Director's live-action debut a brush with fame

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If you're only as good as your last film, Eddie Murphy is toast thanks to "Meet Dave." But if you're as good as your new movie, Eddie could be hot again with "Imagine That."

Naysayers consider this: Family films are doing great. Taking your kids to the movies is the new trip to Hawaii. Opening June 12 from Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies, "Imagine" is a PG comedy with a brand-name comedy superstar.

So what if "Dave," where Murphy played an alien spaceship shaped like a human, only grossed $12 million? "Imagine" is better material -- a father-daughter story with Murphy playing a financial type close to losing his job when he starts getting savvy investment advice from his kid's imaginary friend.

This time he's in the hands of Karey Kirkpatrick, who knows his way around family comedy. Kirkpatrick co-directed the animated "Over the Hedge," which grossed $330 million worldwide. "Imagine" is Kirkpatrick's first live-action assignment. He never thought he'd get the job when his name was proposed by co-writer-producer Ed Solomon.

When Kirkpatrick found out the project would star Murphy he questioned whether it made sense for him to do his first live-action feature with a big star. "I always assumed I would start with something a little smaller to cut my teeth on," he told me.

Moreover, he knew how picky big stars usually are about directors: "Not many would take a risk on a first-time director in live action. So I went into it as, 'Hey, this'll be good practice for me to pitch myself as a director.'"

Kirkpatrick connected with the script by Solomon & Chris Matheson because he has a 6-year-old daughter and felt he had something to bring to the movie. His first meeting with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced with Solomon, went well and was followed by two great studio meetings.

Before he knew it, he was with Eddie in his trailer during shooting on "Meet Dave."

"The meeting took place from 2 to 3 o'clock and then I left. Lorenzo was like, 'I think that went well. You'll hear from us.'" Fifteen minutes later he was driving home talking to his wife when another call came in. "It was Lorenzo and he goes, OK. You got the job.'" Kirkpatrick: "You're kidding!" Lorenzo: "As soon as you left he said, 'That's the guy.'"

Murphy related to the script because he'd been through the imaginary friend phase with his own daughters. "He saw moments where he could be funny, but also he saw places where he could play a real emotion that he's been wanting to play," Kirkpatrick explained.

He and Murphy got along well: "Your biggest argument -- really, just discussion -- when you're on set making a comedy is, 'Is that funny?' Sometimes it's me going to him and saying, 'Maybe not quite so intense there,' because with a young girl you don't want to come across too intense with your likability."

Murphy would improv at times, "but he knows how to take the material and make it his own -- so subtle improv." Kirkpatrick comes from an improv background, but he felt the studio wouldn't be comfortable with a first-time live-action director departing from the script. "I mentioned that on one scene and you could see the look in their eyes. I very quickly backtracked and said, 'No, no. We'll do the script version.'" Actually, he did do some improv that worked out fine in a scene where Murphy and Yara Shahidi as his daughter are playing restaurant and making pancakes.

Kirkpatrick wasn't intimidated by doing live action. "Twenty-two years of screenwriting certainly prepares you for feeling confident about your ability to tell a story," he said. "I started as an actor so I'm really comfortable working with actors and enjoy that immensely."

Two weeks into a 63-day shooting schedule, "The jury was still out on me and nobody had seen any cut footage. Everybody was anxious that I cut the four scenes together that we had shot." So he did. Kirkpatrick to Eddie: "Hey, why don't we watch these scenes together?" Eddie to Kirkpatrick: "I want to watch them alone." Kirkpatrick to himself: "Oh, this is going to be bad."

What happened? "I was sitting in my chair waiting for him to finish watching it," he said. "I looked up and Eddie was standing there and he said, 'If the rest of the movie's this good, we're in good shape.' Had it gone the other way, I would have not been there the next week."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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