As much as there are directors who make studio movies for years without really making a name for themselves, especially when it comes to comedies, which almost always tend to be about the stars, there’s always that one breakout movie where people realize a director probably can do more than they expect. That’s clearly the case with Andy Fickman who has directed a number of low-key studio and indie comedies, most recently the Disney hit The Game Plan starring Dwayne Johnson, though that’s not really thought of as a “director’s movie.”
Next week, Disney is releasing Race to Witch Mountain, Fickman’s second teaming with Johnson for an updated sequel (of sorts) to the original ’70s Disney adventure movies Escape to Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain. While it still has the comedy moments that Fickman has specialized in for his entire career, it’s more of a sci-fi tinged action adventure that involves a lot more stunts and FX than anything he’s done in the past.
ComingSoon.net first met Fickman at Comic-Con International in San Diego, where his enthusiasm was infectious, as he was clearly thrilled about finally being at the con with one of his own movies after attending for years as a punter. It’s clearly that quality which he has as a filmmaker that’s helped him assemble such an amazing cast for his most high-profile movie, including the likes of Ciaran Hinds, Gary Marshall, Cheech Marin and more.
A couple of weeks ago, we got on the phone with Fickman for an update on how the project was coming along, as well as talking about some of the other things in the pipeline, his growing working relationship with Dwayne Johnson and old horror movies, of which Fickman will soon be ensconced as he works on remakes of a couple of old RKO thrillers. As before, we found him to be a really cool guy and fun to talk to, especially for an extended interview such as this one.
ComingSoon.net: We spoke back in July when you had just finished shooting, so is the film almost done at this point?
Andy Fickman: You know, I’m in that final “Race to Finish Witch Mountain” mode right now and this week, we just finished late last night on the scoring stages with our great composer Trevor Rabin and now we’re in the middle of mixing and just dealing with final visual effects shots. I was just telling someone, it’s sort of like that moment when all of a sudden you know, like your mom is coming over and your house is a mess, and you fix it, you’re racing around like, “I don’t even know where that underwear came from.”
CS: You’ve been pretty busy I imagine. The last time I talked to you was in July with Dwayne and Carla and I think you had just finished shooting. I think it probably hadn’t even ended.
Fickman: We had wrapped July 4th, had taken a week off just to kind of rejuvenate and to give my editor time to sort of get the final pieces of the assembly just on the line. From then, it’s just been truly, truly nonstop.
CS: Have you gone through any kind of testing or screening of the movie for an audience yet?
Fickman: We’ve been so thrilled. We’ve done a couple of these test screenings and that’s always where you finally even in the rough form where some of it’s the apology of like, “It’s temporary music, the film looks crappy, the visual effects aren’t done, that’s a hand puppet, that doesn’t look real. It will when it’s finished.” Yeah, I mean, to hear the audience reaction and more importantly to hear how surprised they are at what a ride it is and how much fun it was and how much really there was kind of something for everybody. Those are the things you hope for when you’re making it, but it really just comes down to you sitting in there within the audience and then afterwards, you hear those discussion groups. When they nail something for you and they say it almost verbatim to what you had said in the editing room or when you were filming, that’s great. And then you learn. There’s places where, “Oh, wait. We cut that line, and that was probably a bit of information that they needed, we’ll put that line back in.” Or “You know what? That moment over there, if we shift it over here maybe that will have a bigger surprise.” So I love that process just because I feel like we make movies for audiences, and I can stare at my movie in the editing room with myself and the editor for a year and (we can) both be like, “Yeah, that’s good.” But really until you get an audience and until you get that sense and you hear the gasps when you want them to be there and you hear the applause at the middle of the movie when you wanted it to be there, that’s always one of the most satisfying things.
CS: I was curious, of the people who’ve seen it, do you get the impression that a lot of them are familiar with “Witch Mountain” or they kind of knew of it or are they all new to it? What’s been the impression?
Fickman: You know, it’s interesting. It’s a question that everybody asks at the end in the focus groups, and I would say that at least a third of the people in every single focus group we have had raised their hands to have seen it. I put the original kids, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, in the movie, so a lot of people actually recognized them. Whether they recognized them just because they had seen their names or once they see them on the screen together, so that’s really satisfying. And you know, we have the Winnebago, we have a lot of Easter eggs from the original series of films populated in our new mythology. It’s kind of a personal satisfaction when some audience member raises their hand and says, “Oh, hey! I loved X, Y, and Z moment in the movie because it was from the original,” and that’s when you feel like, “Alright, now I’ve found another fan.”
