'Fred Claus' is new twist on Old St. Nick

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Dobkin discussion: After so many years of making holiday season comedies you'd think Hollywood's exhausted the storytelling possibilities involving Santa Claus, but think again.

Warner Bros. has a brand new sibling rivalry twist on Jolly Old St. Nick in "Fred Claus" from Silver Pictures in association with David Dobkin Pictures and Jessie Nelson Productions. "Fred," opening wide Nov. 9, focuses on the brothers Claus -- Nicholas, the younger brother who's been a perfect saint all his life; and Fred, who's spent his entire life living in his brother's very large shadow and is now way down on his luck. Nicholas agrees to help Fred out financially if he comes to the North Pole to work in Santa's Toy Shop. Unfortunately, Fred's not very good elf material and having him on board could take the ho-ho-ho right out of the holiday.

Directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers," "Shanghai Knights") and written by Dan Fogelman ("Cars"), "Fred" is produced by Joel Silver, Jessie Nelson and Dobkin and executive produced by Paul Hitchcock. Starring are Vince Vaughn as Fred, Paul Giamatti as Nicholas, Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Claus, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Kevin Spacey.

Talking recently to Dobkin about the making of the film, I asked how after directing the R-rated, envelope pushing adult comedy "Wedding Crashers," in which Vaughn starred with Owen Wilson, he'd become interested in directing a PG-rated family comedy targeted to holiday season audiences.

"You know, the script came to me and I read it," he replied. "I don't know if I had ever envisioned myself doing a Christmas film. When I read it I just really loved the story. I thought it was really original. I don't think we had ever seen Santa Claus portrayed as a human being. I loved the whole idea of the weight that he carries on his shoulders and the idea of his family and the fact that he has this brother who's kind of overshadowed by his success. Immediately it came to mind (and) I realized that this really could be the naughty kid story of Christmas, which has never really been told. I was really compelled by the concept of recreating the spirit of the holiday in the theater for people and kind of redefining the holiday, itself, in more contemporary terms and making it more about a story of forgiveness and family and coming together in that way."

Dobkin originally saw the script for "Fred" in early 2005. "They wanted to try to do it that February and do it really quickly and get it done for the following Christmas. I looked at it and saw the scope and the scale and I thought, 'There's no way to mount and do this (so quickly).' There were a lot of ideas I had to add to the movie that it would take time to work with the screenwriter on. Vince and I spoke about it briefly for that kind of path and then later on I was brought on board the movie because I had spoken to Jeff Robinov, the president of (production at) Warner Bros., and Jessie Nelson, the producer, who had kind of created the story of this movie. At that juncture, I had spoken to them about my ideas and where I wanted to go with the movie.

"They came back to me later on that year and I came on to the film as a producer to develop the material. I was on board as a producer for a number of months and as the material started to turn into something that I really loved I fell off of another movie that didn't work out for other reasons and this movie was still there and they said, 'Would you want to do it with Vince? Is he available?' And we kind of talked about it and we decided to do it."

By then, he added, "I had become very comfortable with the material. It was something different for me. I had never done a family film before and I'd never done a PG film before. But I really responded to the characters and the Claus family and I really, really deeply responded to the theme that there were no naughty kids. I thought that was a really beautiful theme and I thought that the movie had the potential to be very emotional and very cathartic and rewarding in that way and that we could create this feeling that everybody feels on Christmas that they're family. That was something that felt really like a unique opportunity so I decided to jump in."

Asked why at one point the film's title was changed to "Joe Claus," Dobkin explained, "There was, as there always is, some sort of legal contention about some other story out there (and) there was another 'Fred Claus' (involved in) a very small publishing of a children's book that no one was aware of. I think the legal department at Warner Bros. was concerned so we turned it to 'Joe Claus' until we had the time to connect with that individual and communicate with them. And then when we realized it was fine, we turned it back to 'Fred.' It's just perfect (for the name). I think that Jessie came up with the title based on it's supposed to be Fredo from 'The Godfather.'"

How did Dobkin approach the material as a director? "Always as a storyteller trying to just tell the best story that you can and trying to create a world that people get to go to that is different and unique and special and mostly always working from a dramatic place with the actors and trying to put as much entertainment into the movie as you can," he told me.

Although Vaughn was already set to play Fred, casting the role of Santa was critically important to making the project work. "Giamatti was one of the first people that we thought of," he said. "He really always was the number one choice. Vince and I both love his work. I went after him and really was committed to convincing him to come on board the film. All those instincts really paid off. He's just wonderful in the movie.

"He was very interested (in doing the film). I flew to Toronto to meet with him. We spoke about it. And then, as anyone, he was cautious to completely commit at first because I think there were a number of things that had to be settled and determined about it. You know, it's a very hard role to do being in that fat suit the whole time. Eventually, it worked out with his schedule and with everything else and we were able to get him on board."

