Beastly - Alex Pettyfer on set with director Daniel Barnz
Beastly - Alex Pettyfer on set with director Daniel Barnz © 2009 CBS Films

After graduating from Yale University, Daniel Barnz spent many seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He moved to Los Angeles to direct Tim Robbins’ theatre company. He wrote the screenplays for Sugarland for Jodie Foster, Sam and George for Mel Gibson, and Rogue for Leonardo DiCaprio. He made his feature directorial debut with Pheobe in Wonderland starring Elle Fannng.

His new movie Beastly tells the story of seventeen-year-old Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) a spoiled, arrogant, popular high school student, dating Kendra, a classmate rumored to be a witch. Fed up with his despicable behavior, she transforms him into someone who is as unattractive physically as his personality. If he can’t find someone to love him within a year, he will have to stay that way forever. An unassuming classmate, Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) seems to be his only hope.

When you first read the book by Alex Flinn, did you feel the story fit into a high school setting?

Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) at the Green Party © 2009 CBS Films

[Yes], in high school everybody feels cursed in some way. There are always those feelings of being different and not fitting in. Where else are we more obsessed with looks than in high school? And being somebody who was sort of the ugly outsider in high school myself, it was something that I could fully relate to. Ultimately those differences make you a stronger, better person.

How did you go about telling this story again?

I think one of the big things is the fact that it’s told from the beast’s perspective and I think the idea of being able to plunge into the central character’s experience with being transformed from somebody who is beautiful and on top of the world to somebody who’s ugly, is something that we’ve never really seen with this story before.

What was your take on Kyle’s character?

Director Daniel Barnz and Actor Neil Patrick Harris at the World Premiere © 2009 CBS Films

I really wanted him to be an incredibly magnetic, charismatic jerk. And I did feel with the right actor that even though he says things incredibly reprehensible, that there was something that was still a little bit sexy about him at the same time.

Can you talk about casting the movie?

Alex was by far the best choice for the role of Kyle. He’s so charismatic. He has so much charm and an extraordinary amount of raw talent.  When I cast him he was relatively unknown. I had met with him in LA and was struck not only by the fact that he’s very physically beautiful, but in addition to that he has the kind of emotional complexity as a person which was very helpful for this role, because the role does go through a huge gamut of emotions.

When I first sat down with Vanessa I was immediately blown away by her intelligence, her passion, and her excitement. This is a very different kind of role from those she’s done in the past, and [I liked] the fact that she really wanted to challenge herself and grow as an actress. For a director there’s just nothing more exciting than that.

Can you talk about the look of the movie?

The Beast (Alex Pettyfer) lying down at the rooftop of Brownstone © 2009 CBS Films

The central idea of the film is it’s about looks, but it’s also about the act of looking, and learning how to look past false surfaces. And so in the beginning of the film we wanted to create a world that was very glossy and reflective. The visual arc of this film begins with a guy who claims to see the world as it really is, but who is in fact fooled by all the false surfaces and gloss about him.

That idea led to a visual world for the first act that is filled with very glossy, reflective surfaces. The second and third acts are much more organic; the architecture is old and the spaces have a sense of history to them as Kyle learns to appreciate different kinds of beauty.

Why did you choose to shoot it in Montreal?

Montreal has this older, almost fairytale quality that is often associated with New York City. When we were scouting for locations and arrived in Montreal, it just clicked. The cobblestone streets and gothic architecture captured the exact romantic quality that we were looking for.

Why did you decided not to go with the traditional look for the beast?

Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) and The Beast, Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) at the Rooftop Greenhouse © 2009 CBS Films

In every traditional incarnation of this myth, the beast character takes on a look that’s animalistic. We didn’t want to follow that expected path. For me, the root of Beastly’s narrative is this compellingly beautiful person who’s made to look ugly. So I tried to think about what Kyle considers to be ugly and let that be the starting place for his look. That’s how I approached the look conceptually.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the movie?

On the most basic level, I think that the audience will really connect to this as a story about beauty hidden underneath. I hope it promotes the idea that looks can deceive and that true beauty lies on the inside.

When we started to screen this film for teenage audiences they really liked the fact that there was a moral in this story. The fact that it’s a story about looks don’t matter and true beauty is underneath, they really connected to it, and I think that possibly they like themselves more because they like the moral. It’s been very heartwarming to see that.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane