Come Away captures the magic of being a kid, and how to use imagination to cope with hardship

When Marissa Kate Goodhill was graduating college and took a class in ‘Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales’, it inspired her to craft the screenplay for Come Away, bringing Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland together as siblings and exploring the worlds that they came from.

At the heart of Come Away lies a tantalising ‘What if?’ — a question which forms a unique and ingeniously conceived prequel to two of the world’s most beloved and enduring pieces of children’s literature. What if, the film asks, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan were brother and sister?

Before Alice went to Wonderland, and before Peter became Pan, they were brother and sister. When their eldest brother dies in a tragic accident, they each seek to save their parents from their downward spirals of despair until finally they are forced to choose between home and imagination, setting the stage for their iconic journeys into Wonderland and Neverland.

The Origin of a Fantasy

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

“I had taken a class that totally changed my life, called ‘Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales,’” says Marissa Kate Goodhill, an L.A. native, who was raised on movies and magic in the hills of Laurel Canyon by a film editor Father and a mother who dabbled in all things creative.

“I did a deep dive into fairy tales and was deeply moved and drawn to the darkness of some of those original stories. They are very much cautionary tales for children; they’re trying to get children to understand the world they live in. In the midst of all that, I read the original Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland while exploring them as a co-artistic director of a college dance theatre troupe. A movie immediately began forming in my mind. I hadn’t realised how much darkness was in those stories and how they felt very common, but also such opposite representations of childhood: Alice just desperately wants to grow up, which is how I was when I was a kid, and then Peter never wants to grow up.”

Marissa Goodhill (@marisskate) | Twitter

Always an avid reader and lover of fairytales, it was her background in dance and choreography that finally led her to screenwriting. While in college she became co-artistic director of a dance theater company, and it was through creating full length visual narratives for the stage that she realized screenwriting and choreography share the same spine: visual storytelling. In the years that have followed, this conviction has continued to deepen and grow with experience.

Goodhill was further inspired by writer-director Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 dark fairy-tale masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. “I thought it so beautifully explored what I’m trying to explore with Come Away, which is: what happens in our life that causes us to create fantasy, and what role does fantasy serve in our lives?” 

As she researched further, she learned that Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie had a brother who died when he was young, and even once put on his brother’s clothes to try and get his grieving mother’s attention. That, she says, was when the idea really started to gel, of connecting Peter and Alice via a sibling who is tragically taken from them.

“I liked the idea of giving these stories context and contour, and exploring how they could serve as different but complementary explorations of the way we all react to our lives.”

Goodhill met and pitched the idea to producer Leesa Kahn in 2011, who instantly thought, “Wow. What a brilliant idea. Let’s go for it,” and encouraged the writer to take it to script.

“I loved the idea of bringing Peter Pan and Alice together as siblings and exploring the worlds that they came from and the reasons they took their iconic journeys into Wonderland and Neverland,” says Kahn. “It was such a beautiful thing to explore. What is so beautiful about the story is it’s about how children deal with tragedy, and the resilience of children, and how one’s imagination becomes such a strong supporter, and such strong comfort, in those times of grief.”

Kahn’s fellow producers would be just as impressed by the idea, and the completed script itself, not least because it was Goodhill’s first.

“It felt like the story was written by an old soul,” says Steven Richards, of Endurance Media. “I was surprised to learn it was Marissa’s first script, but nonetheless was drawn to the clever idea of a prequel to both of these stories. Marissa truly not only captured a raw realism about tragedy and family, but also captured the magic of being a kid, and how to use imagination to cope with hardship.”

James Spring, of Fred Films, agrees. “I was impressed by the skill with which Marissa had woven together those two stories,” he says, “and then created an extremely dramatic catalyst for those journeys, which she handled so elegantly in the way she’d written the screenplay.”

