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Sick of fantasies? 'Wed' offers return to reality

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Ken Kwapis: Moviegoers who've overdosed this summer on fantasy world comic book sequels and are ready for a return to reality will have a chance to do so July 3 with "License to Wed."

The PG-13 rated romantic comedy from Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures is a Robert Simonds/Phoenix Pictures production directed by Ken Kwapis ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"). Starring are Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski. Produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Nick Osborne and Robert Simonds, its screenplay is by Kim Barker and Tim Rasmussen & Vince Di Meglio. It was executive produced by Bradley J. Fischer, David Thwaites, Kim Zubick, Dana Goldberg and Bruce Berman.

Unlike so many of this summer's franchise episodes with roots in legendary comic books, "Wed" is set in the very real contemporary world. Its story revolves around a young couple, Ben and Sadie (Krasinski and Moore), who are eager to marry in Sadie's family church but can't do so until they pass a rigorous marriage prep course designed by the very irreverent Rev. Frank (Williams). Unfortunately, what Rev. Frank's created is an outrageous curriculum that's guaranteed to put any relationship to the test.

"Wed" actually sounds like the flip side of this summer's R rated real world hit comedy "Knocked Up," whose young couple is also on the verge of marriage, but already has a baby to show for their one night of drunken and anonymous sex. No marriage prep course necessary there! In fact, the only obstacles to overcome in "Knocked" are the ones in their own heads about whether they really want to get married. But with "Knocked" already closing in on $100 million at the boxoffice, it's clear that there's an audience for the right stories set in the real world. Even though "Wed" is a very different kind of comedy, it could tap into that same audience desire to see a movie whose characters aren't flying around wearing capes and masks.

With that in mind, I was happy to be able to focus with Ken Kwapis on Saturday morning on the making of "Wed." "This picture originated with a Vancouver-based writer named Kim Barker, who to the best of my knowledge has not had any script produced until now," Kwapis told me. "She had heard of a very eccentric minister in Vancouver who had a reputation for putting young couples through a rigorous and eccentric marriage preparatory test before he allowed them to marry in his church. She brought this script to Nick Osborne, a young producer, and Nick in turn brought it to both Mike Medavoy and Bob Simonds. And Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow hopped on the bandwagon. And somewhere along the line they decided they needed someone to direct this thing!

"I think the important thing in terms of them choosing me is that between the work I'd on done shows like 'The Bernie Mac Show' and 'The Office,' both of which I helped launch, and a film like 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,' which in some ways couldn't be more different in tone, they felt like they'd found their man. I think it was important to find someone who is not afraid of some real high-definition comedy and, at the same time, somebody who is no stranger to romance and emotional content. This picture needs both. It's a funny picture in that it's not 100% romantic comedy. It's also not a broad concept comedy. It sits, I hope, very comfortably in between those two poles."

After Kwapis was sent the script to read, he recalled, "Mike Medavoy called me and said the greatest thing. How could any director resist the call when a producer says the following? He said, 'Ken, I think there's a great Billy Wilder film hiding in here.' I said, 'OK. I'm in.' So the first order of business was the character of Rev. Frank. Part of the reason I came aboard was that I knew Robin Williams. I hadn't worked with him before, but we'd been trying to work on a picture together and I was very excited about the possibility of working with him.

"The next significant order of business was who was going to play the young male lead. I helped launch NBC's 'The Office' and so I was part of the casting process for the pilot and (the casting of) John Krasinski. From the moment I met John I knew he was that rare combination of leading man and terrific comic actor -- a rare combo. I had to campaign on John's behalf with Warner Bros. because even though the show had been on the air for about a season and a half and although it was gaining in popularity John was still a little bit of an unknown to a lot of people. But I'm very happy to say Warners finally agreed that John was worth taking a shot on and now they couldn't be happier because he did such a remarkable job on the film and he's also just been very sought after since then."

The next step was finding the film's female lead: "It's not about one person, but about the chemistry between two people. I screen tested John with several really strong actresses and there was no doubt that when Mandy Moore and John Krasinski stepped in front of the cameras they were right. For starters, visually they just looked like a couple. Physically they looked like they belonged together. You know, in a typical screen test actors are often meeting each other for the first time. They're given a scene and the first few takes are sort of awkwardly trying to find the words.

"What was nice with John and Mandy is that right from the get-go I got the feeling that they were really enjoying each other's company and it seemed like they were simply using the scene that I'd given them as a way to get to know each other. I found myself in that sort of delicious position as a director of sitting back and realizing that they'd sort of forgotten I was there and I was just able to ease drop on these two terrific actors enjoying each other's company. I thought, 'Wow. That's what we've got to do.'"

Needless to say, working with Williams can be very exciting for a director. "He has an unquenchable need and desire to invent," Kwapis said. "He's a voracious reader. He's quite politically astute. He's a very keen observer of people's behavior. And I find that it all is grist for his particular mill. It all comes back in the form of unbelievably inventive ad libs. He can riff on just about anything in his path -- and more than once that was me! I have a pretty funny surname so it was easy to mangle and pronounce in all manner of ridiculous ways. But here's the important thing -- obviously Robin's improvisational skill is the stuff of legend, but I feel that he is first and last an actor.

