The Backstage Magic of The NeverEnding Story

One of the most charming children’s movies of the 1980s is the beloved fantasy tale, The NeverEnding Story. The film follows a young boy named Bastian who reads a book about a warrior tasked with preventing “the Nothing” from consuming his magical world! The family film is adored by kids and adults. The mythical tale introduced us to an array of memorable characters, like Atreyu, the Moon Child, and Teeny Weeny.

Noah Hathaway / Tami Stronach, Noah Hathaway / Noah Hathaway / Noah Hathaway
Source: Moviestillsdb.com

This movie is filled with enchanted fantasy, magical creatures, and wonderful moments that either make us laugh out loud or traumatize us for life (if you saw the film, you know which scene I’m referring to). If you want to escape reality, join us on our exciting journey into the behind-the-scenes magic of The NeverEnding Story.

The Most Expensive Movie in German Cinema

If you’re an American fan, you may not know that The NeverEnding Story is technically a German film. It was directed by famed German director Wolfgang Petersen and shot mostly in Germany. Petersen’s most successful movie before this one was Das Boot, which at the time was the most expensive film in German cinematic history.

Noah Hathaway stands next to the white dragon in a scene from the film.
Noah Hathaway. Photo by dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images

Trying to outdo himself, Peterson had a massive budget for The NeverEnding Story, easily surpassing his Das Boot budget. Production spent $27 million! Sure, that may not seem like a lot now, but if you calculate inflation, $27 million in 1984 is equivalent to $65 million now.

Atreyu Got Seriously Injured on Set

Making a movie always involves risks, but for the actor who played Atreyu, it almost cost him an eye. While filming the movie, Noah Hathaway was injured on several occasions. He was thrown off a horse which then stepped on him. Luckily, the injuries were minor.

A still from Noah Hathaway’s scene with the wolf-like beast.
Photo by Impress Own/United Archives/Getty Images

It was during the final fight scene between Atreyu and the wolf-like beast Gmork that the actor nearly lost an eye. The robot that was Gmork began to malfunction, and somehow one of its claws slashed the child actor on the face, right next to his eye. It was extremely heavy, so when it fell on him, he completely lost his breath, and his injuries were pretty severe. Because he got injured, they only had one take of this scene, and that’s what you see in the final cut.

The Childlike Empress Wore Dentures

When you are working on a movie with child actors, you have to follow child labor laws. Kids can only work for a short amount of time, and a guardian or an adult responsible for them has to be present. It’s not really a big deal and, honestly, something that should be expected. Someone has to make sure the children are protected.

Tami Stronach as the Empress in a publicity portrait for the film.
Tami Stronach. Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

Another thing that should be expected when working with a blossoming 11-year-old is that she might be missing some teeth. That’s exactly what happened with Tami Stronach, the girl who played the Childlike Empress.

Tami Stronach’s Flippers

Tami Stronach lost her two front teeth in the natural course of growing up. The only problem is, she was growing up on set, playing a character who should not be missing teeth. Although children on screen should also be losing their teeth, the directors felt that missing teeth might be distracting for the audience, especially with her otherwise stately appearance.

A portrait of Tami Stronach.
Photo by Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance/Getty Images

Therefore, they fitted the young actress with false teeth known as a flipper, which are still commonly used by child actors. Unfortunately, the falsies caused Tami to develop a lisp, and it took her quite a long time to overcome it.

The Entire Movie Is Dubbed to English

Since a huge chunk of shooting happened in Germany, many of the actors cast were German. This didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t speak English. However, much of the dialogue was actually spoken in German. It was only in post-production that it was dubbed over in English.

Noah Hathaway flies in the white dragon.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Tilo Prückner, the actor who played Night Hob, said most of his lines in German and was later dubbed over. The same thing for the Rock Biter; if you pay attention to his lips as he speaks, it becomes pretty clear. It’s more obvious in some scenes than others. This tiny detail is just another reminder that The NeverEnding Story is not an American film.

Inappropriate for Children

Author Michael Ende disapproved of a lot of the aspects of the film. First, his vision was altered in various ways that he didn’t think were in line with his book. He was actually disturbed to no end by some of the visuals. In his defense, Ende’s concerns regarding the sphinx statues are pretty understandable, considering the fact this was a children’s film.

A beast drooling in a scene from the film.
Source: Tumblr

Other than the fact that the statues are gigantic, they are much more voluptuous than necessary. Ende made specific comments to this effect, saying, “The sphinxes are quite one of the biggest embarrassments of the film.”

