Brad Silberling is a veteran of both TV and film, having directed influential shows such as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, and movies as vast as City of Angels and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Silberling’s latest is Land of the Lost, an adaptation of the cult sci-fi show, and which stars Will Ferrell. The following is a chat we had about the film, his influences, and the future of Hollywood. Enjoy!
Were you a fan of the TV series as a child?
Yeah, I was one of that real original core group of Saturday morning TV watchers. I was watching...that would have been in ’74 and ’75, so yeah. And I hadn’t literally set my eyes on the show until Will (Ferrell) brought it up one day when we were having lunch. But I had very specific memories, and it wasn’t hard to think back because on Saturday mornings in the States it was all Warner Bros. cartoons and lots of good animation, and a lot of crap and cheesy animation. And then suddenly here was this live action show with this crazy combination of effects and science fiction. So, yeah, I was riveted.
While the TV show was aimed towards kids, I felt that the movie –its comedy especially – was geared more towards adults. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, I don’t think anybody was really interested in going off and making a sort of faithful adaptation of the original show. We really kind of saw it as borrowing the elements that we remembered and loved, and taking them and putting them into a film that pretty much has an adult sensibility, or at least it’s whatever that range of audience is that certainly worked out in terms of Will’s movies, with some of those movies R rated films. But we set out to make a decidedly –what we call in the States – a PG-13 movie. And that is what we talked about with the studio because the Krofft’s (Sid and Marty, creators of Land of the Lost) TV shows, all of their shows, but especially Land of the Lost, were so inherently psychedelic. It was crazy! But as a kid you took it all in, and you were happy to have it. But we wanted to get to play with all of that sort of crazy psychedelic elements mashed up, and still please ourselves. Somebody asked me about age appropriateness, and I think it can be a picture for kids upwards of 9 or 10. But younger than that it is up to the parents. I wouldn’t be dragging them along, for a lot of reasons: the dinosaurs are fairly intense, the humour is mature; there is innuendo ... there is all kinds of crazy stuff going on, so it was not something set out to end up being a really sort family film.
Will Ferrell brings a lot of improvisation to his performances. Do you encourage improve from your actors?
Absolutely! Because I think in the end – especially with a film like this – you’re taking a set of relationships on the road, and the movies movement is less about a quest to get home, than its “how do these relationships evolve?” And so for me -regardless of how wonderful your screenplay can be- when you’ve got great improvisational actors, and they’re riffing off of where each of their characters are in any given moment as their relationships develop, you can’t ask for more. So we had a script we were very happy with, but then you still take advantage of ...there are some brilliant runs in the movie that were completely improvised. And then it gives me great choices later in the cut, where I can sit and kind of choose from all of these gifts. When Will is relaxed and in the moment, you can be rolling the camera and still throw him ideas, lines of dialogue and boom! He’ll just turn them right out, he’ll go off on his own, and then not hang on to any of it. It is not like he is clinging to that. Like a great athlete, just taking a swing and hitting it and moving on.
This is the first film you and Will have collaborated on....
Yeah, we had never worked together. He and I first met back in 1998. So it has been a long time, yet we had never worked together, but we wanted to. It was just sort of timing.
I love your eye for visuals. Of course I am also referring to Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events. When you approached Land of the Lost, and you heard the words “alternate universe”, what sort of ideas ran through your mind?
Well, what’s interesting is that you always have to make choices, and the tricky part about heading into potentially a fantastical universe is the choices are almost endless. And what came into my mind –which was true of the original show, sort of – was that I loved the idea of taking what isn’t just purely fantastical, but also of what is of this Earth and the most unusual elements of our Earth, and then mashing them up in odd ways. And that was what (Production Designer) Bo Welch and I talked about when we got started, let’s just go off and create impossible...I mean truly the one, biggest piece of creation we have in this movie is the Margawa tree which is very Zeus like, you know the one with the fruit... that in a way was our biggest cheat. But the rest of it we went and kind of collected and made visual discoveries from photography and from other sort of atlases to pick elements that we could put together in an unusual way. That really to me is the exciting part about building the look of...I mean, it could of been anything. The original show was literally like three palm trees and a speck of sand on a sound stage, so we knew we were going to expand out from that. And then it was “Ok. How do you organise that principal?”
I found that watching the film, with the three moons and all of that stuff, Bo’s production design had me thinking back to his work in Beetle Juice. It just seemed his work has been heavily influenced by the Land of the Lost television show, especially in regards to that scene in Beetle Juice with the Sandworms...
Yeah! You know what is amazing? I would tease him saying he was destined to work on this movie, since he had never seen Land of the Lost! He’s of that age...I can always nail it because there’s people who are my age, or you skip a couple of years...because I was, again, back in elementary school. High school kids were watching it. College kids on Saturday mornings getting a little drunk on Bloody Marys were watching, because that was like a fun thing to do. But (Bo) just missed those two categories, so when I asked him to do the film and explained it to him, he laughed and said “Wow! This is fantastic”. He had no idea, and I sent him some reference DVDs and he called me back and said “I can’t believe I got away with this!” He just was fascinated. But it speaks to a sensibility that his was a perfect venue for him to get to work in.
