Director/writer/producer Andy Fickman has had huge success with family comedies, including such features as Race to Witch Mountain, The Game Plan and She’s The Man. His latest is the Disney comedy You Again is about a young woman named Marni (Kristen Bell) who returns home to Northern California for her brother’s wedding, only to find out that he is marrying Joanna (Odette Yustman), her high school arch nemesis. And, to make matters worse, Marni’s mother, Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis), realizes that she attended the same high school as Joanna’s aunt, Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), where they had their own rivalry some 30 years ago.
In this exclusive interview, Andy Fickman talked to Collider about working with his muse Kristen Bell, whom he’s known for nearly a decade, the importance of creating a family atmosphere on set, finding the right balance between comedy and drama, and how everyone can relate to not being able to fit in, in high school.
He also gave an update on his upcoming features Us and Them, starring Billy Crystal, and The Undomestic Goddess, based on the book by Sophie Kinsella, and shared his passion for Heathers: The Musical, which he is currently developing for the stage with the film’s screenwriter, Dan Waters. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Andy: It was a rare script, in that I found it such a universal story, even though it was very female centric. Everybody has somebody from their past that affected them and, if you say that name 10 or 20 years later, you go to, “Oh, I hated that person!” It’s a universal thing. We all meet people who make us react in that way. Conversely, potentially unbeknownst to us, we are somebody else’s “you again” person that somebody will be thinking, “Oh, I hate that person,” about.
For me, I responded to where you could go with the characters, the comedy and the relatability. It all felt really like a great place to start, and it was probably the easiest movie to cast because every subsequent actor that I met with started by saying the same thing I said, which was, “Everybody has a ‘you again.’” It made it a dream cast that came together very quickly, but we were all joining for the exact same reason. Everybody can relate to the thing that makes them slightly separate. When you look at a movie like this, everybody finds a character or a situation they can relate to.
Did you have a specific person in your life that made things less wonderful for you, who you hope sees all of your success now?
Andy: I was the theater kid, so there were a couple of kids in junior high school. By the time I got into high school, theater was kind of cool, but somewhere between elementary school and high school was the period where doing theater was just like, “Why don’t you line up and we’re just going to beat you up today? Tomorrow, we’ll meet you at your house and we’ll beat you up outside.” I would hope all of them would see it and know that the movie is dedicated to them.
Much is said of the family atmosphere you create on set. Is that something that you do intentionally for the working environment, or is that just who you are?
Andy: I would hope it’s who I am inherently, in terms of just wanting to have a good environment for everybody. In putting together a cast, I think it’s important to create an ensemble atmosphere, and that comes from years of doing theaters. Your cast and crew should be one happy family. It’s about 400 people coming together to do the possible in X amount of time with X amount of dollars, and you have to go be funny.
When there’s harmony on the set, it’s a lot easier for everybody to bring their A-game. When there’s discourse, so much energy can be spent dealing with the problem that, all of a sudden, it’s hard to come out of the argument and be funny. I’d prefer everybody having a good time. At the end of the day, we’re not curing cancer, fighting on the front lines or embedded in Iraq. We’re entertaining people, so we should feel very blessed and lucky to go to work every day and let that fun come through on the screen.
How did you and Kristen Bell first meet, and did you just instantly click and know you’d be friends all these years later?
Andy: She might tell the story differently, but her version would be painfully wrong. She was a student at NYU and we were casting Reefer Madness in New York. She played Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer with our producers, the Nederlanders, and they loved her. They kept saying, “You have to see this girl, Kristen Bell, for your lead, Mary Lane, in Reefer Madness.” Her first audition, she missed. Her name was on the sheet, but she didn’t show up for it. That happens. Sometimes there’s a miscommunication. But, I was sure she’d come to the second audition and wow me. Her second audition, she missed. Her name was on the sheet, but she just wasn’t physically there, at which point I started letting everyone know that I was less enamored with her. The third audition, she missed. Now it was like, “Not only will I never cast her, I don’t actually want to meet her.”
