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An Interview with Tim McCanlies
by Scott Holleran
October 16, 2003
Secondhand Lions has delivered a solid roar at the box office. Speaking from his ranch in central Texas, writer-director Tim McCanlies tells Box Office Mojo about how and why he made the picture and the business sense behind it.
McCanlies, 50, wrote Secondhand Lions back in 1992. His other credits include The Iron Giant, North Shore and Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81, which was also his feature directorial debut. Next up is Around the World in 80 Days, a remake based on the Jules Verne novel starring Jackie Chan.
(NOTE: This interview contains several spoilers.)
Box Office Mojo: When creating your movies, does their box office potential come under consideration?
McCanlies: Yeah, it does, like how expensive should it be? Sometimes, I think in terms of writing a five million dollar movie. For instance, I never thought of Secondhand Lions as a big budget movie and it wasn't. Production costs were just under 30 million dollars.
BOM: How is Secondhand Lions doing at the box office?
McCanlies: It's holding up very well. It's a modest hit, maybe better than modest. It's doing better than My Dog Skip and I Am Sam, and may wind up [making] $50,000,000 or in the 60s. We've lost 400 theaters in the last week [Oct. 10] but those are the ones where we didn't do as well, for instance, on the east coast. I always knew we'd be very strong in the south. There are signs that it will play for a long time and we're getting very strong word of mouth.
BOM: Why did New Line release the picture in so many theaters (over 3,000)?
McCanlies: When the theater exhibitors saw the movie, apparently, they all wanted it. They said they hadn't seen a family film in a while. We're still on 2,600 screens [as of Oct. 10], according to Box Office Mojo. We're on more screens in our fourth week than Intolerable Cruelty was on its opening weekend.
BOM: What do you think of New Line's marketing campaign for Secondhand Lions?
McCanlies: There's a lot to Lions and it was always a marketing challenge. It's not really a comedy or a drama. I had always thought that the trailer would have shown the fantasy sequences, but New Line's marketing people, who know more than me, said those sequences would have confused people. It became kind of Grumpy Old Men with a kid.
BOM: Why do you think New Line Cinema, which is known for horror movies, was drawn to Lions?
McCanlies: For a number of reasons. They woke up to the fact that family films do really well on home video. And demographics have sort of changed. 19 of last year's top 20 movies were PG or PG-13, only one was rated R. Most of the big movies are PG or PG-13.
BOM: Who's attending Lions?
McCanlies: On Web sites, time and again people are talking about taking their grandson and three generations of the family. One guy brought his grandmother. There are a number of issues here that resonate with older people. And, for older people, it's about being at the end of your life. Older people are dismissed in society and yet if you talk with them they have done such interesting things. They're a great resource that we've sort of dismissed.
BOM: What does the movie's title mean?
McCanlies: It means been around the block, almost cast off a bit. And, secondhand, it's a cool sounding word. I always imagined a metaphor about old lions sort of raging at the moon for their lost youth, anger at being old and not being able to do the things they wanted to. I hate these titles that don't mean anything—like Out of Time.
BOM: There were problems with the pig in Lions, which attacked Haley Joel Osment. What happened?
McCanlies: The pig was really a handful. One time, after I yelled cut, the pig leapt at Haley—he was probably trying to get to the food. In the movie, the pig thought he was a dog. People love the pig. I get e-mails asking what happened to the pig.
BOM: What happened to the giraffe?
McCanlies: That's the number one question people ask me, which is funny because it just happened to be on the truck when the lion was delivered. They drop the lion off and the truck pulls away—with the giraffe.
BOM: What is your favorite scene in Lions?
McCanlies: I'd say the scene with Walter [Osment] and Hub [Robert Duvall] out at the lake—just to watch Bobby [Duvall] have that moment. The hug scene wasn't even scripted. I think Haley just did it and I think Bobby really didn't know what to do. It's the scene where Bobby's giving the speech that people are basically good and, then he comes to the part where he says true love never dies, and he gets choked up.
BOM: Is it true that Warner Bros. wanted to cast Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman?
McCanlies: Yes. At one point, years ago, the head of Warner Bros wanted big stars. We didn't even get past Newman's agent; the answer was that Newman doesn't play old. His agent wouldn't even send it to him. Clint's producer loved the script but Clint said "It's a great script now go get someone old to play it."
BOM: How did you cast Kyra Sedgwick as Walter's negligent mother, Mae?
McCanlies: I looked at a lot of actresses and she had that quality that she didn't seem evil, she brought a little bit of helplessness. I really love Maura Tierney, [of ER] but she seemed really competent, not helpless and easily manipulated. Kyra brought a sort of sunny quality. Debra Messing [Will and Grace] was also considered.
