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Q & A with Director Karey Kirkpatrick


 
Director Karey Kirkpatrick on the set of the family comedy “Imagine That”. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A di Bonaventura Pictures Production “Imagine That” starring Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen. The film is directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson. The producers are Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon. The executive producer is Ric Kidney. This film has been rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior. Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. All Rights Reserved.

Director Karey Kirkpatrick on the set of the family comedy “Imagine That”. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A di Bonaventura Pictures Production “Imagine That” starring Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen. The film is directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson. The producers are Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon. The executive producer is Ric Kidney. This film has been rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior. Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. All Rights Reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) about the family comedy “Imagine That” starring Eddie Murphy from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies, opening June 12.

Written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson, “Imagine That” was produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon and executive produced by Ric Kidney. Also starring are: Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen.

In “Imagine That” Eddie Murphy plays financial executive Evan Danielson, who has more time for his Blackberry than for his seven year old daughter Olivia (Shahidi). When Evan has a crisis of confidence and his career’s going downhill, he suddenly finds the solution to all his problems in his daughter’s imaginary world.

Karey Kirkpatrick’s first feature directing assignment (co-directed with Tim Johnson) was DreamWorks Animation’s “Over the Hedge”, which he also co-wrote. “Hedge” premiered as an Official Selection at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and wound up grossing over $330 million worldwide. He previously co-wrote the screenplays for such films as “James and the Giant Peach”, “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles”, on which he also was a producer. I was happy to have an opportunity recently to ask him about the making of “Imagine That”.

Q: How did you become involved in making “Imagine That”?
A: There was already a script and Eddie was already attached. Ed Solomon (who wrote “Men in Black” and with Chris Matheson co-wrote “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and its sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”) came up with this idea and then brought in a writing partner that he’s worked with quite a bit — Chris Matheson. Ed was driving one day with his son Evan, who made a very simple business suggestion. He was dealing with somebody and his son said, “Why don’t you just fire him?” Ed said, “I don’t think it’s that simple.” And as it turned out, that was the actual solution. So he got the idea of “What if your kid’s advice helped you at work?”

And then his daughter, who’s named Olivia, had a little blanket that she carried with her all the time and talked to an imaginary friend. Ed always found it kind of intimidating in a way. He put two and two together and thought, “I’ve seen a lot of father-son stories like this” and he thought it would be interesting to have the whole feminine-masculine difference just to drive an even greater wedge between these two (characters). That was the idea. The new layer was, “Well, what if the advice is coming from your daughter’s imaginary friend?” And that’s what they ran with.

I was having lunch with Ed one day. We had known each other and Ed had come in to help me out on a few roundtable brainstorming sessions on “Over the Hedge”. So we became friendly. We were sitting one day doing notes on a script one of us had written and he said to me, “I have this script that has a star attached and we’re looking for a director and I put your name forward.” I said, “Oh, wow, that’s certainly nice of you” and (asked) “Who’s the star?” And he said Eddie Murphy. My first thought was, “I don’t think that’ll ever work out for me.”

Q: Why did you think that?
A: I don’t know. My first thought was, “I’m not sure that’s the best move for me if my first live action feature was (with) such a huge movie star.” I always assumed that I would start with something a little smaller to cut my teeth on. And typically, too, high profile comic actors are very picky about who they surround themselves with in terms of directing. Not many would take a risk on a first time director in live action. So I kind of went into it as, “Hey, this’ll be good practice for me to pitch myself as a director. I have nothing to lose.”
The only reason I agreed to it is because I read the script and it really hit me. I have a six year old daughter and there were issues where I felt, “Well, I have something to bring to this movie. I have a point of view that I think could be good.” I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t feel like I had something to offer. But I did go into it thinking, “Well, I’m a such a long shot — why not?” The first meeting with Lorenzo went really well and then I had two meetings with the studio and that went really well. Before I knew it, (in April 2007) they were putting me in front of Eddie.
Q: How did that go?
A: It was great. I told him all my ideas. We met for an hour in his trailer while he was shooting “Meet Dave”. We told a lot of stories and I told him my take on the material. I remember this very distinctly. The meeting took place from 2 to 3 o’clock and then I left. Lorenzo was like, “I think that went well. You’ll hear from us.” So I got in my car and I was driving home. I called my wife and she said, “How’d it go?” And I said, “It went well.” And then my phone beeped. I said, “Hang on just a second.“ It was 3:15. I answered the phone and it was Lorenzo and he goes, “Okay. You got the job.” I said, “You’re kidding!” He said, “As soon as you left he said, ‘That’s the guy.’”
Q: Obviously, the chemistry was right.
A: I think what’s cool about this is that when Eddie read the script (he related to it because) he has a few kids and a couple of daughters that he’s been through with this (imaginary friend stuff). He really connected with it in a way where he saw moments where he could be funny, but also he saw places where he could play a real emotion that he’s been wanting to play. The movie has a really big heart. The relationship between father and daughter is really special and Eddie really connected with Yara and was able to tap into his own experience as a father with his daughters. I was coming at it from the same place and Ed was coming it from the same place and the execs at Paramount (were too). We all had father-daughter relationships that were just kind of our common bond. We all had daughters who were around six or seven years old. So that part of it was really very cool.
Q: So Eddie was very comfortable with the material.
A: All of our conversations from director to actor were really (such that) there were no misconnects on what this character was about, what he was going through. Your biggest arguments — really, just discussions — when you’re on set making a comedy is, “Is that funny?” So the emotional part of it was never in question and, if anything, it was usually a dialogue between us. Sometimes it’s me going to him and saying, “Maybe not quite so intense there” because with a young girl you don’t want to come across (as being) too intense with your likeability. And, conversely, sometimes he would come to me and he’d be in these scenes where he’s frustrated with her and he’d come over to the monitor and we’d watch together and he’d go, “Too angry?” And I’d go, “Yeah, let’s do another one less angry so that we have that choice in the cutting room.”
Q: What’s Eddie like to work with? Does he improv? Is he crazy on set? Or is it all carefully planned?
A: Well, he does improv. But he knows how to take the material and make it his own. So subtle improv. But on this one he liked the script so much. It’s a pretty carefully constructed script. I come from an improv background. Especially when it’s your first live action feature, one thing the studio does not want to hear is, “Yeah, we’re going to improv this scene.” I kind of mentioned that on one scene I had in mind and you could see the look in their eyes. I very quickly backtracked and said, “No, no. We’ll do the script version.” And then I did end up kind of tossing the script in this particular scene.

