Director Hannah Jayanti, illustrator Jules Feiffer, author Norton Juster and producer Janice Kaplan at the New York premiere of “The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.” Photo by Alexander Porter.
Before she started working on her documentary about the 1961 children’s fairytale novel “The Phantom Tollbooth”, the film’s producer and alumna Janice Kaplan had never imagined that she would make a movie.
On Sunday, “The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations” — which debuted in New York in 2013 — will premiere in D.C. at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Afterwards, Kaplan will host her first interview with the novel’s author, Norton Juster.
Kaplan said the idea for the documentary first came to her when Juster hired her as a publicist for the celebration of the novel’s 50th anniversary in 2011. Juster had been working as an architect and was in his 20s when he penned the story about a boy named Milo who travels to imaginary lands via his magic tollbooth. Kaplan, who graduated from GW in 1981 as an art history major and worked in marketing for the Smithsonian before becoming a publicist for nonprofit companies, said that this is her first film — and will most likely be her last.
“I made this not because I’m a filmmaker or a film producer, but because I saw a good story,” she said.
After discovering “The Phantom Tollbooth” when her now 23-year-old son was in first grade and reading it to him, she said she has fallen in love with the book and used the story inspiration to produce the film.
“There’s a line that kind of inspired me throughout the process: ‘So many things are possible as long as you don’t know they’re impossible,’” she said. “If you don’t know you can’t do something, maybe you can do something. So I hope people can take that away from the movie as well.”
Over three years of production, Kaplan and the movie’s director, Hannah Jayanti, documented the friendship between Juster and the novel’s illustrator, newspaper cartoonist Jules Feiffer, even traveling back with Juster and Feiffer to the Brookyln brownstone where they once lived and worked together.
Juster said that when Kaplan suggested the documentary to him, he was surprised and unsure of how she would make the movie. But he said that Kaplan and Jayanti “did it very, very beautifully.”
“They were not trying to promote a book, they were trying to figure out how a book like that got written at a time when no books like that were being written,” Juster said.
The film also explores the book’s impact since its publication, and Kaplan said she was surprised to learn about its famous fans — actress Whoopi Goldberg and author Neil Gaiman donated to a Kickstarter campaign that funded the film.
When Kaplan began conducting interviews for the movie, she turned to fans of the book, from children’s authors — like Eric Carle, who wrote “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — to groups of children.
“We met so many people with ‘Phantom Tollbooth’ tattoos, we met so many people who named their sons Milo after the book,” Kaplan said. “I just met someone who named their company Milo.”
Kaplan added that “Where the Wild Things Are” author Maurice Sendak, a fan of Juster’s work, had agreed to appear in the film but that Sendak became ill and died during production before she could interview him.