Q & A with Director Andy Fickman

“You Again” (L–R) Andy Fickman (Director) Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“You Again” (L–R) Andy Fickman (Director) Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Andy Fickman about Touchstone Pictures’ comedy “You Again,” opening Sept. 24 via Disney.

Directed by Andy Fickman (“Race to Witch Mountain“), “You Again’s“ screenplay is by newcomer Moe Jelline. It was produced by John J. Strauss, Eric Tannenbaum and Andy Fickman and executive produced by Mario Iscovich. Starring are Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Odette Yustman, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber and Betty White.

The Story (official version – major spoilers): Just as she is about to return home to Northern California for her brother’s wedding, Marni (Kristen Bell) learns from her mother, Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis), that Will (James Wolk) is marrying Joanna (Odette Yustman), her high school arch nemesis. Marni is horrified! Why would her brother marry the one girl from high school she never wants to see again?

Upon Marni’s arrival home, she can’t help but be annoyed as she watches her father Mark (Victor Garber), little brother Ben (Billy Unger) and even Grandma Bunny (Betty White) welcome Joanna into their family like she’s an angel. They have no idea how much Joanna tormented Marni during high school. Meanwhile, Joanna acts like nothing bad ever happened!

Then, the untenable situation takes another twist when Joanna’s aunt, Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), a highly successful, career–driven woman, flies in from Europe for the wedding festivities. Evidently, Ramona and Gail also attended the same high school some thirty years ago, and though they claim camaraderie, they, too, have some rivalry that stems from their teenage years.

Added to the mix in the jammed–pack long weekend are Georgia King (Kristin Chenoweth), the “wedding–extraordinator,” who specializes in top–of–the–line event planning, Charlie (Sean Wing), Will’s high school friend and Best Man, and Tim (Kyle Bornheimer), Joanna’s former fiancé. Not to be forgotten are Taylor (Christine Lakin) and Kendall (Meagan Holder), the cheerleaders from those high school years who are Joanna’s best friends and poised to be bridesmaids for the big event.

Determined Marni is on a mission to prove to her family that Joanna is not who she appears to be. Meanwhile Gail is trying not to be intimidated by Ramona, who exudes confidence, beauty and wealth in everything she does, says or wears. As everyone comes together for dance lessons, Joanna’s bridal shower and the rehearsal dinner, Marni and her mother, Gail, unwittingly revert back to their teenage selves–and the result is wedding turmoil to the extreme!

“You Again” reminds everyone that high school might be a thing of the past, but sometimes if just the right person crosses your path it can undermine your present.

ANDY FICKMAN directed the Disney 2009 smash “Race to Witch Mountain,” starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and Anna Sophia Robb which hit theaters March 13, 2009, and was number one at the box office that weekend. Prior to that, he helmed Disney’s extremely successful “The Game Plan,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Kyra Sedgwick. Due to Fickman’s success with Disney, the company signed him and his production company, Oops Doughnuts Productions, to a first–look, three–year deal.

Already on Oops’ line up is “Pool Rats,” a family comedy inspired by Fickman’s personal experience coaching a neighborhood league swim team that will be directed and written by Fickman. Several other titles in development include “Monster Attack Network,” “Gimme a Call,” based on the young–adult novel, and “The Most Annoying Man in the World.”

In addition to films in development, Fickman is working on expanding his theater resume by spearheading the project “Heathers: The Musical,” based on the successful 1988 film “Heathers.” Along with the team of writer Kevin Murphy and composer Larry O’Keefe, Fickman hopes to have a fully mounted regional production ready in 2010, followed ideally by a Broadway run.

Feature films that Fickman has directed include “She’s the Man,” starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum, which won a Teen Choice Award for Best Comedy, as well as the acclaimed film version of “Reefer Madness” for Showtime, starring Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming. That film went on to win an Emmy Award and was also a favorite at such film festivals as Sundance and Deauville. He also directed the independent comedy “Who’s Your Daddy?,” starring Patsy Kensit, Kadeem Hardison and William Atherton in 2003.

A native of Houston, Texas, Fickman attended the University of Houston and Texas Tech University and began performing in stand–up comedy while still a teenager. After graduation, he came to Los Angeles where he worked at Universal Studios as a tour guide and in the mailroom at Triad Artists Agency. He also became a prolific writer and director for the local theatre scene, eventually co–founding and managing the Fountainhead Theatre Company.

