Tom Shadyac - Director of Dragonfly
DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan recently had the chance (along with 3 other journalists) to chat with director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor) about his latest DVD release, the Kevin Costner film "Dragonfly." Coming from a background of comedy, which makes itself obvious in the interview, the spiritual thriller held a few challenges and served as a learning experience. His sharp wit makes him a natural for directing and either his influences can be seen on Jim Carrey-with whom he is teaming on another production-or Carrey's sense of humor has influenced him. Either way, it was an entertaining interview…
Reporter: I did want to ask, you’re no stranger to fantasy film making. But usually it’s the type of fantasy where people are running into walls, or punching themselves in the face, or wandering around midtown like they were Godzilla. What was it like making the switch from comedy to dramatic fantasy?
Shadyac: Oh, it was a lot like going to school again, you know. You know, for myself personally I wasn’t on as sure a footing. I’m doing a comedy now and it feels very familiar to me, you know, I’m doing this thing called “Bruce Almighty” with Jim Carey.
But it was a great process, you know. I love – I love experimenting and growing. I followed a passion that I had in my heart for this story that spoke very strongly to me, very personal to me. It moved me and I followed that passion into very unfamiliar, you know, territory.
And I wanted to tell so it was – it was – a lot of the film making was very similar to what you do in a comedy. You set up your camera, you block your shot, but you’re after different things. And you have different pixels. So there you go! Listen to the Response...
Reporter: Was there any point, I mean, like with the – was there any point where you went like, you know, if we tweak this just right this sequence with Kevin Costner and Big Bird could be a riot?
Shadyac: No, actually never had that … to the point of it being a fault. You know, I learned now probably not to take drama as seriously because there are plenty of opportunities in dramatic pieces for comic relief. I now know I can bring that. So I have that card in my pocket on the next one. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: This film deals with a lot of very esoteric subject matter or perhaps I could just describe it as more touchy-feely. And, you know, was it hard to get Kevin Costner interested in making this kind of film maybe on the heels of a film that did so well by the name of “Sixth Sense”?
Shadyac: You mean, you’re talking about the competition between the …
Shadyac: I think the ideas are so very, very different. They both deal with the same subject matter. I don’t consider the film esoteric or even – while it has spiritual undertones, I think it’s a really cool story and it’s a very cool story about a man who feels his deceased wife is trying to contact him and get him an urgent message. That is compelling to me.
And it’s also very different than the “Sixth Sense” which was essentially about a kid who saw dead people, you know. So I think while they both deal in similar subject matter, you know, the dead, the stories are radically different. And also, I did “Dragonfly” because I’d never seen a movie that was eerie or scary that was uplifting, and this I felt was uplifting.
So, no, it wasn’t hard to convince Kevin at all because Kevin read the story and felt it was compelling as well. He was – he was convinced, you know, just upon what he – what was on the page. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: Can you talk more about this film’s personal meaning for you based on – in one interview I saw you discussing that you had an experience with your mom, watching her crossover.
Shadyac: Yes, I did. I watched my mom die, and was in the room along with other family members, and we saw her crossover. We saw her touch the other side.
And, you know, describing such spiritual experience is often like trying to describe the scent of a rose. It’s very difficult to do. Even as I tell you about my mother’s experience, I can hear the yes, sure.
And that was what the challenge in the moving was, and that’s what the challenge for Kevin’s character is these kids are having these experiences of people around them and he has to go through that “yes” factor. So that’s what the challenge of the movie was.
But it was personal to me not just because I watched my mother die, I believe in this stuff. I believe in this stuff. I believe that we don’t have all the answers, that just because we can’t touch and feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The radio waves that are – that are – all the air all around us right now, we walk over to that radio, turn it on, they’re coming through. We don’t see and touch everything that is real, quote real, and I think it’s overly simplistic to think that we do. So I believe in this stuff.
