Producer Andrew Panay recaptures the spirit of some of the great family movies that he grew up with and loved as a child in his new PG-rated summer sci-fi adventure, Earth to Echo, opening July 2nd. The film directed by Dave Green from a script by Henry Gayden centers on the special bond of friendship between three young heroes, Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig), who embark on one last adventure together just as their lives are about to change. If the story of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were to happen today, this is how it would be told by today’s generation of DIY storytellers.
In an exclusive interview, Panay talked about the challenges of making a film that’s not effects driven but can capture the imagination of today’s young audience, how his relationship with his brother sparked the idea for the story, how the script evolved from inception to final film, why Green was the right choice to direct, why he considers Spielberg one of his heroes, how technology gave the filmmakers a fun way to take their story on the road, what he learned about himself, how he hopes the movie will inspire kids, and the upcoming projects he’s excited about: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and CHiPs. Check out the interview after the jump:
QUESTION: Are kids a tough audience to engage in today’s world of exciting superheroes and tech savvy storytelling? How do you create a film that’s new and different and modern with high stakes that captures their imagination but is also good old-fashioned fun?
ANDREW PANAY: There’s no question about it. The reason why we did it like this was to come right at them and say, “Okay, if The Goonies was today, what would it be like? If E.T. was today, what would it be like? If Stand by Me or Gremlins happened, what would it be?” Well, you document it. You document the whole thing. Imagine if it was Gremlins, you’d be like, “Oh my gosh, this thing is growing!” You would be filming it and it’d be all over YouTube. And then, people would be trying to figure out if it’s real or if it’s not real. Is it a GoPro? How did you film it? And so, that’s what we did, and yes, I do think they’re really advanced. They’re so advanced that you have to create such obstacles for them nowadays, because they’re seeing superhero movies where people are getting blown up and the world is going to end, but it feels real. When I was growing up, you could tell. Now you can’t even tell if it’s real or not. I mean, it looks so real with the effects and everything, so you better challenge them, because this movie is not an effects driven film. It’s a heartfelt movie, so you have to challenge them emotionally. If you’re going to win in this marketplace, you have to challenge them somewhere. I think emotionally you can challenge them because it’s a movie that speaks to the heart.
How did you go about finding the right director? What did Dave Green bring to the project?
PANAY: That’s a great question. In any director that you look for, you look for a spirit and a connection and a voice. Dave and I had all those together. We had the spirit. We had the same voice. We were speaking the same language. And most importantly, is he going to outwork me? Will my director work harder than even I do? It’s very hard to do that, because I don’t stop. I’m usually working around the clock. I feel like this guy is so talented, and he pays attention to detail, and that’s why I picked Dave. It’s because he pays attention to the details. It’s the details that separate the great ones from the not so great ones. It’s those little small things that maybe you’re not picking up the first time, but then as time goes on, you’re like, “Oh, the sound design is good. The way it’s shot is good. The way it’s put together is good. It’s elegant.” This movie is tricky, and it’s well-crafted and professional.
To what extent were you involved in your capacity as producer?
PANAY: I was involved with every aspect, but that’s my personality. I’m creating the idea to the very last second, but a lot of credit goes to Dave and the team for being so driven. I am involved in all aspects though.
What sparked the idea for the story and inspired you to do a movie?
PANAY: It was my relationship with my brother. I have a younger brother. He was ten and I was twelve. We were two years apart. He’s a big tech star now. He’s at Microsoft. We both are very eccentric guys that grew up together and had great imaginations. The sun was going down, and it’s bases loaded and the bottom of the ninth and two outs. He’s pitching. I’m pitching. We’re arguing who’s doing what, and who’s going to win the game, and who won the game. Those moments were like, “We’ve got to get this game done before the sun goes down, before mom and dad tell us we’re in trouble for being late for dinner.” That moment in time is still frozen in my memory bank. He’s such an inspiration to me in that relationship and the fact that we loved each other so much. At the end of the day, we knew we only had each other, and it’s out there. This movie is inspired by that, and all the silly things we used to do with our friends at that age on bikes, and thinking about Gremlins and The Goonies and E.T. and all these movies that he and I grew up with and we watched over and over and over. It’s like it’s just that time of imagination. So, one day I was inspired to do a movie that was based off my brother and I and the way we grew up.
Did the script change a lot from inception to the final film?
PANAY: It did actually because it kept evolving. We were running and shooting so quickly, and writing and shooting at the same time. So yes, it took a life of its own. As time went on, and we got in the editing room, we really did some magic, and then it kept evolving. The themes kept changing. Once we understood the kids, and once we got inside the movie, we realized that it was a little something different than what we set out to do. It was bigger than we had thought. It had a bigger quality to it than we initially had thought we were going to be doing.
