The NeverEnding Story oral history: How 3 brave kids helped save the world by using their imaginations
Once upon a time, before directors depended on the magic of CGI to bring fantasy films to life, there was The NeverEnding Story. The cult classic 1984 film, based on the Michael Ende novel of the same name, told the story of a shy bookworm named Bastian (Barret Oliver) who finds a truly magical world called Fantasia hidden inside the pages of a book. But, as Fantasia begins to crumble when the Childlike Empress gets sick, it is Bastian who is tasked with helping guide a young warrior named Atreyu through a quest in search of a cure.
Along the way, the pair (Bastian as the reader and Atreyu as the warrior on the quest) meet a variety of mysterious beings including a wolf-like creature named Gmork who is meant to kill Atreyu but ends up not being a worthy opponent. But there were friendlier creatures, too, like the luckdragon Falkor whose guidance was key in Atreyu's success.
As the film celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2019 — and experiences a resurgence of interest thanks to an episode of Stranger Things — director Wolfgang Petersen, cast members Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Allan Oppenheimer, and theme song singer Limahl discuss with EW the magic behind the movie that has endured for more than three decades.
CHAPTER 1: FINDING THE PERFECT STORY
WOLFGANG PETERSEN (director): After three grueling years working on Das Boot, I was available and looking for something different to work on. Das Boot was a tough, tough movie to make. From the story point-of-view, it was very dark, and emotional material. My son, at that time, was around 10 years old or so and he didn’t care for Das Boot very much. As a father, I wanted to do something that my son would be really interested in and that he could be proud of.
A few weeks later, I got a phone call from the producer, Bernd Eichinger and then-director of The NeverEnding Story, Helmut Dietl. He was first attached to the film as its director for a short time. He was a very, very good director in Germany but he mostly did small films and comedies, which he was great at. By the time they started building creatures, he realized the film was too much for him. He was overwhelmed. He knew this was not his world. So, they both called me, which is very unusual, to see if I was interested in the project.
I knew this was what I was looking for.
CHAPTER 2: CASTING THE EMPRESS, THE WARRIOR, AND THE SHY HERO
NOAH HATHAWAY (Atreyu): My casting has a whole backstory because there was a different director attached before Wolfgang. They did one of those worldwide searches to cast the role and they saw something like 50,000 kids [laughs]. I think I auditioned around six or seven times before I got the part. The script was just amazing, and, even back then, it was imaginative, and I hadn’t seen anything like it.
I can’t remember what happened with the first director, but after he left the project and hired Wolfgang, they did the whole thing again. So, they let me go and started the whole casting process again and I had to audition for Wolfgang and two producers. Finally, after like three or four more [auditions], I got hired again. I don’t want to say it was “meant to be” because I really worked my ass for it. I must’ve read the script three dozen times and knew every line.
After I got the part, we flew to Germany and we got to see the conceptual artwork that the artist had done like two or three years before. If they had sent him a photo of me, it couldn’t have been a more perfect rendering. It was really spooky. I was a really sensitive, ballsy, great kid growing up, pretty much like Atreyu was in a lot of ways. And so, it was a perfect fit.
PETERSEN: I remember casting Atreyu who is half Native American and that’s exactly what we were looking for in the actor who would portray him. Boy, what a gorgeous kid he was. I had dinner with somebody recently and this woman tells me that Atreyu was her first crush on a boy. I cannot tell you how many letters I got after the film came out written by girls wanting to know where they could find the actor that played Atreyu!
The character of Bastian was so different from Atreyu, which was the whole idea. He was more of a nerdy character and the other is the hero. The back and forth between them in the film were quite nice. As kids and as actors, the two were just as different from one another. Barret Oliver was always hanging and holding my hand, he was so sweet. It was almost like I was his father. He was so nice, warm, and loving, in a way. And Noah had this attitude from the very beginning, he was Atreyu. He walked his own walk and he had his own style, and that was good. Not that I liked it that much because it was so much easier to work with Barret, but on the other hand, it was right for the part. He held his head up high and he was a hero.
TAMI STRONACH (Childlike Empress): I was in an acting class in San Francisco and I just happened to be in a class where the teacher was friends with the casting agent. She was on a break from casting and she came by to have lunch with her friend and was a little early. So, she caught the tail end of the class I was in and she approached me wondering if I’d like to audition for this film.
At the time, I was doing a lot of community theater and was in a troop that was going around schools performing. I loved being in productions, but I had no idea what I was auditioning for. When I asked my mom, she took me over to the audition. I didn’t have an agent, so I didn’t understand what the stakes were.
