By Kirk Wise
Was it the incessantly farting ogre that first tipped me off? Or the flat plywood sets that looked like a poorly-lit episode of H.R. Pufnstuf, minus the whimsy and imagination? Perhaps it was TV funnyman Howie Mandel, capering and lisping his way through his role as a glitter encrusted genie? I suppose if I had to choose, I’d say the penny dropped when the head of the production company went to prison.
But I’m getting ahead of myself...this the story of my ill-fated, almost-debut in the world of live-action.
In early 2002, I left Walt Disney Feature Animation after a 16-year run. Though I loved my friends and colleagues there like a second family, 10+ years of directing big-budget animated features had left me exhausted. I was ready for a sabbatical. And I was ready for a new challenge once I felt rested and my creative engines were re-engaged. Other animation directors had successfully transitioned into live-action filmmaking, so why not me?
My newly hired and well-meaning agents booked dozens of general meetings which consisted of me sweatily twiddling my thumbs in a series of fancy (and not-so-fancy) production company lobbies, and engaging in vapid chitchat with a series of smiley (and not- so-smiley) studio execs. Eventually, all the meetings began to blur together like carnival spin-art. But still, I soldiered on. Apparently, this was how things were done.
I soon learned that my extensive animation experience wasn’t a surefire ticket to live-action fame and fortune. Far from it, in fact. A music video or TV commercial on your resume opened a lot of doors. An Academy Award-nominated 2D animated feature from ten years ago? Not so much. And plenty of live-action execs weren’t the least bit shy about offering this somewhat belated bit of career advice.
Then I had a meeting at a tiny production company just down the road from Universal’s fabled Black Tower. I’d grown so accustomed to rejection at that point that I was floored when they expressed what seemed like actual enthusiasm for my work. It made it easy to look past the cheap looking Photoshopped posters on the walls; family-friendly fare with unfamiliar titles, featuring a roster of C and D-list celebs. One did catch my eye: a live-action Hansel and Gretel starring Delta “Designing Women” Burke and Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney. Alrighty then, I thought.I was even introduced to the head of the company, a handsome dude with a firm handshake who looked like a cross between an evangelical pastor and an ad for men’s shirts. He also had the same name as a WWE superstar and a 70’s TV cyborg. But he was neither Stone Cold nor Bionic, at least as far as I could tell.
24 hours later, much to my then-surprise, my agents called with the thrilling news that the producers wanted to attach me as director to their upcoming live-action adaptation of Red Riding Hood. My months of meetings had finally paid off! Huzzah!!!
To prep me for the rigors of a live-action shoot, I was invited down to the Palm Springs location of one of their current productions, a Christmas themed comedy inexplicably set in a blazing hot desert suburb. It was a low-budget, non-union shoot with a young director and an even younger crew. I watched them rehearse, set-up shots, even stage and execute a dangerous stunt fall from a balcony. I was struck by both the breakneck pace and maddening slowness of the process, and picked up some of the vernacular (Mark it! Speed! Back to one!) along the way. I even met some of the cast; Shelley “Cheers” Long and Robert “Airplane” Hays, both of whom I was pleased to find gracious, friendly and accommodating. Though I have to admit it was difficult to suppress my urge to ask Mr. Hays not to call me Shirley.
When I got back to LA, a message was waiting that the producers wanted me to appear in a behind-the-scenes promotional video. I thought it odd, given we hadn’t even tiptoed into pre-production yet, but agreed nevertheless. As the cameras rolled, I was urged to talk about how great it was working them and how much I believed in the company’s vision for Quality Family Entertainment. I was perfectly comfortable in front of the camera. I’d performed in dozens of staged-after-the-fact story meetings filmed for electronic press kits (EPK’s) at Disney. But never before the actual work had been done. Like I said, odd.
At home, an envelope arrived from my agents with the Red Riding Hood contract enclosed. I found myself strangely uneasy about signing, but chalked it up to nerves. Every artist’s old nemesis Imposter Syndrome was trying to worm its way in, I told myself. Besides, wasn’t this the break I’d been hoping for? Sure, it’s a low-profile, low-budget project, no Stuart Little or 102 Dalmations, but think of the experience I’d gain!