CS: Did you ever find out if they were going to re-release the originals on DVD at the same time?
Fickman: You know what? My understanding is that they have a dual pack right now where you can get “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return From Witch Mountain” on DVD and I just got an email yesterday–I don’t know any of the details–but one of the theaters in town is getting ready to do a couple of midnight showings of the original “Escape to Witch Mountain,” which is awesome.
CS: I want to talk about the cast. Obviously we know about Carla and we knew about Dwayne, but there are others we haven’t really seen much in the trailer. We do get to see Ciarán Hinds obviously who is always great.
Fickman: Yeah, Ciarán was the director dream moment. He was the only person I ever had in mind for the villain. He never had done a studio film like this, there wasn’t even like a track record of you being able to say, “Of course he would want to do that.” Actually, I didn’t even know how the studio would feel. You’re kind of going in and being like, “He’s Caesar in ‘Rome,’ and that guy in ‘Munich.'” They loved him and he was on Broadway at the time doing an amazing play called “The Seafarer.” I flew to New York, saw the show where he plays Satan during a poker game, and he and I went and had brunch the next day and it was great. The script really wasn’t even finished at that point. It was more a concept of what if was going to be and I wasn’t leaving that brunch until he said “yes,” so it was a great opportunity to have that one visual… that’s the guy you always saw in the role, and there he is.
CS: What about people like Cheech Marin and Gary Marshall? Gary especially, we haven’t really seen doing a lot of acting these days.
Fickman: Yeah, both were great. We were looking at this one role for this mechanic and kind of had our wish list again of people that it would be fun with. Cheech’s name came up as that kind of like, “You know, you want someone like Cheech Marin.” Then I think a week later I got a call saying, “Hey, you want to talk to Cheech Marin?” and I’m like, “Uh, yeah.” If for no other reason because like, even if he doesn’t do it, I’ve just met Cheech Marin!” So he came on board. Gary has been a bit of a mentor for me for years and he’s always been so kind. One of the first directing awards I won for theater was for when “Reefer Madness” was a musical here in L.A. and I won the Ovation Award and Gary was the one who presented it to me on the stage. By the time we turned “Reefer Madness” into a movie, Gary was there at the premiere. So Gary, he has a theater here in L.A. called the Falcon Theater that I’m at constantly. He’s been such a kind, really supportive guy that when it came time to this one role as kind of the larger than life, crazy UFO guy, again we were all talking and in our heads we were like, “He should be someone like Gary.” He’s got such a great relationship at Disney and everything, so we called him and he came in and he steals the show. It actually was great because when we had Gary on the set, all the cast would go over and talk to Gary, and I told them, “Look, it’s the worst move a director can make is to hire a better director to be on the set.” Now that just means that everyone will go hang out with him.
CS: What about Alex and AnnaSophia? Now with the trailer we’re seeing a lot more stuff that they’re doing. They’re both fairly experienced actors for kids that young, but what was the experience compared to “The Game Plan” in which you have a completely new actress?
Fickman: You know, it’s a really good question. Madison was brand new, eight years old, had done like two episodes of “Barney,” so there you’re working with somebody who’s got so much raw energy and she was really just a kid having fun. With AnnaSophia, who much like Ciarán and Carla Gugino and Dwayne, again the only person I ever had in mind visually for that role was her. I just always loved her in “Bridge to Terabitha” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Because of Winn-Dixie.” She and I sat down and met and she’s a really amazing, soulful actress, very thoughtful in the process and kind of wise beyond her years as we talked about what that character was. She signed on, she never auditioned. I just went to Disney and said, “Her,” and Disney loved her, and again because they had done “Bridge to Terabithia,” so that was done. Then it was about finding the actor to play opposite her, and we got very lucky and found several young actors who were all just different in what they brought and had a great connection. Alexander from the very first day he auditioned, our producer Andrew Gunn and I just looked at each other and went, “That’s kind of the kid to beat.” Aside from him having a very strong resemblance with AnnaSophia, just acting-wise he brought a tremendous amount of positive energy. Both of them together, you would constantly hear from the crew how much fun they were having with them because they’re both really polite kids, they’re really smart, they’re really funny. For me, I always hope that you create a family bond on the set. It’s a long shoot, many locations, many stunts, so those can be labor-intensive timewise. Every day was a blast, and I really have cherished having this relationship with them. Like everyone on the cast, it was hard to say goodbye, and as we just started to get gearing up for press and everything, just seeing them more and more through ADR and everything, just nothing but smiles every time you see them.