I believe that we are energy, and that we go somewhere, and that that energy can not be destroyed. So it’s personal again in a number of levels and these have been scenes and topics that I have researched my entire adult life. You’d be surprised that the director of “Ace Ventura” is drawn to the writings of Roomy (ph) and Emerson and he’s researched, you know, the near death experiences in children through the writings of – I’m forgetting the name – but I believe it’s Moody (ph). So it’s just another side of myself that I’ve always found fascinating. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: You deal with a lot of really great ideas about connection and people not losing connection even once a physical death happens. Was that sort of what you wanted to express with this film, that connection continues with people that we love even after death?
Shadyac: Well, I never kind of go after the theme as a primary this is what I’m trying to express. I was trying to tell a story, an interesting story, and I hope a compelling story. Yes, those themes were a part of that story. Yes, I do believe in connection, that we’re all connected, all of us, and that connection doesn’t end in death, period. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: I know that you might kind of bristle at this – at the comparison because you’d sounded like you were bristling a little bit earlier at the comparison to “Sixth Sense”, but I do think that there is that kind of, you know, that it kind of has to be addressed that there have been what seems to me a surge in this, you know, movies that kind of deal with the, you know, this nether zone between life and death with whether it’s “Sixth Sense” or the others or, you know, crossing over with John Edwards or the “Mothman Prophecies”. And I was just wondering if, you know, if you could just comment on what you think – if there was anything that you could kind of pinpoint as, you know, maybe being responsible for that surge.
Shadyac: Yes, I don’t believe that there’s a surge. I see people try to identify – and if you perceive bristling, it’s not bristling. I’m totally aware that I’ve been dealing with comparisons from “Mothman” to “Sixth Sense”, you know, all through the run of this picture. I believe they’re all very different stories, although I haven’t seen “Mothman”, but I know about it.
I don’t believe that there’s a surge. No one – I think that they exist, if we were to go back to different hit movies from “The Exorcist” I think if we look at the movies that were released around that time, and even in between, you know, hit quote, you know, mysterious thriller horror movies, you’re going find that there’s a lot of them out there. It’s just a part of the human condition, you know. It’s a part of the human condition.
We always – I think we always try to go around successful movies and identify trends around the movies, and I’m one who – I have a hard time seeing them. I always have a hard time seeing them. I think that this kind of movie will be in the moviemaking culture as long as the question is in the moviemaking culture.
And yes, I don’t think – I mean, I’m not looking at 9-11s or, you know, the state of the world and saying that’s why there’s a resurgence of this question. I think this question always exists. Always exists.
And you can – you can come out with a movie like the others or like “Sixth Sense” in a time of prosperity or in a time of war, and I think people are always going to find it fascinating because it speaks to a question and possibly a truth that exists. I mean, I think “The Exorcist” is a movie that is hit a chord because there is truth in it. And if that movie were to come out today with some new, you know, more advanced filmmaking techniques, I believe it would strike the same chord because we are fascinated with this idea, what happens to the spirit when we die? Is there evil? Is there a devil? We’re fascinated with this. Probably didn’t give you the answer you were looking for.
That’s just my opinion. That’s just my opinion. Listen to the Response...
Shadyac: Come on, I’m bristling! Get me while I bristle. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: With the deleted scenes that are on the DVDs, were there some that were especially painful for you to have to leave out? Was there one that was just like, oh my god, I really want to keep this in but I have to let it go for the sake of the story, or was it pretty easy to edit the film?
Shadyac: Well, it was not easy to edit the film. There are two different questions. I have two voices speaking to me. One is – I come from the school of when in doubt, leave it out, or we say there’s a brutal term we use in the editing room is we kill our babies, you know. You can’t fall too much in love with anything, and I come from that school.
Now I did have a very hard time in the editing room because I cut entire characters out that turned out to give too much of the story away or for one reason or another were not where the audience wanted to go with the story. And that was very hard to me because it involved people who gave terrific performances and were good people that I didn’t want to disappoint.
