Q & A: Director Andy Fickman on “Race to Witch Mountain”

Director Andy Fickman

Director Andy Fickman

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing interviews with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Andy Fickman about the making of Disney's sci-fi family adventure thriller “Race To Witch Mountain”, in which teenage alien siblings must get into a secret government facility in the Nevada desert to retrieve a device left by their parents that’s the key to saving both their planet and ours.

Directed by Fickman and produced by Andrew Gunn, “Race” opens wide Mar. 13. It's inspired by Disney's 1970s hits “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return from Witch Mountain” and with its UFO and aliens storyline it seems the perfect story to be told by Fickman, a native of Roswell, New Mexico where a supposed UFO crash in the ‘50s was allegedly covered up by the government and military.

Fickman directed Disney’s hit 2007 family comedy “The Game Plan”, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which took in $90.6 million domestically. With that having gone so well, a second collaboration between Fickman and Disney that again stars Johnson was a smart move. Executive produced by Mario Iscovich and Ann Marie Sanderlin, “Race’s” screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback is based on the book by Alexander Key. Also starring are Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb and Ciaran Hinds.

Q: How did you come to make “Race to Witch Mountain?”
A: I was in post-production on my previous Disney film “The Game Plan” and the executives there came to me and asked if I was familiar with the “Escape to Witch Mountain” movies. Truly, I could not have been more excited because it was one of my all-time favorite movies as a kid. I absolutely knew it inside out. We talked about what type of movie this would be and very quickly I knew I didn’t want to make a direct remake of the original film. I loved what that story was but I sort of felt like it had already had its time and place.
Q: What made you want to tell this story?
A: (What I thought was interesting) was the mythology of Witch Mountain and UFOs and conspiracies. So we really used all of that as a leaping off place. As much as it’s a brand new story, sort of 30 years later there are still trace elements from the original ‘Witch Mountain’ (that) fans from the original can see in this movie and I think it’ll put a smile on their faces.
Q: And, of course, you had a personal connection to the material having been born in Roswell.
A: It finally pays off! Finally! I should thank my parents for that. I was born in Roswell and, certainly, it’s one of those classic questions your whole life if someone asks where you were born and you say, “Roswell, New Mexico” it immediately is met with, sort of, “Oh, you're an alien.” I had just got back from China where Dwayne and I were doing press (for “Race”) and every journalist there from all over Asia knew what Roswell was. I found it so interesting that globally it’s probably one of few cities that you could just say (the name) and immediately everybody has an image in their mind of UFOs and crashes and aliens. So it’s definitely been a part of me for a long time.
Q: Was growing up in Roswell helpful to you in relating to this project?
A: Well, I think to a certain degree it helped in that I’ve had a lifelong fascination with UFOs and because of that I think I probably came into the movie very much a fan and already (had) my own decades worth of research leading up to it. I (didn’t need) to immerse myself in the world of UFOs. It was kind of the opposite, which was, “I’m so immersed in the world of UFOs I think I now need to make sure I immerse our producers and our cast and our executives and our crew to catch them up to where my head space is."
Q: I understand that you got off to a really fast start with “Race”.
A: It actually was one of those rare things, especially by Hollywood standards, where something moved so quickly. We started looking at the script as written and talked about what sort of changes would need to be made. It was maybe less of an adventure when we first started and (we) wanted to take it more and more and make it an adventure for everyone.

We started talking about who that male lead would be and we (were saying), “We need a guy who could save the world” and while I’m having those meetings I’m leaving those meetings to go back into the editing room to look at Dwayne Johnson on screen (while) editing “The Game Plan”. Then I’d go back and have more (conversations about), “Yeah, who would be the guy who would be strong enough and big enough and cool enough to save the world?” And, of course, it took about 30 seconds to get Dwayne on the phone. We went and had lunch and talked about the movie. It turned out he was also a big fan of the original films.
Q: How did the rest of the film’s casting go?
A: AnnaSophia Robb, who I had loved in “Bridge to Tarabithia”, was the only person I ever had in mind to play the role of Sara, one of the teen aliens. I went and had a meeting with her and we sort of signed her on the spot and began the search for the person to play her brother, who eventually became Alexander Ludwig (“The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”).

