The story of how "Madeline" finally came to the big screen is ironically appropriate: over five years ago, producer Allyn Stewart took her godchildren to a childrens' movie and "halfway through, I was dying to leave, it was so dreadful. I got back to my office the next day, and said 'We've got to make a great children's film.'" When an assistant suggested "Madeline," Stewart, who loved the books as a child, felt "there's got to be
some reason why it's never been made, there's got to be a problem with the rights." But her curiosity had been piqued, and when she investigated the situation, she found that the film rights were held by author Ludwig Bemelmans' widow, Madeleine, and
daughter Barbara, and producers Pancho Kohner and Saul Cooper.
Stewart approached Kohner and Cooper, suggesting they join forces to produce the film for Tri Star. When they agreed, she flew to New York to meet the Bemelmans over lunch. "I basically said to them that if we didn't make a great movie, my mother would kill me," she says with a laugh, and they were sold.
Reading the books again, she was struck by their timelessness and perfection as the basis for a movie, especially now. "The indomitable spirit of Madeline is inspiring. Every time I look at the books, I get this glow. She's fearless. She's not afraid of the tiger or the villain, Lord Cucuface. Even as an adult, I think that a little girl who's not
afraid, who's the littlest one of all, is inspiring. So many films of the past few years are about little girls who are hurt because they're missing their parents, or finding themselves. In the case of this story, it's about a little girl who knows who she is and takes you on a wonderful adventure. I think that's why it's been a classic for so long."
Stewart embarked on the development process and found it deceptively hard to get the script just right. "The hardest thing to do was finding a way to tell a story that used elements of as many books as possible," she says. When Stewart joined
Stanley R. Jaffe's company, Jaffilms, last year, she was "thrilled to find that Stanley loved the books as much as I did," and Jaffe became the film's executive producer.
Jaffe agrees that there were real challenges involved in shaping the script. "This is almost one of the most difficult scripts I've ever worked on," he says. "It didn't have a beginning, middle and end, it had six beginnings, middles and ends. It kept reading episodic. The most difficult part was determining what a structure could be that would give the fans of "Madeline" the icons they grew up with, enough so they were comfortable and yet not read like we'd combined six books."
They found their ideal collaborator when director Daisy Mayer came on board. "What Daisy brought to it was real energy," enthuses Stewart. "She was very tough about making sure the picture was exciting for children, that it wasn't too precious. She was invaluable. She really brought a point of view that helped us get to where we are."
Mayer, whose first film PARTY GIRL is an enchanting fable in its own right, was the perfect choice to direct MADELINE because she subscribed to Stewart and Jaffe's basic tenet of having the highest respect for their young audience. As Jaffe, a father of four, puts it, "Children are much too sophisticated to talk down to. What Daisy brought was that belief, and also this wonderful energy and childlike enthusiasm for it. In talking to her, you realized by the first meeting she had thought about it a lot and had a vision as to how she's bring it about."
Things further clicked when screenwriters Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett delivered the script that in Jaffe's words, "really licked it. They made it a movie and then they made it a very good movie." Married writing partners Levin & Flackett were able to work in elements from four of the books (Madeline, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline's Rescue, Madeline and the Gypsies) and Stewart asserts, "They finally found a way to have the courage of Madeline come though the story. Mark and Jennifer were just fantastic. What they gave us is a central story, which is the closing of the school, as well great scene after scene after scene."
One of the film's major hooks is that the books have been handed down to three or four generations, which gives the film an equally wide appeal with its audience. Says Jaffe, "It's a rare experience that a parent can have with a child, that they mutually went through. You know what it was like as a child to experience "Madeline," as do your children, as does your mother. And I think that's fantastic." Stewart says, "It gives me chills to think of three or four generations going to see the movie together. That would be magical."
After much discussion on the time frame for the story, the filmmakers settled on the mid-50's as the ideal period. While the first book was set in the late 30's, the filmmakers wanted to avoid the Second World War and felt that the 50's was "a naive, bright, sunny, optimistic time," Mayer says. Adds Stewart, "The number one element was to create a timeless Paris in the same way that the books are timeless. We really wanted Madeline to come to life, to do it realistically, and the 50's was a period of rebirth. It has a certain style that allows us to fill the costume and set design with real color and life." Mayer originally chose 1952, then found that "I couldn't have any nicely colored cars, and we made it 1956. Another hobby of mine is fashion history, and so I love that it's such a great time in fashion. I get to have a fun time with Mrs. Spanish Ambassador's outfits."
Mayer devised a number of ways to make the girls feel comfortable in the world of filmmaking. One theater game had the girls playing the roles of assistant director, camera operator and boom person, "standing on a chair holding a stick," says Mayer. "We'd run through the whole process, and I'd say 'Roll Sound' and all 12 of them would say 'Speed!', and I'd say 'Roll Camera' and they'd say 'Rolling!' so they knew what it meant before they got to the set." She also assigned each girl a buddy, which adds realism to the scenes with all the girls together, and whose success was proven by the pairs of new best friends walking around the set with linked arms.
The girls also worked with a choreographer to tighten up those famous two straight lines, with which Mayer begged to differ once they began filming. "The concept of 12 kids being in two straight lines is obscene, obscene in life!" she says with mock indignation. "We'll just try to make them kinda sorta straight, but I also think if Christina is bouncing, which she normally does, then that's human."
The girls' rehearsals with McDormand and Hawthorne brought vital contributions to the film and their offscreen relationships. "Hands up," used on the set to get the kids to focus by putting hands up with mouths closed, came from a theater workshop McDormand attends every summer with kids from Hell's Kitchen. Hawthorne threw in a pratfall one day while blocking a scene "just so the kids could have a laugh," says Stewart. "It was so fantastic, it's in the movie. Both Frances and Nigel keep adding comedy, personality, layers. We thought we had it pretty good in the screenplay, and they're going further."
Working with this many children can throw a director an occasional curve. Mayer says, "What's a surprise is that their acting is so good. It's flawless, so that what with an adult might take 6 takes to get a nuance of performance, with the kids I just have to not say anything. But then what takes forever is that they constantly say things like 'Daisy! Daisy! Where do I put my apple?' or 'Daisy! My stomach hurts.' Nobody ever interrupts you on a set to say things like that, but they're nine, so of course they do."
Stewart has an eloquent way to describe MADELINE's final message. "I believe that children have an uncanny ability of putting light in the darkness. And that's what they give the world. I think for the end of this movie to reinforce that is an incredible thing for us to all feel. And that's why I think this film works for children and for adults, because the messages are very powerful for all of us."