'Dennis' still a menace in new Warner Premiere DVD

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"Dennis" DVD: Although there was a time when films that went straight to video were clearly not those with great expectations, things have changed dramatically on the DVD front.

Hollywood's now busy creating original movie content that will receive its initial release on DVD rather than in theaters. A case in point is Warner Bros.' Warner Premiere series which started producing films for DVD last year and is launching its first holiday season family movie Nov. 6 with "A Dennis the Menace Christmas" via Warner Home Video.

Directed by Ron Oliver and produced by Steven J. Wolfe, the live action comedy was written by Kathleen Laccinole. Starring are Robert Wagner as Dennis' neighbor George Wilson, Maxwell Perry Cotton as the famous 6-year-old menace Dennis, George Newbern, Kim Schraner, Jack Noseworthy, Godfrey and Louise Fletcher.

Originally created in 1951 as a comic strip by the late Hank Ketcham, "Dennis the Menace" still appears in more than 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries and 19 languages. In 1959 Dennis premiered as a TV series starring Jay North. Over the years there have also been an animated series, two feature films and a Dairy Queen marketing tie-in, all of which have helped make Dennis a very familiar pop culture character throughout America.

To explore the new arena of producing features for DVD release, I was happy to have an opportunity to talk recently to Oliver. The Emmy Award-nominated writer-director-producer's career began when he wrote what became the 1987 cult high school horror movie "Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II." Oliver, who started directing in 1988 with episodes of "Police Academy," is a two-time Directors Guild of America nominee for episodes he directed for the popular kids TV series "Goosebumps." It was after he made the 2005 ABC-TV movie "Chasing Christmas," starring Tom Arnold and Leslie Jordan, that Warner Bros. brought him on board to direct "Dennis."

"The producer, Steven Wolfe, and I had met a couple years earlier on another script that I wrote and we'd been working on that and placing it at a studio," Oliver told me. "About six months before we went on the floor with 'Dennis' the other one got a green light so we were all excited. He said, 'Look, before we do that, I have to do this other movie. Let me send you the script.' He didn't tell me what it was. I got the script and it was 'A Dennis the Menace Christmas' and I thought, 'Hmmm. All right.'

"So I opened it up and read it and I loved it -- as everybody always says, of course, but I actually did. I read it in a spa in Palm Springs and at the end of the second act I burst into tears. I felt, 'Well, that's a pretty good sign.' If you feel that strongly about a movie and you're sitting in Palm Springs, it's probably a good reason to make the picture. So we started developing the script and worked a little bit on it and then went on the floor last year."

This was late August or early September of last year. "I knew that we were probably going to go out (with it) in DVD," he recalled. "I couldn't imagine them doing a full theatrical (release). I didn't really know much more than that, but I did know that Warners was going to be behind it, which was really amazing."

Is there a difference between making a movie for theaters and directly for DVD? "Not particularly, not these days," he replied. "Back when you used to make movies that you knew were going to go direct to video, for example, just in terms of your framing -- something as simple as that -- and your scale of the picture, you were sort of keeping in mind that you were making it, essentially, for a TV screen. Now, the way people's home theaters are, you have to have the same kind of standards as you do when you're making a theatrical film because people literally have these huge screens and great sound. You can't skimp on anything at all. You've got to make it just like you're making a theatrically released picture because that's how people perceive it now. At the end of the day, all movies end up in that great democratic bin at Blockbuster or some place like that. So your movie's being judged against everything else.

"A movie that you make for a couple million bucks gets judged against a movie that's being made for $50 million or $60 million or $100 million because the audience doesn't really care. At the end of the day, the audience wants a good story told. They want it told well and they want to be entertained. The theatrical experience of going to see something like 'Transformers,' for example, is one thing and that's a big experience. But down the road when it becomes just another DVD on the shelf, people will reach for it regardless of the scope of the thing. They're looking for an entertaining experience."

Shooting took place in Montreal, he said, "and there's all kinds of challenges inherent obviously when you're working in a place where the dominant language is different from English. Whether you're going to Romania or Montreal, it doesn't make that much difference. So there were some challenges to be had there in communication. But the energy and the enthusiasm of the crew there was really quite something so that kind of made up for all (the language issues). We went up for about a week to location scout and look at places.

"Scouting locations was great because, first of all, there's so many beautiful places to shoot in Montreal. There are great tree-lined neighborhoods. We were looking for sort of a middle America kind of city or town neighborhood in Montreal. In hunting around for that, there's only three or four neighborhoods that actually qualify for that because a lot of Montreal is very urban and some of the places we were looking at just weren't working at all. We were looking for a nice middle-class neighborhood and we finally found a couple of them that we really liked. I think a few of them had been burned previously by productions shooting there so we had to sort of be on our absolute best behavior. People couldn't have been more gracious, but boy they didn't want us on their streets. So there was a great deal of money passing hands, of course, for location fees. Once that sort of settled in, it was OK, but it was still a bit tricky."

