'Glory' guys did well skating, filming on thin ice
Empty"Glory" guys: Hollywood's used to skating on thin ice, but films about skating are unusual.
A case in point is DreamWorks' "Blades of Glory," a Red Hour/Smart Entertainment production, directed by Will Speck & Josh Gordon. Produced by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld and John Jacobs, its screenplay is by Jeff Cox & Craig Cox and John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky. Opening wide Friday, it was executive produced by Marty Ewing.
In "Glory" Will Ferrell and Jon Heder play Chazz and Jimmy, rival figure skaters who are stripped of their gold medals and banned from skating for life after a no-holds barred fight at the World Championships. Three and a half years later they wind up back on the ice through a loophole enabling them to skate together in pairs' figure skating.
For some insights into "Glory's" road to the screen I turned recently to its producers, Red Hour partners Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld and Smart Entertainment president John Jacobs. "The genesis of it is a couple of young brothers, the Cox brothers, one of whom was working at Starbucks on South Beverly Drive (in Beverly Hills) at the time, who I heard were working on an ice skating comedy," Jacobs told me. "There has never been an ice skating comedy other than 'Slapshot,' which is about ice hockey, and I've always wanted to do one. I grew up ice skating. I tracked (the Cox brothers) down through a friend of theirs, another young writer, who had told me about it.
"I read it and it was good -- sort of like Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan as two men. It was a really good concept (but) a little rough. I asked them if they would do a couple of rewrites and they said they would. I basically tailored it to Ben Stiller's taste, who I had worked with before on another project called 'The Guests' at New Line. I know his sensibility very well and Stuart Cornfeld's, as well. So I shaped it in that direction and also made it much funnier and, I think, much more high concept and made the parts much more castable for two major comedy stars."
This was about a year and a half ago. "I literally only made one submission," Jacobs pointed out, "which, as you know, is unheard of. I went to Red Hour and basically they read it and said, 'This is really good. We'd like to produce it with you.' And I said, 'Only if Ben will agree to be one of the two skaters because I think it's perfect for him.' He was away at the time -- I believe in Hawaii -- and I said, 'I'll wait. It's just too perfect for him.' So a month later Ben read it and said, 'OK. This is great. These characters are great and I love the sensibility. I think it's really funny and I agree to be one of the two characters.' So initially that's how it surfaced.
"Red Hour had just entered into a deal with DreamWorks so basically they said, 'We have to go to DreamWorks before we can go out with a script.' They bought it that weekend -- (DreamWorks production executives) Adam Goodman and Jeremy Kramer (who) hadn't even started at the company. He was starting in a week and read it at home and loved it. They bought it, basically, that weekend. So we never even went out with the script, which I don't think has ever happened to me before in 18 years of production. And then we began working on it collectively with the Cox brothers. We did several rewrites with them and shaped the script."
DreamWorks was behind the project from the start, Cornfeld told me: "They were very supportive of it from Day One. We brought it to them and they immediately said, 'Let's do this.' They were excited to acquire the script and have us start developing it as soon as they read it."
What attracted Stiller to the project? "It was probably the same reaction you had when you heard about it -- 'Wow, it sounds like a funny movie. It sounds like something I want to see,'" he replied. "It was just such a funny idea and the script came in and it was pretty funny. It was (by) two guys who hadn't written anything that (had sold before)."
"One of them actually was working at a Starbucks," Cornfeld added, "and the other one was writing captions for the deaf for television. It was a great idea. The characters were great. It was something that we both thought could improve in terms of structure so we just started working with the writers on it."
"When you have a good idea that's obviously the most important jumping off point," Stiller said. "And then you've got to deliver on it. We'd been working with guys like this before -- guys who have really great ideas, but maybe aren't the most seasoned or experienced writers, but are really talented and in a good way are really kind of bringing no preconceptions to what they can or can't do in what they write. So that was exciting for us to work with those guys.
