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Wendy Rogers, Julia Pistor, & Kate DiCamillo Interview: The Magician’s Elephant

Currently available to stream on Netflix, The Magician’s Elephant centers around a boy named Peter who is determined to reunite with his little sister. When a fortune teller simply advises him to “follow the elephant,” her ominous words lead to more than he bargained for. Challenged by the king himself, Peter must complete a series of impossible tasks if he hopes to discover the truth about the family he thought he lost.

Kate DiCamillo joins forces with producer Julia Pistor and director Wendy Rogers to adapt her 2009 book into a full-length feature. DiCamillo is a two-time Newbery Award winner and is most well-known for her novel Because of Winn-Dixie. Pistor has produced other animated films such as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, while Rogers has worked on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian as a visual effects supervisor. The main cast includes Noah Jupe, Sian Clifford, Pixie Davies, Natasia Demetriou, Dawn French, Brian Tyree Henry, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Aasif Mandvi, Mandy Patinkin, Miranda Richardson, and Benedict Wong.


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Wendy Rogers, Julia Pistor, and Kate DiCamillo chat exclusively with Screen Rant about the process of turning DiCamillo’s novel into an animated film.

Wendy Rogers, Julia Pistor & Kate DiCamillo Talk The Magician’s Elephant

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Screen Rant: If you were given the same choice as Peter, would you do these impossible tasks to win the elephant and get your questions answered?

Kate DiCamillo: Yes, because that’s what life is about. What Peter is after is finding something that he knows to be true. There’s no point in being alive unless you go for that thing that you know is true and that matters most to your heart. I would take the chances.

Wendy Rogers: I feel like, perhaps, I’m not as brave as Peter, but I’ve learned a lot from Peter in making this film. It’s not just about believing in the impossible—it’s about taking action. So I try to remember that, and making this film was a little bit like that. I try to remember that—to take a little bit of action every day towards something that I believe in.

Julia Pistor: I would say what they said. I would be nervous. I think Peter is a really rad and aspirational character because he knows that action is important. He’s nervous in the film, and he’s not perfect. Because of Peter, like you, I would learn from Peter. I would do it. And I’d want to find my sister, I’d want to find the truth. There’s also that feeling when you just know something is true, and you want to find it.

When you were first turning this book into a film, what were the aspects that were most important to keep, and what did you want to add to an onscreen adaption?

Julia Pistor: The thing that was most important for me was the moment when Peter looked in the elephant’s eyes. I still remember the experience of reading the book, and just being sort of gobsmacked when he looks in the elephant’s eyes, and he’s like, “I’m going to give up my destiny to send the elephant home.” His feeling of empathy, which I don’t think we talk about a lot, just the idea of, “Oh, an elephant crashed through the ceiling. That’s funny. That’s my destiny,” but where did the elephant come from? It was very important to me that our story kept that very pivotal moment that he realizes that it’s not about himself. It’s not about what he needs, but it’s about getting the elephant home. And in doing so, of course, bringing the town together and getting his wish.

On that same note, was there anything in particular from the book that you wanted to include that didn’t make the final cut?

Wendy Rogers: The film is an ensemble, and there are a lot of braids of different characters’ stories to weave together following Peter’s journey. In telling that story in the film, we did have a few characters that we needed to sacrifice that I loved—that we all loved—all of whom were amazing characters. It’s always difficult when you’re following a lot of threads in a film. And we wanted to weave them all together into this family and, at a certain point, felt we had to make a few, you know, cutting of the arms.

Kate, what was it like watching this movie back for the first time? Was there a moment, in particular, that you felt truly encapsulated the book?

Kate DiCamillo: There is. Julia talked about that moment with Peter recognizing the elephant and that the elephant needed to go home—that act of empathy. That’s one but where my heart fell over was the very simple scene around Gloria and Leo’s table, and they’re feeding Peter, and he asks what he’s eating and Gloria says “stew.” The line is delivered so beautifully, so heartfelt, it’s just seeing everything this child did not have, and being able to give it to him. Those two moments are absolutely pivotal to me.

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Wendy, you’ve been a VFX supervisor in the past, so how did that knowledge aid you as a director of this film?

Wendy Rogers: I’ve been a filmmaker for a long time as a visual effects supervisor and worked very closely with some amazing directors on some incredible projects, so I’ve been really blessed. I think everything in life you carry with you and use and pull upon as part of your experience. Having worked with some amazing directors, I had some really good role models.

I also had some knowledge from what I’ve done in the past—enough knowledge to know that there are people who can do that much better than me. I had really great department heads that I could communicate with and communicate the vision and rely upon them to really execute and elevate that vision. What an amazing team we had with our production designer, Max Boas, and our art director, Iuri Lioi. We had an amazing visual effects supervisor and head of animation. They were an amazing team to work with for the production.

The world of The Magician’s Elephant was absolutely beautiful. The visual representation of hope spreading throughout the kingdom was a favorite of mine, and of course, the clouds. Did anything from the book inspire these?

Wendy Rogers: The clouds are obviously a very important presence. They’re a character in the book and the film. The inspiration for them is a particular cloud formation called Mammatus clouds. I love clouds, by the way. I love clouds of all sorts. I’m always photographing clouds. I feel like they’re something we can see from anywhere in the world, and it reminds me how connected we all are. So to come across a story that had clouds seemed very kind of, “Well, there’s some synchronicity there.”

But the Mammatus cloud formation is an amazing surreal and quite ominous cloud formation. The shapes were the inspiration for our clouds. Of course, we stylized them a lot more to fit in with the stylized world that we were building, and we call them boba clouds, because they reminded us of the tapioca balls in boba tea, and so we always talked about our boba clouds. But we didn’t want the world—even though there is a surreal magical realism element—we didn’t want it to feel dark and oppressive. So we created a lighting system that allowed the light color to change through the clouds and have that sort of soft, diffuse lighting like the midnight sun.

This film had so many incredible lines. Was there one that you feel really represents the story as a whole?

Kate DiCamillo: I’ve talked a lot about stew, but I’ve never ever heard the word said with so many multi-layered meanings. So my one sentence is going to be, “Stew.” It’s a one-word sentence.

Wendy Rogers: I have a lot of favorites, but one of my favorites is when Leo says to Gloria, when she says, “The world cannot be changed. The world is what the world is,” and he says, “No, I will not believe that. Here is Peter standing in front of us asking us to make it something different. And how can the world change if we do not question it?” Something like that.

Kate DiCamillo: That was beautiful. That was beautiful.

Julia Pistor: And she stole it. That’s it for me.

About The Magician’s Elephant

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When young Peter, who is searching for his long-lost sister, crosses paths with a fortune teller in the market square, there is only one question on his mind: is his sister still alive? The answer — that he must follow a mysterious elephant — sets Peter off on a remarkable journey to complete three seemingly impossible tasks that magically change the face of his town forever. THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT is based on Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo’s classic novel.

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The Magician’s Elephant is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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