"Part of the challenge with Robin and me was trying to channel all of that mischief and anarchy and inventiveness into a character. And he is irreverent, but at the same time he's playing a reverend so I felt it was really important for him to be as far out as possible, but still within the parameters that would help tell the story and sort of help create a really interesting and memorable guy (in) Rev. Frank. This is, for instance, a very different character -- and I'm just pulling one of a hundred out of a hat -- than say Aladdin. Aladdin is a fantastic character, but with Aladdin the floodgates are open. There's no rules. Robin can be any person at any time or, frankly, any five people at any one time. That's the point of that character."

On the other hand, he explained, "with Rev. Frank, his tactics may be perverse, there may be a dose of anarchy that he injects into the situation, but there should never be a question in the audience's mind about his purpose. And he actually has a very noble purpose. He's trying to keep couples from divorcing, from separating. He's trying to keep couples together, to prevent bad marriages or (to make sure) that people who do belong together will stay together. In a funny way, he's a mysterious character because as you watch him you wonder what prompted a man like this to become so preoccupied and obsessed with keeping couples together? Was his heart broken in the past?

"So what's interesting with this character -- and Robin performs it beautifully -- is that there's certainly some of the familiar anarchy that Robin does better than anyone, but at the same time there's a mystique about this guy and at the end of the picture I think he walks off into the sunset and in a very wonderful way not everything is answered about him."

Kwapis was pleased that Williams connected so well with his character and was surrounded by a strong supporting team: "There's no question that there was a lot of wonderful improvisation. Needless to say, we had a troupe of actors who could step up to the challenge. Including John Krasinski, we had along with us wonderful actors like Wanda Sykes and Bob Balaban, who both contributed a cameo in the picture. Flanking John Krasinski are three of his 'Office' co-stars -- Mindy Kaling, Angela Kinsey and Brian Baumgartner. And the really wonderfully comic actor Christine Taylor is in the picture, playing Mandy Moore's sister. So, again, I feel like we had a terrific group, all of whom could step up to the plate and go with Robin and his volcanic abilities."

Asked how he works with his actors in terms of rehearsing, Kwapis replied, "With this picture one of the challenges is that there are many ensemble scenes. There are many scenes with six, seven, eight, nine, 10 characters, all of whom have important things to contribute. So it's hard to know who's going to peak when. Some people do peak at take two or three. Some people peak at take seven. The key was to create an atmosphere in which people could feel like there was room to keep giving by the way Robin sets the tone.

"Here's how (he does that). One of the most frustrating things for a director is when you shoot an actor's coverage and then when it's time to turn around and do a reverse on the other players that actor splits for their trailer and a stand-in is reading the off-camera lines. Well, not so with Robin Williams. I would say he worked as hard off-camera as he did on camera and the scene was not done until it was done. And, frankly, he often stayed on the set to just watch coverage that he was not part of at all. The more generous an actor is off camera, everyone's level lifts. It was a set where when we were working everyone wanted to be there. There was a very collegial feeling among the group and Robin certainly set the tone."

Speaking of being "there," in the film "there" is supposed to be Chicago, but that's not where filming was done. "We shot in L.A. for Chicago," he pointed out. "The truth is, there's not a lot of location work in the picture at all, but I wanted to make sure that it took place in a city that wasn't East or West Coast. First of all, I'm actually a mid-Westerner. I grew up in a small southern Illinois town called Belleville, which probably no one's heard of unless you're a fan of the 'Beverly Hillbillies.' It's where Buddy Ebsen was born. I went to school at Northwestern (in Chicago) as an undergrad, so I certainly have an affinity for the Midwest and I wanted to make sure that in telling a story about an eccentric reverend you couldn't write him off as a product of one of the coasts. I grew up Catholic. I certainly was subjected to more than my fair share of eccentric, wacky priests. But that's what I wanted to avoid. I wanted to avoid people saying, 'Oh, well, that's California!'

"We did a few good establishing shots (in Chicago) and I think people will feel we managed to do Chicago. I actually think Robin managed to (sound like he was from Chicago). Especially when he's at the pulpit talking to the congregation, I detect a little bit of a Chicago drawl in there. I think he tried to give Rev. Frank a little regional context now and then."

Of course, it's not easy to find parts of L.A. that can double for a place like Chicago: "The time honored dilemma of Los Angeles shooting is how to avoid palm trees? But on top of that, we also had a different challenge because the climactic sequence of the picture takes place in Jamaica and as we were budgeting the film and creating our schedule a lot of people said, 'Well, shoot it in Malibu.' But the truth is they couldn't be more different and there is no substituting for the utterly turquoise water in the Caribbean. We just don't have it here. There's the old adage that 'a tree is a tree, shoot it in Griffith Park,' but I'm very happy to say we did go to Jamaica (to shoot for about a week and a half) and it certainly opened up the picture in a wonderful way. When you see the Caribbean you realize it can't be done anywhere else."

