saw tapes and photos of nearly 10,000 young girls. Their search ended in Chicago with 10-year old Liesel Matthews.
"When we looked at the tests, we all picked Liesel independently -- not because she was so much better than everyone else, because many were terrific," remembers Johnson, "but she had qualities that worked perfectly for Sara Crewe. Looking at her on film, we could see that she had an inner life and a strong sense of imagination and contentment."
Director Cuaron concurs, "Liesel is very complex; she can be very funny or very emotional; she has her own mind. Sometimes she can be like a character taken out of a book of adventures, and that reflects in the movie."
The relationship between Sara and her father, Captain Crewe, is critical to the film. Crewe only appears in about one-quarter of the film, but his presence must be felt throughout. The filmmakers selected Irish actor Liam Cunningham in a rather unconventional manner. Recalls the actor, "I was working on another project at the time and there was just no way I could get over to the States, so I taped an audition in London and had it shipped over."
The scene he selected was the emotional farewell he shares with Sara in her new room at Miss Minchin's boarding school. The filmmakers were immediately won over. "It's rare to witness honesty and affection without oversentimentality," says Cuaron.
Under the rigid supervision of Miss Minchin, Sara's creativity and self-assurance is seen simply as defiance. Miss Minchin is a woman who believes, as many did at the turn of the century, that children are to be looked upon as small adults-in-training and are therefore schooled to prepare for the harshness of life's realities. "She's justified to herself that she's actually teaching Sara what real life is like," Eleanor Bron says of her character. "Sara has been protected from harsh truths and lived a pampered life, so Miss Minchin thinks that it's actually quite good for Sara to see how hard it is for people who have nothing to live."
Working with as many as 18 young girls all under the age of 12 proved to be a rich blessing. "We've been able to utilize their enthusiasm and their intuition, which more than makes up for what they lack in experience," remarks Johnson.
"The girls took this movie very personally," says Cuaron. "For them it was more than a movie, it was an experience in their lives. And they created strong characters, all of them.
A Green World Mark Johnson felt that it was essential to tell the story of "A Little Princess" with the level of artistry associated with adult films, while also captivating the imagination of the children in the audience. Says Johnson, "This movie has a lot of joy, and the dramatic highs and lows are really extreme, so that it's extremely satisfying. If we've done our jobs well, parents should be able enjoy this movie wholeheartedly with their children."
To this end, the filmmakers created a setting for the story that incorporated the richest detail and dimension, under the supervision of acclaimed production designer Bo Welch and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, as well as art director TOM DUFFIELD.
Stepping into the foyer in Miss Minchin's School for Girls, built on a soundstage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, one is immediately immersed in green. The walls, window coverings, upholstered furniture -- everything is a varied shade of green. "It is the only color I understand," jokes Cuaron, who asserts that he has never made a movie in any other color.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot every one of Cuaron's films, explains, "Green is the only color in the spectrum that can be lit in either warm or cold tones; that kind of flexibility gives us a range of emotion to work with on every set."
Production designer Bo Welch sees the decision to color everything green as a unifying element. "Often when you look at pictures from the turn of the century they're monochromatic, done in either black-and-white or sepia, so we're using green the way you would see black or sepia in old photographs to make things feel older and to unify the look."
The sets, however, are not the only things dressed in green. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky used fabrics, texture and a variety of shades to communicate each character's personality through attire.
"It seems limiting, but in a way there's more freedom because, as a designer, you have to find all these possibilities within the color range. It's really a challenge and great fun," says Makovsky.
In order to contrast the harsh reality of Sara's life in New York, where everything is green, with her past existence in India, the clothing and sets for the India locations are all done in creamy whites, yellows and oranges. Says Makovsky, "We try to have differentiation between each of Sara's worlds so that the audience really feels what she feels; that she's longing for this world of color when all she gets is this dark green world."
MISS MINCHIN'S SCHOOL GIRL
"Everything in the movie is told from Sara's point of view," says Cuaron. "Whenever we do a scene we look for what's happening with Sara. So maybe we're not always being truthful about the facts, but we're being truthful about Sara's emotions."
Bo Welch found the idea of a boarding school for rich little girls as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl irresistible. "All good classic stories have a building, whether it's a house or an institution that the story emanates from," says the designer. To serve his vision, Welch manipulated scale, erecting large rooms with ten-foot-tall doorways, exaggerated balustrades and wide staircases. The point was to overwhelm and intimidate the girls, to make them feel even smaller and more vulnerable.
The designer called upon memories from his own childhood and explored a concept many of us have felt in our adult lives. He explains, "I think everyone's had the experience of going back to your elementary school and walking around the halls and you think it's strange that everything seems so tiny -- when you were there as a child, everything seemed so big.
"The school is designed to overpower these little spirits, and it can't be done," reveals Welch. "They're very strong and smart, and they all have very strong personalities. By overwhelming them with an environment I think it emphasizes how great they are."
After production was completed, composer Patrick Doyle created a score for "A Little Princess" that linked the world of India, with its richness and myth, to the world of New York, with its own intricate culture, while evoking the warm emotion that has made the story of Sara Crewe such a timeless classic. "I know that families will continue to treasure reading the novel about Sara," sums up director Cuaron, "but I hope they will also hand down their pleasure in this movie from parent to child. We have tried to bring a dimension to the film that only a visual experience could create; I hope it enhances people's appreciation of this wonderful story."