That’s on a personal side, but on the storytelling side, no. It’s very clear, you know, through test screens and in the editing room what needs to stay often and what needs to go, and I’m OK. I live with that pretty easily, you know. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: Can you say who you had to cut out?
Shadyac: I’d really rather not. I mean, that’s – I’d really rather not. I mean, it’s not important. That’s just a personal note that there were – there were some difficult decisions on this movie.
See this movie, the editing process on this movie was about – we wanted the audience to be surprised by the ending. And in the initial screenings – when reading the script, 95 percent of the people who read the script were surprised. But what we learned in filming the movie, the picture is truly worth a thousand words. So when these images were put up on the screen in pictures, that people were figuring the movie out at a higher percentage than we wanted to.
So we had to withhold certain clues. We had to withhold - certain characters were part of, you know, laying out those clues, and we had to edit those things and give them lessons from circumstances, in some cases mislead them in others.
And now we, you know, we got it up to like an 80 plus percent are fooled by the ending, which means it’s probably higher. That’s 80 percent admitted and maybe it’s higher so there you go. Notice how I punctuate each answer with a there you go? Listen to the Response...
DVDTalk: In your commentary on the film you mentioned test screen responses and like you did just now. Do you feel that the test screenings like help or hurt the film you’re trying to make?
Shadyac: I am a believer fully in test screenings. I know there’s some directors who go simply and only with their gut. My gut, by the time I’m done editing is so destroyed. It is so gone and non-existent by the time I’m editing – about done editing the film, at least the first cut, that I need an audience to tell me what is working and what is not working for them.
I am not what you would consider an auture. So maybe it comes from the comedy school because the comedy, you know, reactions are so visceral. But it helped me tremendously on this film to talk to audience members, to listen to what they had to say, to see where they were misled, what they were thinking, where they were fooled, where they were bored, where they were hoping it would move quicker.
You know, I’m involved in every word of the script whether I write it or not. I’m involved with the writer. I’m involved in casting the movie so I hear the scenes read a thousand times just in casting. We’re involved in rehearsing the movie and in shooting the movie.
I’ve got a feeling this guy’s going to tell me to leave. Hang on one second. I’m at a parking garage in front of a hotel. OK. That’s right. I’m just doing an interview. I’m going to – I’ll pull down the street. OK. Thanks.
How about this for a little DVD interruption? I’m in Santa Monica. I’m meeting with a writer right now.
So where the hell was I? So anyway, my gut is destroyed. My gut is pretty much non-existent at that point and I need an audience to reconfirm to me. It’s very helpful to say, “Oh, wow, this was a moment that was scary to them or was tense to them.” Because you can feel it in the room.
I mean, I came out of a – I came out of, you know, learning how to read an audience in my early days as – involved in comedy, and I can read an audience. I can tell when they’re bored, although it’s more subtle with drama. So yes, yes, test screenings are very important to me, part of the process. Listen to the Response...
DVDTalk: What would you do though if – what would you say if the audience was giving you a different opinion than what you had though, say for instance, if something you really felt should be there but then the audiences are saying that it shouldn’t?
Shadyac: Well the interesting thing is an audience is never wrong, you know, and you’re never wrong for your opinion. It’s just your opinion. Then it comes down to a choice and I’ll make the choice. Again, I’m not an auture (ph).
If I feel that the choice goes to the very heart, it compromises something that is so integral to the heart of the piece for me, to the integrity of the piece, I might leave it. But an audience is never wrong and I might very – I might go with them.
I mean, very rarely has an audience – I can’t even remember a time where an audience has said something to me where I had a, you know, an integral exception disagreement. It’s just their opinion, no, we were confused by this so we didn’t understand that. We, you know, that didn’t scare me, you know.
And we can often disagree. An audience isn’t always 100 percent, you know, we liked or we didn’t like. And then yes, we’ve got to make choices. Listen to the Response...