It occurred to me that I’d never actually seen any of their finished films. Coincidentally, Hansel and Gretel had just received a limited theatrical release. It was playing nearby, and my girlfriend suggested that maybe we should go see it, just to get a better idea of what might be expected of me, and what the company's artistic sensibilities were. After all, this was a film they wrote, produced, and presumably approved. It might ease my mind about signing. So that afternoon we drove the short distance to the theater, leaving the unsigned contract behind. We bought our tickets, and settled in. The lights dimmed, and the main feature began...
As God is my witness, what was screened on that day was, without a doubt, the single worst thing I have ever seen committed to celluloid. And that includes the Zapruder film. To fully enumerate the Crimes Against Cinema on display would be an impossible task, because neither of us lasted 30 minutes.
As I sat, heart thudding in my chest, my brain could barely process the fact that this had (allegedly) been made by paid professionals. It appeared to have been shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. That might’ve accounted for the graininess, murkiness, and overall crappiness of the image. But the sets? The lighting? The hair, makeup, and costumes? I’d seen high school musicals with more lavish production values. To call it “amateurish” would be an insult to amateurs. It was as if Ed Wood had mugged Sid and Marty Krofft in a dark alley.
In addition to Ms. Burke, Mr. McRaney, and Mr. Mandel, future ‘Squeaky’ Fromme portrayer Dakota Fanning had also been roped into this unfolding fiasco. Additional characters had been added to the slim narrative, no doubt to pad the running time. Mr. Mandel’s jaw-droppingly unfunny Gay Genie stereotype was joined by the aforementioned Farting Ogre, an oozing latex monstrosity in Billy Bob Thornton overalls. Rounding out the cast was a Good Fairy in Party City bargain-bin butterfly wings, and played by the head honcho’s own daughter. I’m fairly certain none of the meager budget went toward her acting lessons.
I staggered out of the theater into the hot Pasadena sunshine, trying to will away the awful images now burned into my retinas. My girlfriend and I both knew what had to happen as soon as I could get to a phone. I had to get out of this deal. Period. Their definition of Quality Family Entertainment was so opposite from my own, I might as well have been living on Bizarro World.
My agents and lawyer could hear the distress in my voice. To my infinite relief and gratitude, they quickly pulled the plug on my involvement with Red Riding Hood. It may well have been divine intervention that I’d never signed the contract. They never reached out to me again, and I’ve no idea what became of the promotional video. According to IMDB, the film was eventually produced, with Randal Kleiser (GREASE) at the helm and starring former NSYNC triple-threat Joey Fatone.
If you’ve seen Mel Brooks’s comedy classic The Producers or its wildly successful stage adaptation, you’ve probably sussed out the business plan: charm multiple private investors with zero connections to the film industry, separate them from their cash with promises of Hollywood riches and glamour, crank out staggeringly sub-par content virtually guaranteed to fail, then pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the offshore bank. Mr. Men’s Shirts played up the family-friendly angle and found a more than willing flock to fleece.
I can’t say I was surprised to read it had all finally caught up with him in 2009. The Feds nailed the Non-Bionic Man for mail fraud and ordered him to make restitutions to his bilked investors, then sent him to the Big House to ponder the error of his ways.
Me? I went back to animation, eventually landing at Sony’s newly-hatched animation division for a couple of years. (A story in itself.) Later, I was given the unexpected opportunity to write narration for several live-action nature films, then finally was hired to direct a live-action educational short for Disney. I learned a ton and gained a new respect for the indomitable work ethic of live-action crews.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from my experience, it’s to listen to your instincts. If a job prospect smells fishy, there’s likely a reason. And that the grass on the other side of the fence isn’t necessarily greener. In fact, you may wind up with a mouthful of Astroturf. Most importantly, don’t compromise your professional standards for anyone. Ever. My late father was fond of the saying, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” Even under severe schedule or budgetary limitations, I’ve always tried my best to live up to that motto.
Also, don’t be swayed by flattery. And watch out for smiling cyborgs.