SANTA MONICA, Calif. - The fantasy-adventure “Inkheart” features creatures and castles. Medieval hallucinations. Flying monkeys. Ominous, sky-filling specters. Helen Mirren on a motorcycle. It’s not what anyone would describe as “student filmmaking on a moderate budget.” Unless you’re Brendan Fraser. And you mean it as a compliment.
Fraser, the most unlikely swashbuckler in films, has a different perspective than most on films that cost less than $145 million (which was the estimated budget on his last epic, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”).
“With these films that rely so heavily on CGI - and I know what I’m talking about - you can get lost in all that sound and fury and noise,” said the star, whose three “Mummy” movies have made, oh, about a billion dollars. He was downing some mahi mahi on the Pacific side of his beach hotel, looking a bit frazzled. But that’s OK. Things have been loud.
“And there’s no story,” he continued. “There’s got to be a story. And people you care about. If you don’t care about the people, you’re just watching a pyrotechnics display. And hey, I like fireworks, but the fun along the way is you also have to care, or you’re cheating the audience.”
“Inkheart,” which opens Friday, is based on the megaselling novel by German author Cornelia Funke and directed by Iain Softley (“Backbeat,” “The Skeleton Key”). It’s a movie about books about books: As Funke’s millions of readers know, Fraser’s character Mo Folchart is a “silvertongue,” a rare reader who can bring characters out of books while - unfortunately - sending others in. He and his daughter, Meggie (Elizabeth Hope Bennett), have been on the run for years, looking for the one book that will enable Mo to retrieve Meggie’s mother from the pages in which she’s trapped, and send some unsavory literary criminals back where they belong.
It’s an adventure, if not so much for Fraser, who made his career impact early on in such indie hits as “Gods and Monsters” but has been on the movie-spectacular track since the first “Mummy” remake in 1999. Yes, he’s made “The Quiet American” and was in the Oscar-winning “Crash” in between a couple of “Mummys,” but he’s also done “Dudley Do-right” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D.” “Inkheart,” for all its good literary intentions, has more in common with the Grucci family than Graham Greene.
But Fraser, 40, is not apologetic, nor should he be. “Getting movies made is difficult,” he said, “and you have to be much more selective about them in these specific times. Getting films made regardless of boom or bust is just challenging. Take it from me, I know. If the first ‘Mummy’ movie made $25 million and was dead on arrival, who knows? I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
“Did the studio know it would be their largest asset, that kept on returning? I don’t think so, but it did. Is that a good thing? Yeah, for me, and anyone’s career ‘cause then you get to do what you want to. It’s a privilege.”
It opens up possibilities, he said. “Sure, you can do ‘entertainments’ and then move on maybe to more enlightened pieces. If you can find them.”
In addition to Mirren, “Inkheart’s” Brit-heavy cast features Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis and Paul Bettany, as one of those fugitives from literature. Bettany described the making of the film as having had “a real family atmosphere” about it, and when asked if the film was a “departure” for him, director Softley said it was “more of an arrival.”
“I love working in real locations, real places,” he said of having shot largely in Liguria, Italy, while eschewing a lot of special effect and computer graphics. “There was a lot of on-set action with wind machines, walls falling down, medics standing by.”
As for author Funke’s suggestion of casting Fraser in the lead, Softley called it a “no-brainer.”
Not everyone has had the same impulse, or at least acted on it. “You know,” Fraser said, “sometimes I learn later on that with some really interesting scripts, people wanted to come to me, but they assumed I wouldn’t do it.” This, because of his big-budget track record. “But really, I’m just looking for good, interesting things. Of course, then I see those movies and think ‘Yeah they did that well,’ or ‘I could have improved on that,’ or whatever. Sometimes you can’t imagine it being anyone else than the one who got the job.”
Right now, the future is wide open. “I’m happy to say I don’t have a job coming up,” the actor said. “I’m looking for that. I’ll go hang with my kids. I think ‘Inkheart’s’ a good movie for all the right reasons. It brings together parent and kids, doesn’t rub your nose in attitude. It doesn’t say ‘Put down the game console, back away from the Internet, and eat your vegetables.’ It makes literature accessible.”
CORNELIA FUNKE’S SUCCESS IS NO FANTASY
Common wisdom says that print is dead. Cornelia Funke would beg to differ.
“That’s a very interesting thing to say, in a golden age of children’s books,” the writer said, smiling, “when there are more titles in bookstores than ever before, and when I read in front of 2,000 children in Germany for an hour, you can hear a pin drop.”
The best-selling children’s author has sold 15 million copies since beginning her career as a writer, published 47 books of varying types in 43 countries and seen six of her stories turned into movies - including “Inkheart.” “Book eaters” are what she calls people like herself, for whom literature is as essential “as chocolate” and whose numbers may even be growing.
“I think we want the feeling that life has a beginning and an end - and a center,” she said. “We want to feel that everything falls in place. It’s a classic way of dealing with our existence.”
Although she writes her fantasy novels with children in mind - and had Brendan Fraser in mind when she wrote “Inkheart” - Funke said she’s often surprised how many older fans she has. But it’s the kids she worries about.
“There’s a lot of competition for their time, but the competition is different from years ago,” she said. “Then, it was the lure of the outside, to play, to do things with friends, which is a good competition. I’m much more concerned today that children don’t live than that children don’t read.”
She says she really did model her hero, Mo Folchart, on Fraser, as much for his persona as his voice. (Fraser has done Funke’s audiobooks.) “I saw him in ‘Gods and Monsters,’ ‘Blast From the Past’ and ‘The Mummy,” but in ‘The Quiet American’ he reads a poem and I thought, ‘He does this in an incredibly clever way.’ He can read aloud. And some actors can’t. He knows about the taste of words.”