Q & A with Director Elizabeth Allen

RB-528 Director Elizabeth Allen reviews a scene with star Joey<br /> King, on the set of RAMONA AND BEEZUS. Photo credit: Alan<br /> Markfield TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox and Walden<br /> Media, LLC. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

RB-528 Director Elizabeth Allen reviews a scene with star Joey
King, on the set of RAMONA AND BEEZUS. Photo credit: Alan
Markfield TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox and Walden
Media, LLC. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Elizabeth Allen, director of Fox 2000 Pictures and Walden Media’s family comedy “Ramona and Beezus,” opening July 23 via 20th Century Fox.

The adventures of young Ramona Quimby (newcomer Joey King) and her big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) come to life in the new film based on the best–selling books by Beverly Cleary, which go back over 50 years and have sold over 30 million copies.

The Story (no spoilers): Ramona’s vivid imagination, boundless energy and accident–prone antics keep everyone she meets on their toes. But her irrepressible sense of fun, adventure and mischief come in handy when she puts her mind to helping save her family’s home.

John Corbett (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and Bridget Moynahan (“I, Robot”) play Ramona and Beezus’s parents, Robert and Dorothy Quimby, while Ginnifer Goodwin (“He’s Just Not That Into You”) portrays the girls’ Aunt Bea, opposite Josh Duhamel (“Transformers”) as Bea’s former flame, Hobart. Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) plays Ramona’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Meacham.

Directed by Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine”), “Ramona and Beezus” was written by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay and produced by Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan.

Elizabeth Allen is a versatile filmmaker with a talent for capturing authentic and subversively funny performances. She made a splash with her 2006 feature directorial debut, the mermaid family comedy “Aquamarine” for Fox 2000, starring Sara Paxton and Emma Roberts.

Allen is a member of the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild. Among her screenplays are an adaptation of the children’s book “Stargirl” for Paramount, the original musical “Promdress” for Disney and “Driving While Infatuated” for Fox Searchlight. She’s also directed television episodes of “Gossip Girl” and “Life Unexpected” for the CW network and will write for “Vampire Diaries" later this year.

Allen teaches directing in the graduate film school program at USC. She’s currently attached to adapt and direct Elinor Lipman’s novel “The Pursuit of Alice Thrift” for Universal Pictures and to direct the independent film “My Mother’s Boyfriend” for Depth of Field.

A Cornell University graduate, Allen attended graduate school at USC where she was awarded the Jack Nicholson Directing Scholarship as the most promising director of her class and was short–listed for an International Clio Award for a spec Coca Cola commercial. She directed her 25–minute thesis film “Eyeball Eddie,” an edgy dark comedy depicting a stormy relationship between a prosthetic glass eye and the insecure boy stuck behind it, which caught the eye of studios and led to her feature directorial debut with “Aquamarine.”

Q: How did you become involved in making “Ramona and Beezus?”
A: About three years ago Fox called me. I had a prior relationship with them from doing another movie and they called me about the book property. I grew up reading it and it was like my favorite book, which they didn’t know when they called me. I came in and did a pitch for them on how I would develop the script. It took me about a month to get ready for that because there were eight books I had to draw from and I really wanted to do those books justice because they were my favorite childhood books.

Once they hired me, we developed it for about a year. It was in the midst of the writers strike so we had some stops and starts and whatnot. And then it took us another year to cast. We had some stops and starts then, too. We actually made it into offices and were hiring crew and were about six weeks out from shooting and then that fell apart. And then six months later we finally figured out another production plan and got the green light again and flew up to Vancouver and shot it. That whole process between prep and shooting took about six months. And then I came back here to L.A. for post and that took about a year, which includes a little break before it comes out.
Q: Why did you shoot in Vancouver?
A: For us it worked well because the stories are set in Portland. So obviously that is a bit of a rainforest. There are always overcast skies and it just has a very particular look and it’s identical to Vancouver. So creatively it worked well for us and I actually loved shooting in Vancouver for that very reason. You always hope for overcast skies with cinematography and I think there’s a more lush flattering look to movies that are shot up there. But for the studios, it’s more affordable and there’s not quite so much production fatigue with the community so it’s a little bit easier than Los Angeles as far as getting neighborhoods and police and whatnot to play ball.