CS: You shot a lot of this in Vegas and outside Vegas, but was there a lot of soundstage stuff as well?
Fickman: You know, we shot all over, but we got to shut down the (Vegas) Strip for a couple of nights which is probably one of the craziest… You’re literally in Vegas – Vegas doesn’t shut down! All of a sudden, the police have blocked off the Strip and you’ve got people piling up on the sidewalk all trying to clamor to get a look, but it was really great. We filmed inside the casinos, all inside Planet Hollywood and then all outside up and down the Strip, then the Fremont District, which is the older District of Vegas, we filmed all on location there. So we were in Vegas for about three weeks. It’s always challenging to film on location anyway because you are sort of a little bit in the hands of the fans who show up locally to make sure that they don’t tear the place down and have a chanting session. Nothing else says that like Vegas where they tend to indulge in all aspects of life in Vegas and then they look out at three o’clock in the morning and they see Dwayne Johnson near the casino and that just makes them all go crazy. I’m really glad we did that because the look and feel of the movie, to me, it’s just added by having the flavor of Vegas.
CS: I assume this is the most effects-heavy movie you’ve done so far. What’s been the hardest part of doing so much CG? I assume that’s a lot of what you’ve been doing the last few months.
Fickman: Yeah, you know, the biggest challenge with CG is… a good majority of our movie is practical which is what we really want, so we have all these amazing car chases and all these fights and stuff where we really went old school version of doing it. Then the challenge is when you’re doing something… so much of your movie is old school, and then you have the amazing CGI that you could play with, the challenge is blending it enough that you don’t ever feel like you’re taken out of the movie. Sometimes, if a movie is completely CGI you just accepted that from the very beginning as being, this is what it is. Here, it’s constantly like going back, and, you know, every time we see shots you give notes and it’s like, “That looks a little… can we paint that? What color? Could you change that? Could you do this?” That’s constantly the challenge. It’s labor intensive. They have to administer notes so you don’t get the instant gratification where you can get in an editing room where literally I can be like, “What would it look like if we put that scene there, cut that line?” and 15 minutes later I can see it. With CGI, all you can do is look at it, give notes and then wait for the next one. We’ve been very lucky because we have a really crackerjack team or people. “Crackerjack” I’m not sure anyone should use that term, but now I’m really hoping to bring that term back… “crackerjack.” That will make me laugh all day that in the middle of this very quiet interview, I just threw out “crackerjack.” But, you know, we have these great artists and illustrators coming in and working and you’re having to look at the screen. You know, when you’re doing live action stuff, you’re just looking for gaps to be like, “Is that the boom mic? Can we get rid of it?” When you’re doing the CGI stuff, especially if it’s a lot of artificial landscapes, you’re looking for everything to make sure that it all just looks as photo real as possible.
CS: One of the things that’s pretty cool about this movie is that it’s going to be seen more as a director’s movie. With most comedies, they don’t really look at who directed them, unless it’s done by Judd Apatow, but with action and FX movies, the director is front and center. Do you feel you want to go more in this direction, do more CGI-based heavy action stuff? Or was this movie a way to getting it out of your system?
Fickman: You know what? I’ve always loved mixing it up, but I am such a lover of all movies that the kid in me from Texas who sat in a mall watching these big action movies and sort of dreaming as big as I could be. When you’re in that director’s chair and you’re finding yourself directing that movie, boy, yeah, you have an appetite to be like, “I want to do that one again.” (Laughs) Some of the things that I’m looking at down the line, I’m hoping very much to continue in that world, and always, no matter what, I always like to have a bit of comedy in everything I do. It’s my sort of my personality and what makes me happy when I see a movie. So some will be more comedic than others, but definitely now that I’ve had a taste of it as a director, and as a producer on “Anaconda” I mean, when you’re producing a movie like “Anaconda,” you are living vicariously through your writers and your director. I’m very proud of the movie and having a total fun fest with it. So now when you get your chance to sort of direct your own kind of fun popcorn movie, that’s very seductive. You want to do ’em again.
CS: When we talked last July, we were talking about why comedy is so important in action movies, so now that it’s almost done, how did it work out? The commercial looks very funny, I mean, Dwayne is just hilarious. How has it been mixing those two things? You must have some scenes where it had to be tense, and you can’t really yuck it up during some of those scenes. How has it been trying to mix the two things?
