Q&A: Nim's Island Directors and Producer

Category: Nim's Island News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 2, 2008 | Publication: IESB.Net | Author: Silas Lesnick
Publication/Article Link:IESB.Net

Directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett joined Producer Paula Mazur for a discussion of their new film, Nim's Island, hitting theaters this Friday.

Levin and Flackett are a rare beast in Hollywood; a husband and wife team that share creative responsibilities. They talk about how family and filmmaking cross over and what they'd like to be working on in the future.

Q: The first question is about the division of labor.

Levin: We do everything side by side, really, all the way through the process. I mean, we sit down, we write together, we sit beside each other for every conversation and by now it’s become pretty amorphous, how we divide things. I might have a slightly more technical bent than Jen but, for the most part, we really just do everything together. I mean, it’s kind of bizarre, the amount of time that we spend together.

Flackett: But it’s a great thing to have that partner who you can talk to at any point. And we always say the conversation never stops, much to the chagrin of our children. There’s a lot of, “Can’t you talk about something besides the movie?”

Q: How old are your kids?

Levin: Our kids are eight and five.

Q: Were they on the set with you?

Levin: They were around a lot. All of our kids came to Australia with us. They’d come by, and a set, unless you’re really intimately involved in the making of the film, can be a tedious place sometimes. So they’d come and for as long as their attention would last, they’d stick around. But then we all went to the island together too for the filming of the island portion and, at that point, it was almost like they were living the life of Nim on the island.

Q: Did they get a lot of filmmaking experience?

Levin: Yeah. It was film camp, really, at that point.

Mazur: I’d love to add to that, because I’d never worked with a husband and wife directing team before, and I actually was a little skeptical as to whether it was even possible. But it was kind of seamless. It was like, who am I going to talk to when I have to speak to someone? But they are actually kind of interchangeable and always finish each other’s sentences and they always agree with each other. So it was actually very easy.

Q: Working with children and animals. I mean, you’re supposed to not do that.

Levin: Yeah, that’s what they warn you, that you shouldn’t work with children or animals.

Flackett: Well, we always say that the children were certainly not a problem. I wouldn’t even think of Abigail as a child actress. She’s really like working with a great actor and she’s just fantastic in every way, shape and form.

Q: And the animals are real. They’re not CGI.

Levin: Well, the animals are real and not all animals are created equal. If you have to work with animals, I’d recommend working with sea lions, who are lovely, trainable creatures.

Flackett: And very expressive.

Levin: Very expressive and do a lot of fun, great things. Pelicans are very challenging to work with. Well, they’re not that trainable, they don’t do what you want them to do, more often than not…

Flackett: They find eyes to be very shiny and they like to snap at them, so there is a real sense of wanting your actors to be safe and so that was a real thought.

Q: Did you have animal wranglers?

Levin: There were animal wranglers around and they were always just beyond the frame line really, so at any given moment, you can always imagine that the animal wrangler is just out of view. But pelicans are very tricky birds to work with. And lizards, who we also worked with a great deal on the movie, are good to a certain point. There were five lizards who played Fred and we rotated them. And they’re kept cool. They’re kept in kind of an igloo ice chest to stay cool, and as their body temperature heats up, then they get more ornery and become less fun to have around. The lizard would always perch on Abby’s shoulder, but then when it warmed up, would crawl up on top of head and you always had to take it out and bring in a cold lizard to do the job well.

Flackett: And it was really amazing from the first day. Abigail was incredible with those animals. It was why she was so excited to play Nim, but she had a natural rapport from day one and it was really impressive to see. She would take that fish and she would throw it to the sea lion and do little snaps. It was really great. She created that relationship with those animals.

Mazur: Which was very lucky, because those sea lions are like four hundred pounds of blubber and muscle and if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, you have to clear the set and get everybody out of the way. So she really trained them well. She actually got very involved in the training.

Flackett: And every day, the safety officer and the trainers would always say, “If the sea lion does this, do that,” and there was never a problem with those sea lions. They were consummate professionals.

