'Ramona' stars young newcomer working 6 hour days

Cast and crew enjoyed shorter work schedule

It's hard enough making movies with kids in supporting roles, but it's way more challenging when a film stars a 9-year-old newcomer who's in every scene and can only work six hours a day.

That's what Elizabeth Allen faced directing Fox 2000 and Walden Media's family comedy "Ramona and Beezus," opening today via Fox.

Adapted from Beverly Cleary's series of "Ramona" books, which go back more than 50 years and have sold 30 million copies, the film sports a screenplay by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay.

Joey King, who makes her debut as Ramona, was cast after a yearlong search that had Allen and producers Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan considering nearly a thousand youngsters. Ramona's 15-year-old sister Beezus is played by Selena Gomez ("Wizards of Waverly Place"), and their parents are John Corbett ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and Bridget Moynahan ("I, Robot").

Managing a shooting schedule based on a kid's work hours and bringing it in for less than $15 million, which includes expensive literary rights, kept Allen on her toes.

"We decided to do something a little bit unusual and I waived all overtime," she said.

Generally, production days run about 14 hours, but "Ramona's" were cut to eight.

"We were able to squeeze a couple more days out of it because we didn't go into overtime and we kept our days really short. So we did 42 days of eight-hour days."

But that's not as great a schedule as it sounds.

"It would be practically half of that if you're doing 14-hour days. It would be 20-some-odd days."

Despite the pressures, Allen was thrilled to be making the film because she had her own memories of reading the "Ramona" books growing up.

Fox didn't know that when they called her three years ago to come talk about filming "Ramona." In 2006, Allen had directed her first feature, the family comedy "Aquamarine," for Fox 2000 and they wanted to work with her again.

"It took me about a month to get ready for that because there were eight books I had to draw from and I really wanted to do those books justice because they were my favorite childhood books," she said.

One of the things that helped get the film made was shooting in Vancouver. Not only were there good tax incentives, but Vancouver was a good creative fit with Cleary's books, which take place in Portland, Ore.

"There are always overcast skies," Allen explained, "and it's identical to Vancouver. I actually loved shooting in Vancouver. I think there's a more lush flattering look to movies that are shot up there."

Moreover, there's less production fatigue in Vancouver, "so it's a little easier than Los Angeles as far as getting neighborhoods and police and whatnot to play ball."

Allen credits line producer Brad Van Arragon, who knew Vancouver from co-producing Fox Searchlight's "Juno," with figuring out how to do "Ramona" for less than $15 million.

"Our movie's a bit of a niche movie so Fox wasn't going to greenlight it unless we could hit a certain number."

Allen also had to cope with getting the performance she needed from her very young, brand new star.

"I'd go through the script with the adults that would be working with her. I'd ask them to help me get a certain moment out of her because, obviously, a lot of acting is reacting."

Besides King and Gomez, there were lots of other kids in the movie and the resulting family feel on set was exactly what Allen wanted.

"Everyone was there for the right reasons because you don't do a family film unless you really want to do it. You're not doing it for the money."

On "Ramona" that also included the crew.

"All the crew was briefed that we'd only be working eight-hour days because they wouldn't make as much money since they weren't going into overtime. The people who did it were doing it as a luxury because they'd have more time with their families at night. So our entire crew was really warm and friendly."

Bottom line: "There was a lot of collaboration and a great attitude on set that I'd never quite experienced. It was kind of magical."

Happily, the results looked good to Beverly Cleary, who turned 93 two days before production began Apr. 12, 2009. It had taken Di Novi over two years to persuade Cleary to let her turn her books into a movie and it was very important that she like the finished film.

"It was probably the scariest day of my life to go up there and present it to her because here's a character she's been living with for 60 years," Allen recalled.

"To be able to bring her character to life in a way that made her happy was incredibly intimidating. But she was overjoyed and when the lights came up, the first thing she said was, 'Joey King deserves an Oscar.' And I was, 'OK. I'm OK!' She gave us a few notes and stuff, but as soon as she said that, I knew I was in the clear."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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