We got so many of our top choices. Carla Gugino came in and she was just somebody I thought was so smart and funny and strong and such a great actress. She really, too, was kind of the vision of that role and she signed on. Ciaran Hinds was the only person we had ever really chatted about to play our sort of villain. He was on Broadway doing “Seafarer”. (Hinds starred in Conor McPherson’s drama “The Seafarer” in the National Theatre’s London production in 2006 and then went to New York with it the following year.) Ciaran’s such an amazing actor, but wasn’t necessarily the first person who came to mind when thinking of a big Disney adventure UFO movie. I flew to New York and talked to him and he signed on. And before I knew it, I had the cast I wanted and we had our script and we were off to the UFO races.
Q: And I see Garry Marshall’s name in your cast list. (Marshall, who’s directed such hits as “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries”, plays a UFO expert who helps the teen aliens enter the secret Witch Mountain facility.)
A: Garry has been a tremendous supporter of my directing career. The first award of significance I ever got was when I directed a musical called “Reefer Madness”, which first started as a play here in L.A. before we ended up making it. But when it was a play here we swept the Ovation Awards and my best directing award was handed to me by Garry Marshall. Subsequently through his Falcon Theater (in Burbank) we got to become very friendly and he’s always been very kind to me and very supportive.

(When we were casting “Race”) and were thinking of this role of somebody to be a very eccentric USO researcher we all started talking about (how) “It should be someone like Garry Marshall.” And what was so funny was that Garry has a long history (with Disney). There’s actually a bench outside the editing room that's the “Garry Marshall Bench.” One of our producers, Mario Iscovich, has been a longtime producer of Garry’s films and so he would laugh when we talked about (wanting a Garry Marshall type).

And then we just looked at each other and (said), “Wait a minute. It shouldn’t be someone like Garry. It should be Garry. And so we got him the script and he very kindly agreed to come on. It was just great to have him and a little honor for me to have this director that I’ve admired for so many years and love his works just to creatively be on the same stage with him.
Q: Was it intimidating to direct a veteran director like Garry Marshall?
A: You know, I think that he makes you feel so comfortable and I think he knows the process so well, it’s almost the opposite. If anything, the intimidation comes from you (thinking to yourself), “I hope he likes what I’m doing as a director.” But the funny thing was that anytime he was on the set every actor would come over and want to be with him. I always said, the worst thing a director can do is bring a better director on and have him sit at the monitor because they quickly forget about you.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges?
A: We set out from the very beginning to want to do as much of a blend of 70’s sort of action adventure movies and what modern day CGI has to offer so whenever we could accomplish something in camera, whenever we could accomplish something using our actors within the stunt work we really wanted to. I’m such a fan of Steve McQueen movies and just how exciting they always were. You always felt like that Steve McQueen in the heart of everything. Our stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers, and the Go stunt team (a specialized Go Mobile camera car integrates actors with the action instead of shooting from a separate trailing vehicle) are a really phenomenal group of guys who had been instrumental in all the “Bourne” movies and “Spider-Man” movies.

We really structured the movie to see what more we could put on film that was live action with our actors, our vehicles, and that’s a real challenge. In current filmmaking it’s easy just to say, “We’ll throw a green screen on and put him in a fake car in front of a green screen and you’re good to go.” We were wanting to do something that was at times more like, “What did they do when they didn’t have green screens?” And so there was a challenge and one that I’m really pleased by what that end result was.
Q: And this was a road movie you were making, which always is challenging.
A: Whenever you’re doing a road movie you're just in movement mode constantly. A lot of time we were behind the wheel in our taxicab (where Johnson as the driver is racing to Witch Mountain with the alien siblings played by Robb and Ludwig) and in our Winnebago and in a lot of chase scenes. We were kind of going back and forth across California and Nevada. About every two or three days we were (setting up to shoot) at a new location. That was certainly a challenge.