The German Edition Is Seven Minutes Longer

Did you know renowned director Steven Spielberg was actually given the German version of the movie to edit? But Spielberg didn’t just give it a simple watch and move on. The genius director focused on what would appeal to an American audience.

The Neverending Story premiere in Germany.
Photo by ADN-Bildarchiv/ullstein bild/Getty Images

This required switching around a few scenes, editing out a bit of profanity and taking out seven minutes of video and dialogue. Seven full minutes may not sound like a lot of time, but in a movie that is only 94 minutes after Spielberg got his hands on it, it is significant.

Spielberg’s Clever Edits

Spielberg made important adjustments that he thought would help the movie’s success, and it took a lot of work. Cutting out a few minutes were the least of his changes. One of his most notable modifications involves turning up the sound of the Rickbiter’s rumbling as he came toward the Night Hob at the beginning of the movie.

Steven Spielberg attends an awards ceremony.
Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Sygma/Getty Images

He also proceeded to trim a few scenes and boosted the success of the movie. Wow, Spielberg really put effort into making this a perfect movie for American viewers. And clearly, it worked. The movie was a smash hit in America!

Noah Hathaway Was a Troublemaker on Set

According to everyone involved, the cast was an absolute pleasure to work with. Wolfgang Peterson praised the actor who portrayed Bastian Barret Oliver, saying he was a joy to work with, and he loved having him on set. However, Noah Hathaway, his legendary counterpart, didn’t get the same admiration.

A portrait of Noah Hathaway at the movie set.
Photo by Impress Own/United Archives/Getty Images

Brian Johnson, the man behind the special effects for The NeverEnding Story, said: “Noah Hathaway was a bit of a pain… it was very difficult for Wolfgang to get anything out of him. Barret Oliver delivered all the time; he was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”

The Heartbreaking Horse Scene

One of the delays in production that almost ended the movie before it even started was the most heart-wrenching scene in the film. In the devastating and horrific scene, Atreyu’s horse Artax was drowning. Shooting that scene was a total nightmare, though.

Atreyu tries to save Artax by pulling from the robe.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

It was difficult to film because horses don’t exactly allow themselves to be submerged in black goo. It took about seven weeks to train the horse properly. Originally, the scene was meant to take two weeks which would fit in with the rest of production time.

The Urban Legend About the Horse Isn’t True

Two weeks to seven weeks is a huge difference when you’re on a tight production schedule. One alteration can really impact the schedule and affect the completion of the film. Unfortunately, the increased time used to train the horse became a serious problem.

Atreyu and Atrax are entering a swamp.
Source: Tumblr

Luckily, it all worked out in the end, and the horse’s performance was outstanding, if you ask me. He was so convincing that after the movie came out, there was speculation and gossip that the horse really perished during the movie. Don’t worry. It was just a rumor, and Hathaway was given the horse as a gift.

Before CGI, They Needed to Be Creative

Nowadays, an enormous Luck Dragon could be created with CGI, resulting in a beautiful and convincing character. But that wasn’t really possible back in the ‘80s, so the Falkor was constructed as a practical effect. Several designs and concepts were attempted in building the character, which resulted in two fully constructed models.

Woman sits on top of the white dragon of The NeverEnding Story in an exhibition fair from the film.
Photo by Felix Hörhager/picture-alliance/Getty Images

The Falkor featured in the movie is 43 feet long, made of used airplane steel, and it was pretty heavy too; the head alone weighed 200 pounds! Ende wasn’t happy with how Falkor came out and hated that he looked like a dog. Peterson’s vision of the character resembled a “golden/retriever/dragon,” which didn’t sit well with the author. But audiences loved Folkor, and he quickly became one of the most beloved characters of the film.

What Bastian Screamed at the End Is Debatable

I’m pretty sure I ruined my VHS of this movie by pausing and replaying the scene at the end of the film, where Bastian screams a name out the window. Bastian felt like he needed to scream his mother’s name so that the Childlike Empress could take it and save Fantasia from The Nothing.

Jonathan Brandis rides the white dragon in a publicity still from the movie.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

No matter how many times you replay it, it’s impossible to hear or understand what he screamed out. Luckily, the book can give us the answer: “Moonchild.” There has been some debate about the name he called out, but since all we really have to go on is the novel, we’re going to assume that’s what he said.

