Capone chronicles SPIDERWICK with director Mark Waters!!!
Published at: Feb. 14, 2008, 2:12 p.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Mark Waters made a name for himself early on with his first feature, the 1997 dark comedy THE HOUSE OF YES, featuring perhaps the only watchable performance by Freddie Prinze Jr. Unfortunately, Prinze was also featured in Waters' next film HEAD OVER HEELS. Perhaps more than any other director, Waters' direction and comic craftsmanship pushed Lindsay Lohan into the spotlight with FREAKY FRIDAY and MEAN GIRLS, following those up with a rare romantic-comedy appearance by Mark Ruffalo in his ghostly pairing with Reese Witherspoon in JUST LIKE HEAVEN. None of these films may seem like they'd make Waters a likely candidate to direct a fantasy-adventure like THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, but a couple of his films have had fantasy elements to be sure. More importantly, he tells stories about broken and dysfunctional families, and SPIDERWICK certainly has that. In fact, in a strange way, that element is the focus of the movie, and that's what makes it special and made me care about its characters. I spoke with Waters last week about SPIDERWICK and a few of his other works over the years. Enjoy…
Capone: I'm sure I'm not I'm not the first person to have this thought or ask this questions, but it struck me as kind of amusing that you were directing this particular film because everything you've done up to this point would not have led me to believe that this was where you were going in your career. I certainly don't mean that as an insult; I was pleasantly surprised with the finished product. How did you get involved in THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES to begin with?
Mark Waters: Thanks. By the way, I wanted to say your website has been pretty righteous. We've been getting nothing but good reviews from you guys, which is cool.
Capone: I know that Harry loved it.
MW: Yeah, and there were two other guys who posted who also gave us some really positive response, which is always fun. To answer your question, I come at it less from why I wanted to do it and more why the hell would they want to hire me.
Capone: I want to know both.
MW: Well, I had just done MEAN GIRLS for Paramount, and they were happy with how it turned out and psyched about working with me. And Mark Canton and Julia Pistor, at the time, who are the producers of SPIDERWICK, were interested in the emotional underpinnings of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. They saw this messed-up, dysfunctional family and these teenaged kids who were trying to cope with it. They showed me the basis of the story, where you were starting off from, that was something that I was good at. I'm certainly done dysfunctional families in many different ways and worked with a lot of younger actors, and they figured that this was something in my wheelhouse. On a conceptual level, the things that was most important to me, as opposed to trying to make it distinctive from other fantasy films, was to say that we needed to have a recognizable, very relatable reality to it before the zany hijinks begin to ensue, unlike LORD OF THE RINGS or HARRY POTTER and even the NARNIA series, which are all happening in far-off times and places, with English kids. These are modern American kids who are thrown into the fantastical world blender. There should be more of a jarring juxtaposition and surprise when it happens.
Working backwards, that was the sort of thing that enticed me to the project. When I read these books, I had that kind of exciting, tingly feeling. It was scary, but scary in that fun way that makes you want to keep reading, as opposed to the scary way where you feel you should put the book down or run screaming from the room. And I thought that if you were going to walk that balancing act for a movie that's going to be geared to families, you want something that's scary in the fun way. So it had that going for it. Then when it was all said and done, I met with Tony [DiTerlizzi] and Holly [Black], the authors, and I said, "These books reminded me of the movies I dug as a kid." The ones that got me into movies to begin with, like BACK TO THE FUTURE and GREMLINS and GOONIES and those kind of Amblin movies of the '80s. We completely bonded over that, and they said those movies were one of their inspirations for writing the book series in the first place. And that seemed like something I could get my mind wrapped around. If somebody told me they wanted me to do THE GOLDEN COMPASS, I would have been like, "Oh man, forget about it, not me." I would have no approach to it. With this I thought, oh yeah, this family I can relate to. I'm a child of divorce who definitely acted out and behaved badly in response to it and had to mature out of it into becoming a more grown-up kid. I don't know how to make a movie to please a family audience, but I do know how to make a movie to please the kid in me who still loves an adventure movie. It felt like it was in the realm of do-ability to me. I felt like I was excited about taking it on and still know what the heck I was doing.
As the process wore on, I think if I'd known going in that there was going to be 600 CGI effects shots and we would be doing research and development on more than a dozen separate fairy creatures, I probably would have been a little more… [laughs]. But because it steadily kept getting bigger and bigger, in a good way, it was exciting. "Why don't we make this sequence where they meet Arthur Spiderwick, instead of them getting lost in the wood, why don't we have them fly on the back of a griffin?" Why not? Sure, you're biting off more work, more complication, and more money, but it's all for a good reason. It's all about servicing your imagination. When I look back at the process, I would have been scared if I'd been aware of how complicated it would be [laughs]. Thankfully I wasn't, and that allowed me to keep my blinders on and try to make something cool.
