Exclusive: Land of the Lost Director Brad Silberling

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In any other weekend, the thought of Will Ferrell taking on strange CG creatures and a giant T-Rex in a big budget movie version of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Land of the Lost would be the easiest money a summer release could pull in, but in this case, Ferrell’s latest might prove to be the underdog of the weekend, because far too many people are writing it off as a “stupid kid’s movie” and nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it’s a strange and edgy comedy that takes everything fans of the show will remember fondly–Grumpy the T.Rex and the Sleestaks, for instance–then look at them through the comedy prism one might expect knowing the sensibilities of Ferrell and his co-stars Danny McBride (Pineapple Express) and Jorma Taccone (“SNL”).

The film’s director Brad Silberling has a lot of experience with FX-driven family films, as well as working with creative comic actors, having teamed with Jim Carrey for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the series of books by Daniel Handler. Before that, he directed the Casper movie and City of Angels, as well as doing smaller and more personal films like Moonlight Mile. Either way, he was probably the best candidate to bring Sid and Marty Krofft’s world out of time to life in a way that modern audiences might believe, creating fantastical environments filled with realistic creatures that defy the cheesy low-budget look of the original show.

Since we talked to Todd Phillips about The Hangover earlier this week–you can read that interview here–it only seemed fair to give equal time to Brad Silberling, so we talked to him about what went into making this movie, how working with Ferrell differed from working with Jim Carrey and whether the world is ready for a Land of the Lost movie as strange and crazy as the one they made.

ComingSoon.net: So last night was the big screening here in New York City, and I think it was the only screening they had as far as I know.
Brad Silberling: You’re exactly right, because I got an Email from somebody who was there. It’s a strange moment where you’re alone with your movie, and then all of a sudden, one day, it’s in a million places. (laughs)

CS: I’m sure. Were you working on this and finishing it up at the last moment?
Silberling: It was so awfully close, you have no idea. It was as close to last minute as you probably get. Basically, it’s all driven by FX. We had so many FX. It’s funny because it doesn’t matter how much time you end up having with the FX schedule, they always come in towards the last minute, so what I love to try not to do is to box everybody else in, like Michael Giacchino, my composer, and everyone else. You really want to try to give everybody the best shot at actually working on what’s close to the completed film. I literally finished the film I think it’s two weeks ago tomorrow, so it was really tight.

CS: Michael’s having quite a summer with three movies released in the course of a month.
Silberling: It’s really funny how these things time out, too. The joke is that all of that “Star Trek” work, they had done last fall, but it’s almost three weekends in a row. He’s here with me in Austin for a screening, and he’s going to take a little break now for sure. (laughs)

CS: I gotta say that this is a very strange movie. To me, it’s strange in a good way; to others, I’m not sure. As I watched it, I thought, “How the hell did they get this past Universal and The Kroftts and all these people?” because there’s so much stuff in there that it’s hard to believe that you can do some of this stuff in a movie called “Land of the Lost.”
Silberling: (laughs) Well, the movie we always set out to do was a very psychedelic subversive movie that was going to be PG-13, and it’s not unlike Will Ferrell, and like Lauer, he has this whole line about, “Alright, cool, I was surprised Universal signed off on this” but our (plan) from the get-go was “Be up front, be up front, be up front,” because if you think you’re going to go off and try to make what amounts to a Saturday morning piece of programming, but do so on a feature scale with Will, it’s not going to happen. Interestingly, it probably would have happened at some point in the last fifteen years, but The Kroffts sort of struggled both at Disney and maybe at Sony to try to get a movie off the ground, and I would suspect one of the drafts, but they were probably dead faithful. The original show–and I was one of those original viewers–because of it being in a Saturday morning context, there was almost a mandate almost for, if not an educational component than it was always very earnest, and that was the nature of Saturday morning television. It stayed with us into adulthood, and Will and I both had tremendous respect for the show, but we didn’t have any interest in just doing that. We thought what we wanted to do was take all of those really extreme, psychedelic elements and then just get the wrong set of characters in it, so I’m thrilled that you found it as strange as you did. (laughs)