Shadyac: Are any – are any of you coming up with the word whore? Probably a very different interview than with an auture. (In snotty French voice) It's only about my opinion. They ruin everything. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: What’s great about this is that I think you may be the first director I’ve ever heard talk about, you know, someone having so much trust and faith in audience reactions and also a real respect for the feedback that they give you. And I - you know, you talked about maybe that coming from comedy or your background in comedy. I’m just curious, how did you end up working for Bob Hope at such a young age?
Shadyac: You know, I was always involved in some comedic venture from writing skits in high school, you know, et cetera. And I had an uncle who knew Mr. Hope. He had a golf balll cologne business venture with him.
They had a golf ball cologne that they were – my uncle used to have a cosmetic company. And I think they had a golf ball cologne. Don't joke.
Reporter: It smelled like golf balls or you put it on golf balls?
Well, if it's the former, no wonder why it went out of business. Let me say it’s a – or the latter. It’s shaped like a golf ball and you unscrew the top – you unscrew the top of it or something. I don’t know.
I wrote a batch and he got it in front of him and lo and behold – lo and behold Mr. Hope called me one day and we started working together and he liked my stuff. So I eventually became a staff writer for them – for him.
I think my love of audience testing has to do – I’m not an auteur, you know, I feel like I need him. I have a really collaborative process, you know, you know, life may have made some directors, you know, just their own – marching to their own drummer and their own spirits. My drummer says, I have a very open process, you know.
I talk a lot about where a movie can go and what if it ends this way or do you like this idea? What if this character doesn’t do that? Do you like that? Are you guys into that, you know?
I like the idea of movies reaching people, you know? I want to them to reach people. So again, without compromising, you know, the basic spirit of what you’re out to do. I mean, if this suddenly turned into a slasher movie, no I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t – it doesn’t sort of – is not where I’m living. All right. There you go. No go interview Scorcese and see what he says. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: You do “Dragonfly” which is this moody, introspective film, and now you’re working on “Bruce Almighty”, which is a Jim Carey film, which I presume is going to be just a little more raucous than “Dragonfly”. How do you reconcile the two impulses, the two approaches to film?
Shadyac: Oh, I think it’s just a part of the complexity of being a human being, you know, if I were talk to you, any of you here, we’d probably find out that you have a very silly side at times. There’s a real child in each of you and that would, you know, that would be speaking of the “Ace Ventura” kind of films.
But then I – the one thing in doing “Dragonfly” everybody brings forth their stories about something odd that’s happened to them that they couldn’t explain, an object that’s moved, a voice heard in the night, maybe a deceased relative who appeared to them whether it was in a dream or at the foot of their bed. And that’s a part of myself that goes hand-in-hand with the part that’s childlike.
We are complex, you know, and as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to tell something other than just the childlike, you know, side of myself. That was a real blessing and opportunity that Universal and Spy Glass gave me. And again, it’s just a part of – a part of the complexity of who we are. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: Is there any kind of crossover between the two styles? Is there – is there any way that they’re in line?
Shadyac: Absolutely. Ron Howard told me that, you know - who came out of lighter films. Ron Howard told me that the essential elements, the steps, of making someone laugh and making someone jump in their seat are exactly the same. It’s set up, set up, punch.
And with comedy you’re cutting to the banana peel, slipping on the banana peel. And with the – with the – with the scarier eerie movie you’re cutting to the shadow that appears quickly behind a person, or a face that appears out of no where. You’re essentially doing the same thing, set up, set up, punch. But again, the result is very different. Listen to the Response...
DVDTalk: Do you feel it’s important to be involved in the production of the DVDs and the commentaries and such nowadays? Is that something you like doing?
Shadyac: I do like doing it. I do like doing it. Yes, I do like it. I feel it’s – on a number of levels, and writing – I don’t know how many people are curious about, you know, some of the stories and experiences and thoughts that went into making a movie, but even if it’s just a few I think it’s worthwhile giving them a little bit of the insight about the process.
And also as a good business partner, you know, with the studio who put up millions and millions of dollars to invest in this idea, you know. If it’s another attractive point for somebody to access a movie or a learning experience, I’m totally for it, you know.