Q: Jodie Foster was saying earlier that you really championed her for this role. What were the hurdles and why were you determined to have her?

Levin: Well, when we heard that she had read the script and responded to the character, we were beside ourselves, because for a director to work with someone of her caliber – and even to get the opportunity – was just so thrilling to us. She had not done comedy in a long time and I think that there was a reticence, perhaps on the studio level, that they like people to –

Flackett: -- do what they’ve done before.

Levin: -- do what they’ve done before. So if we’re making a thriller, Jodie’s the first person we’ll call. But we knew, based on just knowing her full body of work, everything she had done as a child, our memories of her in that way, knowing the talent and integrity she brings to every role, we knew she would be brilliant in it.

Flackett: But also, Jodie’s persona is so smart and so serious and it’s a great thing to play off of, for Alexandra – to see that break away and to see that twelve-year-old, who she once was, kind of coming through. We always said if we could have cast Jodie at twelve as Nim, that would have been incredible casting. So to us, the minute we found out that Jodie wanted to do it, it just made cosmic sense and it made the movie bigger to us, than it even had been. There was something about Jodie playing the part that was just intrinsically right. And it was interesting, because you might not have thought of her while you were writing it, but once she said she wanted to do it, that became who was going to play the part.

Mazur: And not only that, she really nailed the comedy. She’s just very funny in it, but she brings all those acting chops to the table, so the character is really real. It’s very based in a solid person, a believable agoraphobic, and this woman who’s trying to get herself out of the house, who happens to be very funny in doing it.

Q: Who was cast first? Abigail?

Levin: No, Jodie was cast first and then Abigail and then Gerry. It just happened to fall that way. Before Gerry joined up, we had given a lot of consideration to casting two different actors for the roles that he ended up playing singularly. It was actually Jodie that suggested it first – that perhaps this could be one actor playing both roles. First we thought, well, that wasn’t exactly what we had in our imagination and we weren’t going to pursue that.

Flackett: But there was an amazing thing when Gerry’s name came up. Because once you thought of him, he was the best case for Jack and he was the best case for Alex Rover. And I don’t think there had been any other actor that we had talked about who we ever thought of that way. And so it became incredibly exciting. Once again, it kind of made it bigger than it was, made the story kind of more of a fairy tale in a really great way and kind of made everything seem much more fated, which was really wonderful. And Jodie was really right.

Mazur: She was right. It was right off of 300, so everybody was actually quite excited to get him.

Q: This may be more of a writer’s question, but they’ve been doing all of these children’s books as movies. Is there more freedom in something that’s less known?

Levin: Well, definitely. I think that when you have an audience that’s really devoted to the book, then you do have more of a –

Flackett: You’re more of a slave to expectations, I think, and you’re dealing with someone’s favorite book. And there are people for whom “Nim’s Island” is their favorite and they will hold us to a very specific standard. But there is a great thing. I do think that this movie is going to introduce the book to a whole bunch of people.

Q: Was the book written before the new airline regulations? Because I like scene with the Purell?

Levin: No, that was not in the book. No, I don’t believe there’s any Purell at all in the book. But the airline regulations came up, I guess, really right around the time that we were finishing the script and making the movie. And actually Purell would only allow us to use their product in that context if we really stipulated that you’re allowed to bring Purell onto the airline as long as it’s less than three ounces. And we were sure to put that in.

Q: What were some of the other challenges, animals aside, to making the movie? Were there weather problems? You were outside a lot.

Levin: No, we were. Yes. I mean, it’s hard to put the animals aside, because they actually kind of drove the schedule and the making of the movie in a very substantial way. The sea lions, while they were fantastic, were not allowed to be anywhere but on the studio lot. They weren’t allowed to go to the beach, for fear that they would break for freedom.

Levin: We were going to build our hut on location, but we weren’t able to do that because you couldn’t bring the sea lion there.

