Commentary: 'Race' UFO story not alien to Roswell native


Fickman focus: Filmmakers are sometimes particularly well suited to tackle certain projects, and that certainly seems to be the case with Andy Fickman and "Race to Witch Mountain."

"Race," directed by Fickman and produced by Andrew Gunn, opens March 13 via Disney. Inspired by the studio's 1970s hits "Escape to Witch Mountain" and "Return From Witch Mountain," the new sci-fi family adventure thriller revolves around a secret location in the Nevada desert known for unexplained phenomena and strange sightings. Who better to direct such material than Fickman, a native of Roswell, N.M., where a supposed UFO crash in the '50s was allegedly covered up by the government and military?

Fickman's 2007 family comedy "The Game Plan," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, was a hit for Disney, grossing $90.6 million domestically. Its success sparked "Race," a second collaboration between Fickman and Disney that, again, stars Johnson. Executive produced by Mario Iscovich and Ann Marie Sanderlin, its screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback is based on the book by Alexander Key. Also starring are Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb and Ciaran Hinds.

"I was in postproduction on my previous Disney film, 'The Game Plan,' and the executives there came to me and asked if I was familiar with the 'Escape to Witch Mountain' movies," Fickman told me recently. "Truly, I could not have been more excited, because it was one of my all-time favorite movies as a kid. I absolutely knew it inside out. We talked about what type of movie this would be and very quickly I knew I didn't want to make a direct remake of the original film. I loved what that story was, but I sort of felt like it had already had its time and place."

What Fickman thought was interesting, he explained, "was the mythology of Witch Mountain and UFOs and conspiracies. So we really used all of that as a leaping-off place. As much as it's a brand-new story, sort of 30 years later, there are still trace elements from the original 'Witch Mountain' (that) fans from the original can see in this movie, and I think it'll put a smile on their faces."

Asked about his connection to the material thanks to his Roswell roots, Fickman laughed: "It finally pays off! Finally! I should thank my parents for that. I was born in Roswell and, certainly, it's one of those classic questions your whole life. If someone asks where you were born and you say, 'Roswell, New Mexico,' it immediately is met with, sort of, 'Oh, you're an alien.' I had just got back from China where Dwayne and I were doing press (for 'Race') and every journalist there from all over Asia knew what Roswell was. I found it so interesting that globally it's probably one of few cities that you could just say (the name) and immediately everybody has an image in their mind of UFOs and crashes and aliens. So it's definitely been a part of me for a long time."

Did it help him in handling this material? "Well, I think to a certain degree it helped in that I've had a lifelong fascination with UFOs," he replied, "and because of that I think I probably came into the movie very much a fan and already (had) my own decades worth of research leading up to it. I (didn't need) to immerse myself in the world of UFOs. It was kind of the opposite, which was, 'I'm so immersed in the world of UFOs I think I now need to make sure I immerse our producers and our cast and our executives and our crew to catch them up to where my head space is.' "

Unlike so many movie projects that advance at a snail's pace, "Race" raced off at high speed from the start. "It actually was one of those rare things, especially by Hollywood standards, where something moved so quickly," Fickman noted. "We started looking at the script as written and talked about what sort of changes would need to be made. It was maybe less of an adventure when we first started and (we) wanted to take it more and more and make it an adventure for everyone.

"We started talking about who that male lead would be and we (were saying), 'We need a guy who could save the world' and while I'm having those meetings I'm leaving those meetings to go back into the editing room to look at Dwayne Johnson on screen (while) editing 'The Game Plan.' Then I'd go back and have more (conversations about), 'Yeah, who would be the guy who would be strong enough and big enough and cool enough to save the world?' And, of course, it took about 30 seconds to get Dwayne on the phone. We went and had lunch and talked about the movie. It turned out he was also a big fan of the original films."

Looking at the cast list I noticed the familiar name of Garry Marshall, long one of my favorite directors ("Pretty Woman," "The Princess Diaries") and also a very capable actor (including 24 episodes of the series "Murphy Brown"), who plays a UFO specialist helping "Race's" teenage alien siblings who must get into the secret Witch Mountain government facility to obtain a device left by their parents that is the key to saving their planet as well as ours.