Can you talk a little about the role technology plays in this film? Your characters are DIY storytellers who use the latest tools to create their story, and you bring it to life from their perspective using a format that’s new and modern and makes the audience feel like they’re in the shoes of those characters.
PANAY: Oh my gosh! How fun is the technology in this movie!? Let’s embrace technology and stop being afraid of it. But also, how can you take technology and not be inside the house using it? I mean, we took technology outside so we could say, “Let’s not lose what’s beautiful about our childhood, which is being outside and riding out bikes.” Let’s take that, and let’s mesh it with what the kids are doing today, which is using technology. By the way, forget about kids. What about adults? I’m on my phone all day and all night long, just like you, texting, taking selfies, this and that, and look where I’m at. Everybody’s got it. So instead, why don’t we take technology on the road and let’s document our life. That’s what would happen today. We’re all doing it. We’re all documenting. It was just a fun way to tell the story and how I believe my heroes like Spielberg would approach it. If Spielberg was doing these types of movies today, and he still is, and he’s still the greatest, what would he do? I’ll bet if he was Dave Green, his age, he would do the same thing.
Is there anything you wish you’d known on day one or would have liked to have done differently?
PANAY: Maybe I would have spent a little bit more time shooting the movie in daylight, not because I don’t think the movie is awesome, but because it was so difficult. We didn’t have much time. We only had three hours per night to shoot, because the kids had to be in bed and had to leave by 12:00 am which sucked. I probably would have crafted the movie to give us a bit of a break and maybe shot inside more. We did it authentically, in the desert, but maybe I would have done some more inside some warehouses, or built stages so we could buy ourselves some more time, because the nighttime stuff was so difficult. That’s probably what I would do differently. Again, I probably would have built some sets just to give us a break.
Have you had a friends and family screening yet?
PANAY: Not yet. The premiere is tomorrow, and I can’t wait for my family and my friends to see it. They always weigh in and give notes. Nobody is afraid in my family to express themselves on how they feel. I think they’ll love the movie and I’m really excited for tomorrow’s premiere. Of all the movies I’ve made and done, this is one of my favorite accomplishments. It’s really something. I just think there’s something about watching kids get crazy about a movie from the most authentic place. It’s an adrenaline they’ve never seen in a movie like this before. It’s fun to watch them.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
PANAY: That’s a good question. This is going to sound crazy, but I think that I’m starting to figure out that I’ve had a body of work. That sounds weird, but I’m starting to now get nostalgic. I’m being really serious about that. I’ve thought about that a lot in the last six months. I’m getting nostalgic about my life. I’m still young, but I’ve had a busy life. I’ve tried hard, and I feel humbled about Hollywood and the luck that I’ve had, because it is a lot of luck. I’ve worked really hard, but the ball has to bounce the right way, and that’s the truth in anything no matter what. There are some of the best athletes in the world that never win an NBA Championship. I’ve had a chance to do some fun things. But I am looking back at my life now and going, “Wow, that was a cool time. That was a really cool thing that happened to me.” I didn’t understand it when I was so young and I was in it, but now I do. If there’s one thing I can say to you as I’m looking back, I’m going, “Whoa! Those are all similar rhythms and tones and colors and feelings and heart, and that makes me really proud.” I also now realize that I’ve been very lucky and fortunate. I had immigrant parents that came here by boat, and I look back on my life and I go, “How did I end up like this? How did this happen to us, to my family?” That’s the thing that I’ve noticed, that this movie has changed my life in that way, like being able to really look back at my family.
Where is your family originally from?
I love the original approach your film takes and how it doesn’t talk down to kids. How do you hope your movie will inspire them? What is it you’d like them to take away?
PANAY: You can do anything, that no matter how small or young or tiny you feel, you can overcome everything. Don’t give up. Stay together. Stick together. Friendship matters. You’re better together than you are apart. There are so many themes that run in this movie that you take away subliminally. The thing that’s the clearest is, “I couldn’t do anything. I’m just a kid.” And then, in the end, it’s “We just did that.” If you take that away, then I’ve done my job. I think the movie is for everyone. It’s a good time. You’ve just got to suspend some disbelief and have some fun.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited for audiences to see?
PANAY: There’s a lot of stuff. Probably the thing I’m most excited about is Hot Tub Time Machine 2. It’s coming out on Christmas Day. I’m real excited about that.
Can you tell me anything about it?
PANAY: I can’t, but I can tell you it’s rad. I can tell you it is funny. Funny, funny, funny! It’s funnier than the first one.
Is there anything else you have in development that audiences should keep an eye out for?
PANAY: Yes, CHiPs at Warner Bros. I’m very excited about CHiPs, which is based on the TV show CHiPs. That’s coming together.
Do you have a cast in mind?
PANAY: I do. I can’t talk about it yet, but soon.