In 1984, one of the most beloved (and totally traumatic) children's movies ever hit theaters. Yep, we're talking about "The NeverEnding Story."
The movie told the story of a young boy named Bastian, an outsider who found himself both literally and figuratively sucked into a book about the mystical land of Fantasia's fight against the darkness. Taking on this evil -- dubbed The Nothing -- was a warrior named Atreyu, working at the behest of the ailing Childlike Empress.
Actress Tami Stronach was just 10 when she played the kingdom's diminutive leader in the Wolfgang Petersen-directed movie, which was filmed in Germany. Now 45, a mom and co-founder of her own family entertainment company, Paper Canoe, Stronach caught up with TooFab to talk all things '80s. She revealed that she too was scarred for life when Atreyu lost his trusty horse, Artax, to the Swamps of Sadness, spilled on why she'd love to see a remake, and broke down the pros and cons of how kids movies have changed since 1984.
So you're 10, 11 years old making this huge fantasy movie in Germany back in the '80s, what is Day One on set like? It just has to be a surreal experience.
It was. I think, you know, the way the whole thing was presented to me was through the lens of my mother and she really didn't understand the scope of the film. She was like, 'Well okay. We can go to Germany and do a little European indie thing. I mean I guess that'll be fun and then we'll travel and you'll see the world. Sure let's go.' So, we sort of got there and all of a sudden it was like Willy Wonka's factory, you know. You got through the gates and the set just went on and on and on and there was tent after tent and in each tent there was a whole universe that was handcrafted. I mean I walked around with my jaw sort of gently dragging along the floor.
And then once you get in costume and show up to the Ivory Tower, what's that like too?
As a kid, obviously I loved being in plays and I loved doing anything that had anything to do with imagination and so it was just like everything I loved on steroids. It was so awesome. You didn't have to imagine the throne. There it was. And you didn't have to imagine the enormous dress because you were in it. It was really, really awesome.
This movie kind of traumatized an entire generation, myself included, because of Artax's death scene.
Yeah, it was horrible. Definitely. I mean I'm one of those traumatized people [laughs].
What was your initial reaction to seeing that? Were you around when they were filming it?
I'm so glad I was not around for that because I'm like a huge -- number one, I probably would've been like freaking out. I know the horse was totally fine. I saw him afterwards, he was a happy horse. He was a show horse. But it's probably better for everyone that I wasn't there.
Why do you think that made such an imprint on people?
It's so crazy that we're still talking about this film 30 years later, right? But I think that the book ... it just captures these really rich metaphors, things that are still so relevant. And I don't know, the Swamps of Sadness is such a wonderful metaphor for depression, apathy, for just like not having the energy to fight forward and it's such a beautiful image. It's all in the how and we all kind of struggle to stay hopeful. And it just captured it in such a visceral way. I think it's just the fact that it took these sort of very relatable ideas but captured them in these really iconic images and it just locks it in there for you. So if you're having a bad day, you're just trudging through the Swamps of Sadness, you know?
Now do you think we would ever, or will ever, get a remake?
I do not think a remake is happening and I'm sad about that. I mean obviously that would be awesome, but it's pretty clear that the Michael Ende Foundation was not interested. I mean he's long passed and so, you know, he wasn't interested and I feel like it's a shame. I personally am a real believer in kind of reimagining stories over and over again and letting each generation get its kind of stab at it. I like recycling stories. Each generation sort of makes new meaning from it and finds new way of expressing it.
How do you think the Childlike Empress' role would be different? I feel like now, it would be built up more. I think she'd be a big part of the action.
You know, it's so interesting. I sort of hope that she doesn't like ... this is gonna sound funny because I really love the fact that there are all these new female heroines that are totally awesome and they fight off demons and they punch people. Wonder Woman, she's amazing and really physical and she beats everyone with brawn, I'm absolutely into that fantasy. I think it's really fun and I think it's really good for little boys to see women being strong and being heroines. But I really hope that the Childlike Empress wouldn't suddenly become this sort of -- I mean I sort of feel like the power of that character is in her restraint and in the fact that she used compassion and wisdom as her superpower and turns the whole notion of strength on its head, turning thoughtfulness and kindness into strength. And I think that's a really unusual character trait.
We recently did the press junket for "A Wrinkle in Time" and director Ava DuVernay she said she was trying to make "The NeverEnding Story" for a new generation.