As for the weather, he added, "every time you shoot out of town they tell you the same damn thing. They say, 'Oh, it never--' and then you fill in the blank with (something like) 'it never snows here,' 'it never rains here,' 'there's never a hail of locusts here,' you know. And, of course, there always is. So we get there and they kept saying, 'Oh, you won't get snow until January or February.' You know, I was born in Canada. I was born in like northern Ontario. And I kept thinking, 'That just doesn't sound right to me.' So we got there and we started prepping the movie at the beginning of October and we prepped through October and then into November. We started shooting in mid-November.

"The premise of the movie was that it hasn't snowed in Dennis the Menace's town in 30 years at Christmas. So we get there and we get like a week of no snow and then, all of a sudden, it just comes down like the apocalypse! And so we're literally locked into shooting a movie that's supposed to be about no snow at Christmastime on a street that's essentially a winter wonderland."

There also were scheduling issues to deal with in production involving some of the key cast members, including Robert Wagner, Louise Fletcher and others. "We had to schedule the shooting of the movie around a lot of different things," he explained. "And then the fact that we had kids, as well, (posed more challenges). You can only shoot for eight hours a day or six hours a day with some of them and that made it so tricky. So we had to schedule around this stuff. In a classic sort of coals to Newcastle situation, the first week of the picture when we were shooting we had to make fake snow and set up fake snow on lawns and so forth to say, 'Look, it's Christmas morning in 1946 and everything's great' and then we had to clear all that away so we could have the street without snow and, of course, the second we needed the street without snow the snow came down and it just kept coming and coming. So we brought the steamers out to blow all the snow away to get rid of the real snow after having made fake snow in the street. It's like one of those things -- 'only in the movies, folks.'"

Moreover, he told me, "it was a classic production of 'everything that can go wrong will go wrong' and all the usual sort of disasters occur. Imagine (the challenges you face with) a bunch of 5 and 6 year olds that you're directing in a picture. Some of these kids are terrific. They really are. Our lead kid, Maxwell Perry Cotton (who plays Dennis), is just brilliant. There aren't superlatives enough for this boy. He's just amazing. His performance in the movie's great anyway, but just to work with him, he's clearly a genius. I haven't worked with a kid who is this talented since Ryan Gosling. We did a bunch of TV stuff early in his career. But you essentially get six or seven 5 and 6 year olds all together and then it's no longer just directing a movie. Then you're running essentially a daycare center.

"You dress them all up in their winter clothes to do the scene and anybody who's had kids knows the second that you dress them up in their winter clothes and put them outside they've got to go to the bathroom! So you're setting up for the shot and I'm already to go and after we get the snow cleared away and all the nonsense going on and the various production problems ironed out and then you get your kids and (tell them), 'OK, we're ready to go' and they've got to go the bathroom. OK, great. And then they have to trundle off down the street to the place where the bathroom is because the location we're shooting on on the street wouldn't let us keep any of our vehicles on that street. So base camp, essentially, has to be a two and a half minute drive away. So out of a 10 hour working day, you got maybe three and a half to four hours of actual shooting time."

On the other hand, Oliver enjoyed working in Montreal: "The people could not have been more fun to be with in this other world around the movie. And I got to catch up with my old friends because I used to do a TV series up there for Nickelodeon back in the early to mid-90s called 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?' So I went back up there thinking I can grab some of these people and bring them in. I got to work with a couple actors I hadn't seen in years and that's really fun. You get to see people you haven't seen in a long time and compare notes and so on."

Although "Dennis" is a movie made for DVD release, Oliver's also created for the DVD all the traditional bonus features that we're used to seeing about theatrical films. There's a featurette about the making of the film, a blooper reel, outtakes, deleted scenes, a video commentary featuring Maxwell Perry Cotton and an audio commentary by Oliver and Wagner.

"At the end of the day, a movie is a movie is a movie regardless of what your final home is for it," he pointed out. "And so we had scenes that we took out for length. With a kid movie, if you're running more than 88 minutes you're in trouble. So we took some of those scenes out. They're good scenes, too. (The studio loved) it because we had deleted scenes. So they're excited about that. We have a commentary. I've done a few director's commentaries on some of my other movies. I called RJ up and said, 'Do you want to come and sit with me and do a director's commentary?' Now Robert Wagner is old school Hollywood class. I was so excited to get RJ in the movie.

"We sent the script over and he liked the script. So I called him up and I said, 'Look, we're making this movie and I want you to come play Mr. Wilson. It's like a reinvention of 'Dennis the Menace' in the sense that with the original Mr. Wilson the idea was that he and his wife were married back in the '40s and now they're an old couple living next door. But that doesn't really play now because it's no longer that time frame. So you and your wife probably got married maybe in Tibet when you were hippies as teenagers.' So we played that as their back story and that was quite fun. So we're doing the telephone call with RJ trying to set up the deal and I can't believe, first of all, that I'm talking to Robert Wagner because when I was a kid I was a huge fan of his. When I was in fourth grade I used to wear ascots to school all the time because he wore them on 'Hart to Hart' and I thought they were like the coolest thing ever. And I went to a school that was like so redneck if you laced up your work boots that meant you were gay! I'm wearing ascots in fourth grade and getting the crap beat out of me!"

