Two weeks ago, I ran some "Land Of The Lost" coverage on Ain't It Cool and here at HitFix, a bit of tandem set reportage. I actually did that set visit last summer, so it had been a while, and the last part of that coverage was supposed to be the interview I did onset with Brad Silberling. I say "supposed to be" because my digital recorder failed me. Or I failed me. Or there was a nuclear war near my house and an EMP erased something. But whatever the case, I gooched it completely, and so my third part of the coverage simply evaporated.
Thankfully, Lindsey from Universal called and asked if I wanted to visit the editing room at Fox where Silberling is just putting the final touches on "Land Of The Lost" for its summer release. He offered to show me some scenes, and then we could sit down and talk.
Caveat emptor: the scenes I saw were not in context. They were simply scenes. My reaction to them is not meant as a reaction to the overall film. Seems self-evident, but you'd be surprised how many people don't see the difference between discussing a visit like this and actually writing a review. After doing this enough times, it's obvious that you can put together fifteen great minutes of a lousy film, and it's been done to me before. So take this as what it is... a discussion of parts of the film, judged individually. I know this should be a given, but some people still seem to think that seeing 20 minutes of something will magically rob me of my ability to judge the final film as a whole. Hardly.
Having prefaced it properly, the scenes were very funny and very weird. Which seems appropriate since the source material is a twisted Sid and Marty Krofft TV show from the '70s. "Weird" is in the DNA of this project. One of the reasons I don't think it's some major violation of the property to make it an overt comedy is because the show, like most of the Krofft shows in the '70s, was completely lunatic to begin with.
[more after the jump]
The first scene he showed me was the moment where they all meet Chaka (Jorma Taccone). Holly (Friel) tries to calm the obviously frightened little ape-boy with "It's all right. Don't be frightened. We're friends." He chatters back at her in the same language that Chaka used to speak in the original show, and she tells Marshall and Will that it's not a problem. "I spent three years working at the primate house."
She tries to talk to him, using the old "Me Tarzan, You Jane" thing, touching her own chest as she talks. Chaka takes that as permission to put his hand on her tit as he responds, shamelessly taking advantage of the situation. Even worse, when Will (McBride) jumps in, he also puts his hand on her tit for no good reason. It's an obvious joke, but it's well-played.
I love that Will Ferrell has become the greatest blowhard in cinema. He's the last one to introduce himself to Chaka in the scene, and I love how he insists on introducting himself as "Dr. Rick Marshall" repeatedly, as if his doctorate means something to an ape man. The best is when he says, "Let's take a look at that ankle. Keep in mind, although I'm a doctor, I'm not a licensed physician." The dynamic between Marshall and Chaka is established immediately when he actually touches the ankle and Chaka not only bites him but tries to run. "I mean you no harm, you little shit!" is probably not the most comforting thing to yell as you chase someone you're trying to help.
The second scene comes after they meet Enok, a Sleestak who seems different than any of the others they encounter. Enok helps them figure out how they got to the Land Of The Lost in the first place, and then tells them that if they can just find the tachyon accelerator they had with them when they came through the portal, there is a chance they can go home. Marshall makes a model to explain where they are and to help create a plan, and the scene starts on a close-up of the miniature he built, which is preposterously detailed and accurate. He explains that he's a miniature enthusiast.
"Okay, Will is going to be tethered to a hot air balloon with a tachyon array I've built from a thermal blanket and a cell phone charger."
"I don't remember ever volunteering for..."
"Holly, you have to follow Will's directions as he searches for the ping that would indicate the location of the missing-but-presumably-still-working tachyon meter."
As they talk, there are some distant roars of dinosaurs. No one wants to go walking around and possibly encounter one, but Marshall tells them not to worry, since he's also figured out how to deal with that. He produces a giant plastic jug that is filled with dinosaur urine. He suggests that if they cover themselves in it, they will no longer stand out as a scent worth tracking. Almost immediately, Will is distracted by trying to figure out how Marshall gathered the urine in the first place.
As Marshall douses himself liberally in the urine, he continues to explain his plan. "Make sure to ingest some. Get it in the bloodstream." He does just that, and makes the exact face you'd think someone would make if they drank from a jug of dinosaur urine. "Don't do that."