Two Significant Scenes Were Left Out

Two essential scenes weren’t even filmed. The book, as well as the script, detailed how significant these scenes were for the story, but they never made it to the big screen. The first was the initial scene with Falkor, where Atreyu saves the Luck Dragon from Ygramul the Many.

Noah Hathaway holds on to brunch to not fly away.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

The monster was a shapeshifting beast that took the form of enormous poisonous wasps, which merged into a giant spider. This monstrous character would have added another element of excitement, but sadly, the special effects that were around at the time weren’t advanced enough to create this scene.

Movie Technology in the Olden Days

But that wasn’t the only scene that viewers couldn’t enjoy due to technical difficulties. The second significant scene left out of the movie also involved Falkor, and the two would encounter Wild Giants. These mystical creatures were supposed to be made out of clouds, but they kept shrinking as The Nothings grew.

A publicity still from The NeverEnding Story.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

Unfortunately, special effects kept us from the viewing pleasures of this particular scene. To be fair, this was over three decades ago, so technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now. With the lack of special effect capabilities, the scene was pretty much impossible to shoot.

Making the Movie Took Four Times Longer Than Intended

Some directors, such as Stanley Kubrick, are famous for their incredibly high standards. As it turns out, Wolfgang Peterson was like Kubrick in that respect, and his time working on The NeverEnding Story was one of the most demanding projects in German cinematic history.

A promotional shot from the film.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

Plenty of directors run a scene for 5-10 cuts which seems like a reasonable standard. But that wasn’t enough for Peterson; reportedly, he pushed up to 40 takes on every scene in the movie. I’m just wondering how bad the first 39 takes must have been.

Peterson’s Perfectionism Stalled Production

That many takes may seem a bit excessive, but Kubrick was also known for filming the staircase scene in The Shining over 100 times. Both movies ended up becoming classics, so they must have been doing something right.

A portrait of Wolfgang Peterson standing on a balcony.
Photo by Peter Kneffel/picture alliance/Getty Images

However, the budget of the film increased considerably due to Peterson’s perfectionism. The 3-month shooting schedule had to be extended to a full year. It’s a wonder how this movie was completed before having producers pull the plug. Luckily, it was all worth it in the end because the film was a box office success!

The Movie Was Filmed in Various Places

Like many big-budget movies, The NeverEnding Story was filmed in multiple locations. Much of the soundstage work took place at Bavaria Filmstadt in Munich, Germany. In fact, you can take a tour of their facility and have your picture snapped while you ride Falkor. How fun!

A view to the entrance at Bavaria Filmstadt.
Photo by Nitschmann/ullstein bild/Getty Images

A lot of the exterior shots for the movie were surprisingly filmed in Spain. The buildings seen throughout were filmed in Gastown, a small town in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since I’ve never worked behind the camera, I overlook many of these details that go into making a movie.

Spain, Germany, Canada… but Not America

Some of the interior shots, like Bastian’s home, the city he is running through, and the bookstore, were all done in Canada. As it turns out, absolutely nothing was filmed on-location in the United States. While many audiences believe this film is American, it’s a German film that was mostly filmed in Canada (as the locations suggest).

Jonathan Brandis sits in bed gazing at The Neverending Storybook.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Either way, the book doesn’t make a distinction about this, and since it was written in German, that makes sense. It’s so interesting that moviemakers would go to such great lengths to create their perfect vision. But audiences aren’t supposed to know how the magic happens; it takes away from the movie-going, reality-escaping experience.

The Heat Brought More Problems and More Delays

While they were filming in Germany, the country was dealing with its hottest summer in over 25 years. Germany isn’t necessarily known for its warm climate, but when it starts to heat up, there is barely any air conditioning. Production had to take a break when the weather became so unbearable that their model for the Ivory Tower literally melted.

A view of the Ivory Tower in a still from the movie.
Source: YouTube

The production department needed to replace it as well as some other items. Of course, this increased the budget; naturally, this also extended the shooting time. On several occasions, the heat affected the functioning of the bluescreen; so, entire days were scrapped until the heatwave passed and they could resume filming.

The Author Despised the Movie

It’s not uncommon for an author to hate seeing their work reimagined and put on screen by someone else. Stephen King famously shunned Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of The Shining. Although the movie is a classic to viewers, it’s not easy to watch someone take your vision and change it.

A portrait of Michael Ende holding the book.
Photo by Impress Own/United Archives/Getty Images

Another example is Alan More, who famously hated all the on-screen variations of everything he has written. Michael Ende was the same way. He did not like having his imagination messed with and was not shy about his hatred for the film.

