February 12, 2008

Opening this Thursday is the Paramount fantasy adventure “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

Peculiar things start to happen the moment the Grace family (Jared, his twin brother Simon, sister Mallory and their mom) leave New York and move into the secluded old house owned by their great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. Unable to explain the strange disappearances and accidents that seem to be happening on a daily basis, the family blames Jared. When he, Simon and Mallory investigate what’s really going on, they uncover the fantastic truth of the Spiderwick estate and of the creatures that inhabit it. The movie is based on the best-selling series of books.

Anyhow, to help promote the film, Paramount recently held a press day and I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Mark Waters – the director of the movie.

While Mark has directed movies in the past like “Mean Girls” and “Just Like Heaven,” this was his first one with a lot of CGI. During the interview he talks about the challenges of bringing the film to life and also trying to maintain a balance between being a kids movie and something that adults will also enjoy. Of course we talked about sequels and what else he has coming up.

And on that note…here’s the transcript with Mark. If you missed the movie clips from “The Spiderwick Chronicles” you can watch them here.

Question: Where did you get the idea to cast Freddie as both twins? Did he say he wanted to be both when he came in?

Mark Waters: He did. He did. And he had the confidence to know that he could pull it off. And frankly, we thought we were going to find identical twins. I remember John Sayles, when he first started working on the script, he said, ‘Should I just write them as fraternal twins? Believe me, it’s going to make it a lot easier on you.’ I’m like, ‘No, they have to be identical. Don’t worry, we’re going to find them. We’re going to find them.’ And when we searched North America, the U.K., Australia, we did not find good identical twins who could act. And eventually said we just need to find the best actor out there and hope that he can play both parts. And it turned out that Freddie could. He had the willingness to bite it off and then the talent to achieve it.

Question: With Freddie, he’s British. Did you ask him to audition to see if he could do the accent?

Mark Waters: Oh, yeah. It’s funny. That’s one of those classic discussions between agents and casting directors and studios. Nobody wants their star to have to read. But he was that motivated to try and get the part, and knew that there was a bit of a stretch of being able to create two distinct characters, both of whom were America, and one of whom couldn’t be further in temperament from the actual Freddie. When you’ll meet Freddie today, it’s like he is the sweetest, most polite British kid you’re ever going to meet. He doesn’t have any of that, like, rage-filled Jared energy.

Q: He’s more Simon?

Mark Waters: Simon was closer to the vest, I think. It’s interesting, we had one day early in the shoot where I was thinking, we should move this scene up in the schedule where he has to fight with himself by the side of the trail, because if he’s able to shoot that scene, he’s going to get in touch with his rage. So we moved it up and he spent the entire day in the dirt fighting with the photo doubles and coming out like with mud in his mouth and spitting out leaves and going back in. And by the time the day was done, he’d gotten in touch with his inner American. I mean, to continue with that, like even Sarah Bolger too, is like, she didn’t understand sarcasm. And I said to her, ‘No, this line’s sarcastic.’ And she’d say it, and I’d be like, ‘You don’t really understand what it means to be sarcastic, do you?’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ And I would have to kind of like explain it to her and do it for her and she was like, ‘Oh. Okay. I get it.’ And it turned out like Freddie and his brother never fought with each other, they never wrestled. And she and her sister were always very pleasant to each other. You know? And I’d say, ‘No, you see, in my family, my brother and I beat each other up when we’re not insulting our little sister, and that was our sign of love.’ Once again, that’s how Americans do it.

Q: Dealing with actors that age, they tend to grow. Were there any growth spurts on the set?

Mark Waters: Oh, you have no idea. For Freddie it was incredible. Because it was a 90 day shoot and we took a little hiatus in it because we wanted to get spring weather for the glade sequence, by the time we’d finished shooting, he had grown two full inches since we started shooting. And so we had to kind of like redesign his outfits and get him like new stuff and it was a whole can of worms because of that. The good thing is, his voice really didn’t change that much. However, by the time we got around to doing ADR, like almost a year later, his voice definitely had changed. So there were certain scenes where he had to almost kind of like act with a higher voice. When he was doing ADR he had to consciously pitch shift himself to make it work. So it was tricky, actually. But he totally made it work.