Capone: You mentioned being a child of divorce. I've noticed that many people involved in creating fantasy often deal with stories that involve an absent parent, either a parent that has died or is otherwise separated from the family. What's the connection there?
MW: You could postulate all over the place. What's the line? "All happy families are the same, but all unhappy families and unhappy in their own way." It has to do with the fact that if you have no pain and no struggle in your life, there's no need to find anything to work through it. If you do, you have to find something that will pull you out of it. For me, combining that with growing up in the Midwest, where there was nothing fun to do. You couldn't go to nightclubs where I grew up. You kind of had to make up your own fun and pretend and live the life in the imagination or you're going to be bored stiff. I suppose there's something to be said for…the other prototypical line is about how Italy has had thousands of years of strife and war and struggle, but still created the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa, while Switzerland has had thousands of years of peace and made the cuckoo clock, you know? I think there's something about that emotional turbulence of family strife that makes you be more creative.
Capone: The more I examined the fact that the film is about a fractured family, and the fact that you have dealt with fantastical elements in your films before--body swapping, ghosts, etc.
MW: Yeah, JUST LIKE HEAVEN took things and went into a freakier zone with it. I think the movies I'm most attracted to are always like the magical comeuppance genre, if that is a genre. Or the magical lesson movie where somebody is messed up at the beginning--FREAK FRIDAY was like a family that was messed up--and they use a magical intervention to force them to deal with each other and deal with their struggle. GROUNDHOG DAY is a classic example of that kind of movie, and it's one of my favorite movies of all time. It's this guy who enters into this magical twilight zone before he starts to deal with his own personality issues and become a better man. And with SPIDERWICK, why this family, why now? This family needs this adventure, this crisis, in order to resolve the crisis within the family. And I think those are my favorite moments in the movie, when the four of them are back to back to back and holding their weapons and protecting the house together. And how fractured they are in the beginning, the fact that this siege of fairly creatures has made them come together and work together as a family is really cool.
Capone: The final film is far darker and more gory than I'd imaged things would get. I haven't read the books, but I'd always heard they were aimed at much younger children than you're aiming for with this movie. Is that something you worked out with the authors?
MW: Yeah. The authors were nothing but supportive, and it was kind of cool actually because instead of coming at us with loyalty to their books, they came at us saying, "We want you to made the biggest, greatest movie possible, and make sure that you're using out books and characters as your inspiration and the basic spirit and essence and story structure of the book. But they really wanted us to make an incredible, exciting movie. And they were the first to point out that kids read their first book in 2001. Those kids are now 17, 18 years old. So if you want to please the readership of the book in some way, you have to please all the way up through teenagers as well as the parents who are buying the books. When you start to acknowledge the scope of the movie on a budget level, you don't want to make a movie that aimed solely for kids. Otherwise you have CHARLOTTE'S WEB, which was a wonderful movie, but it played really soft and really young. We wanted to make something that a six year old would see and be completely thrilled by it, but also a 16 year old would as well. That was the goal, to have that wider appeal.
I should say, it is darker, but I don't think it's particularly gory. There are a couple of moments purposely show a goblin bites Simon [played by Freddie Highmore], and it's going to cause a real pain and their going to have to pour peroxide on it, just because it was so important early on to say, "Yep, this is real stuff happening. We're not faking here. This is not fantasy peril; this is real peril you're dealing with." That was important. But I was pretty conscious about holding the line of this is where it's scary and fun and this is where it's scary and kids are going to run shrieking from the theater, and parents will curse our names in the streets. And I have a five-year-old daughter who's scared of RATATOUILLE [laughs], so she's a good barometer for me of when it was staying fun and when it wasn't fun anymore. I was always aware of staying on the right side of PG while at the same time not make it lame.
Capone: The peril factor is something I noticed. The threat of death is a very real thing in this movie. In fact, it seems utterly likely in a couple spots.
MW: [laughs] If you think about GREMLINS. I'm in my early 40s, but I saw GREMLINS as a kid, and that was scary and there was really actual violence and actual human beings get killed too. But I don't remember being traumatized by it. I think you can be overly precious about trying to candy coat things, and I wanted to make sure all the perilous moments in this movie had a brief window where they happen. When the trolls are chasing them, yeah, you want to really feel like they're in incredible danger, but then you want to resolve it. And I tried to resolve it with something comedic, like when the troll gets hit by the truck. I always feel that if you can give little breathes of relief throughout the movie, instead of making kids feel like their being held and tortured, then it makes it tolerable.
