Fred Figglehorn, created and played by teenager Lucas Cruikshank, is one of the most popular internet characters of all time. Now, he is appearing in his first-ever film, Fred: The Movie, premiering on Nickelodeon on September 18th and out on DVD on October 5th. Centering on Fred’s biggest adventure yet, the film follows his attempt to win over his unrequited love, Judy (British singing sensation Pixie Lott). Judy has moved away and a devastated Fred embarks on a journey to find her, along with the help of his best friend, Bertha (iCarly’s Jennette McCurdy).
Conceived and developed by filmmaker Brian Robbins, Fred: The Movie was made independently and financed with his own money, before he approached Nickelodeon about getting involved. And, with his pedigree and success behind the camera – as executive producer of the Disney Channel hit series Sonny with a Chance, the Spike TV series Blue Mountain State, The CW dramas Smallville and One Tree Hill, and kids’ programming like All That, The Amanda Show and Kenan & Kel – his desire to turn it into a franchise doesn’t seem far from realization. Continued after the jump:
In this exclusive interview with Collider, Brian Robbins talked about why Fred appealed to him, the international popularity that is allowing them to open theatrically in the U.K., what he looks for in a project, and how his prior career as an actor has enriched his work as a director and producer. He also gave an update on the status of his next directorial project, A Thousand Words, due out in 2011, about a guy who learns that he has only 1,000 words left to speak before he will die and starring Eddie Murphy. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you get involved with Fred: The Movie?
Brian: It was pretty wild. I was aware of Fred being this Internet phenomenon. They asked me to take a meeting with him, thinking of maybe doing a TV show with him because I had done all those shows early on, on Nickelodeon, and I have a show on Disney now, but I wasn’t interested in doing another TV show for kids. But, after meeting him, I was really intrigued with him and I knew there was something bigger than the YouTube thing there and there was something really appealing about this character that was striking a nerve with tweens. That many hits is pretty phenomenal.
So, I went home that night already intrigued, and I had these boys sleeping over at my house that were eight, nine and 10-year-old kids, and I asked them, “Do you guys know who Fred is?” They said yeah, and they all did their imitations of him. And then, I was like, “Would you want to see a Fred movie?,” and they were like, “Tonight?!” So, I just said, “Let’s do this. Let’s be entrepreneurial about it. Let’s make it ourselves.” I knew we’d have to make it fast and, in order to make something fast in this town, you can’t get a studio or a network involved.
Quite frankly, we thought it was going to be a theatrical movie, and that’s where our mind was. We thought we’d make our Napoleon Dynamite. We worked really fast. From the time that I met him, we were shooting three months later, and you can only do that when you’re doing it yourself and there’s not a studio and networks involved. It really turned out great. It plays great. Kids love it, like nothing I’ve ever been involved with.
How did you end up deciding to air the film on Nickelodeon?
Brian: Obviously, my relationship goes way back with Nickelodeon, so I screened the movie for them and, at that time, I thought about putting it out as a theatrical release with Nickelodeon and Paramount, but they really convinced me to do it on the channel first. I saw it as a franchise of movies. I thought we’d make two, three or four. So, they said, “Put it on the channel, we’ll get a huge audience, and then, if you really want to blow it out from there and it’s worthy of a theatrical event, we’ll do it.”
What led you to believe you could turn these YouTube shorts into a full-length feature? How did you decide on the story?
Brian: In all the videos, he references these people that we never see. All the videos are just him on camera, ranting, but he talked about the girl that he loves, Judy, and he talked about the bully, Kevin, he talked about his best friend, Bertha, and he talked about his mom. You would hear his mom on screen, and his dad was gone away. In watching the videos over and over again, I realized that it was a great opportunity to bring the world to life that no one’s ever gotten to see. It’s pretty archetype, teenage stories. It’s the girl that you love, it’s the triangle and areas that have been touched before, but not through this kind of character’s eyes. That was the jumping off point.
For those who might not be familiar with Fred, who is he, what is the essence of the character and how does he have that connection with people?