Q: The book was aimed at seven year olds, but they wanted to make this for an older audience. Is there a risk when you do that that you’re going to lose the readers of the book, because it’s a very intense film.

Mark Waters: The good news is that Tony and Holly, the authors, who you’ll probably meet today as well, were really supportive of saying, ‘You know what? You guys are spending a ton of money on this movie and it’s got to play bigger than the audience for Charlotte’s Web, one of Karey’s movies,’ because Karey had just gone through this, he’d just made this movie Charlotte’s Web. Beautiful movie, but it played really soft and really young and kind of didn’t expand beyond that audience. And so we were all kind of conscious of the fact that if yeah, you’re going to make a movie of this scope, you’d better hope that you’re appealing to the parents as much as appealing to the kids. And the thing is, Tony pointed out that the book came out in 2001 and the kids who were like 10 years old when the read the book, were now 17. And so in a way the readership had been growing and aging over the years, but they still wanted kind of like turn on that crowd, you had to kind of like pump up the volume a little bit. So they were very supportive of us saying, ‘Let’s make these action sequences more dynamic, more visceral, more scary.’ And I just kind of had this kind of barometer in my mind of, okay, I want it to be so scary that my five year old will want to either grab my arm or jump into my lap while she’s watching. But I don’t want it to be so scary that she runs out of the room. And we would show sequences to her in the editing room, and she’s like, ‘Ooh, ooh.’ Like, ‘This is a troll!’ But keeps watching. It’s like, oh good. My five year old gets scared by Ratatouille. She’s a wimp. And so I figured that was kind of my barometer of whether I’m pushing the boundary. And if it’s so scary that it makes me cringe or makes her want to look away, then obviously we’ve gone too far.

Q: You’ve done CGI before in other films.

Mark Waters: Not really.

Q: Really?

Mark Waters: I’ve done some effects shots. I’ve done some compositing. And in Just Like Heaven did a lot of like motion control and things like that. But never done like computer-generated imagery in action.

Q: Can you talk about that, and what the challenges were?

Mark Waters: Yeah, that was the big can of worms in that, was that I kind of got hired because I’d just finished Mean Girls for the studio, and they said, ‘We know you can really make this family dynamic and these relationships with these teenagers very real and really funny and authentic, but we want to have you take that and play it out on a wider canvas where this very realistic American family gets caught up in a big, fantastical adventure. And so the thing is, I would just say to myself and say to our team, ‘I want to see this. I want this to happen.’ And then thankfully we got people like Kathleen Kennedy, who came on to the movie, and brought the people from ILM and Tippet studio and Michael Kahn, who was my editor, and people who actually know how to do these things. So I couldn’t technically tell you how to do it, at least before we started, now I can. Before we started I was like, all I can say is I really would like for there to be a troll who comes crashing down from here and then turns and runs and chases them. And they would go, ‘Okay, let’s sit down and draw it and do a pre-visualization sequence, and then we’ll refine that and then we’re going to tell you how to achieve that on screen.’ And that was the great luxury of this movie is working with that level of talent who actually knew how to basically actuate just about anything I could possibly imagine.

Q: As a director, don’t you have to talk all the actors through what’s happening? Is this the first time you’ve had to do that?

Mark Waters: Oh, yes. And the good thing is, I’m kind of a ham anyway. So I would often be playing all of the creatures and the goblins and I had a microphone and I set up loudspeakers around the set and I would be doing the voice of Mulgrath and then roaring and trying to scare them. I found whenever I could get them to jump it was always good for their performances. And also we did things where we created life-size maquettes of all the characters, including a big cardboard one for Mulgrath, it was like 10 feet tall. So they would do the rehearsals and the first take actually acting with guys holding goblins on sticks chasing after them. So you get the sense of okay, that’s how big it is and that’s it reaching out for me and it helped make it a little more tangible and real than just acting opposite air.

Q: With a strong comedy background like yours, is it difficult to get across the point to producers that you can do more, you can move into other areas? Can directors be stereotyped like that?