Mazur: We were going to take the sea lions to the rain forest, but we couldn’t do that.

Q: That’s why you had to have them on set.

Flackett: Then a big cyclone came up and luckily, we were indoors, because the sea lion made us be indoors, so, once again, it all kind of worked out.

Mazur: But there were weather issues. There are really difficult invasions of jellyfish at certain times of the year and there’s also a wet time of the year, so we worked with the film commission in Queensland to help us and advise us. It can tank your film. So we were really careful what time of year we shot.

Levin: We were. And there had a been a nine-year drought before we got there, in that part of Australia. And we seemed to have cured it. But you adjust, and our movie has a great deal of weather in it, so you take advantage of those opportunities. If it starts to rain, you move to the rain scenes. And you get the authenticity that comes with that, which is fantastic. But in terms of the challenges of the movie, when you write that a girl gets on the back of a sea lion and swims out in a hurricane to rescue a woman on a rowboat, it’s very easy to write that, but then when it comes to actually making it, figuring out how to accomplish these complex tasks, that was the challenge of the movie. I mean, to make a volcano that’s not really there on the island seem as if it is and explode and all those things…

Q: Was that part CG?

Levin: The volcano itself is CG.

Q: How much else was CG?

Flackett: It’s largely a practical film. The challenges were you might shoot Jack jumping off his boat, which is the shot, in the middle of the ocean, and then cut to him underwater that was shot in a tank. So we were matching a lot of stuff in different areas.

Levin: We built a beach at the studio, we shot the sea lion against blue screen and composited him into the water shots at the beach. We used every trick in the book. And that was the really fun challenge of making the movie – to figure out, on not an extraordinary budget, a way to fulfill the scale of our dreams for this movie.

Flackett: And we really wanted a very practical, 1980s aesthetic. Like, how would you do it if you didn’t have any CG? And we had to come up with a lot of creative answers when you think we don’t have the money to do that. It wasn’t a financial option and necessity can be the mother of invention.

Levin: For example, in the opening of the movie, we have this kind of storybook paper world. And we really, very purposefully, chose to make things out of paper and film that, because the interaction between paper and celluloid was something that felt very organic and very childlike to us, and very real.

Q: And it looked like a book.

Levin: And it looks like a book come to life, but it also has that kind of naïve quality of a child, which is something we really wanted to represent. And even though we could have done that stuff in a computer and done it differently with a different feel, we wanted to stay away from that. So we really embraced it. And a lot of the CG, hopefully, is invisible. There are a lot of shots of a pelican that are real and then another one that we stole literally flying in the sky, or chasing one with a helicopter that we happened to find. And then there’ll be a couple of CG shots. With very few exceptions, it’s hard to differentiate which ones are real and which ones aren’t.

Q: Was there an actor that you cast where you said there’s absolutely no other actor who could play this part and we have to cast them?

Levin: Well, it’s funny because once you get an actor in your mind, such as Jodie, it’s very hard to conceive of anyone else. But with Abby, it was really very, very true. Because there aren’t too many eleven-year-olds that any of us know or can name, that could carry a whole movie on their shoulders. And she, for us, was that. She has the talent and experience to be able to really be the star of a movie.

Flackett: And a genuineness. I do think that there is something just very, very rare about Abby. She really seems like a real girl, because she is. I always say she’s living in these extraordinary circumstances, but she’s so unimpressed with herself. She’s just living her own life and that really comes across. She’s not just like some little grownup. She’s this eleven-year-old and I give her parents such credit, because she’s having this wonderful life, where she goes off and has these adventures and she’s so much like Nim that way.

Q: Have you guys done the Blu-Ray version of this film yet?

Levin: Well, we only finished the film itself about five days ago, so we’re only recovering from that. The movie does look great and we had great talented DPs, Stuart Dryburgh, who had shot THE PIANO, and Jane Campion films and many beautiful films, who helped us. And it will look great, especially if we bring out all the color and everything in that digital realm. Yeah, we look forward to all that.