Brian: Interestingly enough, in the same way that Napoleon Dynamite is a quirky guy who you want to route for because he’s the underdog, people feel that way about Fred. On the outside, his voice is annoying, and he’s whiny and a little hyper, but there’s something loveable and vulnerable about him. For kids, he’s funny, but that vulnerability and likability is really the appeal.
Brian: It was key. There was a lot of pressure because these are characters that have been talked about and talked about, but never seen, so who was going to be Bertha, who was going to be Judy and who was going to be his mom had to be right. All the kids in the audience will have in their head who the characters are, so we agonized for a long time.
We weren’t sure about Jennette McCurdy, and then we had a cup of coffee with her and she had her take on who Bertha would be. It wasn’t Jennette from iCarly. She had a whole idea for the character. When you see her in the movie, she has an entirely different look. We colored her hair, she has tons of make-up and her wardrobe is very cool. She couldn’t be more different than the girl on iCarly.
For Judy, we knew it had to be that dream girl. When I met Pixie, there was something about her British accent that gave me this Olivia Netwon-John Grease thing, and I was like, “Let’s do this!” She was just really lovely and different. It was somebody who wasn’t familiar here yet, and it really worked.
How did you know that she could pull it off, as an actress?
Brian: She auditioned. She’s an actress. She went to a performing arts school in London and is pretty trained.
Have you thought about doing the next Fred films as theatrical releases?
Brian: Nickelodeon is now our partner in the movie, and we have the option to do the second one theatrically, if we want to. I guess we’ll make that judgement after it airs on television, the first time. I’m still intrigued by it, but we’ll see. We’re excited that Nick is going to bring it to a huge audience, and we’ll go from there.
If you decide to do something theatrically, have you thought about how you’d have to expand it for that audience?
Brian: Actually, not really. This movie now is a movie, it’s just airing on Nickelodeon. We’re going to release it theatrically in the U.K. It was a very tough decision. I always saw it as a series of movies, and Nickelodeon really convinced me that, if I saw it as that, as big as his base was on YouTube, we could build it out on Nickelodeon and, if it really does pop, we’re not killing a franchise, we’re starting a franchise.
Is it his popularity that’s allowing the film to be opened theatrically in the U.K., or is it the fact that you cast Pixie Lott?
Brian: Both. He’s popular there, and she’s humongous there. She’s the Taylor Swift of the U.K. She’s had four straight #1 debut singles, which no other artist in the history of the U.K. has had. She’s definitely the “it girl” there, and we didn’t know that. She was hot, but in the last year, it became crazy. She’s on the cover of every magazine there. She can’t walk out of her house there. And, she’s lovely. She’s a sweetheart.
As someone who produces, writes and directs, how do you decide what you want to get involved with and in what capacity?
Brian: At this point, it’s the fun factor. This was a huge fun factor for me. It was really the most entrepreneurial thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never put up my own money for anything. I wrote a check for seven plus figures without knowing anything. It was just a bet that we could do something cool. And, we got someone like David Goodman, who’s a great writer that made Family Guy what it is. We just sat in a room for a couple of weeks and broke the movie, and he started writing it, and I said, “Okay, we’re going to start shooting it.” We started prepping the movie without a script and we started spending money. It was crazy, in retrospect. It was wild, but it was really fun. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I don’t even want to go back to doing the other stuff anymore because it was so much fun. Doing something traditionally now just feels boring.
Were you always sure that eventually something would come of this, or did you ever question what you’d done by putting your own money into it?
Brian: I thought, in the worst case scenario, we’d sell the DVDs out of my trunk at the Swap Meet. It was wild. It went against everything I was ever taught about never spending your own money, but I just wanted to do it and I didn’t really want to go through the process of pitching it, development and dealing with what everybody else thought it should be ‘cause that’s what you do in this business. Even the best relationships are still about doing that. I just wanted to make it and I had a clear vision of what it should be, so I was like, “Let’s go for it. Let’s just do it.” Luckily, I was in a position where I could write the check.
Have you given any thought to directing the next Fred film?