No one else will douse themselves. "Really? It's not that bad." Pause. "Okay, check that. Starting to burn the eyes. Gets up in the nostrils, too, and you do NOT want that." The burning continues to set in, and Marshall reasons that the only way to to make it stop is to pour even more of it on himself. "Immediately made it worse." And then when Chaka shows up, Will and Holly decide to just follow Chaka, negating the model, the urine, and everything else, to Marshall's extreme chagrin. "Yeah, fine, forget my model and let's just follow the monkey."
The third scene featured a lot of dinosaur action, and Rhythm and Hues has done a great job of striking a balance between realism and comedy with the way the dinosaurs look. Basically, most of the scene was just Ferrell running from the dinosaurs while everyone else, including Chaka, hides and watches from a distance. It's very physical and silly, but I love the handheld energy of the way it's all shot. Silberling really sells the effects in the sequence, making the dinos feel like characters instead of animation added in later.
"Hey, Marshall! Do you ever get tired of being wrong?"
"... I do!"
The fourth scene is one that you've probably seen bits and pieces of by now. After the incident with the dinosaurs, in which they manage to retrieve the tachyon meter (and just wait till you see where it's been hiding, how they get it back, and what happens as soon as they do), Marshall gives up. He quits. He figures he's never going to do anything right, so why keep trying? He storms off, leaving Will and Holly alone with Chaka.
When he finally returns, he's got a banjo with him, and he's looking to make some amends. He knows he's let everyone else down, and that quitting isn't going to help. So he promises that he's done with that, and he sits down to play them a song he wrote, which is, of course, the theme song to "Land Of The Lost". As he sings, a giant mosquito lands on his neck, draining what looks to be about a liter of blood from him. He starts to get sleepy as it moves to his back, where it draws another liter or two, finally causing him to pass out, splattering the bug and his blood everywhere. Disgusting joke, but funny, and it really pays off when you get a look at his back the following morning.
The fifth scene, my favorite of what they showed me, starts with the unmistakable sound of Rare Earth's "I Just Want To Celebrate" as Will, Marshall, and Chaka all dive into a motel pool. Seems there's a spot in the Land Of The Lost where all the things that come through from Earth tend to land, and one of the things that fell into a portal at some point was an entire motel. It's just sitting in the middle of this surreal desert, all by itself, neon sign still working and pool still filled with water. As Holly works to fine-tune the now-recovered tachyon meter, everyone else celebrates since they're sure they're about to go home.
After a minute or two, Chaka goes to get them a special fruit. He hacks the top end off, and reveals that each of the gourds is filled with a juice. Marshall and Will start to chug the nectar, commenting on how good it tastes, as Chaka tells Holly what the fruit is, and she translates.
"He's saying it's a celebratory drink in his village. The men sit around and drink it while the women go and gather the food and then they bring the food and then they dance. He says it brings a joyful lightness to the heart and soul."
Chaka shakes his head. Explains further.
"Oh, no, sorry, it's not 'joyful lightness.' A better translation would be 'howling loneliness.' Then your bravery will be tested as your mind folds and the shadow hawks will rise from the graves and hold you in their icy embrace, and it will feel like your bowel is being pierced by a ghost serpent."
By now, of course, Marshall and Will have stopped drinking completely, horrified.
"Oh, that can't be right. Chaka?"
He corrects her, pleased as he explains.
"Oh, okay. Not 'ghost serpent.' He says it's much closer to 'zombie dick.' I think it might be narcotic."
And with that, there's a hard cut to Will questioning Chaka in the pool. "Are you a cop, Chaka?" From time to time, a visibly stoned Marshall surfaces in the pool to emit a quiet "Marco" before going under again as "All Along The Watchtower" blares on the soundtrack.
Holly wanders away to try to find a portal using the tachyon meter. While she's gone, Marshall, Will, and Chaka are almost attacked by a giant crab, which steps into a hot water geyser spout at the last minute, getting fully cooked before it's shot into the air, coming down with enough force to crack the shell open, serving them up an oversized buffet.