Fickman: Yeah, I think that’s it exactly. I think the balance issue, you try it and you almost have to tell yourself (that) you have to cut laughs at times because you realize, “That’s a good laugh, and then that’s a really great laugh, but boy if I keep that great laugh I have to cut the tension tenfold.” I think of the two laughs, I’ll lose one just to make sure I’m having the opportunity to build the tension and sometimes it’s the reverse, you’ve got a great tense moment and going to undercut it, because the laugh will actually help at that moment. I like to have enough, I like to improv on the set, too. I like to have enough in editorial that we can pull from and play with, but it is very much a balancing act, because if you go too funny it begins to feel like a comedy with some action. On this one, it was wanting to build more of an action movie that had nice elements of the comedy throughout.
CS: Do you feel you have another movie in your triptych with Dwayne that you might want to do?
Fickman: You know, Dwayne and I… I sort of feel like we’ve got a lifetime ahead of us and we’ve got a couple of projects we’re looking at right now, and I think we just have a solid working relationship that when we talk with people, also just in town when people give us scripts, sometimes both he and I get either the same script or someone will hand him the script and be like, “And this would be for Andy Fickman to direct.” Or they’ll be like, “And also if you think of the role as written for Dwayne Johnson that would be wonderful.” And then you open the first page and he is described as like, “He’s 6’4″ and Samoan.” Hmm… gee. What are my options?
CS: Exactly, that’s pretty funny.
Fickman: But I always had a great time with Amanda Bynes on “She’s the Man.” She and I are developing a script with all my “Reefer Madness” cast like Kristen Bell and everybody. I certainly love working with new actors all the time and having that relationship, and then I love if you start a rhythm with someone like I have with Dwayne, especially someone as versatile as Dwayne too because he can do the comedy, he can do the action, he’s got so much in him that a lot of times when you’re looking for a movie star, that big male lead, it’s easy for me to immediately kind of apply to Dwayne ask, “Is that Dwayne?” And if it is, I always get a little bit more excited about the project.
CS: Obviously you’ve been working so hard on this movie, but you’ve also been developing all of these other things. How has it been as far as juggling all those various things?
Fickman: I’ve had so much fun. We’ve just started my new production company Oops Doughnuts Productions and we’re housed at Disney and we have a three year deal there. We just purchased a script right before the end of the year, “The Most Annoying Man in the World” which is very much a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” style comedy that we’re working on right now that I love. I’m producing and writing on these RKO remakes with Twisted Pictures of the Val Lewton Library and the first one up, “I Walked with a Zombie” that Adam Marcus is going to direct and I’m producing. We’re just getting ready to start going out for casting on that. We’ll film that in New Orleans in the spring and just the notion of being on the set and focusing on it as a producer, and trying to give my director as much support as I possibly can. Now I’ll start looking at what the next movie will be on my development slate, which one will be ready or is there another one coming up? Hopefully in the summer or the fall I’ll start getting back behind the lens.
CS: You know, that movie you mentioned, “The Most Annoying Man in the World,” you are going to have to be really diplomatic when you go out to actors with that one. You know that, right?
Fickman: (Laughs) Oh, please! Our joke was, when we bought it, we were like, “It could’ve been worse, it could’ve been like, ‘The Ugliest Girl in the World’.” Literally, we’d be calling actresses being like, “When I read this script, I thought of you.” So yeah, “The Most Annoying…,” we really have to be careful who you bring in, especially the many times you can say, “I think you’re perfect for this.”
CS: The RKO thrillers are pretty interesting. Of the ones you’re developing, I’ve only seen “The Bodysnatcher.” I don’t think I’ve seen any of the other ones and they’re really kind of obscure, unless you’re a really, really diehard horror fan. Were you a fan of all those movies?
Fickman: Yeah, I loved “I Walked with a Zombie;” I thought it was one of the most beautiful… I remember catching it on a big screen at some revival house. I thought it was one of the most beautiful horror films in terms of the looks with shadows. “The Body Snatcher,” which is the one that of all of them, “Body Snatcher” will probably be the one that I’ll direct and I thought that it was great in terms of the medical community today, and there was a lot of stories that were in the press. “Bedlam” was also another one that I remember Boris Karloff and how creepy the world was. Then we took one of the RKO movies that had not been from the Val Lewton library, which was “Five Came Back,” an old Lucille Ball movie, and it’s more of an action-drama. We came up with a spin that really worked within the confines of what this horror world was. Yeah, these were movies that I loved because, like, “Cat People,” which was also part of that library, they were coming in the ’40s after Universal really laid the groundwork with all the creature features, with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” and “The Wolf Man” and “Mummy” and all of that. RKO didn’t have as much money and so they really had to go for the classic smoke and mirrors. We’ll do it shadows, we’ll do it with fog, we’ll do it with lights, and people like Robert Wise, one of my favorite directors, cut his chops on those movies. Yeah, I looked at it as a great challenge. They’re not titles that even sometimes the strongest cinephiles that I speak to are vaguely familiar with one or two of those, usually “Cat People,” they’re like, “Oh, okay, I know that.”