Rehearsal is always a very important part of the filmmaking process for Dobkin: "I usually have three to four weeks of rehearsal. The week being really focused on the leads and then you slowly bring in the other characters around them. Each week you bring in the next set of people. It's a very theater-based old fashioned kind of Stanislavski way of going through and breaking down characters and scenes and working through the dialogue and rehearsing in a way that you would for a stage play. Everyone ends up knowing each other well and knowing their characters well and knowing the material well enough that you can, in a way, throw it all out and make it happen on set for real."

Storyboarding is something else Dobkin does, he said, "very intensely. Storyboarding for me is good. When I first read a script (with) all the movies I've done I've had an impulse to begin to storyboard in the margins of the screenplay. It is usually a sign that I'm starting to see the movie or that you see it right off the bat. There are some scripts that I read that are very good and it doesn't happen for me and for some reason it's not a story I want to tell even though I may love the screenplay. But it's something that's really important to me because I like to give 100% of my attention when I'm on set to the actors and the performances.

"To me the number one most important part of a movie is the realism of the performances and the dynamics that happen between the actors. I like to try to give them all my energy and all my focus so that they have a safe and productive place to work in. Therefore, I do all of my homework to make sure I know everything that I'm doing, my crew knows everything that I intend and I can be as ambitious as I want to be photographically because that's all been written in stone by the time we walk on set. Everything's been figured out. There's no making decisions along those lines once I walk on set."

But what if something great happens unexpectedly on set? Is he open to changing plans? "Always," Dobkin replied. "The actors are completely free. I will always go with whatever happens. And, you know, if you're sitting there and there's a sunset that's happening and you want to all of a sudden capture the magic of the moment, you always have to listen and be aware of it. But if you're behind schedule, as you often are in movies, and things are tense and people are changing a lot of things, I'm more comfortable with a lot of lines changing and a lot of dialogue changing and a lot of blocking changing if I feel that I know how to cover the scene and that's there to fall back on. It's just a blueprint to fall back on, but it's there if for any reason everybody is confused.

"I actually have a very strange process. I post my storyboards for the crew every day and I also post them on a big blackboard for everybody to see. As we go through the day, I cross them off and everybody sees how much is left and how much we've done. It helps to create a sense of accomplishment if we're moving well and it lets everyone know how much we have to do if we're not. It's really fun and the actors always come up and check out what's left and where we're going next. It's a very, very interesting way of doing it. I picked it up in (doing) commercials. It was really helpful as a background. You learn so much when you shoot commercials about all the toys that you could work with and the photography. It's a whole different set of opportunities to learn very quickly because they happen in three days or five days and before you know it you get to cut it together. It's a very micro process of what a movie is."

Does he draw his own storyboards or work with professional artists? "If it's action scenes where there's going to be second unit or anything that's really complicated and you need to communicate more clearly than normal to the camera department, I will have a storyboard artist come in," he answered. "Otherwise, I just use my drawings. They're not very realistic. Every movie I've done, for some reason, the crew decides to print up one of the storyboards as a tee-shirt and hand 'em around. There's a lot of laughter at the breakfast line in the morning."

I told Dobkin that I'd asked the same question about drawing storyboards of Ridley Scott in a television interview a few years ago and he'd told me that he draws his own boards and that his early training as an artist makes him as good as any professional artist to do that. "Let me tell you something," Dobkin pointed out. "He's better. I worked for Ridley for five years in his commercials company. That's where I really cut my teeth. And I wish I had that skill set (that he has), but that is where I learned to storyboard everything. He's amazing. His process is just incredible. And both him and Tony (director Tony Scott) can draw. They're amazing. They both studied at the Royal Arts Academy in London. They're real artists. When they draw, you can feel the lighting, as well. That's what's amazing. You really feel the shading and everything."

Looking back at the challenges of production on "Fred," Dobkin told me, "There were three major challenges in (making) this film. Number one (was) creating the North Pole because it doesn't exist and you are creating a movie where you're traveling to a magical world and trying to create something that, hopefully, people will be nostalgic for, but also looks like something you've never seen before. So just creating the scale and scope of the film was a challenge in itself. And then (a second challenge was) populating it full of elves. Obviously, elves don't exist and we have our own version of that. And that was a huge challenge. I mean, just unbelievable.