We were very lucky to have Brad Van Arragon our line producer up there. He did “Juno,” which was done for a price, so Fox had been really happy with him. He was able to somehow get our budget down to a place where we could get a green light. Our movie’s a bit of a niche movie so Fox wasn’t going to green light it unless we could hit a certain number.
Q: What sort of number was it?
A: It had to be under $15 million, which was difficult because the book property was expensive and with any studio movie there is overhead and, you know, it really does add up. So that was an incredibly big challenge that took us many, many months of whittling down and exploring different line producers.
Q: So with Vancouver you had a tax incentive, as well as a good creative environment in which to work.
A: Yes, exactly. Not only were we incentivized to shoot there, but we used a visual effects company from there as well because they then could be on set with us. We had a lot of visual effects in the movie, which was also quite a challenge to hit that (budget) number. So they were able to be on set with us the whole time, which helped us with the vision and the collaboration part of it. During post–production because technology’s so sophisticated we were able to mostly do our communication online. They would actually transmit pieces to a facility down here where we would screen it.
Q: Looking at the books that are the root material for “Ramona and Beezus,” it’s interesting to see that the book is called “Beezus and Ramona.”
A: What happened is it was always called “Ramona” while we were developing it and while we were casting it. Once we got Selena attached we realized the sister story was the most relevant and was also going to be appealing to the target audience. So we fleshed out the sister story a little bit more.

Also, when we mentioned the name Ramona people didn’t associate it with the books, but if you add the name Beezus, because it’s so unique people light up instantly (recognizing it). So before we added that name to the end of the title I’d always find myself going, “Ramona Cleary, Ramona Quimby, her sister Beezus” and the people would go, “Oh, yes.” We found that with the word Beezus there is an instant recognizability factor. And also it just felt more relatable because a lot of kids can relate to having a pesty younger sister. So that’s how it evolved. But it really is Ramona’s story, not Beezus’s so it felt like false advertising to put “Beezus and Ramona” (as the movie’s title).
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot last spring. Our start date was around April. We had a really unique situation because a nine year old carries the entire movie and she’s in every scene and she could only work six hours a day. So we decided to do something a little bit unusual and I waived all overtime. Generally, production is like 14 hour days and we had eight hour days. Basically, we were able to squeeze a couple more days out of it because we didn’t go into overtime and we kept our days really short. So we did 42 days of eight hour days. But really it would be practically half of that if you’re doing 14 hour days. It would be 20–some–odd days if you add up the hours.
RB-281 Joey King (right) and Selena Gomez are, respectively,<br /> RAMONA AND BEEZUS, a new film based on the beloved books by Beverly Cleary. Photo credit: Alan Markfield TM and<br /> © 2010 Twentieth Century Century Fox and Walden Media,<br /> LLC. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

RB-281 Joey King (right) and Selena Gomez are, respectively,
RAMONA AND BEEZUS, a new film based on the beloved books by Beverly Cleary. Photo credit: Alan Markfield TM and
© 2010 Twentieth Century Century Fox and Walden Media,
LLC. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

Q: Looking back at production, what other challenges did you face?
A: I guess for me the idea of having a nine year old who had never starred in a movie actually carry it on her shoulders was probably one of the biggest challenges. But I found that that helped define our whole working style. Although it was an enormous challenge, it became, I think, one of the characteristics that made the project really unique and exciting for me. I’d go through the script a lot with the adults that would be working with her and they’d be working with me to keep her on her toes and to keep everything fresh. If we were going through a scene a few times I’d ask them to help me get a certain moment out of her because, obviously, a lot of acting is reacting.

That kept everyone really alive and I found that not only did it help her performance but it really kept the adults very in the moment. I feel like everyone just became extremely fresh, too. Also, just having that family mentality on the set (was great). We had tons of kids running around and all their parents. And everyone was there for the right reasons because you don’t do a family film unless you really want to do it. You’re not doing it for the money. So there was a nice family quality to the actual shooting. And I should mention that all the crew was briefed that we’d only be working eight hour days because they wouldn’t make as much money since they weren’t going into overtime.