One thing that we all have out here that work in show business is we – the movie process has been demystified for us. We live it. We understand it. And I think it’s a good thing that the public understands, you know, the moviemaking process.
I think they can then come to appreciate what a miracle a good movie is because when you’re – a movie can wrong on so many levels. I’m not a person that says, “Why aren’t there more good movies?” I’m a person who says “Wow, I’m amazed at the miracle at how many, you know, movies we get that are entertaining or funny or they not all be “Gone With the Wind” but they have some entertainment value and hold up on some level”.
I’m amazed at those miracles because I know that all it takes is a plane buzzing overhead, or the wind blowing in the wrong direction, or an actor with a cold, or a pit bull, or a crew member who’s not working at his best, or something you didn’t see in the story. Any one of these places – the story meeting I’m taping right now.
Movies can fall apart. And it’s a miracle to me when they hold together at all. So I like the learning process of the DVD and educating the public about that. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: Is it weird for you at all to kind of be thinking about archiving yourself while you’re making the film in order to have stuff to put on the DVD?
Shadyac: I never do that because I don’t – I don’t know if I don’t have the brain storage capacity. When I make a movie it’s all about the movie. If somebody were to present me with the option of someone else taking that, that would be up to them.
I’m so involved in how do we make this movie so that it doesn’t fall apart. But when the movie is over, or in editing, you know, the answering questions, or doing a commentary or open someone up, exploring footage for the DVD, not at all. No, it’s – I’m wide open to it. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: I just wanted to throw one last question out just about working with Costner. And this might be a little bit naïve, but I was just wondering if there were any – you know, obviously you directed a couple of, you know, kind of large scale, big concept movies and, you know, he has this directors sensibility as well. And I was wondering if there was any, you know, kind of interplay between you two, or did you pretty much call the shots?
Shadyac: Well, there was absolutely a collaborative spirit and there was interplay. And he did let me call the shots.
I sat down with Kevin very early because I saw this – I felt what you felt. I saw this potential area for conflict and I said, “Kevin, here’s the ironic thing here. You have won the statue. You are one of the 50, 60 guys that have ever won in the history of movies. I’ve never even directed a drama. And the funny thing is you are going to have to listen to me. You’re going to have to be OK with me making the calls. I will be collaborative, which I am. I want your ideas because you’re smart, and I’ll invite them, but I’ve got to make the call and you gotta be OK with that.”
Now Kevin is a director and he knows that a movie is going to live or die based on what the director is doing. If he tries to control it as an actor, which he has been accused of, and which I didn’t find in my experience, the movie will not do well. The movie will – the story probably will be a split between his version, the actor’s version, and the director’s version.
So Kevin said, “Cool! I’m with you. Tell me what some of your thoughts are so I can see if we’re making the same movie and let’s have at it.” And that’s how it worked.
And of course we disagreed, by the way. At times there were, you know, he wanted to do it one way, I saw it another way, and I never felt he got disrespectful. Listen to the Response...
Reporter: One more quick question. Where did you get Big Bird?
Shadyac: Oh, you’re talking about Big Bird. Oh, for a second I thought you were talking about... You asked that question a while ago. That’s so funny. There actually were a couple of jokes about Big Bird that I couldn’t put in the movie.
Big Bird was through a trainer, April, who found the bird and trained the bird. And it was a creation of our rewriter, David Seltzer, who was also the writer of "The Omen." And there were actually two birds, Elwood and Jake, they call them – they call them because of the "Blues Brothers" and they’re blue birds. And yes, they were quite interesting characters.
Nothing like having $200,000 worth of equipment and personnel and a star all waiting for a bird to flap its wings or turn a certain way. Nothing like it. Nothing like feeling powerless in the universe in that moment. Listen to the Response...
Shadyac: A debt of gratitude! And thanks you guys for whatever interest you have in, you know, putting this out there. Putting this gobbledygook out there. Listen to the Response...
- Phillip Duncan
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