Walking out of the editing room, I'd say that the one thing that is clear is that this is both a love-letter to the original show and a gentle parody of it. It's a comedy, yes, but it's set in the Land of the Lost, and it takes the world itself as seriously as you can take it.
We walked to the kitchen area in the post building where all the final work on the film is being done and took a seat. I've been speaking with Brad on and off for years now on various films, so we were able to just drop right into the conversation.
BRAD SILBERLING: My whole obsession was actually trying to find a way, in the movie proper, to create the mythology of the song.
BS: And that was it. It was we have to do this.
M/C: It's such a foul gag. That mosquito bite the morning after is horrible.
BS: Oh, I know, isn't it? Again, from putting it up in front of a big audience... I don't which is a bigger scream, whether it's the reveal of the giant thing on his back when its... or the morning after. And we purposely did that with Will. You have to throw away the first glimpse of it so his little morning stretch... we just get a glimpse of it for a second at first. And before he really turns around, you're like, oh no, no... please...
M/C: I really like the... it's funny, because both Danny and Will are huge personalities. It feels like, in this world, because the world is so big, they manage to... there's a subtlety to how they're playing with each other. It balances that crazy, crazy, crazy world.
BS: It's really interesting, I mean...
M/C: It's a crazy balance man. You've got to really hit it.
BS: Well, the greatest compliment... it's really interesting. Will's writing partner, Adam McKay, was funny when I showed him the movie... he said to Will, "I haven't seen you quite do this," and part of it... that it's not just because Will's a pretty trusting guy, but he was doing two things. In many cases in the movie, he's almost more straight-man, and there are many moments where with Danny's character, because his character has sort of got weird edges and he's more eccentric, he can kind of become the bold color. But even so, they both keep it... they do, and I think you're astute about thinking it's the environment, and the environment is this place where if they were trying to top that, you'd be like buzzing out of your seat.
M/C: It would be shrill after a while.
BS: Totally so. And I think part of it is Will really trusted the idea of this. I mean, this character has got this fundamental need... you see it in the scene where he meets Chaka. He's constantly reintroducing himself to people by his title.
M/C: That's what I love about that. What possible difference does it make to an ape that he's Dr. Rick Marshall. Which I love... that he re-emphasizes it over and over, and then makes sure you know that he's not a physician actually.
BS: You know the crazy thing on that? We took that line verbatim. It's from the pilot of the original show. Marshall, in the original show, says to little Chaka, "Chaka, let me take a look at that ankle. Now bear in mind, Chaka, although I'm a doctor, I'm not a licensed physician". We were like... that is gold, and it was played totally straight. It's like, how do you beat that? But yeah, you marry that to Will's attitude and it happens throughout the movie because he's a character. And this is what's endearing about the character... he's got such a cavity of need from... it's in the trailers... you know, he's there on Lauer's show and just like very confidently trots out this really kind of odd avant-garde theory of quantum paleontology and ends up in this fight and, boom, he's doing tours of the La Brea Tar Pits... doing field trip tours basically. And so he has such need, and so there's another scene later where he's... "Chaka"... they've been together a couple days but he's constantly says, "Chaka? Rick Marshall. Chaka." You know, he's constantly re-establishing the thing. They meet Enok, and... the Enok character very shrewdly plays him, in terms of his intelligence, and again... Marshall is like a schoolgirl. He's so excited that this guy thinks he's really intelligent. So it's kind of a different character for Will in that way.
M/C: I know that Will was really excited...because I remember when Will and Adam had discovered "The Foot Fist Way," and it hadn't come out yet, and really nobody knew Danny yet. He was sort of the secret weapon in town. And I know that Will was really interested in working with him. There was the guest spot on "East Bound and Down"... he got to do that, but this is the first time that, on film, there's really a pairing of the two for a whole movie. So I'm guessing that that energy onset was really exciting.
BS: It was great but relaxed. It's sort of like if you imagine a couple of great jazz players who'd never, like, jammed together coming together, because it was great energy but it was never... and I've been around the topping energy thing, where you've got a couple people who want to score... and it's just the opposite. I mean, the number of beautiful takes almost blown by the other actor laughing about what the other one was doing... and that's Will's generosity. Will is a great scene partner. Very generous and so happy to see things roll either Danny's way or to roll Jorma's way, and yet... really quick. And they hadn't worked together, so when we sat down to do the first table reads, it was so fun because you could feel that they'd been waiting for this, you know? And Danny was excited... I think a little anxious at the beginning...