Fickman moved into film development by working with companies run by Gene Wilder and Bette Midler before being named Vice President of Creative Affairs and Production for Middle Fork Productions, where he served as associate producer on the successful thriller “Anaconda.”

Q: How did "You Again" come to be?
A: I was on the press tour for “Race to Witch Mountain” and Disney asked me to take the script with me. I remember we had opened number one at the boxoffice and it was Saturday and I was in Mexico City with Dwayne Johnson. We were getting ready to start a fairly lengthy press tour and were kind of celebrating the victory from the night before. I went through a big stack of scripts and the one I grabbed was “You Again.” I read it and I just found myself so utterly charmed by it.

I knew they were interested in Kristen Bell for the lead and K–Bell was somebody I’d worked with for a decade. I had cast her in New York when we were doing “Reefer Madness” as a musical there and she was a student at NYU. So we were always looking for any chance over the years where K–Bell and I could find something to work together on. I just read that script and thought, “Ah, she would be perfect.” And it was such an unusual script to read in which there were that many great female roles.

A lot of times actresses are quick to point out that it’s hard enough to find one or two good female roles in a movie much less five or six in a movie like “You Again.” By the time I landed (returning from Mexico), we had finished the deal and I jumped straight into prep for the film. I had a big plan for a vacation and some time off, but we had a window in which we thought we could gather everybody up and sort of do summer camp. Just before my crew from “Witch Mountain” all disappeared, I re–gathered everybody and we went back to work.
Q: When did you shoot?
A: Last summer. It was like 35 days. It was a very fast shoot. By putting together the cast that we had, we just had so many great actors. If you’re moving that fast with ensemble comedy you just need pros every step of the way. With the exception of the time we took to laugh every five seconds no matter what Betty White set or did on set (laughs), we were able to pretty much keep things moving.
Q: I talk to so many filmmakers who tell me they’re eight or 10 years into getting a project made. This is certainly the opposite of all that!
A: I’ve never had anything happen that quickly. But this was — you’re out promoting one movie, you’re reading the script and getting comfortable with it. I got off the plane and the very next day I had my first production meeting with everybody. So you hear those stories about five, six, seven, eight or 10 years of labor intensive development and here the first day I yelled “Action!” on the set I kind of had to pinch myself and remind myself what movie I was doing.
Q: Filmmakers are always saying how debilitating the development process can be. How do you feel about development?
A: Prior to writing and directing, that really was where I started. I was a development executive for many years for Gene Wilder. He had a production company called Pall Mall Productions that had a deal with Tri–Star. Then I went over to Disney to Bette Midler’s company, All Girl Productions, where I was a development exec there. My decade of being a development executive really put me through the paces of what works in development sometimes and what doesn’t work — you know, the sheer number of projects I fell in love with as an executive and developed that just never saw the light of day.

I think as a director when I approach material I can’t shake that decade of development in me. So I’m always sort of approaching it with a little bit of a development background and, in the back of my head wondering, “Is this the one that’s going to take 10 years before it sees the light of day?” And then something like “You Again” comes along and sort of defies all time and logic.
Q: As you were reading the script, did you know very quickly that it was something you wanted to do?
A: You know, reading it with K–Bell’s voice in mind helped tremendously. Moe Jelline, the writer, had inadvertently just captured a lot of who K–Bell is. And then as I started reading it I saw the opportunity for these other roles. By the time I finished it, I remember calling my producing partner Betsy Sullenger who was reading it at the same time in Los Angeles. And we both just said, “Is it just me or is that script really, really fun?” A few days later I spoke to my agents. Of all the projects we were considering, this was probably the smallest of them. This was the most intimate. It was definitely not a big studio blow–‘em–up type movie.

I fully expected my agents to shoot it down a little bit and every one of them called and said the same thing — which is, they found themselves utterly charmed by it. Within weeks, you’re sitting down with this dream cast of Jamie Leigh Curtis and Sigourney Weaver and Kristin Chenoweth and Victor Garber and Betty White and you realize they all came aboard for the same reason. They all came aboard because they just found themselves charmed by the script.
Q: These days we typically see re–writes and a second team of writers on many films, but you didn’t do that.
A: Moe had a really great voice that I responded to and was really great to work with in terms of the process. We were all on the same page with the things I wanted to change. We also were lucky. John Strauss, one of our producing partners, is part of the writing team of Decter (Ed Decter) & Strauss and did “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Santa Clause” movies. So I had a producing partner with a strong writing background.