When Oliver approached Wagner about being in the film, however, it looked like scheduling problems were going to interfere: "I was really upset so I called and I said, 'Look, thanks anyway and so forth.' And he was so gracious and so sweet and he said, 'I'm so sorry I can't make it.' And I told him the ascot story. I said, 'I just want you to know that I took a lot of punches for you, RJ, back in the day.' About a day later I get a phone call -- 'Ron, this is RJ. Look, if you guys can push your start date by two days I think I can make it work.' So I called Steven up and I go, 'Oh, my God, we can get him if we push by two days!' So we got him and that's how it all worked out. So he shows up on set and, of course, I make Robert Wagner as Mr. Wilson wear ascots during the movie.

"So he came to do the director's commentary with me and that's on the DVD, as well. But I don't think RJ really knew exactly what he was doing because he got to the studio to do the commentary and, obviously, it's just an audio commentary. But he was dressed to the nines and he looked fantastic and he comes in and he says, 'Now where exactly are the cameras?' And I said, 'No, darling, there are no cameras. It's just us talking in a room.' 'Oh.' He takes his jacket off, unties his tie, puts his feet up and then says, 'All right, then let's go.'"

The film's story, Oliver explained, is "essentially a reconstructionist version of 'A Christmas Carol,' which has been done before, of course, but told through the template of Dennis and Mr. Wilson. In the course of telling the story about how Mr. Wilson doesn't like Christmas and how Dennis brings the spirit of Christmas to Mr. Wilson, we discover exactly why Mr. Wilson doesn't like Christmas and we find out -- and that's the big sort of surprise in the movie -- that when Mr. Wilson was a kid he was the original Dennis the Menace and when Mr. Wilson grew up into the man he is now he became Mr. Wilson and we have a new Dennis. So we see that when Mr. Wilson was a little kid he was annoying to the man next door, Mr. Newman, and those adventures essentially became the original comic strip.

"It might be a bit over the heads of some of our fine young viewers, but adults looking at the picture will get a lot of references. We go back in time. We travel into the future. There's time travel and there's magic and there's an angel named Bob who shows up and he may be a Christmas angel or he might just be some guy off the street. We're not sure. There's explosions and baked goods and a trained turkey and flying pies. It's a full afternoon's entertainment, you know!"

The film works on a number of levels, he noted, and "there's a lot of great entertainment in there for the kids obviously because at the end of the day it's a kids' picture, but there's a lot of great stuff in their for grownups so they can enjoy it. Steven, the producer, went to the wall several times with this movie to get really great cast because one of the hallmarks of your more modestly budgeted pictures is that other than one star in the picture you've got a lot of nobodies or, shall we say, talented newcomers whereas in this movie Steven really called in favors and made deals and so with every single person in the cast you're going to go, 'Oh, my God, that's so and so' or 'That's the guy from--'"

Asked if he plans to do any more films premiering on DVD, Oliver replied, "Yes, if they'll have me I will. I really enjoyed the experience. The Warner Bros. people have been fantastic. First of all, they couldn't have been more gracious, but they also have been great and supportive of what we're trying to make the movie into. It's a quirky picture. I know we're developing another 'Dennis the Menace' for Halloween and I think there's one other thing that Steven's talking about doing with them, too. But I would hope (to direct others). I really enjoyed it. It was a lovely, lovely experience all around and we ended up with a movie I'm really proud of."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 29, 1990's column: "Although some screenwriters still put pencils to paper, lately their ranks are diminishing, as many begin using computer software designed for writing movies.

"For the most part, such software is intended to make it easier to write and print screenplays in their proper form. Now, however, there's a new software program called Collaborator that assists writers with content rather than form.

"'Collaborator is a story structure and script analysis program,' explains Francis Feighan, one of its creators. 'Lou Garfinkle, who wrote 'The Deer Hunter,' Cary Brown, an Emmy Award-winning director, and I began designing it about five years ago. Initially, it was written with the idea of helping writers construct their stories, but as we moved forward with it we saw that it had value for existing stories and consequently is of value for producers and directors.'

"Collaborator is available now for IBM or compatible hardware. A Macintosh version is due out in several weeks. When installed on a computer it asks users to provide detailed answers to 70 questions about a given screenplay. 'The 70 questions are based on Aristotle's Six Elements of Drama, which is the classical three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end and a protagonist and antagonist that the majority of successful dramas follow,' Feighan told me.

"'Consequently, we felt that by responding to every one of the questions one should be able to either come up with a solid story or to pinpoint the story structure problems within an existing script.'

"The answers to those questions are stored in the computer and may be revised by the user. Although it would be a nice touch, the software does not take those answers and develop its own story ideas or improvements. 'The program is not intelligent on that level,' he points out. 'It's totally dependent upon the information that comes from the user. The program does respond in the artificial intelligence to unsure or ambiguous (answers to) questions or (answers to) questions dealing with sex, drugs and violence -- not in a judgmental way, but asking for clarification or for more detail. After all 70 questions have been answered, the user then has a dialogue and an outlineā€¦"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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