M/C: Danny's never really been in this big a movie at all.
BS: Correct. It's been all those other pictures we know, yeah.
M/C: And even the pieces like... "Tropic Thunder" is a huge movie, but Danny doesn't carry that thing at all.
BS: No, he just has to be tied to Nick Nolte. No, not at all. And again, there's pressure to that, you know, but I think partly because of it being... it was the smallest tribe ever. I mean, you visited. You saw. Except days when we'd have Sleestaks or something else happening, it was always basically a foursome. I mean, unless Jorma wasn't working, and then it was a threesome working every day. And so I think it felt pretty safe to Danny. I mean, there's a riff... you didn't see the scene where they meet him. One of the funniest riffs in the movie is... the premise of his character is he really does have this really horrible roadside attraction in Palmdale, which of course ends up being the time portal that they fall through. And you have to buy, like, basically $30 of crap in his gift shop if you're going to go on a tour, and his whole rap is that he's actually Native American. He's 1/18th Cherokee. This is Native American land, and his big dream, of course, is to build his casino, and he shows Holly and Marshall this casino. And this rap he did this one day about... I can't even describe it, but it's basically this ridiculous Steve Wynn-looking hotel with these 2 spires, and he kind of reveals a little bit about his personal life and his dreams about the bride he will take here to this tip of this spire to live. But when they fight and she pisses him off, she'll be banished to this other tip of this other spire, where she will live as a prisoner and a slave. And he just went on this Danny-riff that was so genius, and it's in the movie, and it's kind of how you really understand how he relates to women at the beginning of the movie. And that becomes his runner because he can't deal with women well. And he decides he and Chaka are really tight.
M/C: That's what I love about the improv right now... because I really believe that this generation of comedy that we're seeing right now with these guys... they're radically different than, say, the guys we grew up on... like the early SNL breakout stars who were very much about themselves.
BS: Oh yeah. Chevy Chase and all these guys. Yeah.
M/C: Not only do these guys really enjoy each others work, but their improvs come out of a place of character, which is really different. It's not joke improv. It's about building quirky characters and laying down... it's almost like when I would watch "Mystery Science Theatre." Those guys would do riffs, and you'd realize they would alter the narrative of a film with the things they were joking about, and all of a sudden movies would have a whole different subtext. There'd be a different plot playing out and how they did things... when these guys are riffing characters, they add these crazy colors to things and, really, I think it's one of the reasons that this comedy, I think, is built to last as opposed to being more disposable.
BS: And I don't think it's a coincidence that... it's the case with Will, it's the case with Danny... it's even the case of most of the people in "The Office"... they're all writers now. And so that line blurs and they don't just come from pounding jokes at the writer's table of "Roseanne". It's that they are all writing from character and that they can riff a character. It's Carrell or it's the other writers on that show, and that's totally the case here. If you ask where Danny is now... Danny left yesterday went to Ireland for about a week, and he's coming back, but he just wrote this picture...
M/C: "Your Highness." Right. I can't wait. I can't wait. It sounds sick.
BS: Oh, it's crazy. And [David Gordon] Green came over with me because he hasn't dealt with effects, really, so he came... I brought him over and I parked him next to me for a few hours at Rhythm and Hues when I was just doing a... basically a review session... just to show him how you direct an effects team and how you can still use the tools that you know, because he was like a little freaked out. I said, "No, just come sit. You'll see. It's the tools you know and understand, and communication tools translate. You have to adjust them but here's how you do it." And so he came with me and did that, so those guys are over there about to start. It's going to be really funny.
M/C: Now, how far... and you're in the unique position for me to ask you this question because you've been doing this basically since CG has become a major tool... how far have we come in terms of performance direction and in terms of you being able to use it on a set since "Casper"?
M/C: Because that had to have been a really restrictive, I would think, complicated shoot because no one had done it yet.