As for the challenges he faced in production, Kwapis told me, "One of the biggest challenges was trying to strike a balance between going for real high definition comedy (like) sight gags and physical humor and trying to create a story which also had a romantic comedy aspect to it in which John and Mandy play a real couple. So I think it was a wonderful challenge for me to service both and to make sure that an audience relates to John and Mandy in a way that they recognize them (as a couple) and that we provide the audience with a healthy dose of big laughs.

"I think there's a superstition among filmmakers and actors that if you had a great time making it, it won't be good. It's almost axiomatic among people in the film business that if everyone had a wonderful time, it probably won't be as good and that people who had a really rough production with everyone at each other's throat often produce a brilliant film. I obviously don't believe in that superstition. I would say some of the best work I've done also gave people some of the best experiences they've had. So I do think that, hopefully, the collegial atmosphere and the sense of invention that we all felt on the set will be clear to the audience."

As a director who works in both feature films and television, Kwapis emphasized how happy he is to be doing both. "I feel very privileged as a director to be able to move back and forth between very creative television directing and wonderful material for the screen," he said. "You know, when I started in the business you could not go back and forth. I remember very distinctly when I was sent a pilot script for a half-hour comedy and people close to me said, 'Don't meet on that job. It'll kill your feature directing career.' Well, I opened it up and read it. It was called 'The Larry Sanders Show' (starring Garry Shandling on HBO from 1992-98). I read it and I thought, 'Oh, my God! This is better written than every feature I've been reading. How can I not jump on this?' And the truth is, ever since then for me the quality of the material that I've been able to work on in television has equaled or, more often than not, bested the kind of material that I have a chance to work on for the big screen. So to me -- what a privilege to be able to go back and forth!

"I'm really proud of 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,' which I just feel is a film with strong emotional content and terrific dramatic performances by a group of really talented up-and-coming actresses. Obviously, America Ferrera really leaped into the limelight after that film. When I cast her in (that movie) she was known primarily for a wonderful independent film called 'Real Women Have Curves' (directed by Patricia Cardoso and released in 2002). America's performance in 'Sisterhood' is so bold, so gutsy, so emotionally raw. I'm just so pleased that I have had a chance to be at the helm of that kind of dramatic material and then to be able to turn around and wrestle with Robin Williams and his great improvisational ability. For me, it's been a real pleasure to feel that I'm not being put in a box."

Looking ahead, Kwapis noted, "I'm prepping a film for New Line based on the non-fiction best-seller 'He's Just Not That Into You' (by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo). It's not a romantic comedy. I call it a social document with humor about men and women who pine after each other and are rebuffed by each other. It's being produced by Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen of Flower Films and we're shooting in the fall. We're just starting to cast it. It's an ensemble with about eight main characters and Drew will play one of them. We're just starting to put it together now and to me it's sort of a wonderful way to take what I've learned from both 'Sisterhood' and 'License to Wed' and apply it to something that really kind of defies categories. It's not a romantic comedy. It's not a drama. It really is a kind of unique social document filled with humor."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 31, 1989's column: "With marketing costs escalating and the public being bombarded by more and more movie ads, studios are becoming increasingly creative in finding new ways to supplement their marketing without spending more money.

"Promotional tie-ins with national fast-food chains are becoming one of the most effective ways to increase consumers' awareness of films and, hopefully, to stimulate their appetite to see them. A good case in point is Warner Bros.' recent month-long tie-in with Taco Bell Corp. in which some 220 million 32-ounce plastic 'Batman' drinking cups were given away at nearly 3,000 of the company's restaurants.

"'It's the first time (we've done a film tie-in) in about five years,' George Reynolds, vice president of marketing for Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, told me. The company had limited success with an earlier promotional tie-in with 'Star Trek.' 'It was a mediocre success, to be honest. I think that's because we approached it with less than the full commitment we gave to 'Batmen.' We were doing 'Star Trek,' glassware. We sold out of the glasses, but we didn't see the sales response. That's because we didn't support it with the full-fledged, fully integrated marketing program we gave 'Batman.'

"'With 'Batman' we had a lot of media. We had our crew people in 'Batman' T-shirts and our stores decorated like Bat Caves. You couldn't walk into Taco Bell and not know something was going on with 'Batman.' We think it was that level of commitment that made all the difference in the world.'

"How did the promotion originate? 'They came to us,' replies Reynolds. 'We're always interested in hearing about hot promotion tie-ins. We're in a retail business and our customers like to have something new to keep coming back to Taco Bell. They approached us last spring. We were already starting to see some of the hype ourselves. We read the script and saw their trailers and their advertising and agreed wholeheartedly that it was going to be the hit of the summer...

"'We estimate the total amount of support that we put behind the program at about $10 million. That included the actual media that we bought. Keep in mind that we have 3,000 locations throughout the country. Each of those locations are doing something like 4,000 transactions a week. If you multiply all that out, during the month of July there were about 100 million people in our restaurants who were seeing 'Batman' paraphernalia, 'Batman' T-shirts on our crew people, etc. The way we value all of that support, including the television advertising, comes out to about $10 million that helped hype their movie and increase ticket sales.'"

Update: "Batman" went on to gross $251.2 million domestically, making it 1989's top grossing film. It remains the biggest grossing title in its franchise of six episodes to date.

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