Oh my gosh, I haven't seen it and now you're making me want to see it even more. I'm going to put it on my to-do list. I mean, I have to say the visuals just look incredible. My daughter is seven and, it's really funny, I'm such a movie junkie. I love movies but she's very selective about what she'll allow us to all see as a family. She gets very nervous if it's something scary, and she wants to watch it at home where you can fast forward it or rewind it. I'm such an '80s kid, I'm like, I don't want to fast forward and then rewind it. I just want to be taken away, I don't want to have control! I think now that you've told me that, I'm going to run out and see it. I am a sci-fi, fantasy junkie. I think that stories like that sometimes tell things about our world better than more factual stories, where we start to get so obsessed with the details. Fantasy and sci-fi sort of take this big, expansive step back from everything.
I did have one. It's kind of funny. I met a guy who had a "NeverEnding Story" van. Like the whole van was painted with "NeverEnding Story" paintings that he had done. It was beautiful. It was really, really impressive. But then he was like, 'Do you want to come back and check out my 'NeverEnding Story' van?' and I'm like 'I'm gonna just admire it from over here.' To be honest with you, it's been really fun. I was sort of in hiding for a really long time and dancing and doing other things, and so I really wasn't involved. But then after my daughter, I just decided to celebrate it and enjoy it and realize that I'm just so lucky that I have this bridge that connects me to so many people and that it's kind of silly not to celebrate ways that we connect with people. So I got a Twitter account and started interacting more with people and people just send me the most incredible work and pictures of tattoos on their bodies. I'm really impressed with some of the art skills that people have and the pictures that I get sent, they're amazing.
And now you do have your family entertainment business, Paper Canoe Company. Where did this idea spring from and how much of it is tied to your past in the industry?
It's funny, I think initially I didn't see the connection. I just had a daughter and we were reading all these books at home and listening to music and suddenly I just lost a little bit of interest in creating some some of the material that I was making. I just had this desire to make family-friendly content and wanted the stories and the things that I was thinking about to relate to my life and when you have a kid. It just kind of happened and then I realized that I'm back in this world of telling family-friendly stories which relate to "The NeverEnding Story." The film also has a lot of puppets and then we made a puppet show in New York and it's just really funny. I'm like sort of reliving my childhood again in a fun way and able to share it with my daughter and with her friends and the New York Theater scene.
Would you ever try to adapt the movie for your company?
Oh my gosh, I think I'd get in so much legal crossfire, no, no, I wouldn't! But I am really interested in fantasy stories and I'm really inspired by the broad sweeps of it. There's one story in particular that we made a couple years ago that we did for the New York stage, I think it's inspired by "The NeverEnding Story." It's different, but it has a lot of themes that I think are relatable to it. It's about a little girl who grows up in a world without light. The sun has been stolen and then she literally saves the day by saving the day. She brings the sun back. So I feel in some ways, some of those themes definitely influenced me and other people in my generation. I feel like the philosophy of keeping the kid in you alive and valuing imagination more than some of the material things in the world is a message that really penetrated.
And what are you guys working on now?
So right now we're making a second video for the "Beanstalk Jack" album that we just released. And it's a stop motion. I'm really interested in stop motion these days because obviously I was a choreographer, so choreography is something I really love. And getting a chance to parlay those skills into object manipulation is a whole new language and really, really fun. We have some ideas for a short film that we're sort of gently working away on. So I think we're going to start moving more and more towards digital content and just you know, telling stories in all kinds of fun formats.
How do you think family entertainment in general in 2018 kind of compares to what it was like back in the day? Especially considering all the new mediums out there now.
I mean the whole platform is changing so rapidly. We're in this moment where we're all trying to understand how we can have technology be a positive force in our life. It's not going away. But I think we're also -- there is a kind of concern especially for parents about how much time their kids are on their electronics, and what kind of content they're looking at, how do you curate that content properly. In the '80s, there were latchkey kids and you were sort of a lot more on your own. But there were also in some ways, the access you had to things was a lot smaller. The question now is how do you curate things in such a way that they can be really a positive impact, and then simultaneously not hover so much that you know kids don't feel like they have any agency. It's this very weird moment where there's like ultimate freedom and then but you're curating it so you're clamping down on it.
I also feel like stories sometimes get scrubbed to the point where kids are watching things that are sort of really surface. Whereas like "The NeverEnding Story" had a dark side to it and it had some scary content to it. I'm just really curious about how we can find balance for this next generation, where things aren't either so scary that they're inappropriate or so scrubbed into generic-ness that there's really no risk. What I'd love to bring back from the '80s is stories that have peaks and valleys and depths and also a creative platform -- like Paper Canoe -- that if your kid goes there, everything's gonna be just fine.