Every movie is personal. Period. Any moviemaker believing otherwise is in denial, or worse, simply making excuses.
How’s that for a heavy mantra? A bit daunting? You bet. And I believe every word of it.
Land of the Lost is my sixth feature film, and each time I start the process, I slam head-on into the words of my remarkable mentor, director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Marty kept it simple: “If you don’t know where you are in your film, it’s counterfeit.” That, and the other gem of artistic responsibility: “If you have talent, it’s just dumb f-ing luck. It’s what you do with it that counts.”
Now, was Marty saying that every film is a literal autobiography? Of course not. What he did believe though, and drilled into my impressionable head on a daily basis, is that every movie—regardless of genre, budget or intended audience—is hollow without the personal, artistic and emotional commitment of the moviemaker. Cinema breathes this commitment. It is dead without it.
After all, movies are, in essence, the sum total of the choices you make as a moviemaker. How can they not be? Every angle you compose, prop you choose, performance you shade and score you include betrays your point of view. They reflect your insight (or lack thereof) into the story you’re telling and your individual sensibility. This isn’t a responsibility you shy away from—it’s one you revel in. It’s your movie, dammit! And no one else can tell it as well.
So how does this square up with the corporate priorities of delivering a four-quadrant summer “tentpole” movie event, laden with high costs and expectations that it’s “good for the whole family,” from eight to 80? Ah, that’s where the magic comes in… and a whole lot of fighting spirit.
Land of the Lost was a title I’d last encountered while parked on a couch on Saturday mornings when I was 10 years old. In a sea of Hanna-Barbera animation, “Land of the Lost” leapt out and seized me by my pajama collar for two reasons: a) It was live action and b) it was insanely psychedelic. What other program would dare mash up stop-motion animation, dinosaur puppetry, suit-performing lizard guys, a sci-fi mythology laden with crystals, gold pylons and alternate universes and use the banjo as its main score instrument?
You knew brilliant and twisted minds were behind it. More importantly, for young viewers, you felt like you were getting away with something. You were part of something subversive.
That would become the single biggest reason for my making the feature some 30 years later—and my own personal way into telling the story.
When Will Ferrell told me over lunch one day that he and his manager, Jimmy Miller, had persuaded Sid and Marty Krofft to let them take a big-screen swing at the property and asked if I’d be interested in working with them on it, here are the key impressions that immediately came flooding back: Of course, the banjo-heavy theme song (more on that later); the shape of the “home” cave; the Sleestaks and their trademark hiss; the pylons and some funky-ass crystals on a matrix table; a rock span over a river crevasse the family would escape over to evade Grumpy the T-Rex; and a hairy young creature named Chaka who creeped me out.
Those were the elements that managed to etch themselves onto my emotional hard drive. Witness the beginning of directing this movie…
I wanted these elements to be key in the film (if they had survived my memory that long, there was a reason). I wanted them to live in the film as I remembered them, not as they actually would be if I dug out my Rhino DVD collection.
By today’s sophisticated standards, the original show can be described as campy, if not downright cheesy. But the victory of the show was its ability to capture the viewer’s imagination. Those Sleestaks worked—they frightened me. So I set out to design the world from my emotional memory.
The first thing we discussed was this very choice. Rather than placing Will in a cheesy world with stop-motion dinosaurs that would be fun in a seven-minute “SNL” sketch, Marshall, Will and Holly were going to confront bad-ass, lethal obstacles—living, breathing dinosaurs out for blood—which in the end would only increase the comedy. That held true for the entire production.
I personally loathe the concept that comedies have to be flatly photographed, pedestrian in design and have no feel for cinema. If I was gonna do this, I was gonna do it right, to please my own moviemaking expectations. That meant hiring the finest production designer (Bo Welch), an exceedingly talented cinematographer (Dion Beebe), a remarkable composer (Michael Giacchino)… and on down the line.
To the studio’s credit, they supported this vision—though there was a notorious day when I found myself lecturing a room full of studio brass on photographing comedy. When asked if Beebe (who won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha and was nominated for another with Chicago) “knew how to shoot comedy,” I quickly shot back that that was my job. I had to know how to shoot comedy. His job was to expertly and tastefully light and photograph the images I had in mind. (So ended that misconception.)
The intention was to create our own tightrope to walk—a vibrant new tonal blend I’d never really seen before: A true adventure-comedy. The stakes would be real, the predicaments and set pieces played for keeps and it would be the characters’ behavior in these situations, how they would react to the obstacles before them, that would generate the comedy. It would be cinematic and idiosyncratic and, because of that, it would be all the more original and (key word here for any studio) “accessible” to an audience.
The subversiveness that I remembered from the original show would be the key to our DNA and would allow me to use the remarkable tone and skills that Will Ferrell has to maximum effect. It told me immediately how to stage and attack my camera work.
Rather than fall into the trap of formalism that most effects-heavy movies lapse into as if by rote, I wanted the story to seem to be happening around us in real time, with no ability to anticipate the next turn ahead. That meant an almost verité style, with scenes shot off-the-shoulder and remarkably loose (however carefully mapped out in reality). It’s a recipe I hoped would only add to the humor. When confronted with a dinosaur, the moments become all the more jagged and at times clumsy—and very, very real.
This held true for the characters, as well. If Chaka, the monkey boy in the original series, was meant to be cute, it never really worked. He weirded me out back then and I don’t believe I was alone. What to do with him in the film? How about make him absolutely untrustworthy and somewhat profane—an unpredictable con man who seems to act only out of self-interest. (Again, be true to my emotional memory.)
We did just that and now he’s arguably my favorite character in the film. Does he work against the audience’s enjoyment as a result? Will he sell less popcorn? Judging from the early screenings, he just may steal the show.
In the end, to steer a ship this large, with these sorts of dollars on the line, a director has to be a narcissist. You have to believe you know what will best connect with the audience, because you know what best makes you laugh or tremble.
Second-guessing your instincts is the sure road to ruin and lamentable mediocrity. You can’t check your creativity at the door, as it’s your creativity that will elevate what might be a simple effort into a true event. For the studio, that means success and, if they’re lucky, sequels. For me, it means true cinematic bliss.
Land of the Lost, starring Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel and Jorma Taccone, will be released by Universal Pictures on June 5, 2009.