The Perfect Marriage

“It is not in doing what you like, but in liking what you do that is the secret of happiness.” — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The key to making Come Away truly fly was finding the right director: one with the correct sensibility to breath it to life on screen, one who could embrace the fantastical elements and allow them to flourish without losing sight of the story’s firm grounding in tough reality. “It required a careful hand,” says Spring, “someone who could create a film that can play broadly to a family audience while still dealing with the death of a child.”

Brenda Chapman Discusses Brave | The Mary Sue
Brenda Chapman

The answer was to look beyond the world of live-action cinema. “We really wanted a female director,” says Kahn, “and Brenda Chapman, coming from a story background and animation background, seemed like the perfect choice.”

Brenda Chapman started her career as a story artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1987, where she worked on films such as The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, the Oscar nominated Beauty And The Beast, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Fantastia 2000. Chapman was the story supervisor on the original The Lion King, for which she won the Annie Award. Chapman then helped launch DreamWorks Animation Studios, where she codirected the 1998 release of the Oscar winning Prince Of Egypt. Chapman was the first woman to direct an animated feature for a major Hollywood studio.  She joined Pixar Animation Studios in September 2003. Chapman then created, wrote and directed Brave – inspired by her relationship with her daughter – for which she was the first woman to win an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film. She is working on several projects in different stages of development for ‘Twas Entertainment, which she co-owns with her husband, filmmaker Kevin Lima. (Enchanted, A Goofy Movie, Disney’s Tarzan).

The material and Brenda’s sentiment formed “the perfect marriage”, according to Spring. “It’s relatively tricky material to handle until you look at it in the context of what Brenda’s handled in the past in the animation she’s directed.”

As the co-director of Pixar’s Brave, for example, Chapman blended the dark-edged terror of the demon bear Mor’du with a bright family adventure; in DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, she dealt with the Ten Plagues and the death of Rameses’ son in the context of an animated musical.

Chapman’s experience creating such artful worlds made her ideally suited to Come Away, feels Kahn.

“The story is so beautifully and intricately written, and nuanced and really visual. There are so many moments from both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland that are intricately woven into the story. It just seemed like a no-brainer to get someone who has a very visual story background to helm the film.”

“When you look at her previous work, you immediately know she’s a really smart director. She is  able to keep so much in her head, yet filter it down to pure storytelling in reality,” adds Richards. “She’s a very visual communicator.”

Chapman confesses she had never pursued the idea of doing a live-action film. “I have many colleagues in animation who say, ‘Ooh, I want to do real films,’ and I roll my eyes and say, ‘What we do isn’t real?’” she laughs. “I think what we do actually touches more people and lasts longer than a lot of live-action films. But I read the script and thought, ‘Wow, if I ever was going to do one, this one would be it.’ It was just a really interesting, beautiful take on the two stories, a magical read. It has many elements of what I dealt with in animation, and was still within my world as a storyteller, because I love fantasies. But this brings fantasy into the real world, which I’ve never had the ability to do in animation. It was the whole enchilada, so to speak.”

Finding The Littletons

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For Chapman, the most interesting aspect of Goodhill’s script was the way she portrayed the family, and their tragedy. “It’s something I don’t get to explore too deeply in animation. Yes, there are moments — I worked on The Lion King and dug into Mufasa’s death — but you don’t dwell on them too much, you don’t get to explore them. So that was a big draw for me. I thought, ‘This is a way I can take a look at that, and really work with the actors on what that means.’”

The casting of the Littletons was crucial. Everything depended on them being convincing as a creative, loving family, suffering harsh reality while being able to sweep themselves away on flights of fancy.

The first actor cast was David Oyelowo, the British-Nigerian performer lauded for his performances as Martin Luther King Jr in 2014’s Selma and as Louis Gaines in 2013’s The Butler. Once he’d read the script, Oyelowo did not need much convincing to take the role. “I was blown away by how imaginative it was,” he explains. “I became very passionate about it very quickly. Being a father of four myself, one of my biggest challenges when it comes to films is being able to find one that isn’t animation that we can all enjoy together, but is also thought-provoking for the adults and worthy of the big screen all at the same time. This ticked all those boxes for me.”