Capone: I spoke to John Sayles not too long ago, and he was so thrilled that he was getting a screen credit on a genre film since most of his genre work goes uncredited or unproduced for various reasons. How did he get involved in this process?
MW: I was really psyched about this, he finally got to see the movie. He's actually touring trying to promote HONEYDRIPPER.
Capone: I talked to him last October at the Chicago Film Festival, which was playing HONEYDRIPPER.
MW: He watched the DVD of the movie and loved it, and I was happy to hear that. It was interesting because, we always said we wanted it to feel like this family was down to earth and real, and the emotional underpinnings of this story didn't feel like we were glossing over it and being fake. And that was one of things that got us thinking, Why not have John Sayles, who is obviously very good at that sort of thing, but also when you look at THE HOWLING and PIRANHA, he could totally deliver thrills on that level as well. It seemed cool to take a crack with him. Plus, he was the first person to embrace the fact that you had to bite off all five books in one movie, as opposed to breaking it up into two movies or splitting up the books even more. He said, "You know what? These five books tell a complete story, and he really finessed a story structure that encompassed all the books. The other thing he did was major-league narrowing of the timeframe of the books. He said something really smart, which was, "When your characters sleep, your movie loses momentum." Especially in a thriller kind of movie, when a character goes to bed, it means the stakes aren't that high. Eventually in the script development process with Karey Kirkpatrick, we ended up taking it down the point where Jared Grace [also played by Highmore] needs to arrive at this house one night and not go to sleep that night because he's up reading the book, and then everything that's going to happen is going to be resolved by the next night. It happens all in one 24-hour period.
Capone: I had that in my notes to ask you. It registered in my mind as all happening in a single day.
MW: The books are over the course of several weeks. And even John Sayles script happened over the course of a whole week or maybe several days, and that was a big change. And it adds a lot of momentum and stakes to the movie. The Pandora's Box that Jared opens is so dire and intense that you can't just brush it under the rug; they have to keep fighting. From the moment Simon gets kidnapped, the match hits the fuse of the movie. You are just running nonstop until the end.
Capone: Freddie Highmore is one of these go-to young actors for these bigger-budget projects. In addition to being a great actor, he must be incredibly reliable and professional for everyone to want to work with him. Is that what you found?
MW: Yeah. Beyond that, there's something about his face that has a kind of magical, storybook quality to it. He's got these eyes like big saucers that make you feel like you're viewing into his soul. The other thing is, his being young and having an incredibly technical facility where you can talk to him like you're talking to an actor. A lot of time with actors of a certain age, beyond line reading them, you're pretty much coaching them through every single moment of the movie. Where as with Freddie, you can say, "Okay, I need you to go for this tone for this scene; do it angrier or faster." And you can actually step back and actually let him act it, particularly in this film where he's playing two parts [Highmore plays twins] where he's acting opposite himself in a motion-control shot, and he's leave, change clothes, and come back on set and be playing the second half of the scene as Simeon. You basically have to stick to the original timing of the scene that you established in the previous master with him playing Jared. You can't rely on a kid that you're going to have to talk through all the lines. You have to have somebody who can play it themselves, almost like a theater show. He's clearly got some special gifts for his age.
Capone: So Freddie is British, and the young actress playing his sisters is Irish. Are Americans not good enough for you anymore, Mark?
MW: [laughs] You know, plus I went and cast Joan Plowright as well [as Arthur Spiderwick's daughter]. She's got this kind of North Atlantic accent, a kind of Kate Hepburn accent, almost like one from an old movie, but it didn't matter because it was Joan Plowright. You know what? I searched all throughout North America and Canada and Australia, and it just came down to they were the best, and because they could do the accent well, it became a no-brainer.
Capone: How early did you record your voice actors, for the CGI characters? It seems like it would be easier for the live actors to hear Seth Rogen or Nick Nolte or Martin Short on set.