You assembled a great behind the scenes team, and the production design and visual effects are quite astonishing. Could you shed some light on the preparation given to the films look?
Well, it’s one of those things where I wanted to marry a few ideas, one of which was I wanted the experience to be one where we are sort of thrown into this with our crew, and I didn’t want this tremendous amount of sort of formality and the sort of formulism you would expect in a big special effects movie. I said early on to Dion (Bebbe, cinematographer) and the special effects houses when I was meeting with them, that I was gonna shoot a lot of the movie off the shoulder, so that it would sort of be like you were in the moment with these people, to sort of make it kind of banal because of that, and amazing so that, yes, you’ve got dinosaurs and all that, but the camera is sort of covering the character. And I knew I wanted that immediacy to step on your expectations. The references were really odd. The studio would die if they knew a major influence was this incredible (Andrej) Tarkovsy movie called Ivan’s Childhood, which was a black and white film, but there was such a sense of graphic wonder to it, again for the most part based on real world elements, and then there was a bit of set work, but it was so simple and graphic. So we designed a lot of the work in our home cave in the movie based on Ivan’s Childhood. The whole opening sequence with the astronaut was a combination, or homage to the opening sequence in Ivan’s Childhood, as well as a location I was visited once in Cape Cod that I thought was remarkable. But I knew that what would be arresting would be ...and this is what Bo is so good at too, is that he understands not to go for cluttering it. It’s finding strong graphics. We look for shapes and put them together in unusual ways. So we started early with hand sketching the idea of these environments, then brought in a really great group of computer illustrators...it’s funny, I don’t love storyboarding anymore. But on a film like this when you’ve got on set effects people, you are gonna need to prepare, so I did board the whole movie. I just always threatened everybody, saying “never hold me accountable, because I may throw this all out of the window and I don’t want to have anybody complain”. But the irony is actually the movie used relatively close... my instincts and what the boards were, were very much my instincts when I showed up on set with the camera. And some of that we will out in the DVD as well.
The Sleestak were just guys in costumes. Nobody really does that anymore. They opt for more CGI. Was that something you wanted from the get go?
Yeah...I think so. Listen, the worked for me as a kid, and I think even if there had been great computer graphic work back then, I thought there is something about the threat of real beings inside these suits. It felt like a great link to the original series, as was sort of our desire. Even though we got to build on a larger scale, I really did want that idea building stage exteriors inside, like building these environments inside so we control them. So yeah, with the Sleestaks, that was the idea. Sid and Marty would always tell us that they could only afford three (costumes), and we had 30 in change by the time the movie was done. So the only digital work we had to get into at the end of the movie was in some case a replication of our original guise. But I really wanted that. Ironically it made it much harder for us, especially for those poor guys in those suits, which was really tough...
In those costumes those were almost 7 feet tall...
Yeah, they were already really tall guys, and then they had to be on these...and they were practically blind! The eyes were such that they cannot see past it...and it was incredibly hot. We had KY slathered all over them, and to stay hydrated and not pass out meant that you’d have to re-construct the costume every second take , and that was like...ugh! But, I am still very happy that we did it, because when I’ve seen films that have gone and used CGI for the antagonist, I am sort of distracted by that. More so than even if someone sees the seam on a suit.
Your previous film, 10 Items or Less, was groundbreaking in that it was available for download during its theatrical run. Could you foreseeable in the near future a big budget film like Land of the Lost released to the masses via download during its theatrical run?
Yeah, I can. I think what will happen...its funny, since it’s still an incredibly controversial window that when we released (10 Items or Less) strictly into the theatres, in the third week we made it available for download and the theatre owners were panicked about it. But at the same time you can’t deny the march of the digital revolution. What I can foresee is a sort of event downloading. It won’t be unlike a boxing match. I can imagine on opening night, day and date, that for a real premium you will have studios that will make (movies) available just for the opening night or opening weekend, at a fair price, the right to have that experience much like going to Grauman’s Chinese. Because I think they’re gonna continue listening to the DVD markets... (it is) interesting that exhibitions are doing fine; people are still going out to the movies, which I find really refreshing. I think people still want that community experience, but like a big sports match I think they will probably start to market this to home events where you can invite 20 of your friends over, and their all gonna watch (the film) on your big plasma screen. We haven’t seen it start yet, but I think that is the next inevitable step.
Do you think it’s just a thing of old school sensibilities clashing with new school ideals?
Well it’s about fear, which is understandable. But listen, when the television rolled around theatre owners were panicked. And then the VCR too. But the VHS format is dead now, and movie theatres are still running, so there is always the fear of the unknown and the fear of cannibalisation. But I don’t think theatre exhibition will ever be cannibalised. I think the cannibalisation now is something different: its download formats vs. DVD vs. Blu Ray and all of that. And I am on a committee of the Directors Guild where we’ve really been doing research on that, and what we see in the Guild is that there is a certain sea level that won’t change in certain areas, that the actual exhibition will always be there.
Land of the Lost is now released in Australia, through Universal Pictures Australia.