Flackett: Well, it’s amazing, also, the way a movie now lives on. That’s one of the great things about DVDs.

Levin: Now we’re putting together all the extras for the DVD.

Q: Are there scenes that were cut?

Levin: There are scenes that were cut and they’ll all be out in the DVD. Actually, Nim had some imaginary friends that lived in her imagination. Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland from the books, who kind of brought to life the idea of a girl who lived on an island and what her imagination must be like. But when we made the movie and then we shot them and saw them in the context of the movie, we realized that the girl alone, and her aloneness, made her situation must more poignant and it just drove the story better.

Flackett: It’s always sad when you leave characters on the floor. Jodie had an assistant and, in this same kind of way, you just realize these characters were meant to be by themselves. And so they all fell away and you’re amazed because you killed yourself to shoot those scenes! Now they’re not in the movie any more.

Q: Is there a message that you think kids will get?

Levin: Well, the message that was even adopted for the poster, and it comes from the script, is be the hero of your own life story. Be the hero of your own story. And that’s something that we believe in our own life, is to make choices that seem heroic or courageous in the moment. We try to tell that to our kids and we love that to be the theme of the movie and it’s embodying what the father says to the daughter in this movie.

Flackett: And also touch the world. I do think when Alex Rover says that to Alexandra to get her out of the house – the funny thing is that Jodie is kind of this larger-than-life character, but the idea of being trapped behind your computer and getting everything from the Internet and not needing to venture out, that feels very “of this time,” right now. And so the character isn’t that far-fetched to just suddenly need to kind of explode beyond your doorway and go and have an adventure.

Mazur: I think for all of them, they all take a step. Jack is determined to find his way back to his girl, Nim finds this missing piece in her life, Jodie gets out the door. They all take that new step.

Q: Wasn’t there originally a pirate scene?

Flackett: Another one of her imaginary characters.

Levin: That Long John Silver, in an early trailer, actually. Her friends, who were Huck and Alice and Long John Silver from “Treasure Island” were the embodiment of her fears. So in a couple of scenes, he’d show up in a story and shout at her, or there would be a scene where he’d come in the woods and she’d try to fight him off.

Flackett: We were most sad to lose the sword fights.

Levin: But it’s really cool. It will be on the DVD and it is really cool, but in the context of the movie, it didn’t necessarily make the movie better. And that’s what we were always working for, whenever you deal with the editorial process.

Q: Was there a specific look that you wanted to achieve?

Levin: Well, there’s a magical realism that, I think, kind of permeates the movie and there is this idea of a world that is slightly better than real. And that has a little bit to do with the storybook quality and the wish-fulfillment of the movie.

Q: What actors did you consider for Jack?

Levin: Well, one of the great things about casting the same actor for both roles is that it really enriched that moment, because the man of her imagination –

Flackett: -- her hero.

Levin: -- the man of her dreams, her hero, became the man that she met and lived happily ever after with, so to speak.

Flackett: I remember when we were filming it and we saw Jack say to Alexandra, “I just imagined Alex Rover so differently.” And that line was like Chinese boxes in on itself. And those were things that you didn’t really realize as you’re casting him, as you’re coming to that moment. Suddenly you discover something new in the scene yourself.

Q: As a producer, was it a tough sell to have the main character be this little girl? Did they ever want to change it to a boy?

Mazur: I felt really strongly that it stay the same. Not that anybody was really twisting our arms to change it in any way, but one of the reasons I wanted to make the book so much, which I found in a library and read to my kids and said, “Whoo, this would make a really good movie. I’d like to see this movie.” And I feel like it’s a true family movie, in that there’s something for everyone in the family in this movie. You won’t, as a parent, be sitting in the theatre, going, “Oy, why do I have to sit here? I wish I was in the next theatre, while my kids could stay here.” And I think we achieved that, which is so exciting. But I had an eleven-year-old daughter at the time, and Nim is eleven, twelve years old. And I realized, there were no characters that she could go see in the movie that reflected the type of girl that she was or wanted to be, who I was as a kid. There’s no dynamism, they’re all interested in boys and clothes and certain type of music and it’s all kind of tired stuff. So to find this character that was so self-defined and unapologetic about it was so exciting, I was very determined to make it that way. And there was tremendous support for it. And because she’s just such a non-gendered character, in our test screenings, boys love her. She really is a very attractive character and I think she transcends the gender thing so that…

Flackett: The way all great characters do.