Brian: Maybe. I almost directed the first one, but because I was paying for it, I didn’t want to wear both hats. I thought that would have been really dangerous. I wanted to go through that part of it, for the first time, as the producer and guide the director. We’ll see. We have to see what happens and see what it brings. We have a lot of ideas for other movies. We’re definitely making a sequel. We’re writing it now and we’re going to shoot it in a few months.
Are there things that you learned about filmmaking from having an experience like this?
Brian: Yes. I learned about how you can make a really quality movie without all of the waste that we usually have when we make a movie. We made a movie that is fantastic for not what I usually spend on a $60 million Paramount comedy. It was like the day pay for one rewrite. That’s what we made the whole movie for. And, it was really freeing. It’s exciting that people can actually go and make movies outside the system.
How did you end up here from the acting world? Had you always had the goal of getting behind the camera?
Brian: I knew. Early on, when I was sitting in trailers waiting, because acting is a lot of sitting around, I knew I always wanted to do more.
Since you’ve both gone on to have such great careers behind the camera, did you and Dan Schneider talk about that while you were working as actors on Head of the Class?
Brian: I dragged Dan into this. He’ll tell you. We wrote an episode of Head of the Class together, during a hiatus, that got made and shot right away. That was when I was like, “Wow, we can actually do this. This is possible.” So, when I did the pilot of All That and sold that idea to Nickelodeon, I called up Dan and was like, “I’m going to do this sketch comedy show for kids, come do this show with me,” and I dragged him along for the ride.
We always talked about wanting to do more than just be actors. We wanted to create stuff. And that took on a life of its own. All That became a big show and they wanted me to make another show, The Amanda Show. I went on to make movies, so when Drake & Josh came along, I was like, “You should just go do it. I’m busy. I’m not really going to be able to work on it. But, you should do it.” So, he stayed there and he’s done great. Now he has iCarly, and I went on to do all my other stuff. Now, I have kids who watch these shows and I’m back in it.
Has your acting career helped you, especially in dealing with younger actors?
Brian: For sure. As a director, as a producer and just in development, it’s a big help. It’s a big help for how you talk to kids, just in understanding what they’re going through and how to treat them as adults and not kids.
Brian: I like comedy. I guess it does come easier for me. Nothing comes easy, but I definitely like comedy. Although my second movie was Varsity Blues, which was a sports drama. It was funny, but it was a drama. I never think about that, to be honest. I don’t think about it as comedy or drama. I just do stuff, and there’s a lot of comedy in it. I really don’t think about it, but I guess you’re right. I don’t see myself as that.
You’ve produced a lot of really successful shows, like Smallville, One Tree Hill and All That, but you’ve also had shows that didn’t connect with viewers. Have you learned more from the failures, or the things that didn’t work the way you hoped they would?
Brian: Well, the failures hurt really bad, and the success are just relief. The successes definitely outweigh the failures. I think you learn from both. The thing about the failures is that everything is different. There are some shows that I’ve been involved with that were huge successes that I never thought, in my wildest dreams, were going to make it, and there were some shows that didn’t work that I would have been more proud of than some of the greatest hits I’ve had. Sometimes I think that commercial success doesn’t necessarily equate to creative success.
Do you think there are any tricks in figuring out what will connect with an audience?
Brian: No, I really don’t. You can test stuff and know if a movie plays, but I’ve had movies in the ‘90s that tested huge and didn’t open. And then, I’ve had movies that have tested huge and opened, and I’ve had movies that have tested okay and opened huge. You just don’t know. The movie business is really hard.
Brian: That will be out next year. I don’t know what I’m doing after that. Once Fred is done, I’ll figure it out.
In regard to your working relationship with Eddie Murphy, what do you think it is about him that has allowed you to connect so well together?
Brian: He was an idol of mine, so when I got the opportunity to make Norbit, people said, “You’re going to make an Eddie Murphy movie?,” and I said, “Are you crazy? Yes!” So, making that movie was just an unbelievable experience and it was a huge hit, and we just hit it off. I love the guy.
Fred: The Movie premieres on Nickelodeon on September 18th and then will be available for DVD on October 5th