CS: Well, good, except I’m not sure I’m the best audience since I’m generally into strange things.
Silberling: You know what’s encouraging, though? I gotta tell you. It’s funny. We did a junket over the weekend, and the response is common in a great way. People were like, “I really had a ball. The movie is totally trippy and weird and we can’t believe that you actually got to do it.” It is like I say, as long as you’re not pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, trying to make an end run, we basically scripted it and did readings. Listen, Will is always an attractive element, but to the studio’s credit, they wanted to move forward with it, because other than this fun improvisation that’s in the final form of the movie, but most of the randier and strange elements were actually all the ones that were scripted, to their credit I guess.

CS: I was curious how you got involved because I know you’ve known Will for a long time.
Silberling: Will, we’ve known each other a long time, we’ve never worked together. I was in the middle of finishing to write another film that I was looking to probably do next, more in the line of (something on the) studio-indie side. I was going to shoot and I kind of had one role in mind for Will. I was finishing it, so we grabbed lunch and he sort of commandeered and apologized and said, “I’m sort of waylaying the conversation. I really want to try and go make ‘Land of the Lost'” and we got into a conversation about the same thing you and I are talking about, which was “Well, what would that movie be?” To me, I was going off to make sort of a traditional family movie at this point with a lot of interest, but I thought if we could really take those elements. I hadn’t seen the show since it was on the air, I’d never seen it in syndication, I’d never see it on DVD, so my memory was from 30-35 years earlier, and same with him. We said, “If we take that and basically put our sensibility in, then off you go.” In a way, I think what I was able to bring, which he only realized after the fact… I think he just thought it would be a sensibility link-up, and obviously, that I could come in and on a pure filmmaking level handle the world creation.

CS: Danny and Will do a lot of improv, so I wondered how that fits into a movie where you have to deal with a lot of FX and big sets.
Silberling: The biggest trap for the movie would have been if you had taken–actually, the three, because Jorma is incredibly strong with improv as well–had you taken those actors and then constrained them, it would have been a mistake. For me, it’s my third film with a real fair amount of FX works, so I’ve got enough savvy that I know how not to lock everybody down, and that was my role in the film was that I was never going to try and constrain them. That was the same with how the film was shot. I basically did not want it to be highly formal and formalized the way you tend to see a lot of larger FX movies. I wanted a lot of it to be shot off the shoulder and feel oddly at times like you’re in the middle of the situation with them, and oddly banal like the camera is sort of handheld panning around and discovering things that are coming at you. That was going to be my strategy to keep them free. I never wanted to have to go, “Gosh, guys, you gotta color in between the lines and you can’t go outside the lines.”

CS: Did you figure out with your CG guys how you were going to do that beforehand?
Silberling: You know what? Yeah. The funny thing is that half the time, the stuff that hopefully if it comes up, it requires tremendous preparation, and again it comes from experience but what I basically do is I lay down the components by how I build my sets, where I knew the lighting was going to be, giving myself the same parameters with my camera, working out with her how they were going to track these shots I was going to have to do. I did want that freedom to be able to follow a conversation. I operate the camera a lot and I wanted to be able to go with the comedy, go with the moment. So we worked it out. I really don’t love storyboarding, because I don’t love how everybody gets very dependent on the boards, but for a movie like this, you have to do it to prepare all the departments for what’s coming. So I did board that part of the movie, but I did warn everybody that it can all go out the window at any given moment so don’t get too dependent on them. They always cracked up about that.