It Wasn’t His Vision

Ende was very vocal about how much he despised the movie and went as far as having his name removed from the credits. Producers did throw his name into the end credits, but it’s noticeably small. The fact that Ende didn’t want to be associated with a movie based on his own storytelling and imagination makes his feelings on the project very clear.

A studio portrait of Michael Ende.
Photo by Jörg Schmitt/picture alliance/Getty Images

In fact, Ende started a campaign to shut down the film’s production because it was totally different from his original story. He asked them to change the title of the movie because he didn’t want it to be linked to his book. When producers refused to meet his demands, Ende sued them. He ended up losing the case.

Steven Spielberg Saves the Day

Since The NeverEnding Story was based on a German book, produced by a German company and directed by a German director, an American filmmaker was summoned to help bring the movie to the United States. They managed to get the industry’s biggest movie tycoon, Steven Spielberg.

The Neverending Story Film Poster.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Spielberg’s editing of the film is a bit different than the completed version that was playing in German movie theaters. But his clever changes helped the children’s fantasy film become legendary in America. As a thank you gift, Auryn from the movie was given to Spielberg, who still has it proudly displayed in his office.

The Theme Song Was a Smash Hit

If you’ve seen the film, chances are, the theme song is playing in your head right now. Back in the ‘80s, it wasn’t rare for a film to include a song written specifically for the film, but they usually fell kind of flat. Well, that certainly didn’t happen with The NeverEnding Story.

Limahl performs the movie theme song in a staged set.
Photo by Impress Own/United Archives/Getty Images

The catchy tune – written by Keith Forsey, composed by Giorgio Moroder, and performed by Limahl – was an instant earworm and made it to the top of the charts in Norway, Sweden, and the United States. The U.S. Billboard 100 ranked the song at number 17 and sold more than 200,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone.

The Original Book Prop Is for Sale!

Movie props are a big deal for Hollywood memorabilia collectors. That’s why it’s not shocking that the original book prop used in the movie is available for purchase. An eBay user under the name Spiritrobyn57 listed the prop twice, but no one has bought it yet.

Atreyu sits and holds with both hands The NeverEnding Story Book.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

The item was listed at $75,000 during the first auction, but there weren’t any takers. Then it was listed again for $28,000, but unfortunately, the auction was just as unsuccessful as the first one. Noah Hathaway was even tracked down to verify the item’s authenticity. Although it hasn’t been sold as of the writing of this article, that might change soon. These collectors want pieces of cinematic history.

The Film Only Covers Half of the Book

Despite the misleading book title, like all tales, The NeverEnding Story does come to an end. Still, the movie doesn’t reach the end of the book and only covers half of the story that was originally written—just another reason for the author to hate the movie.

The scene where Atreyu opens The NeverEnding Story Book.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

Regrettably, the missing half of the tale was eventually told in another movie. Six years after the first movie, The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter was released. However, it wasn’t directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and nobody from the original movie was involved in the sequel. Although it completed the rest of the story, audiences weren’t impressed. The movie was a box office failure, bringing in less than $18 million.

Familiar Faces Hidden in the Ivory Tower

Fantasia is supposed to be a world where all fiction resides; that’s why the director chose to make a few additions to the scene in the picture. All the characters featured in the scene are meant to represent several other fictitious tales. As a fun little hard-to-spot Easter egg, some unexpected people were included.

The Ivory Tower.
Source: Flickr

Wolfgang Peterson and Steven Spielberg were pretty good friends; that’s why it comes are no surprise that the scene includes everyone’s favorite alien: E.T. I bet you didn’t notice him hiding in there. Some of George Lucas’s characters like Chewbacca, Ewoks, Yoda, and C-3PO, can also be spotted.

Noah Hathaway Auditioned So Many Times

As the young warrior Artery, Noah Hathaway’s character was tasked with rescuing the Childlike Empress from her impending death. The actor brought an impressive range of emotions into his performance. From his penetrating vulnerability as he loses his best friend Artax to his powerful fierceness during the battle against the Nothing’s minion Gmork.

A portrait of Noah Hathaway.
Photo by Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance/Getty Images

It’s hard to picture anyone else playing that role, but that was almost the case. His journey to get cast was almost as grueling as his journey in the movie. For the film’s 35th anniversary, Hathaway told Entertainment Weekly that he was among 50,000 other aspiring actors hoping to land the role.

