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Director Series-Griffin Dunne-Fierce People

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By Jack Egan
Fierce People “has been a passion project for me,” saysGriffin Dunne, the film’s director. Dunne, praised for his acting infilms like After Hours and American Werewolf in London, has also earnedkudos for films he has produced, including Baby It’s You and Running onEmpty. Fierce People, a dark comedy about upper class crimes that areskeletons in an “old money” family’s closet, is the fifth film he’sdirected. Others include Addicted to Love and Lisa Picard is Famous.
Dunne’sinvolvement with the project goes back nearly a decade, when thedirector first expressed interest in optioning Fierce People, then anovel still being written by author Dirk Wittenborn. Wittenborn alsowrote the screenplay for the movie, which debuted at the Tribeca FilmFestival in 2005 to good reviews and finally reaches cineplexes at theend of August.
The dark comedy is about the interaction of twodysfunctional families — a mother recovering from her drug and alcoholproblems and her teenage son (played by Diane Lane and newcomer AntonYelchin), who wind up serving an aristocratic clan, the Osbornes,headed by an eccentric patriarch (Donald Sutherland). “Behind the irongates of every wealthy family empire are untold secrets of reallybrutal acts committed to maintain that status,” says the director. “Youdon’t just win a lottery to amass that kind of fortune. You’ve got tospill a little blood.”
The film’s starry ensemble cast iscomplemented by the excellence of the young production keys assembledby Dunne: Cinematographer William Rexer II, production designer MarkRicker, editor Allyson Johnson and costume designer Monique Prudhomme.
Dunne talked about his long gestating project with Below the Line.

Belowthe Line: The film begins in New York City but then it shifts to thefancy estate country in part of New Jersey where the big Osbornemansion is located. But I’ve heard Fierce People was mainly shot inCanada.

