An Oral History of THE NEVERENDING STORY’s Fantasy Landscape

There was a time when a PG rating promised you something more than your average kids’ movie. The early ’80s were ripe with some of the most inventive, dark, and complex family films ever made. One of the most beloved and iconic of these is Wolfgang Petersen’s  The NeverEnding Story, a sprawling fantasy epic overflowing with astonishing practical effects and unforgettable moments that cemented the 1984 classic as a defining moment in of many of our celluloid childhood memories.

“Everybody knew about the book,” Petersen told Nerdist, speaking on Michael Ende’s original novel. “It was a smash hit and was something very, very different for Germany at the time. Such a super popular fantasy book.”

After the critical and commercial success of his Oscar-nominated film Das Boot, a grim and gripping historical war film, the chance to do something so different immediately spoke to Petersen. “When this came along I had the feeling, ‘Oh my god, after three years of working on Das Boot it would be wonderful to completely go into a different world and do something that deals more with the dreams and wishes of kids.’ My son Daniel was 12 at the time and I really just wanted to do something that he could enjoy.”

Ende began his career writing the lyrics for early pop songs in the ’50s before publishing his first novel, but it was the ’79 publication of The NeverEnding Story that made his name as a writer. His stardom grew exponentially after the publication. “Ende had this little house in Rome and people would come from miles around, waiting outside hoping that they would see him in his garden,” Petersen said. “He had a following you would not believe then.” But Ende’s passion for the project would later drive a wedge between him and the film’s production team as their visions for the project grew further and further apart.

The film’s production began and it quickly became apparent that Michael Ende was unhappy with the version of the story that the studio and Petersen wanted to tell. “There was a war between us,” Petersen explained. “At first I tried to find a way to work together on the script. I flew over and over to Rome to sit with him and his wife, working on ideas for the script. He was writing something and I was writing something, back and forth and back and forth. I sat with the producer and we read it. It just didn’t go together. Very often, if you’re the writer of the book, it doesn’t mean that you know how it can work on film. [As a director,] you have to find your own vision.”

The friction between Ende and the production left a lasting impact on the director. “We really split, and he went to the press and made really bad comments about the film and about us,” Petersen said. “It was really rough. I finished the script with Hermann Weigel and that’s how it worked. We thought it was a good script for a movie and it was of course very different from the book. So that was a big glitch for the movie, the fight with Michael Ende, it was very tricky for all of us.”

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Certain members of the film’s young cast also proved a source of friction for Petersen. “I loved the two of them, and didn’t get on so well with the third,” he said. “But that was more the parents, I think.”

Petersen divulged: “[Noah Hathaway, who played Atreyu,] I didn’t care for so much because he had an attitude. But it was an attitude that you could tell was put there by his parents. They were making so many demands and were essentially trying to blackmail the production.”

That said, he had a great rapport with The NeverEnding Story’s remaining young stars, especially the lead. “Barret Oliver, who played Bastian, he was a sweetheart,” Petersen said. “I just loved him. He was constantly on set even when he wasn’t on camera and we were so close.”

Though he didn’t much get along with Hathaway, Petersen took no pleasure in putting him through the film’s most devastating scene: that in which Atreyu and his loyal companion, Artax the horse, are trapped in the Swamps of Sadness. One of the most heartbreaking sequences in Hollywood history, filming the iconic moment was even more harrowing than watching it. “We all dreaded filming that scene, with Artax going down,” Petersen said. “We actually had two horses, both exactly the same. It took weeks and weeks for the handlers of the horses to train them to go down and not be afraid…None of us liked to shoot it, to be honest. It was so sad and still when I see the movie I have to take a deep breath before I watch the scene.”

On the other end of the spectrum, The NeverEnding Story also has plenty of pure joy and whimsy, and no element better represents that than Falkor the Luckdragon. Working with such a large amount of practical effects was a huge learning curve for Petersen, who recalls the experience fondly. “You have to remember it was ’84 and you would just crack up if you knew how we did the creatures then,” he laughed. “Take Falkor. We had the whole creature in all its beauty and length on the stage. Then underneath hidden in the floor around him we had about 20 puppeteers. One guy was responsible for the nose, another for the eyes, another for the tongue.”

Petersen continued, “Can you imagine how ridiculous that looked? There was a tape running with the dialogue–can you imagine how many rehearsals they needed just to get one word right? It’s absolutely ridiculous if you think about it today, but it gives these creatures this special something. Almost like you can feel that all these people were involved. Sometimes CG is a little bit too perfect, but here it’s not at all perfect and has these little things that makes them a bit more alive.”

Though many of us have escaped to Fantasia numerous times on a Saturday afternoon or a rainy family film night, Petersen is not a huge fan of revisiting his own work. That said, he did recently watch the fantasy classic, ” maybe about half a year ago.” He said, “You’re always so critical of your own work, even a work that so many people love. I still see some little creaky things here and there. We should have done this or we should have done that. But I think overall we did okay.” Summing up what may be the most beloved piece of work to his name, Petersen concluded with a laugh: “I give it a B+.”

Images: Neue Constantin FilmBavaria Studios

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