He Landed the Role Because of His Exotic Look

Finally, Noah Hathaway was cast. But then, original director Helmut Dietl left the project, leaving the door wide open for Wolfang Peterson to swoop in and take over. That meant Hathaway had to start the exhausting audition process all over again. The actor remembers auditioning at least ten times.

Noah Hathaway as Atreyu and the white dragon in a publicity still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

It was his Native American ancestry and look that solidified him as Peterson Atreyu. Although Hathaway started acting way before The NeverEnding Story, he didn’t do a lot of acting after the film. After a few minor on-screen appearances, Hathaway retired from Hollywood. He is now a martial artist and works as a tattoo artist. Throughout his career, he was asked to tattoo a whole lot of Auryns.

The Truth About “the Nothing”

The horrifying threat to Fantasia (and also to the human world) was a dreadful void known as the Nothing. When Rockbiter was asked what was going on and why he needed the help of the Childlike Empress, he described a lake that just vanished.

The Teeny-Weeny scene.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

Teeny Weeny (Deep Roy) asks, “Did the lake dry up?” and Rockbiter answered with, “No, it just wasn’t there anymore. Nothing was there anymore. Not even a dried-up lake.” “A hole?” Teeny Weeny replied, and Rockbiter explained, “No, a hole would be something. Nah, it was nothing. And it got bigger and bigger. First, there was no lake anymore and then finally, no rocks.”

How They Portrayed “the Nothing” on Screen

The Nothing was an obscure threat but also very real in the universe of The NeverEnding Story. The film’s special effects coordinator, Brian Johnson, told SciFi Now that he conceptualized the Nothing in the film by essentially using the horizon as a starting point and then showing the disintegration of the natural world and disappearing into it.

A still from the Nothing scene.
Source: Tumblr

This instance was one of the few times camera tricks were utilized in the movie. The Nothing’s inimitable effects are depicted as color splashes in the sky, and the illusion of nothingness captures the audience.

From the Movie Theater to the Stage Theater

The NeverEnding Story is an elaborate fantasy novel with many mythical creatures and moving parts. These things live in our imagination, so portraying them on screen takes creativity, vision, special effects, and hard work. Unfortunately, you don’t have as many options when it becomes an on-stage production. There are no cuts, only one chance, and certainly no camera manipulation going on.

The Childlike Empress in the movie / The Childlike Empress on theatre.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com, Copyright: Warner Bros. / Emily Cooper

You would assume that a production like that would require the enormous scope of a Broadway show such as Wicked in order to work. But in 2006, Imagination Stage and the Seattle Children’s Theater summoned playwright David S. Craig to make a small stage adaptation of the film.

Stage Productions All Over the World

So, if you’re interested in plays, The NeverEnding Story: Atreyu and the Great Quest is licensed for productions in the U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. It had a good run in various major cities. The play has been performed in Los Alamos, Ottawa, Washington D.C., Toronto, and plenty more, usually receiving stellar reviews.

Jake Runeckles plays Bastian Balthazar Bux in a production of The NeverEnding Story.
Jake Runeckles. Photo by Emily Cooper

Like the movie, many of the stage productions for The NeverEnding Story rely on more than just puppetry to recreate the beloved characters, but the audience also gets to use their imagination to fill in the gaps of imagery that didn’t make it on stage.

A Remake Is Never Going to Happen

Because Michael Ende disliked the final product of his novel’s transition to the big screen, there will likely never be a remake. Although it did live to see two unimpressive sequels, Wolfgang Petersen said that the rights to the story are tied up in litigation. He explained that there is no end in sight, but he’s okay with that.

The set of The NeverEnding Story III.
Photo by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

Alan Oppenheimer, the voice of Falkor/Rock/Gmork, feels the same way, and so does the Childlike Empress herself, Tami Stronach. “I like the way the film is, with all its old-fashioned charm,” said Peterson. “Just leave it alone.” Oppenheimer added, “I think they need to leave it alone; it doesn’t need a remake.”

We Don’t Need a Remake; We Need Diversity!

Tami Stronach admitted that she might enjoy watching a remake, but she noted, “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.”

Tami Stronach smiles at the press.
Photo by Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

She continued, “So, I don’t think we need to remake this, but I think we need to keep growing the space for everyone.” The Childless Empress no longer wants a new name. All she wants is inclusion and on-screen representation. All you creative minds out there, listen to the Empress and go after your dreams.

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