Come Away - what if Alice and Peter Pan were brother & sister?

Not only did Oyelowo leap aboard to play Jack, he also joined as a producer. “Whenever I become passionate about something, I just start trying to put it together,” he laughs. “Like, ‘When are we shooting it, how, and what do we need to do?’ I let them know very quickly that’s how I felt about this, and thankfully for me, having a bit of a track record as a producer in my own right, they saw the value.”

“We saw that David would be a real asset,” says Spring. “And he has been all the way through the film-making process. One of his first contributions was to speak to and make the suggestion of Angelina Jolie coming in to play Rose.”

However, due to Jolie’s limited availability, all the house-interior sets had to be entirely rebuilt on a soundstage in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles, by a different crew, for the final month of the shoot. “Angelina loved the script, she wanted to do it, but she said, ‘The only way I can do it is if we shoot it in Los Angeles,’” says Richards. “We said we were happy to do that, but there is a big challenge to doing it. Any changing of location is a tremendous added complexity.”

Folk tales and history from the English shores -

While Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie, who plays Rose, had never been in a movie together before, they are friends, whose children regularly have playdates. “We met at a birthday party several years ago and we instantaneously did a deep dive about being actors in Hollywood whilst also being parents, all that kind of stuff,” he says. He thought Jolie would be ideal for the role of Rose, mother to Peter and Alice, even though it’s not the kind of role audiences would expect of her.

“I don’t think we’ve really had the opportunity to see Angie as a parent, not to kids of a similar age to her own kids, but that’s mainly how I know her. A lot of people might think, ‘Whoa, bad-ass Angelina Jolie as a mother of three in idyllic England in the late 1800s? Uh, give me a minute…’” he laughs. “But when I read the script, it felt very natural to me.”

Chapman agrees that, on the surface, it seems an unusual choice, but Jolie brought a real authenticity to the part. “She was determined to feel like a Victorian mother as opposed to a modern mother, with a reserved quality but also with such a warmth coming from her for those children. She did a beautiful job. She was also very excited, as was David, about the Littleton’s being an interracial family, because they both have interracial children. It had an appeal to them to put something like that on screen.”

It was never the intention to make Peter, Alice and David biracial; indeed, race is never mentioned in Goodhill’s script. “I just felt David was the right person for the role,” says Chapman, “and I thought about it and realised we didn’t have to change one word of the script to accommodate anything.”

“I’m really grateful they approached me,” says Oyelowo. “I’m the first person who was approached to play Jack, and so obviously you have to acknowledge what that means, casting-wise for the children, and it’s proved to be a really wonderful added layer to the story.”

I Haven't Forgotten How to Dream" – Come Away (Film Review) - Filmhounds  Magazine

When Goodhill heard about the casting of Oyelowo, her first instinct was to rewrite. “I didn’t want it to feel tacked on, I wanted to make sure it felt intentional,” she admits. But then, on consideration, she agreed with Chapman. “I realised, ‘Oh my God, I don’t need to change a word, it just works.’ Then of course I did all the research and making sure that historically this would make sense — and it totally would. Actually, the way films depict this era is so whitewashed. There was way more diversity in Victorian England than you would ever think from watching any movie. Those are not historically accurate. This is historically accurate.”

“I’m sure there are going to be some people who get a bit up in arms about it,” says Chapman, “but, you know, times they be a’ changin’, and it’s time to broaden our horizons a little bit and think outside the box. And I think it’s quite lovely to open up these stories. Peter Pan doesn’t have to be a red-headed boy and Alice doesn’t have to be a little blonde girl.”

Finding three biracial children of the right ages, who individually and as a trio had the right qualities to play the Littleton siblings, proved a challenge and found those children in Reece Yates, Jordan Nash and Keira Chansa.