Griffin Dunne: Yes, we filmed in Vancouver and on nearbyVancouver Island where we found a big old house to serve as the mainlocation. We also filmed in New York, but for just a day and thefootage was without sound.
BTL: How long was the shoot itself?
Dunne:The entire shoot was 30 days, with no leeway to go over. Meanwhile, Iencountered every sort of unknown element, so it was packed withchallenges. For my lead, I was dealing with Anton Yelchin, who was thenonly 15 and therefore a child actor. That created certain restrictions.I had a mentally challenged actor in one of the supporting roles, whoended up being absolutely great. There were also more kids to deal withand also animals. And one sequence involved a hot-air balloon, whichwas tricky. But in the end, it somehow all worked out, thank God,because there really was no 31st day in the schedule.
BTL: You hadsome big-name stars like Diane Lane and Donald Sutherland as well as abig supporting cast. And the production values in the film aretop-notch. What did it cost to make the film?
Dunne: At the end ofthe day it was around $7.5 million. We went to Canada to save money,and when we got there its currency was still relatively cheap comparedto the U.S. dollar. But the dollar had already started its big slide,so it wasn’t quite as cheap as it seemed during pre-production.
BTL:Could you talk a bit about William Rexer, your cinematographer, and thejob he did? In a character-driven narrative movie like yours, the firstobjective is to support the storytelling visually.
Dunne: Without adoubt. I’ve just finished my third picture with William. Each is adifferent genre and completely different in feel and tone. And he hasdone a great job as cinematographer. His original background was incommercials and documentaries. We initially worked together on a film Idirected, Lisa Picard is Famous, which was half documentary and halfpseudo-documentary.
One of the most important traits for acinematographer, besides having a great eye and being able to tell thestory visually, is having great chemistry and rapport with thedirector. I had this with him so I wanted him to shoot Fierce People.The problem was he had never done a feature with big-name stars before,so I had some convincing to do. I showed Diane Lane his beautifulcommercials work. She trusted me that William would make her lookgreat. We also got the studio, Lionsgate, to agree it was worth takinga chance on William. And he really came through, as he always does. Towork under the pressure of a 30-day shoot and deliver a picture thatlooks as good as this is no small feat.
BTL: There were several key action sequences that take place at night. Were those shoots especially tough?
Dunne:We were shooting in a park in Vancouver and had to light up what was ineffect a forest in the middle of the night for a big fight actionsequence. And we only had one night to do it. So once the sun went downwe had to roll. The key party scene with the guests seated under a bigtent was also shot after dark. Overall, the night sequences weren’t anytougher than the rest of the shoot. But we had to make every day — andnight — count. There was not going to be a 31st day.
BTL: What was the look you were going for with William and your production designer Mark Ricker?
Dunne:It was a 1970s look I was after, like Harold and Maude and other earlyHal Ashby films. I wanted it to be very lush and green and verytextured. We were portraying the world of “old money” and I wanted itto appear tasteful without trying too hard. People with old money feelthey have nothing to prove. The last thing they want is to have theirhouse to be in Architectural Digest. They don’t want to show off theirwealth — they don’t need to. They also have their eccentricities, theirnick nacks and accoutrements that have been there generation aftergeneration. So we wanted it to look very unforced both in terms ofproduction design and cinematography.
BTL: Did you have a lot of takes?
Dunne:Yes, and William knows I like to do a lot of takes. I also like tocover from a lot of angles. So he’s very fast and adaptable in gettingthe setups. As a performance-driven director, I prefer not to call forcuts constantly. Each pause requires dealing with re-lights and thetweaking that goes on with the hair and makeup departments. When I’mrolling, I keep it going. I ask the actors to go back to the firstposition and have them play it over again. I will try to get three orfour attempts for the same scene on one camera take, or until thecamera runs out of film and has to be reloaded. I find the actors getlooser and looser if they can just keep going and don’t have to thinkso much during pauses between takes.
BTL: Does that mean a lot of rehearsals in advance?
Dunne:When I first arrived in Vancouver I would have rehearsal sessions, butthey were small and relaxed. I had such an extraordinary andexperienced cast of actors. They are so wildly prepared that they’reable to hit a groove of spontaneity and take a scene to a differentplace once the camera is rolling.
BTL: Did you have long shooting days, given the 30-day schedule?
Dunne:I did. But the most challenging thing was that Anton was only 15 whenthe movie was shot, and all of the shooting restrictions you have whenyou use a minor. Though I was already aware of Anton when we werecasting, I resisted initially because of the age issue. I knew I wasgoing to be into overtime and I knew I couldn’t make a picture on a10-hour day, that is the rule when you have a minor on the set. And hischaracter is in so much of the movie. He’s on screen at least half ofthe time.
But David Duchovny, who I didn’t know before, called me onhis behalf and encouraged me to meet with Anton, who he had worked withonce. He explained that this kid nails it so quickly and he’s soprepared that in fact you save time. And I thought about the otherpeople I was considering who were not minors but were not inherentlyright for the role, and I thought all of the time I would be spendinggiving a lot of