PETERSEN: The empress meant so much to so many little girls because she was at the center of this universe created in The NeverEnding Story — that’s the whole world of Fantasia. Everyone comes from all over Fantasia to find a cure to save the sick empress and she’s up there on her throne high up on the ivory tower. She’s the queen of everything and the most powerful, but also vulnerable because she’s so sick.
I can imagine little girls saw her and were in awe that that was possible. Audiences were so used to seeing men who were at the center of stories and that they were the powerful ones, not little girls. So, what a surprise it must have been for them. It was just such an awesome, awesome thing to watch. It was so smart that Michael Ende created this character, that he made this little girl an empress. She reigns and she is the top. And if she’s sick, the whole world is in trouble.
STRONACH: I loved having Wolfgang as a director. He was so clear about what he wanted, and I love the fact that he treated us with so much respect. … It was so wonderful to be around an adult that didn’t underestimate children. In some ways, that’s the heart of the story. Bastian is underestimated by everyone and he’s capable of so much: imagination and compassion. Somehow, at the heart of this film, there’s this desire to validate children’s experience and treating kids like they are smart, capable beings is sort of philosophically in line with that.
I remember this moment where [Petersen] took Barrett aside and said to him, “Listen, this is the moment where you’re going to give her the name, which changes everything. And if you want to create your own name, you don’t have to say Moon Child. Moon Child is her chosen name in the book and in the script. At the time, I didn’t know there was going to be a big thunderclap and it was going to be muffled so I didn’t think much of it. I remember Barrett really concentrating and thinking and deciding what he was going to say. It was such a sweet process. He then goes to Wolfgang and says, “I think Moon Child is right,” so they decided to stick with that.
PETERSEN: The young actors were the most important part of the whole project, it was all about them and how they save the world. … It was very unusual to have such young kids carry a movie like this, and it was very important for me and actually very natural to take them seriously. This is a serious business and they were serious actors.
STRONACH:We all got along really well which was lucky. We are all very different. I would say Noah was very athletic and he was a dancer—very confident. Barret was a little more into his G.I. Joe action figures, and a little bit more introverted. And I was a girl, during this weird age around 10 or 11 where boys and girls are not supposed to hang out. They’re so weird with each other, with no idea if they’re supposed to be friends or not like each other or be romantic with each other. It was just a very strange age for us as kids. But we’re all stuck in the middle of nowhere in Germany together and we became these unlikely friends. I’m not sure we would’ve gravitated towards one another outside of that context but in that context we really did.
CHAPTER 3: BRINGING FALKOR THE LUCKDRAGON AND OTHER MAGICAL CREATURES TO LIFE
ALAN OPPENHEIMER (voice of Falkor, Gmork, Rockbiter, and the narrator): They called me for an audition, so I went to the hotel where Wolfgang Petersen was, and I met him. He showed me a drawing or a cell of [Falkor]. At this point, the shooting of the film had already been completed and now, they had to put a voice to the character. He had a scratch track with him that somebody had done of it and so I had somewhat of an idea of what he was looking for. I immediately saw this furry luckdragon and the voice came to me. He told me, “That was fine,” and they made arrangements to fly me to Munich. I went into the studios and they played the film for me and I put a voice to it.
After I completed the whole thing, I asked them for a playback. I knew as I was listening that I didn’t get it quite right, so I said I wanted to do it again. Wolfgang was surprised because he liked what we recorded but agreed that we could try again the next day. They ended up using my second take in the film. The big difference between the first and the second is that in the second, Falkor had great heart and humanity.
When I finished, Wolfgang asked me to have a look at the Rockbiter. I immediately identified with the Rockbiter and knew just what I would do. It was so easy to give him a voice and I love that character. As I finished up that one, Wolfgang tells me, “Wait, there’s one more! Would you do the character of Gmork?” So, I saw this wolf-like creature and I did this deep voice for him — that was Gmork. Again, I thanked him, but he had one more request, “Would you also be the narrator?” And I said, sure and I did these few lines as the narrator. That day, Wolfgang got four voices for the price of one and I really loved it. I just really love that movie.