On the day of the call-backs, where I was going down the road with a couple of people, the producers had snuck her in. Across the room, the door opened and little K-Bell was standing there with so much energy, confidence and swagger. She walked across the room, shook my hand and said, “So, let’s just cut to it and hire me and make this thing happen.” She went over to the piano and sang and, as much as I tried to resist her, I was sucker-punched by her talent. We have been working together on projects, in both film and theater, for a decade now. Whatever I try to do, I can’t get rid of her from my life. Had only I missed the audition she showed up for, it would have been better, but instead I’m stuck with her forever.
Andy: Oh, nothing made me happier! Every day, she began to wonder what I was going to do to her. I was like, “So, today we pour mud on you.” I think she understood this was about 10 years of payback on this movie. She couldn’t say no. She could just look at me with those little trusting eyes and be like, “Really? My mom’s going to call you.” And, I love her mom. I love Ma Bell a great deal, but even Ma Bell couldn’t keep me from dumping stuff on her daughter this time.
How much of a challenge was it to find the right actress to play opposite her as Joanna?
Andy: It was an incredible challenge. We saw a ton of just really remarkable, wonderful actresses for that role, a lot of whom I’m friendly with and K-Bell is friendly with. It was a hot role and everybody was chasing it, and I felt like we couldn’t go wrong, in any direction, but finding that perfect chemistry is always hard. Odette, who had the least amount of comedic and screen experience of any of the people we were considering, certainly was a dark horse going in. The minute I met with her, there was something so special about her, both on and off camera. When we started doing chemistry tests between her and K-Bell, and eventually with Jimmy Wolk, it was just clear to all of us that there was something so unique about her and so perfect for the role that, as much as she might have been the dark horse, by the time we were in the final mix, she was the one to beat. It was a really great experience to find her.
As a director, what was it like to work with Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver?
Andy: I think it’s part of what you dream of, as a director. I imagine it’s like a football coach who found out that that year of the draft pick, they got all of their choices and now that they have the best team out there, it’s about how they play. With someone like Sigourney or Jamie, who had also never worked together before and really didn’t know each other, you’re not taking two wonderful veteran actress together who have a long-standing relationship. You’re putting their styles together, in an east coast versus west coast version. It was a joy every day. I improv a lot and I love a lot of rehearsal, and they both were quickly right in tune with me and found that rhythm. That was a real honor, every day. And then, you add people like Victor Garber, Kristin Chenoweth and Betty White, and I felt ridiculous showing up to work because it was like, “I’ve just got to send a thank you note to somebody. Who do I thank for my cast today?” It didn’t matter what scene we had. Every day of shooting was something fun because we had one of these wonderful actors to play with.
What do you think has made Betty White such a national treasure to so many people of every age group?
Andy: Anybody who has seen Betty over the years knows that Betty is the same Betty that’s always been there. Thankfully, as a society, we are just catching up with wanting to see every one of her performances. There is no one quicker, there is no one funnier on the set and there is no one that works harder. Whether it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the morning, there is Betty, sitting there patiently, just excited to be working and such a joy. There’s a very clever smartness to her comedy and I think that’s what makes people notice her. It’s not just her saying whatever the one-liner is. She has a true gift for it. It’s hard to beat her, for just the facial expressions. You just want to leave the camera on and let it capture her every facial expression. It is just funny to watch her go.
Andy: Here’s what a lot of people don’t know, I own Dwayne. I physically bought Dwayne years ago. They were selling characters and I bought him, and now I have to use him. It’s in my contract. I can’t actually do anything without Dwayne Johnson. I can barely walk through a mall without calling him and asking if I can. We’re locked together, and someday it will be legal. Most people haven’t yet fully appreciated that he’s just a genuinely funny guy. He gets the joke right away and is a joy to work with. Having him and K-Bell, who are both very close to me creatively, be able to play together made it a fun day to go to work.