BS: Well, what was interesting was it should have been more restrictive, but because nobody had done it yet, it was less restrictive than it might have been 5 years later. I say that because the funny thing... and Dennis Muren, first of all, is so brave. And he lived to not restrict me. He was desperate not to. But the most restrictive thing we did on "Casper" is we shot in VistaVision, which... you know, the VistaFlex is a camera... now it's even in retirement... but at Lucasfilm, from "Star Wars" through the "Indy" movies right through "Jurassic," obviously it was all about the Vistaflex and that 8 perf frame, so they would have not only the maximum amount of information, but you could do all of those "within a frame" things... like frame tilts and adjustments for characters.
M/C: That's why everything was flat for most of the 80's... because that frame just didn't loan itself to scope very well, right?
BS: Correct, and they weren't about, at that point, to slice into it, and they weren't about to create a wide aspect ratio because they wanted all that space. But honestly they learned really quickly. They kind of tried to keep it going for a while, and I remember busting Jim Morris, saying "You only shoot these VistaVision movies because George owns a bunch of these cameras." And he's like, "Oh no," but pretty soon, everyone was just shooting... the film stocks... the normal 35 film stocks got so good. None of the houses needed them, so now everything... but that was the most restrictive because those fucking cameras... it's an 8 perf frame so you're burning twice as much film, so you're changing mags constantly, and they're non-sound proofed. Other than that, though, in terms of how I shot it, I did shoot it... we only had like 2 motion control shots in that whole movie.
BS: Yeah. So "Casper" actually was very free.
M/C: Like this... in the action scenes,you're so loose and hand-held and it feels spontaneous.
BS: When I set out to do this, I said to everybody from the studio initially but then specifically to the houses, when I went in to decide who to work with, I said, "You have to know going in the whole thing is going to be off the shoulder. I want to kind of feel like I am with them in this moment. And it's not going to be sort of formal... highly formal classic effects work. I want it to be completely scattered and wonderfully like verite and stupid, and so I'm going to be your tracking nightmare because that's how it's going to be, and I want to have the dinosaurs within that filmmaking environment because then it's going to feel like it's just a give and they actually are there". And so that was one of the big things I said to everybody and... of course, they all wanted the job, like, "Oh yeah, yeah, no problem." And in the case of Rhythm and Hues, they have massive fleets of folks over in Mumbai, and I believe most of the tracking was done in Mumbai.
M/C: Oh really?
BS: Oh yeah, and done early. And it took a long time.
M/C: I've noticed now that there are a number of directors who, I think, are kind of pushing how you can shoot this stuff and then really challenging effect crews to meet them, and kind of trusting that you're going to be able to do what you think you're going to be able to do.
BS: That's right.
M/C: You know, I know Spike's process on "Where the Wild Things Are" has been incredibly demanding on the back end, but it freed him up to shoot it, and I think the result is going to be far more emotional.
BS: Right. Right. I think that's it, because boy, I'm telling you it's... comedy or drama, the minute you force everyone into your frame, if you will, or how you have to execute it in the moment, you're dead. And it also doesn't allow for the weird because... when something can just feel discovered... that was the case when we were shooting out there with that stuff. It just... to me, you're forgetting a sense of reality. It's just funnier because it's sort of more banal. And I wanted this odd banality of these characters like Will running out there in the far distance screaming, "I do. I really do." And after... that track is... we used the track that was micced from up the hill, just echoing through the valley.
M/C: I really like the distant shots of Will.
BS: It's the best. Just to see him and you know it's him and you feel his body language...
M/C: Like Wile E. Coyote. There's something about... he's professionally put upon in those...
BS: That's exactly right. It's true. I will say that what has leapt up... I mean, just the numbers of skillful CG animators, because I will say that ILM was hiring the best that they could, but they were pulling people out of school on "Casper" because we needed so many people. And I was having to go through with a traditional animator... I was fully directing pencil sketches on everything just to then hand those over, and then in this case, I will say the animation process has been vastly more fluid. It's incredible the skill level, so that I will still sit and turn over a sequence or turn over the idea of the performance... key beats in a performance... but then the first takes coming back, which is usually where you're in Long Beach and you need to be... they've been pretty amazing. So that the journey time from take one to whatever it is... take 17 or whatever... is so much faster. And that's just the number of kids between '95 and now who are coming out and becoming computer graphic animators.