PETERSEN: If you have this creature that is so tough and difficult to put together with all its movements and its body language, you really needed the perfect voice to make him believable. Especially because he’s a luckdragon, a creature full of positivity and that is very, very friendly. We needed a voice that had a special gravitas and depth to it, with a low, low voice because of his size. But on the other hand, he should also have a smile in his voice with warmth. It was very hard to find, and finally, I was introduced to Alan and when I heard that voice, I thought he was just fantastic. He really brought to life the last and probably the most important character left, Falkor. He brought this rich, beautiful, and warm voice. The way he read those lines was truly unforgettable, just beautiful. That’s why kids all over the world wanted to fly all over the world with a big, incredible creature like Falkor.
HATHAWAY: Riding Falkor wasn’t as glamorous as you might imagine. They had this 10-foot head and neck attached to a forklift motor and it was probably about 15 or 20 feet off the ground with some boxes and pads underneath in case you fell off. Sometimes, it would overheat, and it would start going out of control probably once every 20 minutes. It ended up being like riding a bucking bronco. I just had to hold on for dear life from time to time, but it was fun! Being a 12-year-old maniac like I was back then, it was a blast.
PETERSEN: It was the early ’80s and, at that time, you did not have computers that could make all these types of creatures yet. We had to create all these beings and creatures, build them and animate them mechanically. For example, with the luckdragon Falkor, he’s this huge creature that we had to build. You could actually touch it; it was not a computer animation.
It took about 15 people to animate this creature, but they were all invisible, of course. They had their strings to use as they were hiding somewhere underneath the costume and sometimes even under the floor. There was a little monitor they had where they could check their work. So, there was one person that was in charge of the movements of the nose, and there were two others in charge of either eyebrow.
Altogether, they had this concerto grosso of movements with 15 people to bring this creature to life. This task was very, very unusual and very difficult to coordinate it all. At the same time, this creature was talking so we had a tape running with a pre-recorded voice and it all had to go smoothly together so that the body language and his smile, and things like that all were perfect. It was just fascinating to watch that and how that came together.
It took a lot of work to have it come out the way it did on film, and I believe that’s what gives this movie such a great quality that can be appreciated after all these years. The creatures were so real how they had to interact with the actors, it wasn’t like they were just standing in front of this green screen and pretending. The actors had to work directly with the creatures. That’s the special thing about The NeverEnding Story that gives the whole project its special charm.
STRONACH: It was like Willy Wonka, for a kid who just walked in and couldn’t believe that all that stuff was there. It was truly magical. I’m really so lucky that it wasn’t shot with CGI. There were human being’s puppeteering all of those creatures, and multiple humans pressing levels making the expressions on all of the faces of the puppets. There’s something really charming about the fact that the human hand was really involved in everything.
My only regret from working on the movie is that I never got to ride Falkor.
PETERSEN: Anyone can ride Falkor in Germany, even Tami! One of the most popular rides in Europe is located in Germany’s Bavaria Film Studios. An astonishing amount of people go every year and visit the luckdragon. There’s also some sets from the film available for visits, too.
CHAPTER 4: ARTAX, THE HORSE THAT LAUNCHED AN URBAN LEGEND THAT WOULDN’T DIE
PETERSEN: The horse did not really die, despite what has been said throughout the years. First of all, we had two identical white horses that played Artax. They were so beautiful. They were trained for a long, long time by a professional horse handler with this almost impossible task for a horse to, without resistance, sink slowly down in the mud all the way up to their head. It did not go over their head, no horse would ever do that.
It took months to train them. I’m always asked about this and the rumors aren’t true. In the film, you never see the horse’s face go into the mud. And also, by having two horses, we would alternate which would be in the scene while the other relaxed.
It’s really meant to be a sad scene; this was a crucial part of the film. People always tell me that when that scene comes on, they have to close their eyes. I tell them that I understand, it’s very sad and difficult to watch but it was crucial for the story. It’s all about being drawn into the darkness, and, unfortunately, the horse doesn’t make it [in the movie]. And because of that, even more so, Atreyu has to do it by himself without his friend and he does. But yes, the horses were really good, and both were fine.
HATHAWAY: I feel like I sent people to therapy over that scene with Artax. The horse they used was really wonderful and they spent a couple of months teaching her to be ok with being up to her neck with water. That’s something unfamiliar for them. So, the way they did that scene was that they had this little elevator under the water that slowly dropped the horse lower and lower. When it got to its chin area, we’d cut the scene. That one scene took over two and a half weeks.
The real horse never really died. They were more careful with that horse than they were with me! I got hurt a hell of a lot more. The horse was definitely looked after well.