"And then we had sort of a normal development process. The Cox brothers remained on and then Krinsky and Altschuler came on and helped out. But it was a very inclusive sort of experience, I think, for everybody. It's just a process. We do readings a lot. I think it's really important to hear the script out loud. You work on it and work on it and then you get a bunch of actors together and hear how it sounds and hear where the laughs are and where they aren't. That's the same (as) when you screen the movie for the first time. It's so educational. We did a few readings and kept on working at it."
I mentioned at that point that I'd heard they'd had a guy named Ben Stiller in mind originally to play one of the leads. "I heard something like that," Stiller laughed. "Yeah. You know, I guess at one point we were talking about me possibly doing it, but my ice skating ability is so pathetically bad. I have flat feet. I have weak ankles, which is just a no-no for the ice. So very quickly I realized I would never be able to pull it off. When I read the script for the first time I immediately went to Will as Chazz because I just saw him doing what he does best in it. I was very excited when he read it and he was interested in doing it.
"We really haven't worked together since 'Zoolander' (2001) in terms of something that we've produced. He is just incredible. I always say you do the scripted take and then you do at least a couple takes where you just tell Will to try and do anything he wants. Seventy% of the time you end up using that in the movie. And Heder was really uniquely suited for the part of Jimmy just in terms of his physicality. Everybody, of course, discovered him in 'Napoleon Dynamite.' His comedic sort of thing is so specifically related to the persona he creates and also to his physicality and his ability to dance and move and embrace that character."
Jacobs, too, cited Heder's physicality as a key asset: "We added Jon to play the other skater because he's so great at physical comedy. He was so great in 'Napoleon Dynamite' at physical comedy. He's sort of tall and gangly and we just thought it would be hysterical for him to be the former boy star and skating prodigy. He's hysterically funny. His command of physical comedy really, really shines. He became a really good ice skater. We had Michelle Kwan's skating trainer train (Heder) and Will Ferrell for six months."
"There's a scene in the movie where you see Scott Hamilton (a giant in figure skating, but much shorter than Heder or Ferrell) standing between John and Will," Stiller recalled. "I don't like to stand next to Will (because he's so tall) and when you get Will on skates it's like a whole other deal. But both strangely are very graceful on the ice and they really worked very hard at the skating. I think to have the ability to be free enough to be funny on the ice, you had to at least believe that those guys could skate at some level. With John you really had to believe that he was (a) super graceful guy. With Will you had to believe that his attitude was his weapon. And to do that they had to be able to skate well enough to, at least, not be slip sliding around and that's hard. It's hard when you get out there even to sort of just look smooth skating around normally and then to have to do it in these pressure situations was probably more challenging than people would realize. And they both really went for it."
"Glory" is unusual not only because it's about ice skating, but also because it's got two directors. "Will Speck and Josh Gordon come out of the advertising world," Jacobs noted. "Coincidentally, they did all the caveman commercials for Geico, which I am a huge, huge fan of. I had actually tried to track them down regarding the commercials to see about making them into a movie, a caveman comedy. I thought the commercials were so hilarious. They had been searching, ironically, for a feature for quite some time so we all met with them.
"Ben and Stuart also loved (their work). They had done a short when they were at NYU that was nominated for an Academy Award ('Culture,' in which Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared, received a best short film live action Oscar nomination in 1999), which they also saw and really liked. And they also loved their commercial reel as I did. So we had them in and after a series of meetings pulled the trigger and decided to give them their directorial feature debut."
"The directors really are good technically," Stiller said. "They shot so many commercials and really had a sense of the approach to it being about figuring out what's the best tool for each shot and knowing that it was going to be difficult. They created all of the skating sequences. It was pretty cool to see these sequences edited together in the computer with these sort of strange computerized (previz) versions of Jon and Will, which everybody would watch and crack up (over). They were just so funny.
"When we watched them in a previz we thought, 'This is hilarious. I hope it's as funny when it becomes real people.' That whole element of it is just a weird video game aspect of it. But then it was even funnier when we actually got the guys out there. But it was a way for the directors to have an economical way to shoot these sequences. There's so much CG work that had to be done in terms of crowds and environments. We shot everything at the Sports Arena (in Los Angeles) and had to make (it) look like three different venues so there was a lot of work that had to be done. Steve Lineweaver, our production designer, and Stefan Czapsky, the DP, had to really work to create that place looking like three different places -- and we didn't have an unlimited budget. So they did great work."