When you have an ensemble like this, with so many talented people who each bring something special to the project, is it hard to find a balance between letting them do their thing while still following your vision?
Andy: I think a lot of it is about the conversations we have in advance. I feel like my job is to communicate my vision so much during pre-production and rehearsal, and then my vision changes as they become a part of it. What I want to do is be able to capture what’s important to them. They all had very specific ideas and I’d be a fool, as a director, not to want to embrace the ideas of so many talented people. The goal is to constantly make sure that a new idea that we introduce doesn’t counter-balance an old idea that we have there, or challenge somebody else’s idea. Coming from the world of improv, you create an environment where everybody can play, and then you can always rein it back, if you need to, but that was never the case. I felt like everything they did was all added value.
Andy: When we first started reading it, there was always an element of music to it. The truth is that we had a musical cast that I could have gone an opened on Broadway with, the next day. The cast was amazing. Those conversations were very natural as they grew, but we definitely felt like the tone and energy of the piece needed to be fun and provide a fun time in the theater, and this type of music only enhances that.
Was there anything particularly challenging about making this film?
Andy: Several scenes were challenging. The fight between Sigourney and Jamie was a real emotional scene and needed to end in the right feel-good place, but still hit all the emotional beats. Some of the scenes between K-Bell and Odie in the kitchen, and before then, were really emotional scenes. You’re so used to doing the comedy, which is so hard to begin with, that when you’re shooting an emotional scene, it’s to the testament of those actors that they can strip away. Nobody was mugging for the cameras or going for the bit. Everybody was just going for the realness of the scene. Those scenes are always a little bit tricky to do. Some of them had to be shot early in the movie, just in terms of our shooting schedule, so we were also asking people to dive into emotional areas on day four of shooting. We just got very lucky with our cast, that they were able to pull it off.
Beyond this film, what are you currently working on developing and do you know what your next project will be?
Andy: I have 48 million things in development and at least 40 of those 48 million I will not get to. I’m really excited about a couple of things that are percolating. I’m developing a project at Fox with Billy Crystal, called Us and Them, that is a wonderful Parenthood-esque comedy, and Billy is somebody that I’ve been a longtime fan of. I’m thrilled about that. I’m working on a project called The Undomestic Goddess, which is based on the Sophie Kinsella book, and that one’s got me very excited. We’re just getting ready to make an announcement on something really exciting, that I can’t talk about until after Labor Day. And, I’m working on Heathers: The Musical. I’m very excited about that.
What inspired you to make a musical out of Heathers, and what do you want to see done with that?
Andy: We’ve been working on it for awhile now with (screenwriter) Dan Waters. It was one of my all-time favorite movies and, when I saw what Larry O’Keefe was able to do with Legally Blonde, and knew the fun we had with Reefer Madness, we put Larry O’Keefe together with Kevin Murphy, my Reefer Madness partner, and we found that Heathers gave a great deal of opportunity for ‘80s commentary and a great chance for music and storytelling. We’ve just been thrilled by the response. The characters are great, the one-liners are great and the music is spectacular.
Andy: Oh, completely. That was the one thing that we didn’t want to lose at all.
What is it about family comedy that you think has enabled you to have so much success with it?
Andy: I have a 13-year-old and, as a parent, it’s important for me. I go to see just about every movie that comes out with my son that’s appropriate. There’s a lot of movies that are more appropriate for him that, as an adult, I want to kill myself over, and there’s movies that I can see where he’s looking at his watch wanting to know if we can go to Ben & Jerry’s, right then and there. Trying to find family entertainment where it’s something that all ages can sit and enjoy is something that I respond to just because it’s part of my life. At the same time, doing something like Reefer Madness, or some of the more R-rated stories, appeals to me just as much. So, having a 13-year-old, doing a movie that’s been within his age group has been fun too.
You Again opens in theaters on September 24th