There were a couple of lines from it that we used that were crucial for storytelling. But there’s two scenes in particular. One is where she’s making pancakes with him. Again, this is a connection with my own daughter (who) would do this to me a lot — which is to play restaurant. She would make me come to a table and sit down. She’d put an apron on and she’d have a little pad and take my order. Me and Ed were always (saying is) that what we love about both of our daughters is that at six years old you have no concept of money. So we were joking that my daughter would come in (and I’d ask), “How much is the chicken?” “It’s $3,000.” “How much is the steak?” “That’s 47 cents.” They just make up numbers that have no relevance to each other. And we wanted to make sure that is in the movie.

The rest of it, I just told Yara, “Go sit down with Eddie and play restaurant.” We did four passes of playing restaurant. After the second pass I had to say (something) to Yara, who can roll with the best of them, because Eddie was coming up with some real jewels and she didn’t quite understand the listening part of improv. I had to say to her, “You listen to what Eddie’s saying to you and then you respond. But make sure you’re listening to what it is that he’s saying.” He came up with all this (stuff like) saying this prayer and commenting on the things that she’s doing while making the pancakes. And that’s all Eddie making it up. And similarly there’s a scene where he has to teach her how to sing. I said, “Just go over there, Eddie, and teach her how to sing. Here’s the song. It’s ’All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles.” That’s all the scene is. Eddie’s throwing out all these ad libs and to me that’s where the real magic is — where these guys are really connecting with each other. And they’re two of the best scenes in the movie (because) they feel very real.
Q: This was your first live action film. Was it at all intimidating to be doing this for the first time and to have a superstar as the guy you’re working with?
A: It really wasn’t. I think it’s because all of the elements just fell into place and they were all in a good place when we started. We had a really good script that everybody felt confident in so there was no last minute “Oh, God, the script’s in trouble” rewrites, which I’ve been a part of as a writer. That can shatter your confidence when you’re on set and send anxiety through your bones. We had a great star and a great cast. In addition to Eddie, I had Thomas Haden Church and Martin Sheen and Ronny Cox. I felt really great about my cast. I did this in animation and in just about everything I do — my whole philosophy is to surround myself with people who know how to do what they do better than I could do it and let them do it.

My whole career has sort of been leading up to this. Twenty-two years of screenwriting certainly prepares you for feeling confident about your ability to tell a story. I started as an actor so I’m really comfortable working with actors and enjoy that immensely. I’m confident in my communication skills. I know what I want and I communicate it clearly. I mean, that’s really the gig. And I’m pretty cool under pressure.
Yara Shahidi (left), who plays Olivia Danielson and director Karey Kirkpatrick (right) on the set of the family comedy “Imagine That”. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A di Bonaventura Pictures Production “Imagine That” starring Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen. The film is directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson. The producers are Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon. The executive producer is Ric Kidney. This film has been rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior.

Yara Shahidi (left), who plays Olivia Danielson and director Karey Kirkpatrick (right) on the set of the family comedy “Imagine That”. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A di Bonaventura Pictures Production “Imagine That” starring Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen. The film is directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson. The producers are Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon. The executive producer is Ric Kidney. This film has been rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior.