CS: Most people probably know the remake of that one.
Fickman: Yeah, so it’s a great world to explore because I think there’s a wonderful tradition there and I sort of have this dream that it would be fun to have on the DVD like… when we put out the “Reefer Madness” DVD, Showtime also put the original “Reefer Madness” movie on the DVD. You could watch the original 60-minute film, and then you could watch our musical version of it. I had that dream with RKO, the same way that they would put out a rerelease of like, the original “I Walked with a Zombie” in conjunction with our version.
CS: Before talking to you, I was thinking about those movies, and besides Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff back in the day, who were both huge movie stars, they don’t really have those kinds of big stars consistently working in horror. Sure, you have characters like Freddy or Jason or that kind of stuff, but not really actors. So are you trying to find that caliber of actor for these?
Fickman: It’s a really great point because there was that period of time with the Lon Chaneys and the Boris Karloffs, and Vincent Price. I mean, even as you got into “The Hammer Series” with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, those guys they all sort of represented horror. You know, Bela Lagosi, you’d see their faces and you just knew it was the new face of horror. Now, you know, the new face of horror, you’d almost have to sell it as the character of Mike Meyers or Freddy or Jason. You’re less likely to sell it as Robert Englund.
CS: I guess Robert was the last one.
Fickman: Yeah, I think that he became a face and by the time he was doing things like “V” and bouncing around like. To this day, I think you can still go down and sometimes see a horror film that will come out and they’ll definitely put him front and center. But you don’t have John Carradine, you don’t have those faces that you so associate with it. Also, you’d read these stories where a lot of these great Shakespearian actors, including Robert Englund, they found themselves in these horror films and that became their career. I’m blanking on the gentleman’s name from “Hellraiser,” but he was this great stage actor who found himself like, “Look, if we stick a thousand pin needles in your face do you mind?” and he’s like, “No, that’ll be good.” Two thousand movies later I’m sure that sometimes he’s like, “You know I can also do a monologue.”
CS: I also wanted to ask about your feelings about the ratings on horror films. If any of those RKO films were released now, they’d probably be PG because they’re so tame by today’s standards.
Fickman: Oh, very much so.
CS: Are you trying to keep the remakes to a PG-13, or do you feel like some of them need to be R? Like, the zombie movie is kind of challenging, and it would probably need to be R to work, right?
Fickman: Yeah, you know, I think I want to go movie by movie because I think some lend themselves to maybe a little bit more of an R treatment just in terms of maybe some of the visuals and what you can do. Others, if you can get away with the PG-13 and you can sort of bring more people in, I’m always a fan of that, too. I don’t mind R-rated as long as also the R was designed to – like in “The Exorcist” or something where it really was sort of so scary and so visceral that it made sense. I would hate to just simply have an R-rating because we have one shot of an arm getting chopped off. I remember in “Anaconda,” they were threatening us with an R-rating because the MPAA told us we had 13 seconds of additional bone crunch sound. I mean, when they told it to me, it was the most arbitrary, like, “What? You’re going to give us an R because we have 13 seconds of…?” Then I think there was a meeting at some point where they determined what the appropriate level of bone crunch was, like literally they’d be like, “Well, as far as bone crunch goes, of course eight seconds is as much bone crunch as any person can have.”
CS: I’ve heard a lot of stories about the MPAA doing stuff like that.
Fickman: Oh, you’re just rolling the dice and crossing your fingers.
CS: You’re already played this movie for the MPAA and got a PG for “Witch Mountain,” right?
Fickman: We just got PG from them, but yeah, we had to send it in and they gave us that box that… It’s PG, but it’s about 48 caveats of intense and action. It’s our system, the system that we go by, but it is an arbitrary mode where you’re never in the room with them; you can’t argue – you can appeal it, but at the end of the day, we got PG and that’s kind of the world we were looking for.
Race to Witch Mountain opens nationwide next Friday, March 13.