BOM: Josh Lucas?
McCanlies: I'm a huge fan of his and he's a good-looking guy who projects the idea that Walter grew up well. He just has this certain grace.
BOM: Have you had any complaints from the anti-gun crowd?
McCanlies: No. The studio told me to take out that cornfield scene, the one with everyone having a gun—and I snuck it back in.
BOM: What else did you cut?
McCanlies: The original ending [which will be included in the DVD]. It was a funeral scene where adult Walter sees the crashed biplane—and there's no helicopter scene, which was a re-shoot—and the sheriff just reads the will. We go to the next day and there are two graves there. People are arriving for the funeral and these four good-looking men, who had been the young thugs who'd been taught a lesson by Hub, show up. Josh [Lucas, as adult Walter] gives a wonderful speech and says it doesn't matter if the stories are true. Then, these trucks drive up and the French Foreign Legion shows up, all these Arab women come out—and the old sheik is there, too. He's still mad and he shakes his fist.
BOM: Why does Hub tell Walter to believe in what's not always true?
McCanlies: My point was that there are things worth believing in—Hub gives a list—and I am trying to say you should think people in general are basically good even when there's evidence to the contrary. You should believe that man can do great things even though man does awful things. What Hub is saying is to be very moral even if you pay a penalty. It means: set your own moral code—not in a twisted way—but set your standards high. Do the right thing because it's the right thing—even if there is no heaven. That's the heart of Hub's story.
BOM: Why did Michael Caine's character never fall in love?
McCanlies: Garth was a ladies' man. He would still be on the Riviera chasing rich widows.
BOM: Why does did Hub's love story have to meet with tragedy?
McCanlies: In the real world, bad things happen. Part of it was having to work backwards—you find out this guy had lived this whole life.
BOM: Why, during the end credits, did you have the adult Walter's cartoons depicting a variety of adventures?
McCanlies: It was my idea—I needed to show rather than tell how Walter is successful and his youth meant so much to him and how it's now the basis of his art.
BOM: How did Bloom County cartoonist Berkeley Breathed come to draw the comic strips for Lions—were you a fan?
McCanlies: Yes. I wrote him the biggest butt-kissing letter of all time, and he said yes. There are about 20 different Breathed drawings in Lions. In fact, he's told me that the experience was so much fun for him that it's what led him to return to Opus [a character from his original "Bloom County" strip]. He's doing a new comic strip called "Opus" now for Sunday newspapers.
BOM: Who is your favorite writer?
McCanlies: That's tough. I keep coming back to Charles Dickens. I just love characters and he came up with so many great ones. A lot of them are hapless but loveable. He probably informs what I do as much as anyone.
BOM: Are you a fan of the movies made from J.R.R. Tolkien's books?
McCanlies: I am. I thought Peter Jackson did a great job with The Lord of the Rings. Haley Joel Osment and I may go to the trilogy screenings together.
BOM: Do you like science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein?
McCanlies: For some reason, I always loved him [while] growing up. People control their own destinies [in his novels]. He's always very readable. He is to literature what [director] John Ford is to movies—and he works politics into his stories.
BOM: You've said your favorite directors are John Ford, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, but they're from a different era. Are there any of today's directors whose work you admire?
McCanlies: Sure. Peter Jackson did an amazing job on Lord of the Rings. I also admire Cameron Crowe and Jim Brooks. I admire Albert Brooks—and Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh.
BOM: Would you describe yourself as a humanist, a realist, or a romanticist—-?
McCanlies: —-A romanticist. I am more about people and character than plot but I tend to kind of romanticize things, like Robert Duvall's speech in Lions, where he says it's almost a choice to treat everyone as if they're not going to cheat you. I draw a distinction between story and plot—a term which may have been contaminated for me as meaning a formula where you know what's going to happen. Like the movie Thirteen, which I just saw, there's not a lot happening there. Dickens to me has little or no plot but lots of story. Great stories not great plots.
BOM: In 1979, you headed to Hollywood and discovered that no one wants to read unsolicited screenplays. What would you do differently?
McCanlies: When I first went out to Hollywood, it was like this 20-year apprentice program and, then, suddenly, these guys in Austin, Texas, like Robert Rodriguez said, "let's just go make a movie." So, though I had been going along with the system, I saw that and I said I'll just go make a movie on my own.
BOM: You took screenwriting courses, seminars and workshops. Where did you learn the most valuable lessons about writing?
McCanlies: Probably while I was working for the studios, working in the trenches at Disney.