I do love a lot of rehearsal period and improv with the actors. A lot of the questions we had about the material, our cast was able to help fill in the blanks during rehearsal. And with our writer, Moe, we took a lot of the improv that occurred during rehearsal and started applying that to the script. So we never saw a need to do the classic “let’s go out and bring in a different writer to re–write the script from top to finish.” It was, “There’s something charming about the material. Let’s just keep heading in the right direction.” The actors were kind of the final piece to that puzzle.
“You Again” (L–R) Andy Fickman (Director), Kristen Bell Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“You Again” (L–R) Andy Fickman (Director), Kristen Bell Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: You’re looking back at high school and what the characters went through then. Today in the age of Facebook, everyone can now reconnect with their long lost high school friends. “You Again” seems particularly relevant to the way people are able to reconnect these days.
A: Incredibly so and I think that’s why so many actors responded to it. We live in this age of Facebook and Twitter. The reality is that a few years ago if somebody wanted to find me, maybe you’d get an e–mail from a friend who passed an e–mail forward. But now with Facebook, once, twice or three times a week people from my elementary school are finding me. People from junior high school are posting pictures that I’d hoped had been long buried. Those people are coming out of the woodwork. A lot of what our movie is is that sometimes there are people from our past and maybe our memory of them is not as wonderful as their memory is.

Or maybe that’s the person who caused me a great deal of pain that I never shared with them. I think Facebook because you can have such an interactive moment started to bridge that. I think there are positives that come and some negatives. It deals with pulling up those old feelings. I think in talking to our cast everybody told me a story about somebody from their past who did something not so great to them in high school or junior high and it has stuck with them and no matter where they are the notion of running into them still sort of gives them the heebie–jeebies (and makes them think), “I know it’s been 20 years, but I don’t want to see that person. They really hurt me bad and I don’t know how I would respond.” I feel the timing of our movie really does correlate with a lot of what’s happening now with social networking.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: The thing that was unbelievably awesome was that we shot all in Los Angeles. It helped from our actors’ standpoint. To a lot of our actors who are L.A. based and have strong family commitments, the idea of them not having to travel a lot (was very attractive). It really was about making sure we made life comfortable and easy for bringing in Sigourney Weaver and Victor Garber. But for everybody else it was great to stay home for the summer. Our crew could go home at night and see their families. We were able to shoot all over — from Pasadena to Malibu — and that was just a real rare treat for all of us.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: Very small. We were under $20 million on this and it was “use every penny that you can” and “call in every favor that you can.” I have to say our department heads just made magic happen because every time you’re working in that sort of $19 million budget range there are things on the page that in your mind would work great in the $40 million budget range. When you take half that away, you start thinking what are your compromises? And my crew just never allowed it to feel like a compromise.

So if we needed to have 400 extras and big production value, by hook or by crook, one way or another the team ended up presenting options to me that did exactly what we needed to do. We had Mario Iscovich, who had also been my producer on “Race to Witch Mountain,” and I just don’t think there’s anyone better in the business when it comes to taking a budget and finding a way to maximize it at every angle and make you feel as the director you're getting creatively what you need that day to satisfy the material.
Q: We always hear about the tax advantages of shooting in Vancouver or Louisiana or somewhere other than L.A.
A: We got lucky because we were a recipient of the California tax credit and that helped us tremendously and we found a lot of people in Los Angeles in this economy were very open and wanting to work with us and keep the film here. I would hope after that experience that California continues and Los Angeles continues going out of its way to keep production here locally.