Levin: Yeah. She’s neither boy nor girl. She’s Nim. And has all those qualities that are totally un-gender-based.

Mazur: And because it’s such a well-wrought character, it was very clear to everybody that this could be a franchiseable character, which is really exciting. To take a girl character that you might actually want to go back and repeat in further movies.

Q: Have there been discussions?

Mazur: Well, that’s how I sold it to begin with. The first thing I said was, “Read this book. If we do it well, we can keep going.”

Q: Is there another project for any of you yet?

Levin: As we say, we’re just recovering from this. We haven’t figured out what we’re doing for our next picture, but we look forward to that next phase of our lives. But we’re really proud of what we’ve done here and happy just to be getting to the finish line.

Mazur: Yes, I just finished adapting a book called, “Tangerine,” which is a young adult novel and a really gorgeous best-selling fabulous piece of material.

Q: What's that one about?

Mazur: It’s about a boy who is blind, but wears these really thick goggle-type glasses, doesn’t know why he’s blind, wants to play soccer, has to go to a different school to play because they won’t let him play because of his blindness at his own school. He’s a white kid in a white sub-division. Moves over to the Latino/black school, where he really finds people that he finally relates to, even though it’s a tougher atmosphere. And in finding this whole other way of approaching the world, he sees his family for what it is and realizes that the reason he’s blind had to do with something that happened in his family. So it’s kind of a mystery as he uncovers what really happened to him and stands up to his own family.

Q: How did you manage to get the animals to dance?

Mazur: I’m going to hand that to the directors. They were brilliant.

Levin: Well, a lot of magic, actually, A lot of times with the animals, the sea lions had so much personality. They’re from Sea World in Australia and they had so much character. And a lot of it was Abigail becoming friends with them and filming that. And then also, we’d ask the trainers, “Well, what tricks can the sea lions do?” And we wrote those things into the movie.

Flackett: Like the Hokey Pokey.

Levin: Yeah, exactly. Like the dancing scene. But then getting the lizards to dance was something that we did with computers.

Flackett: But the amazing thing is that we would find little things. My favorite moment of Fred’s – I love him dancing, I love him flying over the trees. But there’s also a moment where he’s sitting next to Nim on the crow’s nest and he kind of looks down while Nim is crying and, to me, I read such pathos into what Fred is thinking, because he loves her so much.

Levin: And you can get a lot from little things. And even that little shot. You just keep the camera on the lizard long enough and you put enough bugs in front of him, he’s going to turn his head. But we played it backwards and slowed it down a little bit and now it seems a little bit emotional.

Flackett: And you put a little sound in his mouth and that becomes something.

Levin: Jennifer did the voice of Fred. All those sounds. Sometimes he would just open his mouth and other times we would do CG mouth on him.

Q: And the pelican also?

Levin: Sometimes the pelican –

Flackett: -- would open his mouth and sometimes we would just replace it.

Levin: Mostly real animals, but it’s very hard to get a pelican to pick up a tool belt. Don’t try that.

Flackett: We tried. We tried.

Q: Where the lizards real?

Levin: A whole bunch of different things. Some real lizards in the baskets, rubber lizards in the air, real lizards dropped onto the sand. Every bit of movie magic was employed in terms of getting all the stuff to happen.

Flackett: And it’s an amazing thing when you see it all cut together. Even for us. That first assembly where it’s, like, “Oh, look. There’s the rubber lizard, there’s this,” and it all comes together to create the magic stew that is NIM’S ISLAND.