So a lot of crew would just pass on the project because they wanted to make money. The people who did it were doing it as a luxury because they’d have more time with their families at night. That’s the crew that we got because it weeded out the other crew. So our entire crew was really warm and friendly. There was a lot of collaboration and a great attitude on set that I’d never quite experienced. It was kind of magical.
Q: Any surprises you had to deal with in production?
A: Every day there are surprises. The typical ones are weather — where you didn’t want it to rain that day and then it is. But it actually looks really cool. We had this sequence of all these little girls in their ballet outfits and it turned out to be a freezing cold rainy day. I had them run out and get all these umbrellas and suddenly it kind of feels like a Monet painting in some ways because it’s like saturated and there’s all these umbrellas and it’s kind of neat. When you think of movie magic, it’s when everything sort of works. You have to work with it rather than against it.
Q: Beverly Cleary wasn’t eager to have her books brought to the screen, but she was finally persuaded to say yes. Is she happy with the film?
A: Yeah. It was probably the scariest day of my life to go up there and present it to her because here’s a character she’s been living with for 60 years. She’s her most popular character and she has a point of view of what Ramona is. So to be able to bring her character to life in a way that made her happy was incredibly intimidating. But she was overjoyed and when the lights came up, the first thing she said was, “Joey King deserves an Oscar.” And I was, “Okay. I’m okay!” She gave us a few notes and stuff, but as soon as she said that I knew I was in the clear.

There weren’t any surprises for her because I worked with her pretty closely on the script and she’d weigh in and then I had her son come up on set. And he got set fever. He was only going to be there for a little while, but he liked it so much and I liked having him there so much as a consultant so he ended up staying a lot. I put him in the movie and he would always weigh in. I would ask, “Does this look enough like your neighborhood?” when I had to shoot in certain directions. And, “Does this give away that it’s Vancouver instead of Portland?” Or, “Would Ramona really say this?” And he was always like a fantastic school (of information).
Q: You aren’t too specific about when the movie actually takes place, although it seems contemporary.
A: That was dictated not only by the books, but also by Beverly. There’s about a decade between each one of her books and yet it only reads as if it’s one school year. You would have no idea even as an adult reading through them that there was so much time in between them. There’s very few things in the books that feel dated in any way and that’s because we made a really concerted effort not to place it anywhere. Each generation has thought that it was written for them unless they’ve done a lot of research.
Q: That’s interesting because so many times filmmakers contemporize books and in the end it seems to work against them.
A: She (Cleary) would actually pull out anything that she felt dated it in the actual text. What I had to do on set was no trendy haircuts, no really contemporary clothing. But I didn’t want it to feel quaint or trite either so we just kind of had to create our own vocabulary. With cars and technology I tried to be as non–descript as possible. We’d pick cars that weren’t of a specific year and I generally kept them beige so they were receding into the background a little. And we never have any cell phones so I had to plot it in a way where it wouldn’t be like, “Why aren’t they on their cell right now?”

She’s even watching television. She’s obsessed with commercials in the books so I have her watching television a couple of times. That became a conundrum because the Quimby family is financially strapped. But in a year or two I believe that non–flat screen TVs are going to feel really dated. So I just ended up having them build a tiny TV in the kitchen into the cabinetry so you couldn’t really tell what’s going on with it — if it’s got any depth or if it’s a flat screen.
Q: In the movie Ramona’s nine years old and in third grade, which is somewhat older than she is in most of the books.
A: The book series starts at four and goes to 10 as far as Ramona. Beezus is about six years older (and in her first year of high school). There are two reasons why when we started developing the script we chose that age. One is that the stories get a lot more sophisticated as she’s older because you can go to deeper places. And, secondly, I just thought that there’s no way a four year old (could play the part). It took me a year to find the girl to play Ramona, anyway, but to find a four year old that had enough charisma and comedy chops (would have been a tremendous challenge). And then there are quite dark scenes, too, where she really has to dig deep. To be able to find a four year old that could do all that seemed impossible and also less relatable.

I think a nine year old is more palatable to a larger group of people so I chose to put her towards the end of the book series (in terms of age) and then incorporated as many of the little details in the earlier books, as well. I created an encyclopedia with all of the names of everything so all of the crew had it and they could pull details from it — like what is the name of the towing company? So it just felt like there were a lot of shout–outs to the book fans.