specific direction if I hired one of them. When I metAnton I fell in love with him. We just had to figure out how to make itwork, and we were able to shoot around him on some days that went long.
BTL:The big house plays a big role as the main setting. Was a lot shotwithin the rooms, or did it serve primarily as a backdrop?
Dunne:We used the interior and exterior of the castle-like house extensively.It was owned by the University of Victoria, which bought the house thathad originally been built by a family somewhat like the Osbornes in thefilm. They were very old money, and they had a haunted past that waswrought with the kind of tragedy that comes to old money families—andthe fictional Osbornes.
Mark, my production designer, who has nowworked with me on three films as well, dressed it from head to toe. Itoriginally looked nothing like it appears in the movie. Prior to theshoot, it was being used for administrative offices. Mark also had theservices of a terrific Canadian set decorator, DominiqueFauquet-Lemaitre. She found all kinds of unique objects to adorn Mr.Osborne’s office and the pool table room, where important scenes areplayed out.
But the extensive grounds were shot not at the estatebut in a national park in Vancouver. And the party under the tent was aset built at Lionsgate Studios in Vancouver. We shot some of theinterior rooms at the estate, and others were actual locations inVancouver.
BTL: One of the delightful parts of the movie involvedthe ride in the multicolored balloon that was reminiscent of the latemultimillionaire, Malcolm Forbes, who was known for his frequentballooning.
Dunne: We talked about Malcolm during the shoot.Ballooning is one of those rarefied sports that only a few people inthe world can afford. But, from a filming standpoint, hot-air balloonsare very difficult to work with. You can’t expect them to behave.You’ve got to wait for them to inflate — and the slightest amount ofwind can cause things to get canceled. We shot over two days and waiteduntil the stillest possible weather. So we really had to luck out,which we eventually did.
BTL: The film takes place in the mid-1970s. How did your costume designer Monique Prudhomme tackle this period?
Dunne:We wanted to avoid the ugly part of the 1970s — the polyester suits andthe open-collared shirts. Monique’s job was to find tasteful costumesthat didn’t scream rich. It’s a category Ralph Lauren has successfullymined over the years. We looked at Ralph’s clothing from that era. It’san unforced but elegant look that’s understated. That’s the directionMonique went in.
BTL: How deeply were you involved in the editing phase?
Dunne:I’m a performance-driven director, and that comes out when I get to theediting room. I’m intimate with every shot and reaction from thedailies. I remember expressions and delivery of lines during each take.And I like to use everything as the raw material.
BTL: So you’re very hands on during the editing?
Dunne:I am hands on but also collaborative. This was the first time I workedwith Allyson Johnson. Once we finally got the financial green light tomake the movie, everything went incredibly fast. I had all thedepartment keys lined up but I hadn’t settled on an editor and nobody Italked to was exactly quite right. When you hire someone as importantas an editor, it’s partly instinctual. You just can’t look at theirpast work because so much may be influenced by the directors with whomthey were working. It’s a very intimate relationship — essentially twopeople trapped in a room for half a year — and in this case I didn’thave that other person, the editor.
Then I got a call from Mira Nair(director of Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding) whom I knew. And shecalled me to recommend her editor, Allyson, and went on about howwonderful she was. But Mira warned me this was a one-time only thing,because she had her next movie lined up and it was perfectly scheduledto start after I finished. “I want her back,” she told me, in effectlending her out. I hired her over the phone and sent her my rushes overthe phone. I didn’t know what she looked like until we were finishedshooting.
BTL: Where was she based?
Dunne: In New York.
BTL: Did she do a first assembly?
Dunne:She put some scenes together as shooting was ongoing, and she showedthem to me. For me, it’s a process of how you get to know the editor,and the editor gets to know you and what you’re after for the movie. Inmy case, I am very specific about what the scene itself is about, andwhat I was going for on the set, and why I shot it in a particular way,and what I think the important things are and what the funny parts are,and what I like about this character or that.
Once your editor knowswhat you’re going for, then they can approach a first edit, instead ofcutting in the dark when they are cutting together the first scene andthen the next. It’s important for me to see the editor’s take. And thenonce I explain what I’m after, the second cut usually ends upcompletely different.
BTL: Some directors say the editing process is like rewriting the movie.
Dunne:It’s very much like that. And it’s a wonderful chance to make up foryour shortcomings — and to make your mistakes look like deliberatemaneuvers.
BTL: What do you have on your plate right now?
Dunne:The Great Buck Howard, in which I act. That’s in final post-post. Ihave a good feeling about it. It’s another magician film, starring JohnMalkovich, who always adds an unusual edge to a film. Another movie Idid recently, Snow Angels, is coming out in March. Warner Independentis releasing. It has Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, myself and AmySedaris.
BTL: Are you also directing?
Dunne: Oh yes. That’s whatI love. I just finished directing Accidental Husband, which stars UmaThurman. It’s in post. And I’m about to direct The Position. It’s aboutthe offspring of the couple who wrote The Joy of Sex. And a coitalposition that was illustrated in the best selling sex manual affectsthe siblings.

Written by Jack Egan

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