Come Away' movie review: 'Peter Pan' and 'Alice' prequel/mashup is lovely  but not fully grown | The Seattle Times

This impressive family unit forms the heart of a film which also boasts an amazing supporting cast. Anna Chancellor took the role of Rose’s overbearing sister Eleanor, Sir Michael Caine as Jack’s friend Charlie; Sir Derek Jacobi as Mr. Brown, a client of Jack’s; David Gyasi as shadowy crime-lord C.J.; Clark Peters as a mercury-poisoned pawn-shop owner known as Hatter; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the adult Alice for the film’s prologue and epilogue. All were hooked by Goodhill’s script.

“It had something that caught people’s imaginations, and I think there’s also a joy to be playing those characters,” says Spring. Each of them, after all, has their equivalent in either Barrie or Carroll’s source stories. “Mr. Brown is the Mock Turtle, Charlie is the Walrus, C.J is Captain Hook… I think there is something incredibly attractive about the way those roles are written, and presented in this film. Also, obviously, it was a joy for us all as the filmmakers to have the likes of Michael Caine, Derek Jacobi, Gugu, Clark and David Gyasi onset. I think they bring something incredible and fantastical to the film.”

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Neverland, Wonderland and Victorian England

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Despite depicting the creation, or discovery, of two iconic fantasy worlds, Come Away was never going to be reliant on visual effects. “I didn’t want this to be in the vein of the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland,” explains Chapman. “I didn’t feel the need to try and compete with that, or try to fit into that arena. I felt the story had a grounded humaneness to it. I didn’t want to go overboard with the effects. We only use visual effects to augment the real world.”

To help craft these interconnected worlds, Chapman and the producers enlisted the help of Oscar-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi (Howard’s End, Sense and Sensibility) and veteran costume designer Louise Stjernsward (The Passenger, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), with Jules O’Loughlin (The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Angel Has Fallen) coming on board as cinematographer

“I loved the script,” adds Stjernsward. “I especially loved its ethnic quality. When you do Victorian films, you usually get the same old people who turn up to play the Victorian crowd. But we had these wonderful-looking people turning up to dress, which I thought looked great. For a designer, it was a fabulous job.”

As specified in Goodhill’s script, there are numerous visual references to both Barrie and Carroll’s worlds dotted throughout the film: Alice has a toy white rabbit and is given a tinker’s bell as a gift by her mother, while Peter carries a looking glass, and has a self-drawn map of Neverland.

“It was fun trying to find moments that weren’t too ‘bump on the head,’” says Chapman. “Some of them are more subtle than others. For example, Charlie is seen eating oysters like the Walrus, and Mr. Brown is eating mock turtle soup when we meet him.”    The most important location was the Littletons’ house, which had to both feel like a real home, but also the kind of place that would feed the children’s voracious imaginations. “I wanted a little fairy-tale house,” says Chapman. “Something that spoke of stories, of fantasy. I didn’t want this plain, brick building, but something that had character that would inspire this family’s creativity.”

Arrighi confesses she was concerned about the move to Los Angeles. “I’ve never worked in Los Angeles, I’ve only been honoured and gone to parties there,” she says. “I love working with British teams, so I dreaded it. But then when I went there and they started building, I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ The LA crew did a jolly good job.”

The relocation to Los Angeles proved something of an adventure for the young cast, at least. “It was amazing seeing all the beaches and the fairs,” says Nash. “And Angelina was really nice. She invited us to an arcade with her kids and gave us a card where we could have unlimited plays. Then we went to her house, which had a big swimming pool.”

Between the two Littleton house shoots that bookended principal photography, the focus was primarily on the London locations, including the grand locale of Somerset House and the docks of Butler’s Wharf. This part of the shoot was particularly enjoyable for Oyelowo. “I’ve lived in London for most of my life, and on this film I feel like I’ve seen more of London, and am more aware of hidden London, than I hitherto was,” he says. “Myself and Michael Caine did a scene in a very old pub that was just tiny, but you could tell it had barely changed in the intervening 200 years. Another incredible moment was when we were at Syon House, and the scene I was doing with Derek Jacobi was in an amazing area called the Gallery Room, which was the very room that Pocahontas had walked down when she was visiting the UK. One location that really sticks in my mind was the House of Detention, which is where people were stowed before they were transported to Australia. What an eerie, weird place, right there in Clerkenwell.”