Mark Waters: Oh, absolutely. The interesting thing is that I always get these comments from, like, my sister going, ‘Oh, man. I just read this great John Grissom book and you should direct it.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not going to get the courtroom thriller. That doesn’t get sent my way.’ It’s like, ‘What do you mean? You’re a big director.’ In a way, I’m attracted to all sorts of different material and I’ll have very eccentric taste, yet at the same time it is true that generally people aren’t going to want to take a chance on you for things they haven’t seen you do before. If anything, one of the interesting things about this movie was just maintaining that sense of urgency and stakes and intensity throughout the entire movie, and never letting anyone have a break from it. Usually, like on Mean Girls, the task that Tina Fey and I set for ourselves was we wanted to maintain a comic intensity throughout the movie, where people just don’t really get a break from laughing. And if they do, it’s for a brief emotional scene and then we’re going to once again try to knock them on their heels again with comedy. And in this movie, it was kind of like, oh no, we’re going to do the same thing, only with action and peril and excitement. And one thing about his movie that really, I think–besides the kind of modern American-ness of it–is really different from all fantasy films, is that the movie’s 90 minutes long. It’s from the end of the end credits, which are the longest end credits in history, it’s 95 minutes. But basically, the action of the movie takes place in under 90 minutes and yet it’s telling five books in the story and it’s just kind of like, it had a relentlessness to it that a lot of the, like, two-hour-and-45-minute, three-hour-and-45-minute fantasy films do not. And I hope that’s something that will also make it good for a younger viewer to be able to pay attention.

Q: You have an American family and you wanted an American aesthetic, so why did you hire two British kids as the leads?

Mark Waters: The best of the best. Frankly, despite the people who are in the industry, my mother couldn’t tell you whether Freddie is from South Bend or South Galway. And that’s the thing, as long as they’re believably able to convey the parts, you might as well go with the best actor. But it was an ironic twist. And then we couldn’t help ourselves and just had to hire Joan Plowright as well.

Q: How amenable was she to this project?

Mark Waters: Oh, she loved it. Admittedly, it was kind of like, she loved the idea of, [in British voice] ‘So where is the goblin? Coming through the window there? Throw the salt? Okay.’ It was very fun.

Q: Are you hoping for a sequel?

Mark Waters: Yeah, well you should definitely talk to Tony and Holly more about that when you see them. But this was the first five books of the first series, and they’re actually in the middle of the second series. The first has come out, the second book’s coming out later this year. It’s planned as a trilogy. And that new series is going to be really, really exciting as well. Jared Grace’s character is involved in it. It’s a brand new family, but he gets called in as like the Han Solo, fairy badass, who knows how to handle these affairs.

Q: Have you decided on your next project after this?

Mark Waters: Yeah, I start shooting in a week. I’ve more than decided. I’m going to Boston after I leave you guys to start shooting a movie called The Ghost of Girlfriends Past with Matthew McConaughey and Michael Douglass. It’s going to be a romantic comedy takeoff on A Christmas Carol. A guy who’s broken a lot of hearts over the years and is the love miser, he basically gets visited by the ghosts of girlfriends past, present and future. And Michael Douglas is like the Marley character. He’s a playboy from the ’70s who’s his uncle Wayne, who’s dead and kind of is mentoring him through learning to be nicer to women.

Q: Is this a Christmas release?

Mark Waters: Yeah, either that or we’re kind of making an anti-Christmas movie. Like, it happens on January 3, and they’re taking down all the Christmas decorations. It might come out, actually, literally the same weekend as Fool’s Gold, only next year. Or it’ll be Christmas.

Q: Can you talk about making a film when the writers’ strike is still going on? Are you hoping it’ll be over so you can make little tweaks, or are you happy with the way the script is?

Mark Waters: Thankfully, I’m happy with the script. I mean, the script is in great shape. And me and the stars and the studio are all really psyched about it. But believe me, it would be great if my writers could be coming on the set with me. When Tina Fey was on the set of Mean Girls, it was one of the nicest experiences of my life to be like, ‘This scene’s not quite working. Why can’t we change this line a little bit?’ And that kind of luxury I’m not going to have unless the strike resolves, so hopefully it will.

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