I broke my back working on the movie and was in the hospital in traction for like a month before we started filming. We had a horse that we were training to fall on me while we were working with the horses maybe a couple of weeks before shooting. After I broke my back, we didn’t know if I’d be able to continue but I ended up healing up enough to be able to work. It was scary for a little while; I had a couple of injuries on this movie. I did a lot of my own stunts; it was just a very physical movie. But how many kids that are 12 or 13 can even say they experienced something like that?
They gave me one of the horses and a saddle as a wrap gift. But I was going to have to have it shipped and sterilized and all this stuff, so I left the horse in Germany with my riding double. He had the horse for 20-something years. He sent me an email like 10 years ago letting me know that the horse had just passed. It had a great and wonderful life. They had a stable and a ranch in Germany.
CHAPTER 5: STEVEN SPIELBERG’S UNCREDITED ROLE IN THE FILM
PETERSEN: I didn’t keep any props from the movie myself. Steven Spielberg got the best one of all. He has the Auryn, which is what Atreyu wears around his neck in the movie that was a gift from the empress when he goes on his quest. The Auryn has magic powers and it’s a beautiful, beautiful prop.
I don’t know if you know but Steven Spielberg and I knew each other before I came to America. He was a big fan of Das Boot and we spoke quite a bit on the phone and talked about things. So, when I had my new film, I told him I’d like to show it to him because I had a feeling that for an American audience, it was a bit slow. It has a very European feel to it, and I thought that he could give me some advice about edits I could make to it and we did.
He gave me some very good suggestions about where I could make a few little cuts here and there to get the pacing up a little bit to where it would suit American audiences better. To thank him for his help, I gave him the Auryn as a gift. As a result, the American version is seven minutes shorter than the German cut is.
CHAPTER 6: CREATING A CLASSIC THEME SONG
PETERSEN: The German version [of the film] is different to the American version in that it didn’t have all the music that the latter does. We decided to add music when we decided to take the movie outside of Germany into the world. We hired [composer] Giorgio Moroder later in the process. The film was already done and already playing in German theaters when Moroder came in and was asked to do a song and a few parts of the score where he added things that made the story even richer. All of a sudden, there was all this added flavor that came from somebody else.
So, the Klaus Doldinger music that is throughout the film is about 80% and 20% was additional touches from Giorgio Moroder in the American version. The main thing that Moroder added to the film was the theme song, which I loved. I heard it again recently when my assistant Barbara sent me this clip from Jimmy Fallon and Steven Colbert singing the song. I couldn’t believe it! It was just so funny, and so amazing.
I remember when they did the recording of that song in Munich with Limahl and Giorgio Moroder. Limahl was a fairly known singer in the U.K. at the time but still sort of young and up and coming. [Moroder] said it was so sweet and so difficult with him in the studio because the song is very ambitious. It’s not an easy song to sing. He said it took him giving Limahl multiple glasses of champagne so he could relax enough to really get the courage to go for it.
LIMAHL (singer): The way I got the job on The NeverEnding Story is very interesting. First of all, the producer Giorgio Moroder recorded all the early Donna Summer hits in Munich. He was Italian and based in Europe before going to America to do Flashdance and Top Gun.
I had gone to the Tokyo Music Festival and there was lots of famous people there, it was a huge event. It was all a competition that had various judges, and that year, Giorgio was one of the judges. My manager at the time was an Irish guy with a very feisty personality named Billy Gaff. He’d managed Rod Stewart during his heyday. Billy was very charming. People would say he could sell ice to an Eskimo. So, he sat down and spoke to Giorgio and told him how I was going to be the next big thing. He convinced him that he needed to work with me. When I got back to London, Giorgio’s office called and told my manager that he was working on a song for a film and he wanted to try my voice out for it.
I flew to Munich to record it. I remember hearing from the president of EMI Records at the time that he didn’t like the song and was thinking about not releasing it. My manager was on the phone just yelling at the guy. I was really young at the time, only like 23 years old or something. Billy Gaff went to bat for me and explained that the song was a hit and needed to be released.
He played a big part in getting that song out. He believed in me and told Giorgio about my voice, first of all. And then he helped convince EMI that the song was a hit. He was right, too. It was No. 1 in almost every country in the world, except America.
The movie came out and it was a hit and the song was too. I’m telling you, there’s a reason why 35 years later we’re here talking about it.
CHAPTER 7: WHY THERE WILL NEVER BE A REBOOT
PETERSEN: [The book’s author] Michael Ende did not like the final movie. I mean, what could we do? The problem from the very beginning was that he just didn’t like the script. He lived in Rome at that time and I said, let me go and see him so we can try to make peace. Maybe if we sit together for some time to work and write the script together, so that he could be more involved. He liked that idea, so we did that for quite a while, but it just didn’t work out in the end.