The film got into production very quickly. "Basically, it was a go picture when we brought Will on," Jacobs said. "We only had one role to fill (at that point), which turned out fabulously. We shot all the exteriors in Montreal and we shot a lot of the interior arenas in the L.A. Sports Arena. It was one of the longest shooting schedules for a comedy, I think, in history because Jon Heder broke his ankle skating. So we had to shut down production for 11 weeks while his leg healed and while he started to train again with Michelle Kwan's trainer and strengthen his leg again. And then we started shooting scenes with Will and scenes with Jon where he didn't have to skate while his leg was healing. We shot over a nine-month period actually."
Heder and Ferrell had great chemistry, Jacobs added: "I think it's really quite unique. First of all, it's very unusual for a skater to be tall. They're usually petite. I think Will is 6 foot 4 and Jon is 6 foot 2 and a half. So they're both kind of giants as figure skaters. And that added a whole other dimension to one man holding another over his head. You're holding somebody who's not a petite 5 foot 2 female ice skater, but a large man who's 6 foot 3 or 4 over your head on one hand. And then the melding together of their two styles of comedy, which are completely different, just worked brilliantly and is quite unique.
"It's like when I produced 'Anger Management' we had kind of a dream cross-generational casting with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. In this case, we have probably the most popular MTV star from 'Napoleon Dynamite' in Jon Heder paired with Will Ferrell, who's one of the most popular movie stars for the mainline demographic together, which kind of hits every quadrant. It's something that's very unusual to have that sort of cross-generational casting, I think, when it really works."
Asked about working with first time directors, Stiller told me, "We've worked with first time directors before and there's no doubt about it that every time you go out to make a movie you learn so much even if you've directed before. So the first time out it's like there's this learning curve that's huge. These guys were technically first time feature directors, but really had shot so many commercials and had such a great technical ability I think that for them it was more about learning the logistics and the politics of making a movie, which are all something unto themselves.
"They navigated all that stuff really well, but in terms of working with actors and working with the camera and all of that, they had a lot of experience. So I think they were really ready. They brought a real specific visual sense to the movie that we saw in the commercials they directed and (their) comedic sense (in) those Geico caveman ads. I just read online that they're going to try to develop a series around those guys. They're so funny."
"We did 'Dodgeball' with a first time director," Cornfeld pointed out, referring to Rawson Marshall Thurber. "As producers, since Ben is a director there is a resource that (we have that) most producers don't have access to. So there's always been sort of a very close collaboration in terms of directors being able to ask Ben questions that really only another director (could answer)."
"They'll ask me questions and then I'll go to Steven Spielberg and ask him the same questions and give them an answer," Stiller joked.
But isn't it a little intimidating to have Ben Stiller looking over your shoulder while you're shooting a comedy? "I would hope not," Stiller replied. "I mean, I try not to look over their shoulder too much. But those guys were very confident in their ability and I think they also welcomed all the input that we were giving, too. But at the end of the day when you hire a director you want somebody who has confidence and a point of view. So they had that and they also were really open to all the input. When I'm directing (like) most directors that I've worked with who I respect, (I'm) always open to good ideas no matter where they're coming from. And they definitely embraced that and they were really good."
Saluting his fellow producers, Jacobs said, "Ben is obviously brilliant comedically and added a great deal in production and postproduction and Stuart Cornfeld in his own right has produced some of my favorite comedies (including 'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," which Cornfeld and Stiller produced). So we surrounded first time directors with a lot of comedy history."
As for the challenges of production, working on ice ranks high on the list along with working on water or with young children and animals. "The production challenges were just immense," Jacobs observed, "because every person involved, including Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, had to train with professional ice skating trainers because so much of the movie is on the ice. All of them really have to appear to be Olympic level or national champion skaters. They all actually became pretty good ice skaters. Will Arnett (who is) Canadian is the only one who actually was a really good skater when we started. The rest pretty much had to learn from almost scratch and Will became even better. Will Ferrell is a great athlete so he has a little bit of an advantage just because he's so athletic."