MW: We certainly did preproduction recording of all the main voice actors' parts. But we knew that we were going to be adjusting the text of those scenes over and over again. And one thing, with guys like Marty Short and Seth Rogen in particular, are coming up with all kinds of great improvs and things that aren't necessarily even in the text, stuff that's really funny ad libs and asides to what's in the script. So I did find out that even when we had things timed and cued up to play opposite the actors, it was actually more confusing for them. So there were two things we did. I had this one character actor on the set who played both Thimbletack and Hogsqueal. He would literally be just off camera, maybe on the ground or behind the cabinet in the eyeline of the actors, playing these characters. So the actors could actually be looking at an actor and playing and interacting with him. It made it much more personalized that acting with a disembodied voice. And for Mulgarath, I actually played Mulgarath. I had speakers set up around set with the subwoofer turned up, and I had a microphone and be there going, "ROOOOO!" And just scaring the crap out of them with my Mulgarath sounds. We tried a 10-foot Mulgarath cutout and show them how huge he was during shooting, but I thought it was actually much more effective than having the actual actors' voices.
Capone: Speaking of those characters, how much input did you have into the CGI characters' look and creation?
MW: A whole lot. It was a total collaboration between me and the people at ILM and Tippett Studio, starting off with Tony DiTerlizzi's drawings from the book, we would say, "This is the basis for what a goblin might look like." But then we would step back and ask, "Okay, what would you do with goblin o make it feel organic and earthy and something that would actually exist in the forest out back?" How do you make it a real physiological entity that can run and jump? How does it make noise? How do you shape its mouth if it's going to actually bite somebody or be able to talk? And you can't always stick to the drawings. We kind of created biological animals that could exist. Hogsqueal is sort of an amalgamation of a bat, a monkey, and a pig, made into something that could actually run on two legs and talked. But that whole process to drawings to clay molds to actual first CG renderings was something we were very much invested in.
Capone: Had you ever done anything like that before?
MW: Oh, hell no! [laughs] I've never even come close. And that was part of the beauty of the project, but I'm going to make sure I'm surrounded by people who are the best of the best. And part of that was that [executive producer] Kathleen Kennedy got put on the project, and she has all these relationships with Phil Tippett [head of Tippett Studio] and Pablo Helman at ILM, and interestingly enough [production designer] Jim Bissell, who had worked with her before and had been hired before she came on. Anything I could imagine, these guys could do. They could achieve it. And it came down to me being able to articulate it to them what would me most like to see happen here, and they would take the technical side of it and show me how to get that on film.
Capone: You mentioned Kathleen Kennedy, there are a few old Spielberg regulars on this film.
MW: Yeah, Jim Bissell was the production designer on E.T. Michael Kahn has edited pretty much every Steven Spielberg movie [including all four Indiana Jones movies]. Mark Mangini was my sound designer--he's been my sound designer for a while--but he did design on GREMLINS and things like that. And Phil Tippett is like the effects guru behind STAR WARS and JURASSIC PARK. So there were a lot of great people.
Capone: You mentioned earlier the kinds of films that you loved as a kid, but were you the type of good, Midwestern kid who would have ever believed in the creatures in this film?
MW: I would say this, I was the kind of kid that would indulge in the pretending of it for thrills and fun. I would definitely play elaborate games with my friends around the woods around our house. But as far as a true believer, definitely not. It's actually interesting because as I got older, I think I became more inclined to be a true believer and saw all the kind of weirdness in the world that can't be explained. And when you talk to Tony and Holly, you start to drink the Kool-Aid with them, and believe. Yeah, maybe this all exists.
Capone: And the fantasy continues with you with the film you've got lined up next, THE GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST.
MW: I know, I'm scared. I actually have to start shooting that in a week.
Capone: Oh wow. I didn't realize it was that soon. So is this more ghosts for you? Or are you going to get really freaky and make these old girlfriends zombies or something?
MW: [laughs] It certainly has elements of things I've done before, but it's actually a balls-out comedy, the first I've really done since MEAN GIRLS. It's got some really great hysterical writing in the script. It's also has a bit of romantic comedy in it, but at it's core it's another magical intervention movie. Like the original "A Christmas Carol" or GROUNDHOG DAY, let's say, where it's about a guy who's a shameless lothario played by Matthew McConaughey, who breaks all the women's hearts and is a little callous in the way he deals with women. And Michael Douglas is playing his dead Uncle Wayne, who was a famous playboy from the '70s and he comes in and plays the Marley character who guides Matthew on a tour of his past and takes it back. Jennifer Garner plays the original girl who broke his heart and who he's actually in love with but doesn't want to admit to himself.
Capone: Is it as much from Dickens as the title would suggest?
MW: Yeah, yeah. We may do a Christmas release or we may do a Valentine's Day release next year. One of the two.
Capone: So obviously this was not a film that was held up due to the writer's strike.
MW: Luckily, we had a great locked script before the writer's strike happened that we were all kind of psyched about.
Capone: Thanks very much, Mark.
MW: Thanks a lot, and keep spreading the good word.