"And the third big challenge was both for Vince acting to someone who wasn't there the whole time and for John Michael Higgins, who plays the head elf and whose (elf) head was put onto his body for almost the entire movie. He had to have a little person whose body played him and he wore a tracking kind of helmet on his head. Vince acted to that person and Michael delivered his dialogue off screen and off stage. I would have to direct the body -- or the person who was playing his body -- according to what Michael really wanted the body to do. Later on, we had to reshoot the movie almost in its entirety with the scenes that included him with his head on a blue screen lit the same way and then put the head on the body. It was really challenging and time consuming, but it's pretty seamless. You really don't think about it when you watch the movie. It's that true movie magic."

Filming took place mostly in London, he said, "at Pinewood Studios, a good portion of it. We shot about a month up in Cardington, about an hour and a half (north of) London in an old World War II blimp hangar. We couldn't find a stage big enough for the exterior of the North Pole set, which was almost 200 feet long. It was a big set. As a matter of fact, 'Batman' is shot up there (in Cardington). The 'Batman' sets were all there. Right off of our stage was the Batmobile. The advantage of that, too, was great (because) you could shoot day for night. And then, finally, we moved to Chicago for five weeks, which is where Fred lives for the first part of the movie and where he goes back to towards the end. That was really challenging, as well, because at that point we were shooting on the street in January and February and it was negative 30 degrees some times."

Another of the challenges Dobkin recalled was the shooting of the film's fight scenes by Dion Lam, "who did the action sequences for 'Matrix' two and three and some stuff for 'Spider-Man 2.' There are some short but fun fight scenes between Vince and the Secret Service elves and those were just amazing to shoot. I'd worked with Jackie Chan before (on 'Shanghai Knights') so I had some experience shooting action stuff. It was Vince's first (time doing action) and he really rose to the occasion and did a great job. That was fun (as was) just getting scenes with Vince with Giamatti and Vince with Spacey and Vince with Kathy Bates and Vince with Rachel Weisz. We ended up with such a great cast of people and really my first choices with everyone.

"Kevin was doing a play in London while we were shooting him. So we'd have him for eight hours and then he would go do a Eugene O'Neill play ("A Moon for the Misbegotten") and pour his guts out for three and a half hours and then turn around and come back the next morning. He's playing the efficiency expert that comes to check out the North Pole because they're falling behind (making toys) and they're not meeting the demands that they used to. And he's there to basically (decide) whether they deserve to stay open or whether they're going to be shut down. Kathy Bates plays Vince and Paul's mother. Miranda Richardson plays Paul's wife, Mrs. Claus. She was amazing. Rachel Weisz plays Vince's girlfriend back home. And Ludacris plays the DJ up in the North Pole."

All told, Dobkin observed, "It's a strange really fun movie. We're really in a very challenging place. It wasn't a conscious decision. This was the movie that came along that we wanted to make. I'm sure there were people who would have liked to see us go do something like 'Wedding Crashers' again and go deliver that kind of comedy and I'm sure at some point we will, but right now this is what showed up and what was the right thing to make.

"It's really great seeing Vince work (in) a family film. It seems in some ways like, 'That's going to be a really interesting fit. Is that going to work?' And it worked so well that it's amazing. The thing we're really excited about with this movie is that it's something we think everybody's going to enjoy. It really works for all demographics and all kinds of people."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 31, 1990's column: "One of the least remembered aspects of Hollywood's golden age is that in those days the studios employed in-house advertising departments to create their movie trailers, one-sheets and newspaper ads.

"In recent years, most studios have farmed out much of their creative advertising work to independent consultants. An exception to that approach is Universal, which favors doing as much of its own advertising as possible.

"'We do a substantial portion of it in-house,' David Sameth, Universal's senior vp creative advertising, told me. 'We don't do all of it, but in the last couple of years we've brought a lot of it here. My background is in creating materials rather than in supervising and I'm comfortable in the editing room. We've assembled a wonderful group of people who are, I think, clearly from the results as good as anyone in the outside consulting firms that have sprung up in the last 10 or 15 years.'

"What's happened over the years, he explains, is that 'the studios' marketing departments, especially in the creative area, have become more a matter of a creative head supervising outside work. In our case (we've done things differently) for a number of reasons, one of which is cost. It's simply more cost effective to do it ourselves and creatively it's easier for us (to achieve the desired results)...'

"Universal's approach, he adds, allows for more control: 'We work very closely with the filmmakers and it's a very direct process. As often as possible we get in very early on the making of the picture. It's not unusual for us to be cutting trailers from dailies, for example. I'll watch dailies. We'll take selected scenes. I'll work with the editor on the feature long before the picture is even a movie.

"'What happens then is that you get a head start. Sometimes you create something that turns out to not be the movie that is finally assembled. That's a piece you probably won't use. On the other hand, very often...by the time the picture is even in a rough form to be screened we already have a trailer that we are well on our way to feeling is going to be a valuable piece of material to use...'"

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