And also (it was a challenge) for me wanting to treat the UFO world with a great deal of respect. We ended up getting a lot of people within the UFO community (to work on the film) — really important people like Whitley Streiber and (his wife) Anne. Whitley is the author of “Communion” and the subject of the (the 1989 sci-fi thriller) film with Chris Walken. He not only became a really great confidant and friend and advisor within the film, but we also got to (get him to play himself) in the movie. And we got Bill Birnes, host of “UFO Hunters” on the History Channel and the publisher of UFO Magazine. So getting people like that (for whom UFOs are) not a joke to them — it’s what they do, it’s their lives — actively involved in our film was just a really, really exciting process.

But (it was) a challenging process because when they’re on the set you’re constantly wanting to make sure that you’re doing everything right. And, conversely, we had a lot of military advisors and intelligence advisors and we wanted the inside of our top secret military facility, Witch Mountain, to have a very authentic feel. We were granted an opportunity to go to Colorado to Cheyenne Mountain and NORAD and spend some time there and to really see the Mountain sort of upside down. That was a challenge for us from a production design standpoint, one that I think our designer David Palmer did a beautiful job (on), which was giving it a sense of real. (We wanted it to give the sense that) if an alien space ship crashed today in our country what would be the chain of events that would happen with it? Where would the government take it? How secure of a facility would that be? So far less of a futuristic sci-fi fantasy world and much more of just a grounded reality world. But once you do that, you’re just constantly challenging yourself to make sure it feels real and looks real.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’m really excited that recently I was able to form a partnership with Ted Hartley and Dina Merrill and all the fine people at RKO in addition to Mark Burg and Oren Koules and Carl Mazzocone over at Twisted Pictures, the gang behind the “Saw” franchise, to begin a process of remaking and re-imagining the Val Lewton library from the ‘40s. It was one of my favorite (things) growing up as a kid on Saturday afternoon (to see the) scare fest movies that would come on. Those movies were just all about shadows, all about smoke and mirrors and fog. And it was what you didn’t see that added to the scares.

We took the first crop of them — “I Walked With a Zombie”, “The Body Snatcher”, “Bedlam”, and one that was an RKO movie of the time but not from the Val Lewton library, “Five Came Back”, which was actually an old Lucille Ball movie — and are in the process right now with all the writers of getting those ready. And I’ll end up probably directing one if not two of those. It’s such an exciting venture. It’s a real great opportunity to be working with everybody on that. It’s hard enough to develop one project, but when you take four at the exact same time (it’s) four sets of writers, four sets of everything. It’s a little bit like having a house full of children. But we’ve got a great team together.
Q: And I understand you also have a few more films set up at Disney.
A: I’m very excited. I’m in the process of writing the Disney script with my writers on “The Game Plan”, Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price, a project called “Pool Rats”, also with our producers from “The Game Plan”, — Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray. It’s very much inspired by my life one summer, a very sort of “Meatballs”-esque “Caddyshack” type comedy and we’re in process on that. And then I have a project (called) “The Most Annoying Man in the World” that just recently Disney picked up for us as a spec script that’s a really fun “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” type comedy that we’re digging down in.

And a couple of other movies are starting to percolate there, too. I just recently with my company signed a first look deal there. It's a wonderful homage from (Walt Disney Co. President & CEO) Bob Iger to (Walt Disney Studios chairman) Dick Cook to (Walt Disney Studios motion picture production president) Oren Aviv. They’ve been nothing but kind and gracious to me. Sometimes I think we are in an industry in which it’s easy to kind of look at the people above you who run the studios and create a little bit of us-and-them attitude and with Bob and Dick and Oren I’ve just never felt an “us-and-them.” I just feel “us.” They’re so supportive of me creatively and actually they just make it a lot of fun. So it’s a good home.