M/C: My last quick question... onset, we talked about you beginning this process with him. I just saw "Star Trek" and Giacchino's score is amazing.
BS: Good, good.
M/C: And I really think he might be my favorite guy working right now. And part of it is he has absorbed pop culture completely. When he brings something back to it... yeah, there are references, but there's also... he brings this really fresh air to it. What's the process been with him on this one?
BS: Yeah. Well, you just kind of hit it. I'm smiling because I adore that guy and it's a lot of... yeah, there's a difference between kind of quoting pop culture, and ingesting it and being in it so that what you come forth with is honest and fresh. He happens to have all that in him. And that's him. I mean, we were scoring last weekend, and it fits in the family mold... he's got this fantastic son, who I'm sure will be a director, this kid named Mick... and Mick had just come back from this "Back to the Future" convention in Burbank where he'd gotten like signatures...
M/C: Was this Saturday?
BS: Yeah, yeah!
M/C: Yeah, I had friends who went.
BS: Yeah, Mick came in, and he had bought like an "OUTTA TIME" license plate, and he had Christopher Lloyd's picture, and he was telling me how much money he had to pay. And I'm like, "That's criminal." But I'm like, "Oh yeah, these guys aren't working, so it's okay." And Michael's like that. And I think what that does is it lets him be bold because he's not worried about commenting on genre. He's a fan so he comes at it with impulses that have linage to them and yet are fresh at the same time. And it's been a blast. I mean, he's wonderful. The "Up" score... I've heard a little bit of the "Up" score. Genius.
M/C: I've seen both extremes, because in "Speed Racer," he's heavily quoting the original. In "Star Trek," it's his. He started from scratch so there's no reference really to Goldsmith or Horner or those guys.
BS: We're kind of more the latter. There will be one key moment late in the picture where you get... because Will obviously takes the task for me. I mean, I didn't ever want to hear the theme until Will played it, and seemed to create the theme, the song. There's one really beautiful orchestration, one really smart orchestration of it used late in the movie, and before that, it was... the only thing we did do is look at each other immediately, because we again talked about the insanity of using a banjo in the original show, and we said the banjo has to be part of the score. So he's come up with these pretty insane ways of... inventively, not constantly, but really in smart moments where you don't expect it... like interweaving the banjo. Even the orchestra came up to him the other day, and said, like, "That was ballsy. Good." They didn't know why there was going to be a banjo guy in the other room. But it's great. It's very... for me, the benchmarks were Jerry Goldsmith's scores from like '68 to '71.
M/C: Oh, I love the atonal sort of crazy "Planet of the Apes" throwing silverware on the floor scores.
BS: Yeah, and that's what we're doing. We're doing it with the skills of a contemporary orchestra, but it was thrilling for me to sit there. Those piano rolls, you know... those things. So he's having a blast, and of course the studio... thank God, so far they've been pretty great, because I just knew... you kind of come forth with an idea like that and they immediately....because your fears are going to say, "Wait. Comedy equals comedy." And I was like getting my battle armor on, getting ready to fight that fight. And to their credit, they've actually been pretty great, because they kind of get it, which is... the movie is still an adventure. You can't... it happens to be comedic because of the behavior of Will and the choices that they make as you see in that sequence, but it's not like there aren't stakes. So the smartest thing you can do is actually score the stakes and it'll seem funnier.
M/C: Well, really, you're working in rarified air, because very few people ever pull off this kind of... very few people pull off the adventure sort of supernatural comedy. I think "Ghostbusters" is kind of in a class by itself right now.
BS: That's right. That's right.
M/C: And it's hard because a lot of people tip their hand towards being silly, but I like the balance here so far, and I like the dinosaurs a lot. Like I really love the look of it.
BS: Yeah. You'll get to see more Grumpy. Grumpy in particular is the... we couldn't actually animate all sequentially but some of the later stuff, as the relationship gets more complex... it's pretty great.
That is, unfortunately, all the time we had, but we're getting closer to the release of the film now, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works together.
Thanks to Brad for taking the time, and to Lindsey at Universal for putting it together.
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