Q: How is Eddie under pressure?
A: He’s great. This is his 38th or 39th movie. He’s got this wired.
Q: We always talk about how it’s difficult to work with big movie stars, but it doesn’t sound like you ran into that.
A: No. I really didn’t. It kind of did go off without a hitch. I wish I could give you more drama. But (there was nothing) other than the occasional spirited discussion where you see it one way and somebody else sees it another — but that happens in every walk of life and that wasn’t movie star specific. I will say it was a real gut check the first two weeks because the jury was still out on me and nobody had seen any cut footage. Dailies are kind of a horrible thing for people to watch because really all you can judge is how they’re looking, how’s the quality of the lighting, does the staging look all right. When you’re doing master shots in dailies they’re just horrible. If the camera’s set up on a very wide angle as the scene plays out and you’re not getting the benefit of an edit and you’re just watching the whole thing it’s immensely boring and it kind of looks like maybe you don’t know what you’re doing. But after two weeks everybody was kind of anxious that I cut the four scenes together that we had shot and show them to everyone. That was kind of a gut check day because I had said to Eddie, “Hey, why don’t we watch these scenes together?“ and what I heard was, “I want to watch them alone” (and I thought) “Oh, this is going to be bad.”
Q: What happened?
A: I was sitting in my chair waiting for him to finish watching it and he came out. I was reading something and I looked up and Eddie was standing there and he said, “If the rest of the movie’s this good, we’re in good shape.” I said, “Fantastic! Let’s go shoot.” Had it gone the other way, I think I would have not been there the next week. So it was a very good thing that it went that way. Directing for animation is a great (training ground). Most people are kind of mystified by how it’s done. It’s not much different (from directing live action). It’s just instead of everything happening simultaneously like in live action, it’s more of a marathon and it’s meeting by meeting and department by department. But the concept behind both of the movies is that the actual physical making of the movie is that it’s a shot factory.
Q: How far into shooting were you when you did that assemblage?
A: Two weeks. It was the start of the third week.
Q: How many days did you shoot?
A: Sixty-three days, which we had to do because, you know, when you’re working with a kid you only have five hours a day. Because we had the girl in so many scenes we could only work with her five hours a day.
Q: Looking back, what were the greatest challenges you had to deal with in production?
A: The craziest thing that happened to us? We shot in Denver and we had this scene that was a really tough scene to shoot because Eddie was a little apprehensive. He had to go out and dance and kind of make a fool of himself in a public place, which is never fun in this age of everybody having cell phones and video and posting stuff on YouTube. We had one shot to get this light and we did and the scene came out fantastic. We had two days of shooting in this one place. But the main dance scene we did the first night to get it out of the way. We would send the footage every day — go put it on an airplane — to L.A. to get developed and then get on an airplane and come back to us because they don’t have any (movie processing) labs in Denver. The footage came back in dailies and it was all damaged.
Q: What happened?
A: It had some sort of weird lines going through it. We panicked and everybody got on the phone and was calling the airline because it says “DO NOT X-RAY“ (on the film cans). When you’re sending film, they do it a different way for safety. The lab was like, “It’s not our fault. It went through the X-ray.” And the airline said, “We didn’t put it through.” Everybody’s pointing fingers because this is a huge liability. And my heart just sank because I was (worrying) how much footage is damaged? There were a few scenes. So we got all new film stock and we re-shot some stuff, but not the dancing stuff. We actually sent that footage to an effects house to see if it could be corrected digitally. And the wizards over at Hammerhead Productions (worked on it). We went in to watch a few days later with fingers crossed. They found some algorithm that could go in and correct this thing and reprint it. That was the most joyous day of my life. They corrected this film damage. You can’t even tell.
Q: Music is an important element in your film.
A: We got to do all these Beatles covers. Music factors into the end of the movie so that became kind of our inspiration and we ended up being able to do all these very cool Beatles covers. And because I’m a musician, I got to produce a few of them and it’s a real thrill for me that I’m playing guitar in the movie. That’s kind of a little wish come true. It happened by accident. I didn’t force myself into this, but while we were temping the movie I had ideas for how the songs should be produced and recorded them in my little studio and people were like, “Hey, we should do that version” and I just continued to be involved. They liked the songs so much that on the soundtrack we produced five new ones and we have a soundtrack album now with five songs from the movie and five new Beatles covers. All the needle-drop music is (Beatles songs).
Q: How do you feel about the movie?
A: I’m really, really happy with it. People always ask me, “Why don’t they make any good movies any more?” This is a good movie — good for the whole family. Eddie’s just terrific in it — and the girl is a star.
Q: Does Eddie like it?
A: Loves it. He genuinely likes this one.