CS: There’s a lot of complex stuff, like the first time they’re being chased by Grumpy across the bridge, and I can’t imagine how you can do that unless you’re just using a ton of green screen and creating it all later.
Silberling: No, and that’s the funny thing. This was where it becomes the math of… you really do need to know… it’s sort of like creating–not to reduce actors to children–but it’s that thing where you want to create the biggest playpen for their freedom to play in. You need to know the boundaries and create them well enough that they don’t feel constrained. I did not want the movie to be of the “300” mold where it was all blue screen and green screen for them. The biggest comedy killer is not having a competent environment for the actors to bounce off of. I’ve seen all these wonderful demos of “Here’s Sam Jackson from one of the Star Wars prequels” but when you actually look at the actors working in front of the green screen, you sense them not wanting to engage with their environment because they don’t quite know what’s there or what’s not there. It’s really unfair to them, so that’s why I wanted to go the other way, kind of like the original show, and build our environments. We had massive sets in which we could let the actors go. I can count the number of pure blue screen shots we have in the movie, the rest were all actual environments. You may have to continue the corner of a set-up or something like that, but you had to layout and design where your moves would be, where you’re going to need real estate for your chases, how you would do that. That just comes from the experience of having walked through it before.

CS: I want to ask about having Jorma play Chaka, because I think Will and Danny are known quantities. We know what they can do pretty much anything, but Jorma, he hasn’t done a lot of acting, and he has to play this very specific character Chaka. Did he already have an impression he did that sold you that he could do it?
Silberling: No, it’s pretty simple. I knew generically that I didn’t want to have Chaka just be a cute little boy. I wanted him to actually be an actor who had real comic chops and ability, and I wanted him to be a little older so that he can feel comfortable batting it about with Will and with Danny and also, I still wanted him to be smaller. I never thought he would be either a boy or a little person, but I did want a very slight guy. Somebody mentioned Jorma and he was coming to town, and we sat and met. He was young enough, he’s 32, that he wasn’t familiar with the original show, but we described it to him, and his eyes it up and I got a good sense from sitting with him that he has a fabulous, very alive storytelling eyes, and I just had a great instinct. When he went back East to New York at “SNL,” I sent him to my casting director in New York, and I gave him just two simple improv ideas. He went in and played those ideas, and that was again without having really seen the original show but just from our conversation and instinct, he just did this unbelievable job. It was all script from the movie, and he was so good, so he was sort of the first and last through the door and he was in.

CS: In the original script when you came on board, had they already decided to give up on having them be a family and having Will and Holly older?
Silberling: Yeah, yeah. That was in the original pitch. When Will was interested in trying to do it–Will’s manager Jimmy Miller produced the movie–the way things came together, Jimmy and his company Mosaic, they were just taking the Kroffts on as managers, and obviously what would come with that was the possibility of trying to take those properties they have out. When Will heard the Kroffts were coming and there was a possibility of “Land and the Lost,” he got really excited, but he knew that it was gonna feel a little bogus suddenly having him like have a 17-year-old son that looked like David Cassidy. It probably would never happen, and I think the thought, too, was that if Rick Marshall, the man we meet who by the end of the movie is finally capable of maybe having a relationship… we just get a sense that between his own myopia and everything else, that you’re never going to believe this guy having had enough relationships to have two kids. That was decided just as they started to conceptually pitch it around. So when I came on and Will asked me to do it, they had a sketch of a first pass of the script that was Marshall, Will and Holly–again, not kids–but the funny thing was that the story was non-existent at that point. When I thought through the equation, the tricky dilemma for Holly was always going to be that she obviously has to believe in Marshall enough to become his Girl Friday, but the problem is that if she doesn’t actually seem credible than the audience has nothing to hang onto. As it is, Dr. Marshall is sort of bouncing around like a top and Will is doing the same. Sadly, I immediately came to the conclusion that she had to be British, because the Americans seem to have an inferiority complex where when we hear a British accent, we subscribe that there has to be some intelligence there. We can say she came from Cambridge and she’s the only person who believes in this guy, so that led us to start the search for the perfect Brit, which led us to Anna, who was free because during the writers strike, her show “Pushing Daisies” went down, and yeah, it all came together.