It’s not just great for our crews and our cast, but certainly great for the local economy to be able to not have those dollars go away. That being said, I’ve had multiple great experiences filming in Vancouver and a great experience filming in Boston and I was ready if we had to move to figure out the best city to film it in. But at the end of the day, I was so thrilled that we just stayed in L.A.
Q: With L.A., the other thing people always talk about is how we’ve seen every street corner here and every palm tree. Did you find locations you felt were not overexposed?
A: You just nailed my biggest fear — Is it possible to shoot L.A. and make people not feel they know exactly what we’re shooting? Our production designer, Craig Stearns, and location teams really scoured for various looks. I found myself filming on locations that I’d never seen before and parts of locations where, maybe, you had seen one area, but if you went two blocks east you had never seen that area. It ended up really working out in a great way because that had been a concern. We’ve had so many people at screenings of the movie asking where did we film and with local people asking that that always makes me feel like I didn’t tap too deep into areas where they were going to say, “Oh, I filmed that spot 90 times.”
Q: How did you handle finding L.A. area locations that weren’t overexposed?
A: We were heading out to Calamigos Ranch in Malibu to check out what was essentially going to be a day’s location of work. A lot of things had filmed at Calamigos. The area that we were looking at was probably the most used by films. We just started asking the gentleman showing us around for locations the check list of questions about what we were looking for — like, “You guys don’t happen to have a lake, do you?” He said, “Sure we do. On our back property.” And then he brought us there. We said, “You don’t happen to have running trails?” He was like, “Actually, we do — by the tractor.”

We turned what was going to be one day of filming at that location into about a seven day stint there. We realized we could film so much there because they had so much property and were so user friendly — even to the point where we needed a great backyard to build a tree house set and we were looking for a very specific tree. We half–heartedly said on the day we were leaving, “I don’t suppose you have a great tree for a tree house?” And he said, “Well, my own personal house is on the property. You might want to check that out.” We drove over and he had the tree I had been describing for weeks. He had this tree and said, “I’ve always wanted to put a tree house in it for my kids.” And we said, “Sir, I think we have a deal.”

It was a relatively easy drive and a beautiful location for the cast. (It was great) to not have to move the circus, which is always so hard on production and for everybody. We were at the studio for just a matter of days for some interiors. Almost everything was on location. You want to maximize your time on location so it’s not like a day here and then move the trucks all night and start later the next morning. If you can find a reason to stay in a location for several days, that’s how I think you can manage to do those 35 day shoots.
“You Again” (L–R) Jamie Lee Curtis, Kristen Bell Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“You Again” (L–R) Jamie Lee Curtis, Kristen Bell Ph: Mark Fellman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: Looking back at production, any interesting stories to share?
A: I always find that filming in live places (is challenging). Like with “Race to Witch Mountain” we were filming in Planet Hollywood, which was not shutting down as a casino. They were allowing us to film in there while life was continuing. The same thing happened (with “You Again”). We were filming at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena and, of course, that’s a fully operational hotel. I remember our composer Nathan Wang decided to stop by the set.

Nathan lives in that area and he drove over in his flip–flops and shorts and he had his camera to take pictures. He had worked on “Reefer Madness” and knew a lot of our cast. There were so many hotel guests showing up trying to take pictures and the hotel security was doing a really wonderful job of keeping everybody out. But there’s our poor composer walking up to the set to say hi to everybody and he’s stopped by security for looking like a tourist trying to crash the set. I had to explain that while he looked like a tourist in his flip–flops, he was actually an award winning composer and lovely guy.
Q: When you’re directing, do you storyboard or shotlist?
A: I like to storyboard things that are very complicated — visual effects shots certainly or stunts that require a lot of in–one–door–and–out–the–other. But what I really love to do is communicate from the very beginning. Once I have an idea, I’ll spend as much time (as necessary) with my crew and department heads getting them all on the same page by the time I start rehearsal. I love show and tell. I love my actors to come in and on Day One for me to be able to say, “Here’s a photograph of the Langham Hotel. Here’s a flip book of the hallway. Here’s the lights.” The more I give them a chance to sort of play in their heads it makes it somewhat easier because I love improv. Usually before we ever arrive to the set, one of my actors will say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about those stairs leading up to that door and what do you think if I stopped and did my line on those steps before we went inside?”

I’ll bring the crew around and we’ll start talking that through. And then usually (when) we’re on location, before we wrap I usually grab the department “keys” and we sort of walk through the next day’s work. If there are any actors around we’ll sort of take them through. I never want to hit any surprises. I want the actors to be real partners in this and want the crew to feel (like they are) partners, too. Ultimately, I think that’s where some of the best ideas come. Somebody will notice if we just move half a block the sun’s going to hit us better and we’ve got that great structure in the background. That’s the stuff where I love to say, “Let’s plan it now” and move half a block.