As impressive as it was, this subterranean location wasn’t the easiest place to film. “It was such a difficult shoot, because it’s such an old, mouldy place,” says Chapman. “We had to keep going upstairs to get fresh air and then come back down again. It was a genuine, scary old place.”

The final, and arguably most significant location was Windsor Great Woods, which formed the verdant backdrop to the Littleton children’s creative outdoor play and the imaginative entranceway to both Neverland and Wonderland. “Brenda has put her own visual stamp on the fantasy worlds of the children,” says Kahn. “She brought the environment that they live in into their fantasy world in an organic way. She wanted to use colours within the forest environments to represent each child’s world and each child’s fantasy. So she’s brought a really distinctive voice to the way in which these children escape into their worlds.”

Chapman also chose to frame many scenes with dense foliage, as if the audience is peeking through a bush, or the branches of a tree. “It’s the framework for their story,” Chapman says, “or a frame for a picture. It makes you feel like you’re watching the story, but you’re also in there as part of it. That’s how I always felt watching animation. I’ve always felt like animation is like opening a story book and then being able to go into it. That’s the approach I was taking to telling this story.”

While Come Away is Chapman’s first-ever live-action movie, she hardly seemed like a newcomer to her cast and fellow crew. “Not only does it not seem like her first live-action movie,” says Oyelowo, “I can really feel the benefit of working with someone who as an animation director had to focus very keenly on structure, on framing, and on being very economical with which story beats are necessary for the story. There’s an efficiency to the way she works, and a laser focus when it comes to what story beats we need.”

Finding the Balance

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Walking the line between tragedy and adventure, grief and fantasy, darkness and light, was one of the toughest parts of crafting Come Away, especially during the editing process.  

“What Brenda has done,” says Spring, “is create a movie that has the tricky elements and does go there — a sibling dies, it’s the catalyst for journey, you can’t escape it — but which allows the audience to feel not only the grief that the family are feeling, but also the resolutions for each of the characters.”

Goodhill recognises that there is a “bittersweetness” to the film but, she says, “Hopefully there’s a heavier dose of hope than despair at the end. I want the audience to leave the cinema feeling uplifted, but also impacted. And I want the film to leave them with a sense of wonder.”

It is also a movie which, for all its creators, needs to be as appealing to children as it is to adults — a true family experience. “I hope that children watching will be able to identify with these kids and see that it’s okay to have a very broad imagination, and it’s okay to play within that space,” says Kahn. “And I think that adults will understand that it’s okay to feel your feelings and to react to them, and to find your child and give them a big hug.”

Chapman believes it is imagination which connects us all, young and old, whether it takes us away to an eternal childhood on a wild and distant island, or down a rabbit hole into a phantasmagorical dream-world reflection of our own reality — or anywhere else for that matter. You do not need to be deeply familiar with Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland to appreciate Come Away. “Watching it, I want people to get how important our imaginations are, how important it is to find that inner emotion in you,” the director says. “To let your inner subconscious come out, your soul even, like these children’s souls come out to deal with their grief, to heal them and enable them to move forward. We all do it differently, and it’s okay to find your own path.”

The film also, of course, provides an exciting new way of experiencing these two very well-known stories, making them more accessible than ever before.

“So much of what you’ve experienced will inform you as you watch this story,” Chapman concludes. “You’ll have your own ideas of what these stories are, and then you’ll find this new way to interpret them. Not only because Peter and Alice are brother and sister, which has never been done before, but also the fact that they’re now interracial versions of those characters. It’s a whole new look at these stories and what they may mean to people.”

“This is a universal story,” affirms Oyelowo. “This is a story that hopefully has appeal for everyone, because it really goes to the heart of things. That’s why I had to be a part of it.”