BOM: You sneaked into studio lots and put scripts on directors' desks late at night. Did anyone call?
McCanlies: George Roy Hill's producer called and she was very nice and recommended a couple of agents.
BOM: You signed with Creative Artists Agency and landed a writing deal with Disney. Are you glad you signed with CAA?
McCanlies: Sure. I was trying to get [signed] with other agencies. But CAA was far more interested in looking for a real writer whose career they could advance. My biggest complaint about Disney is that they sort of forgot they were Disney. It was really only Pixar that was making Disney movies. A lot of what's made Disney successful is what Walt Disney built.
BOM: Is it true that you quit Disney on principle when they asked you to write a sequel for Ernest Goes to Camp?
McCanlies: I remember getting into a big argument over writing the sequel. The problem with these Ernest movies is not that Ernest would get his hands caught in something but that the camera would stay on his face for two minutes while he screamed [in agony]. They seemed to enjoy pain and torture. And I said "This is morally reprehensible," and they said, "But it made all this money." I refused to write the sequel. I was under contract but I kept saying no and they became angry—they gave me three ideas and I said no and they sent me away in punishment. I went and wrote [the movie Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81] and brought the script back and they didn't get it. I just couldn't stomach writing that stuff. There's a reason why one writes and there's a love in writing and when someone forces you to write something you hate, it hurts that, it takes away from that. Writing on assignment can be really tough and I felt like a hooker going from room to room. I'm glad it got me back to writing Secondhand Lions and Dancer, Texas.
BOM: You worked as a police officer in Dallas. How important was that work to your development?
McCanlies: It was real important because I had never done that. I had never done anything—I had only gone to college. I was 20 or 21 and I was loading trucks in Austin [Texas] and I joined the Dallas Police Department in a planned way, knowing I'd see things I'd never seen. I wanted an adventure. I ran around saving people. I volunteered for the worst parts of town. I got shot at—it was exciting and part of me misses that. Every day I had to write a report. That made me a better writer.
BOM: Do you still serve in the volunteer fire department for your area of central Texas?
McCanlies: Yes. For a long time it was me and two guys in their 60s.
BOM: Your father was in the Air Force. Why do you think so many movies depict military leaders as power-lusters and morons?
McCanlies: It's the same reason guns are portrayed as evil—there's a real cultural divide in the country. I spent time with pilots [in preparation] for Lions and these guys were all so good-looking and they were smart. Every one of them was so impressive as an individual. I found myself wanting to be like one of them.
BOM: Secondhand Lions, which you held closely and refused to cede creative control of, led to your assignment to write The Iron Giant. Is sticking to your principles a prerequisite for surviving Hollywood?
McCanlies: For every Lions I would hang on to there was an assignment I would kind of do anyway. Writing Lions got me back to the pure nature of writing. It tuned my sensibilities. I do drama but with a lot of comedy. With just comedy, they're just jokes strung together, But with drama, there's a story there. It matters.
BOM: You've stated that Lions and The Iron Giant share a common theme, which you've described as: Choose who you want to be. Is free will a conscious philosophy in your work?
McCanlies: Yes, absolutely. At a certain point, there are deciding moments when we pick who we want to be. And that plays out for the rest of your life. I feel like I got my sense of right and wrong from books and movies. Maybe a movie can be a life preserver for some kid. Any movie that can make us feel like we're all part of humanity is something we need to feel and more and more people don't feel that. Movies and literature provide us with that. That's what great art can do.
BOM: For The Iron Giant, you had three months to write several drafts for Warner Bros. Did the tight deadline improve your final draft?
McCanlies: In some ways, because the studio didn't have time to mess with us. They allowed [director] Brad [Bird] to go and make his movie.
BOM: Are you planning future collaboration with Brad Bird?
McCanlies: I'd love to work with Brad again. He's working on The Incredibles for Pixar right now.
BOM: TriStar released your picture, Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81, the same summer as Godzilla and The Mask of Zorro, didn't make many prints, spend much on advertising, or release a trailer—how did you confront TriStar on handling your movie?
McCanlies: The problem was that they didn't know what to do with it—because it didn't have any stars, so they said "We'll open in New York and LA," and it's not a New York or LA movie. In some ways, I would have preferred to have had a [studio known for independent movies such as ] Lions Gate that would have known what to do with it.
BOM: What projects do you have in the pipeline?
McCanlies: Two things. A low budget Austin thing and then a bigger franchise sort of thing, a high concept kids adventure with fantasy elements.
BOM: What's your favorite movie this year?
McCanlies: I sure love Lord of the Rings and I really liked Whale Rider.
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