film reporter

Winick learned on fly in spinning spider tale

So what exactly do studio executives do? In the case of the new regime that took over Paramount Pictures last year, one of its first challenges was deciding exactly what Charlotte, the word-playing spider who is the title character in "Charlotte's Web," should look like.

Gary Winick, who was directing the live-action version of the classic E.B. White tale, already was wrestling with the issue. "Our No. 1 mandate was to keep it as real as possible," he says of his approach to the fable about barnyard animals who strike up unexpected friendships. "The animators showed me the different degrees we could go to with expressions on the animals' faces. And ultimately, we limited (the animation) to the eyes and the talking."

But there were two exceptions to that rule: Charlotte (voiced by a warmly embracing Julia Roberts) and Templeton the rat (whose vocal chops come courtesy of Steve Buscemi). Because they would be CG-created characters, there was more freedom to invent. Charlotte was modeled after a combination of a barn spider (or orb weaver) and a wolf spider, but the question of what exactly her face should look like bedeviled the filmmakers, since spiders by design aren't cuddly, Disney-esque creatures.

"We went through a lot of research — and two regimes at Paramount," Winick recalls. "While we wanted to make it real, we obviously didn't want to scare the kids. The first Paramount team wanted to make it cuter than I wanted. When I saw some of the animation designed for that, and then the new Paramount came in, we decided to go back (and) make a couple of adjustments with the eyes and textures and stuff to make it more real."

At first glance, Winick was something of an unlikely figure to guide the high-profile project from Paramount, the studio's Nickelodeon Movies and Walden Media. One of the founders of New York-based Independent Digital Entertainment, he had been a pioneer in low-budget digital video filmmaking, winning the director's award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for "Tadpole," a coming-of-age tale about a boy who falls in love with his stepmother. Although he also had tried his hand at studio features with the 2004 Jennifer Garner comedy "13 Going on 30," he admits that adapting "Charlotte's" was "a huge learning curve." Nevertheless, he was eager to tackle the story's themes of "friendship, trust, sacrifice and loyalty. Those are all issues that are hugely important to me, and I thought we could make an intimate film and I could tell a truthful, honest story if I surrounded myself with the best filmmakers around."

Unlike Hanna-Barbera's animated 1973 version of the book, all involved with the new film decided from the start that there would be no song-and-dance numbers. But the studio did encourage screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick to inject added humor, and so they invented two characters — a couple of dimwitted crows voiced by Thomas Haden Church and Andre Benjamin.

Inevitably, Wilbur (voiced by the young Dominic Scott Kay) will be compared to his cinematic predecessor Babe when "Charlotte's" is released Dec. 20. But Winick welcomes the comparison. "If the movie is half as good as the first 'Babe' movie, we're in very good shape," he says. "That movie was very emotional, very subtle. I researched a lot of things in that movie, and we emulated the first 'Babe' in a lot of ways."

Wilbur's barnyard might be a more fanciful world than anything in Winick's InDigEnt films, but in the end, keeping it real remains the director's touchstone.