CS: I think a lot of people are surprised that you guys decided to go for a PG-13 movie and that kind of humor. I think when people see the commercials, they just assume it’s going to be a PG movie because it was based on a kid’s show. Have you had any problems going too far or having to tone things down?
Silberling: No, because first of all, on the poster, it will say PG-13 and definitely not PG and they’re doing their best, because obviously, the MPAA is very good, because you not only get your PG-13, but it will literally have a little box, and it’s amazing how specific it gets. I think it literally says “Occasional crude humor, suggested drug use…” It kind of lists the stuff for you.

CS: I’m not sure how many parents actually read that stuff, though, because I was kind of surprised how many young kids were at the screening last night.
Silberling: But that wouldn’t surprise me so much in terms of a media screening, because it’s not a group of parents who’ve gone through (the paper), and I understand that. I think from here on out what you’ll have happen is that some parents will completely not read that or ignore it, and you may have pissed off parents, but I think you said it, which is nobody ever made any pretention that we weren’t going to do anything other than a vehicle that is consistent with Will. It’s funny, the only Will vehicle that did not end up being either PG-13 or R, other than going back to “Elf,” was “Kicking and Screaming.” Interestingly, that was a film they struggled with, and I think they actually tried to clean it up to a point where in the end I don’t know that it’s everybody’s favorite of Will’s movies, just based on the fact that they really went through a process. We were again with everybody very much up front saying, “Know that here’s the material and here’s what it’s going to be.” I think in the marketing, the studio has done a very shrewd thing, because they’ve chosen not to go and sell airtime on the Cartoon Network or on Nickelodeon. Like when Chaka meets Holly and is grabbing her chest, because he’s obviously going for a quick and easy feel, that’s made its way very quickly as it unfolds, and it’s very brave for the marketing department who said, “No, that’s gotta go in the trailer, because that’s going to be something on TV that I want people to see.” You’re not trying to hoodwink an audience. You’re saying, “You’re going into a very psychedelic, randy movie. This is not the TV series from the ’70s, but it’s from a few guys who were original watchers who are bringing these elements forward comedically.”

CS: I wanted to ask about working with Will compared to working with Jim Carrey, as it seems like it’s a similar situation where you’re working with guys who are really quick with their improvisers and you have to put them in this environment again with big sets and fantasy FX. Was this a very different experience from making “Lemony Snicket,” maybe because you already knew Will better than you knew Jim?
Silberling: That would be true at the outset for sure, but what’s interesting is that their reputations are sort of fascinating because neither of them are ever out of control. I can’t speak for other people’s experiences, but in my case, far from it. They do work very differently though. Jim’s very articulate about what works for him. Jim comes from the background of stand-up comedy and as Jim always describes it, he describes any night of stand-up work as “kill or be killed” like you’ve got to come out and slay the audience or they’ll slay you. You feel that in his work; he comes to take no prisoners, and it’s where you get a lot of incredible, explosive firework-like individual moments. What’s interesting is that when you think of Will’s work for all these individual moments, you’ll recall that probably some of the funniest moments tend to be in relationship with somebody else, whether it’s the Baby Jesus at the dinner table or some of the stuff with Sacha Cohen in “Talladega.” That’s the primary difference. Will literally comes from a Groundlings background, so he’s all about basically bouncing off his scene partners, and Jim is more about really creating an electric character that’s easily more individual or sort of scoring in his own universe. Jim surprisingly is much more about rehearsal and preparation. It seems like all the improv is happening there in front of you, which happens at awards shows, but we did the bulk of our improvising in “Lemony Snicket” well before we ever rolled film on the movie, and then basically chose some of our favorite passages, if you will, of improv that we did on each of the characters and said, “Yeah, that feels like the best portion of this extemporaneous improv” that serves the story, and then he’s very particular about sticking to that. So that’s the real difference. Will’s definitely all about his scene partners, and it’s very different. He doesn’t tend to over-prepare any of those moments and then it’s very free with him, where he’s like “Take it or leave it.” He’s also just very happy to roll along with the script.