"Garry has been a tremendous supporter of my directing career," Fickman explained. "The first award of significance I ever got was when I directed a musical called 'Reefer Madness,' which first started as a play here in L.A. before we ended up making it. But when it was a play here we swept the Ovation Awards and my best directing award was handed to me by Garry Marshall. Subsequently through his Falcon Theater (in Burbank) we got to become very friendly and he's always been very kind to me and very supportive."

When Fickman and his producers were casting "Race," he continued, and were "thinking of somebody to be a very eccentric USO researcher we all started talking about (how) 'It should be someone like Garry Marshall.' And what was so funny was that Garry has a long history (with Disney). There's actually a bench outside the editing room that's the 'Garry Marshall Bench.' One of our producers, Mario Iscovich, has been a longtime producer of Garry's films and so he would laugh when we talked about (wanting a Garry Marshall type).

"And then we just looked at each other and (said), 'Wait a minute. It shouldn't be someone like Garry. It should be Garry.' And so we got him the script and he very kindly agreed to come on. It was just great to have him and a little honor for me to have this director that I've admired for so many years and love his works just to creatively be on the same stage with him."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Fickman recalled, "We set out from the very beginning to want to do as much of a blend of '70s sort of action adventure movies and what modern day CGI has to offer. Whenever we could accomplish something in camera (or) accomplish something using our actors within the stunt work, we really wanted to. I'm such a fan of Steve McQueen movies and just how exciting they always were. You always felt that Steve McQueen (was) in the heart of everything. Our stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers, and the Go stunt team (a specialized Go Mobile camera car integrates actors with the action instead of shooting them from a trailing vehicle) are a really phenomenal group of guys who had been instrumental in all the 'Bourne' movies and 'Spider-Man' movies.

"We really structured the movie to see what more we could put on film that was live action with our actors and our vehicles, and that's a real challenge. In current filmmaking it's easy just to say, 'We'll throw a green screen on and put him in a fake car in front of a green screen and you're good to go.' We were wanting to do something that was at times more like, 'What did they do when they didn't have green screens?' And so there was a challenge and one that I'm really pleased (with) what that end result was."

As for his own future, Fickman's working on a number of big projects: "I'm really excited that recently I was able to form a partnership with Ted Hartley and Dina Merrill and all the fine people at RKO in addition to Mark Burg and Oren Koules and Carl Mazzocone over at Twisted Pictures, the gang behind the 'Saw' franchise, to begin a process of remaking and re-imagining the Val Lewton library from the '40s. One of my favorite (things) growing up as a kid on Saturday afternoon (was to see the) scare fest movies that would come on. Those movies were all about shadows, smoke and mirrors and fog. It was what you didn't see that added to the scares.

"We took the first crop of them -- 'I Walked With a Zombie,' 'The Body Snatcher,' 'Bedlam' and one that was an RKO movie of the time but not from the Val Lewton library, 'Five Came Back,' which was actually an old Lucille Ball movie -- and are in the process right now with all the writers of getting those ready. And I'll end up probably directing one if not two of those."

At the same time, Fickman also has a few more projects underway at Disney. "I'm in the process," he said, "of writing the Disney script with my writers on 'The Game Plan,' Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price, (for) a project called 'Pool Rats,' also with our producers from 'The Game Plan' Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray. It's very much inspired by my life one summer -- a very sort of 'Meatballs'-esque 'Caddyshack' type comedy. And then I have a project (called) 'The Most Annoying Man in the World' that Disney recently picked up for us as a spec script that's a really fun 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles' type comedy that we're digging down in. And a couple of other movies are starting to percolate there, too. I just recently with my company signed a first look deal there."

In particular, Fickman salutes Disney 's top team from "(Walt Disney Co. President & CEO) Bob Iger to (Walt Disney Studios chairman) Dick Cook to (Walt Disney Studios motion picture production president) Oren Aviv. They've been nothing but kind and gracious to me. Sometimes I think we are in an industry in which it's easy to kind of look at the people above you who run the studios and create a little bit of us-and-them attitude. With Bob and Dick and Oren I've just never felt an 'us-and-them.' I just feel 'us.' They're so supportive of me creatively and actually they just make it a lot of fun. So it's a good home."

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