He was a wonderful writer. The book is really an amazing book. When it came out, it was really a smash hit and not only in Germany. People would line up around his house in sleeping bags overnight to maybe get a glimpse at him — this man who wrote this incredible book. It was truly an unbelievable phenomenon; he was almost like Jesus Christ to them. And all of that went to his head a little bit, as you can imagine.
The story was sacred to him and you cannot change that. So, while I was trying to work with him on the script, it was difficult to make any changes. If I needed to cut something out, he would not understand that. There were a lot of things that at the time we could not do just yet, technically. Maybe today it would be different.
The bottom line is, he could not really understand the process of making a 2-hour movie from his big and very, very rich book. He didn’t understand it and he didn’t want to understand it. In the end, I wrote the final version of the script together with Herman Weigel and not with him. We sent it to him, and he hated it and we said we didn’t care and that it was what we’re going to shoot. Later on, he became so angry that he wanted to take us to court, if I remember correctly. He wanted to go to court to stop the movie, but he didn’t succeed, of course. You can’t look at making a novel into a movie and think there won’t be any changes.
He was not our friend; I can tell you that. Hopefully, he came to enjoy it. He is no longer with us [Ende died in 1995], but he had a long time to be able to enjoy the success of the film.
And regarding whether or not I would like to see a reboot… It is my understanding that some films you should leave alone, and that’s how I feel about this film. I like the way the film is, with all its old fashion charm — just leave it alone. It is such a beloved movie over the decades all over the world. It’s truly a classic. A lot of people have approached us while seeking out the rights for this story, I think Warner Bros. was behind it at one time.
I know there are difficulties with the estate and the rights, there’s some litigations going on. But that’s all I know.
STRONACH: I just don’t think it’s going to happen. My understanding is that the rights are locked down tight. It could be wonderful to remake it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think what we have to do is reach for the message of the film and support others making really incredible fantasy films. That’s what the movie is about, not having a monopoly with only a few people being part of the imaginative sphere. The whole world is richer when all the people imagine.
I think the film is an invitation to grow the space of making and creating. Hopefully, if Hollywood diversifies and there are more women directors, and more minorities writing scripts, the message of the film will be the ultimate winner here. So, I don’t think we need to remake this, but I think we need to keep growing the space for everyone.
OPPENHEIMER: I think they need to leave it alone; it doesn’t need a remake.
CHAPTER 8: THE LEGACY
PETERSEN: This movie is all about the power of kids and empowering kids. The message is, go and change the world, you are important. You are more important than you think. You can do anything that you wish. You have the power.
HATHAWAY: The love that people have for this film is so flattering. It’s pretty amazing and sometimes even surreal sometimes. I watch a lot of cartoons, I’m kind of a big kid so I watch a lot of Rick and Morty, Family Guy, and American Dad. Every couple of months, something pops-up like Peter Griffin riding Falkor and I’m just amazed. It’s so surreal that a part of me is a part of pop culture.
I love that The NeverEnding Story has a message about not being limited by anything other than your dreams, and dream big, and take chances. This movie has a heart, and it’s nice to be a part of something like that. I’m all for gore and horror movies because I love all kinds of craziness, but it’s nice to be a part of something that has really touched people.
I meet people at signings that are crying and just want a hug. To be able to affect people with something that you worked hard to be a part of that you put your blood, sweat, and tears into, is very special. I’m so happy people are still talking about it and, thanks to Stranger Things, are singing the hell out of it.
It was such a beautiful homage they did. It wasn’t like some back music; they literally did an homage to the movie which was incredible. God bless the Duffer Brothers, that was really great. My girlfriend and I were literally in tears crying when we saw it from laughing so much. It was such a feel-good scene. It was so great.
STRONACH: I really hope that the message of the film will endure and find other avenues to grow and spread. The message of the film is that through imagination, we can solve really all of the problems that we face. I think oftentimes we’re told that things just are the way they are or they can’t change because that’s just the way things are. Things are the way they are because we build them that way. And if we could imagine them differently then we could build them differently.
Really, imagination is the key to creating a future that is more beautiful, more whimsical, more kind, and it’s so undervalued. I think the message of the film is to keep our imagination alive. I think that’s why the film has endured for so long, that’s the kind of timeless message that we all need to hear. It’s so easy to get caught up in the mundane and to forget all the creative potential is still available to us at every moment.