CS: There was a soundbyte from a red carpet interview you did recently about doing another “Lemony Snicket” movie. Is that something you want to do or something you’ve heard talk about?
Silberling: No, that’s kind of just a collective desire. The whole “Lemony” franchise got caught up in… the tricky part any time a property is in the hands of two studios, which was this case pretty much, the minute that there’s any kind of almost divorce, the kids always end up suffering. In this case, it’s a property they conjoined on, and the hope is that as the dust settles from the conclusion of that… but yeah, I’m actually very intrigued to do it, but the thing that Daniel Handler has spoken about in the past is that I’m less intrigued about just going off and try to do another FX movie where you have to completely recast at this point. I mean, Emily Browning is 19, and Liam Aiken is taller than Kareem. He’s an incredibly tall kid with a deep voice. So you’d basically be building from the ground up, and I think the series would be better served by a textural surprise. Daniel and I talked about setting the movie up so that the great twist is that you realize you’ve ended up in an entirely different universe that the narrator, Lemony Snicket himself, takes you to, sort of pawning the first film off as a dramatization, but now he’s going to tell you the real story. (laughs)

CS: What about yourself? You said that you had another script you were working on before Will roped you into this, so is that something you’re going to go back to do next or are you going to take some time off?
Silberling: Sort of both. This ended up taking close to two years, so I am definitely taking the summer down. My wife (Amy Brenneman) does a TV series (“Private Practice”) and they’re on their hiatus until late July, so it’s a nice overlap that we can take our kids and get a little bit of vacation time. I’m definitely going to take the summer down, and yeah, my favorite thing is to try to figure out what I’m interested in doing next, and I can never guess that. If I tried two years ago to dictate what that would be, I probably would have rebelled.

CS: Well, you did make “10 Items and Less” in between two fairly big budget movies, which was a strange choice.
Silberling: Oh, yeah. It’s funny, but it’s pretty consistent. Before “Lemony,” “Moonlight Mile” was relatively… I think came in for like $20 million, and of course, before that “City of Angels” was another $50 million movie. I always want to go where I want to go anyway, and that’s the most creative freedom you can hope to get, but it is fun to jog back and forth. The large canvas ones are enjoyable, but they just take a chunk of time and a level of minutiae that you get exhausted of, so that by the end, all you want to do… which is what happened with “10 Items or Less,” which was just two great actors in a car with a camera. The piece that I was writing that I may well go do next, and if I do, it’ll probably be at the end of the year before I shoot, it’s definitely a character-based comedy, but much more on the studio-indie side, and not the summer tentpole.

CS: I talked to Todd Phillips last week and he was very gracious when I tried to set up a competition between the two of you for the weekend. He wasn’t having any of it, but he mentioned having met you and talked about the shared experience. Do you feel at this point, you might actually be the underdog of the weekend against “The Hangover”?
Silberling: (laughs heartily) No, it’s such a fabricated thing. It’s funny because Todd and I just saw each other like maybe two weeks ago or less. I co-hosted something at the DGA with all of our featured directors that usually never get together in the same room. Here’s the thing: “The Hangover” looks fantastic. It just looks funny, and it will be a very specific audience and some of that audience will overlap with some of Will’s core audience, and then there’s a chunk of audience that “Land of the Lost” will play to that’s not necessarily be interested in “The Hangover.” The quickest way to make a fool of yourself, which happens in the media every Friday is that people try to guess weekend #s and of course, on Monday, the joke is that, “Wow, the tracking was off, I don’t understand!” I wish that movie all the best, especially because Warner Bros. has not frankly been making great comedies, so selfishly, as a filmmaker, you love it when other studios are marketing their movie really well, which traditionally, Warners has not done so well with comedies. Everybody’s happy to see it, but we’ll see what happens. One’s hopes for the summer with any movie movie… and the great thing about coming out in June–and I’m sure that he feels that too–that summer is long enough that some of the other titles that come out don’t connect so that you hope to play through for a bit of time and keep an audience alive.

CS: That’s exactly what Todd said. I think you guys coached each other on what to tell people who ask about that.
Silberling: (laughs) That’s really funny.

Land of the Lost opens everywhere on Friday, June 5.

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