Meanwhile, in order to film on the ice the cameras had to be out there, too. "We had dollies on ice," Jacobs said. "We met with the DPs and production designers on every single ice skating movie that's been done in the last two decades to learn how to capture (the action). We had to shoot the movie as if it were truly a sports movie and an ice skating movie and it had to have every element -- and I think we succeeded -- of a great sports movie. So we studied all the great sports movies and it does really work as a straight sports movie, as well as a comedy."
As for the nuts and bolts of making the film, he continued, "We storyboarded it extensively. We also previzzed every single skating sequence in the entire movie. Basically, (previz) is a computer generated animated version in advance of every skating routine, of every skating competition (scene that shows) what the summersaults look like so that the camera operators can prepare for the moves -- again, made all the more complicated by the fact that they were going to be on ice. It's almost like animating every scene before you shoot it.
"Because it's a sports movie and a lot of it (involves) all kinds of complicated skating maneuvers that they do, we have a lot of effects, as well. Probably there are as many effects as there are in any sports movie or any action movie. So it was a very complicated production."
And so, for that matter, was postproduction. "It was like doing a comedy, an action movie and a skating movie all at the same time," Jacobs explained, "and sometimes it really did entail triple the work as well as getting people to work in sometimes eight degrees below zero chill factor when we were in Montreal and still perform comedy and be funny, which was an added challenge."
"It's like I was saying (earlier about) the read-throughs of the script," Stiller noted. "It's the same thing (with editing). You learn so much the very first time you put the movie up in front of an audience when you're making a comedy, especially a comedy for a wide audience. You have to be aware of where the audience is laughing or not laughing or feel where they're with the movie. And (screening it) is just part of the process so the sooner you can get it up in front of people I always feel the better just to have a sense of how the audience is reacting to it early on and then working from there and having the time and the ability to go back and work on the cut to make it work for an audience.
"And that's a very personal process for a director because you always have to hang on to what you really think is funny even if sometimes the big jokes aren't going over with the whole crowd. A lot of the times in the process of screening a movie the response to the biggest jokes will be really polarizing. Half the people will say their favorite scene or their least favorite scene is the same scene. In my mind that means you're doing something right. You have to just listen to the audience."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 14, 1989's column: "The news that Gulf + Western is scrapping its profitable consumer finance operations and evolving instead into Paramount Communications Inc., a company that will be active only in media and communications, is very good news for Hollywood.
"Clearly, it's a strong statement that G+W chairman Martin S. Davis is bullish on the future of the filmed entertainment business. Of course, given the outstanding performance during many years of G+W's Paramount Pictures unit in both theatrical features and television, it's understandable that Davis sees even greater potential in those areas.
"Actually, not only is Paramount thriving under its chairman Frank Mancuso and co-presidents Barry London and Sidney Ganis, but much of the industry is now being run by one-time top Paramount people. Former Paramount chairman Barry Diller turned 20th Century Fox around. Former Paramount president Michael Eisner and production chief Jeffrey Katzenberg created a successful new Disney. And former Paramount production chief Dawn Steel is hard at work engineering a turnaround at Columbia/Tri-Star that should be evident this summer...
"Wall Street analysts expect Davis to acquire media properties and to follow the current trend toward film companies being able to control the destiny of their product by owning a range of distribution channels, especially in the areas of broadcast and pay TV. What analysts see for the future is a film industry dominated by a handful of major companies that are active in the closely related areas of producing and distributing filmed entertainment, publishing magazines, newspapers and books and owning electronic media outlets...
"There is almost certainly going to be a Japanese company in the club, as well -- perhaps Sony, Nippon Steel or Matsushita Electric Co., Panasonic's corporate parent, (which) are among the most talked about potential Japanese partners...At this point there aren't any American-owned companies that are already big enough to belong in such a club, but there is the potential that at least two companies will soon be able to do so. If the proposed merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc. goes through, the resulting Time-Warner giant would automatically become a very major player..."
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.