How Imagine That director balanced fantasy and reality

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Karey Kirkpatrick, director of the upcoming fantasy film Imagine That, told reporters that he relied heavily on the imagination of Yara Shahidi, his young star, to create a palpable fantasy world for her character.

"I worked with her for a week before she auditioned with Eddie [Murphy], and one of the things that we did was [say], 'Hey, sit down and draw the world, draw the princesses as you see them'," Kirkpatrick said in a group interview Saturday in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"I was much more interested in her take on it that some art director's take, and than my take on it," Kirkpatrick added. "And what I want to encourage, too, is whoever's coming in to see it, you might picture it your own way, and that's OK. However you picture it is the way it is, so for us to fill in those blanks just felt wrong. The only thing we did was the little hint at the end that there's something [going on]."

Imagine That stars Eddie Murphy as a workaholic father who begins spending more time with his daughter after he discovers that her imaginary friends offer spot-on advice about his company's business ventures. Kirkpatrick spoke to SCI FI Wire at the press day for Imagine That; the following is an edited version of that interview. Imagine That opens June 12.

In previous interviews you described how this film didn't feature any special effects or over-the-top fantasy elements. How did you decide how much to show of Olivia's imaginary world?

Kirkpatrick: It's actually written in the script and underlined. Ed [Solomon] and Chris [Matheson] were telling me, we see nothing! That shot where he lifts the blanket and nothing has changed was straight from the script, so it was always Ed and Chris' intent that the thing that makes this bond interesting is, I think, it destroys the movie if we see it.

You have to see this through your daughter's eyes, and that's the theme of the movie. You've got to start trying to see the world through your daughter's eyes; if you want to be a good parent, you've got to put yourself in their shoes at some point and start to see things the way she sees them. That's kind of the subtextual message there, so to show it would kind of destroy that leap of faith that he has to take in her.

Given that, did you define even in broad strokes what the fantasy element would be?

Kirkpatrick: There were lots of conversations about what's going on, and do we need an explanation? These conversations were swirling when people were coming in pitching to be the director of the movie, and my take was, "No, you don't have to explain it at the end." My take was that something magical was going on. There were all kinds of discussions, like is she super-intelligent? Is she mirroring him? Is it stuff that she's heard from him? And I said, "No, she's being visited by something"; that was always my take.

How difficult was it to manage the tone of the film and know how far you were going to take things?

Kirkpatrick: I think that's a director's prime job: ... tone sheriff. That's what I say a director's job is, because all day you're getting suggestions from actors and from writers and from studios, and you run it through your filter of "Does that belong in this movie?" It's like, "Wouldn't that be funny?" "Yeah, but not the right kind of funny for this." Or, does it destroy the credibility of the character? Those are the filters that you're constantly running things through, and everyone contributes.

Those were probably the most spirited conversations between me and Eddie: "Hey, here's what I think would be funny." And here's a guy who's been doing funny a lot longer than I have. And he was the one, actually, who had a really good sense of "No, that doesn't belong in this movie," or "I shouldn't do that in this movie, because it ruins the credibility of the character." So how far can you push it and have it venture so far into slapstick that it ruins the emotion? That was always the balance, because I knew that this movie was going to have a strong emotional element to it.