Commentary: Years of twists and turns to screen for 'Keith'

Lindsay Lohan, Shia LaBeouf were once to star

Kessler's "Keith:" Coming of age films about teen angst and the pressures of high school life were one of Hollywood's most popular genres in the mid-'80s when John Hughes movies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" did big business.

Over the years, however, the genre's lost its high profile and when we see teens on screen now they're more likely to be in slasher movies. A happy exception to all that is the romantic drama "Keith," which impressively mark's Todd Kessler's feature directing debut. Starring are recording artist Jesse McCartney ("Leavin'") and Elisabeth Harnois (TV's "Point Pleasant").

Produced by Rebecca Hobbs and Kessler, the independently made film's screenplay by David Zabel and Kessler is based on the short story "Keith" by Ron Carlson. Kessler's best known for being one of the creators of the hit Nickelodeon series "Blue's Clues." "Keith," which has been playing at film festivals and winning first place prizes, premieres Sept. 13 in Las Vegas as part of a Lili Claire Foundation sponsored concert by Jesse McCartney. It starts a limited Vegas run Sept. 19 with Regal Cinemas.

The film's story revolves around the unlikely relationship between Keith, an odd-ball loner (McCartney), who manipulates things to become the chemistry lab partner of his high school's tennis star-teen queen (Harnois). Slowly but surely he becomes part of her life despite her predictable lack of interest in dating him and her just-started romance with a classic jock. In the end, there are some powerful dark plot twists and turns that you definitely don't want to know about yet.

After enjoying an early look at "Keith," I was glad to have the opportunity to focus with Kessler on his film's other twists and turns -- the ones that brought it to the screen. "I read a short story called 'Keith' by Ron Carlson," he told me. "It's a fantastic story and I thought as I was reading (it) that I'll never be able to meet another person in my life named Keith without thinking of this story. And I thought, 'Well, that's a pretty powerful character.' It felt to me like he was big enough for a feature film. That was eight years ago or so."

How did it turn into a movie? "It was a very short story. I found out that the studios had looked at it already and had rejected it based on the idea that there didn't seem to be enough of a plot in that little story to sustain a film," Kessler replied. "But I had an idea about how to open up the story into a romantic triangle so I wrote that up as an outline and I took it around to various film companies and got turned down a lot. But finally I ended up at Miramax where I pitched it and Harvey (Weinstein) heard about it and a couple hours later we had a contract. This was in 2003 or '04."

As wonderful as that sounds, back then Kessler wasn't actually going to be doing very much in terms of making the movie. "I had not directed a feature film before and I had not written a feature film so I was only attached as the producer at that point because it was a project I had brought to them," he recalled. "They wouldn't in any way consider me to direct or write. So the first step was to find a writer. They wanted somebody with some (credits) and they gave me their list of people. I rejected many, but finally we agreed on one writer -- David Zabel ('ER' and 'Dark Angel' episodes) -- and they hired him and he did two drafts of the script."

Miramax, he said, liked Zabel's script and sent it around to directors: "They tried to get it going. They tried to do a co-production with MTV Films, but nothing really quite worked. So at a certain point I asked them to give it back to me if they weren't going to make it and they gave it back to me in turnaround. At that point I sat down and completely rewrote the script the way I had originally envisioned it. Then I looked around at teenage actors and I attached two actors who I thought were really promising. One was Lindsay Lohan and the other was Shia LaBeouf."

There was a clause in his contract, Kessler explained, "that forced me to go back to Miramax if I attached new elements so (they could) have a last look at it. It's a standard clause in contracts, but apparently it's rarely exercised because usually when they get rid of a project it's (because they think it's) bad and they don't want it. So I took it back to them and they read my script and they said, 'It's fantastic. You've really captured the emotion of the story. You obviously have a directorial vision for this. You can be attached as director. That's fine. But these two young actors -- we don't think they can carry a movie.

