“I didn’t know how they were going to condense it in order to put it into a movie!” Steve Carell deadpans at one point on the set of his latest, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
“The alligator had its mouth taped shut,” says Jennifer Garner with enthusiasm, at another.
That’s because both stars are sitting together on an artificial deck bordering an artificial backyard containing a very real alligator (doubling for a crocodile) who, at the moment, is sulking at the bottom of fully-functional swimming pool.
The scene would be even stranger from an aerial view. A massive set replicates the back of a suburban home in perfect detail, but it’s as if the entire plot of land has been shifted into the middle of a desert. This is just one of the outdoor sets that has made use of Newhall, California’s Melody Ranch, a motion picture studio lot famously purchased by Gene Autry in 1952. More recently, projects like HBO’s “Deadwood” and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained have filmed there, making use of the stages’ popular western townfront. Today, however, it’s a simple outdoor stage that has been transformed into a veritable oasis containing, as one might expect from an adaptation of the eternal elementary school must-read, a contemporary American home.
Sure, there’s an alligator in the pool trying to find his crocodile motivation and, all around, some kangaroos, a wallaby, emus and other exotic creatures getting ready for their close-ups, but before you start signing any petitions against the Jumanji-fication of classic American literature, know that this menagerie does have a logical explanation, but also that to explain it would ruin part of the surprise at the heart of the October 10 release.
Instead, know this: Kangaroos are extremely soft and we’re all pronouncing “Emu” wrong.
“Everyone here says ‘ee-moo,'” laughs Alexander himself, young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould, who bares a shocking resemblance to the classic book illustrations by Ray Cruzz. “It’s actually ‘ee-mew.'”
It’s a happy coincidence that Oxenbould hails from Oz when his illustrated counterpart dreams of life Down Under in the children’s book. The focus in the movie, however, is no coincidence at all. One of the aspects of Alexander that has been expanded to flesh out the character is his love of Australia.
An indoor set nearby duplicates Alexander’s bedroom (and a good two-thirds of the accompanying house, all constructed with detachable walls to give room for lights and camera) and the decor includes maps of the continent, a didgeridoo and a plastic platypus. That’s on Alexander’s side of the room, at least. His brother, Anthony, played in the film by Dylan Minnette (Prisoners) shares the room and he’s much more interested in passing his driving test so he can take his girlfriend (Bella Thorne) to junior prom.
“We grew up with ‘Vacation’ and John Hughes and ‘Escape to Witch Mountain,'” says Garner, “all of these big [films template=’galleryview’]–>. ‘Splash,’ even! These big family movies! They haven’t existed in a really long time.”
“I guess there is sort of a void there,” adds Carell. “I don’t see a lot of live-action family movies. I don’t want to call this a ‘kid’s movie,’ because I truly don’t think it is. I think it’s funny enough to hold up for much more than kids. I think there is much more depth here, not to be too pretentious about it.”
Carell and Garner, who play parents to Alexander, Anthony, Emily (Kerris Dorsey) and a toddler, have been wanting to work together for years and found Alexander to be the perfect project to collaborate on.
“We’d met in passing a few times, but I’d heard nothing but superlatives about the kind of person she is on and off set,” says Carell. “A great actor but, beyond that, she’s a really kind, wonderful person. I couldn’t wait and she has been tormenting me.”
“I love the title and the book and that Disney is making this,” says Garner, “but really I thought, ‘Oh finally I’m going to get to work with Steve? Done! Sign me up!'”
Garner and Carell had both attended Denison University years apart and that background became the subject of an on-set practical joke wherein Garner, in an attempt to mess with Carell, ordered University gear for the entire crew.
“So I’ll go a whole day and then realize the entire camera crew has Denison University gear on,” Carell says. “I’m so unobservant.”
“Just the other night,” Garner laughs, clearly delighted with her ongoing prank, “two guys working had Denison written down their legs in sweatpants.”
“And I didn’t know!” Carell chuckles. “I will only notice when she [points it out template=’galleryview’]–>.”
“Yeah,” Garner smiles. “At this point, I just feel bad for him and I point it out right away!”
To help build a realistic bond, Carell invited his onscreen family to Disneyland to get the chance to really hang out with them as a family. For young Oxenbould, that was a dream come true.
“It was amazing, yeah!” he recalls, “It was kind of hard not to have fun?[Anchorman template=’galleryview’]–> is actually one of my favorite all-time movies. Probably, actually, my favorite movie of all time.”
“I never sensed that there were exercises that we were going through or trying to artificially create a family dynamic,” says Carell. “I think it’s that we all immediately took to one another and liked each other and that’s just luck.”
“We laugh a lot with those kids all day long,” says Garner. “I think Ed really is the heart of our little family unit. He loves to play. He’s the star of this movie and he’s going to do all these yo-yo tricks or he’s going to do all these card tricks. He just never stops. I don’t know what they do with him when he’s not on set, he has so much play energy! He plays with the babies! He plays with the older kids! He’s just fun in that way and he includes everyone in his joy.”
Although the story finds a clever way of expanding the story from the children’s book, the heart of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day remains with a message that the stars hope get through to young minds.
“Usually for us,” Carell says of his real life family, “there is so much homework and it’s ‘I’m never gonna get through this!’ and ‘This is terrible!’ and ‘I have a test!’ That sense of tension where you try to get your kids to step back and say ‘It’s okay! It’s going to get done.'”
“I think kids love to have their feelings validated and acknowledged,” Garner adds, “and I think the idea that you can just have a rotten day that is horrible — that no one understands that is terrible from your point of view in every way — feels good. It feels like ‘Oh, I understand that!’ My kids haven’t seen a bad day in their lives if you look at it from a global perspective but, for them, they’ve had some real hum-dingers.”
Find out yourself which kind of “hum-dingers” Alexander and his family go through when Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day hits theaters October 10.