"This was before (Lohan starred in) 'Freaky Friday' and before (LaBeouf starred in) 'Holes.' So they rejected them and that caused a kind of legal skirmish because it wasn't clear whether they could accept one element and not accept them all. Then they promised again to make the film, but it never happened and (the Weinsteins) got into their problems with Disney and all that eventually after stopping and starting and starting to cast it. I did some more rewrites for them and then eventually I got it back a second time. All this took two years or so of just back-and-forth and waiting and meetings and having one executive in charge and then another and then another and meetings with outside production companies. It was an endless process, but then I finally got it back and raised private money to get it done."

Of course, Kessler had to cast the film all over again. "At this point, all the teenage community of actors knew about the project and they all were calling up (asking) to do it," he recalled. "We had a wonderful time auditioning. Jesse McCartney, who was on tour at the time, called up (to audition). I didn't know who he was (then), but I saw him and he did a fantastic job."

One of the things Kessler found so exciting about the process, he noted, was "how passionate the teenage community of actors was about the project. Kristen Stewart ('Panic Room') auditioned and did a fantastic job. It would have been difficult for me to hire her because she was under age and it was impossible budget-wise, but she said to me at the end of her audition standing up and passionately giving a speech, 'It doesn't matter if I get this part or not, but whatever happens you have to make this film.'

"The teenagers were so frustrated with the scripts they were getting -- especially the girls. Every teen script was exactly what they had seen before. They all really encouraged me to stick with it and get the film made. And they were very gracious about it, knowing that they might not get the roles."

After Miramax gave the project back to Kessler he got it financed, he said, "through private connections in New York. I knew people in the music business. They were aware of Jesse so they felt that this visibility was good. There had been a similar project done (the 2002 romantic drama) 'A Walk to Remember' with Mandy Moore, who was a teenager then and also was a musician and that film had done very well. So there were some similarities with my film in that it was a love story and it was teenagers."

Focusing on the kind of films that are being targeted to teen moviegoers these days, Kessler observed, "The studios and the independents are doing a lot of over-the-top comedies, which are great, and, of course, there's always action films that appeal to young people. And there's always, horror, too. I feel that recently they haven't been releasing that many dramas for young people and there's a huge hunger among (that audience) for those kinds of stories. Since John Hughes, I think nobody's really been able to figure it out. If you talk to any 15 or 16 year old today, they have all rented John Hughes' movies. They all know 'The Breakfast Club.'"

As for filming "Keith," he said, "There were many challenges. One was the availability of the actors. It was a spring story, but I had to shoot it in the middle of winter. I had to shoot over Thanksgiving break, which is not an ideal time. It locked me out of half the country that was cold, first of all. I ultimately decided to shoot in Los Angeles. My locations were simple so I could make it look like the Midwest. But because it was my first feature I thought that even though it was a little bit more expensive to shoot in L.A. it would be a good idea for me (to be for) the first time on a feature set with a very experienced crew. It worked out fantastically well. I (also) wanted access to the really good L.A. actors for the small parts, for the day players and all of that because if you shoot (in other cities) it's hard to get good people. You have to fly them in so there's an expense to that. So all in all, working in L.A. was a really happy experience."

The fact that about three-quarters of the movie takes place at night posed special challenges during production: "There were lots of long nights. You think of L.A. as a warm place, but it's not at four in the morning. We did some shooting up at Lake Castaic and it's freezing. One of the biggest settings in the movie is on a cliff overlooking the lake. I decided to shoot those (scenes) on blue screen. Those were all done in a studio because we realized we couldn't afford to light a lake. With my blue screen experience from 'Blue's Clues' I felt confident I could carry it over and make it work on our budget. It's just a completely invested set with blue screen for the lake. The lake is actually some stills we had a photographer shoot in a lake in Alabama."

Kessler is understandably pleased with "Keith's" success to date on the festival circuit. "It's played in four festivals," he said. "One in Italy. One in Germany. One in Sweden, And one in Toronto in the youth arm of the Toronto Film Festival. Each of those festivals were judged by juries of actual teenagers. In four festivals in a row it's won first prize. It's been a great experience for me. I've gotten to see the world for free and in every place I've gotten to talk to young people about it.
In Vegas they're doing a test market in Regal Cinemas, which will start Sept. 19. And then they'll see how it does in theaters. Hopefully, they'll be able to platform it to other markets from there."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel