Because of the commercial pressures Hollywood places on filmmakers these days, many directors adopt a sort of "one for them, one for me" career strategy that allows them to exercise their creativity while maintaining a degree of viability at the box office. Brad Silberling, despite an array of films that really do run the gamut from intimate character studies to effects-laden opuses, seems to have effectively synthesized the two more and more effectively with each subsequent effort. Starting with straightforward studio fare like Casper, he quickly graduated to meatier projects, including the semi-autobiographical Moonlight Mile, before tackling an adaptation of the first book in Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket series.
But he seems to have truly captured both his own creative idiosyncrasies and the demands of a summer blockbuster with Land of the Lost, a sprawling, bizarre big-screen reimagining of the Sid and Marty Krofft TV series from the 1970s. The film stars Will Ferrell as a disgraced scientist trying to rebuild his reputation while dodging aliens, dinosaurs, and oversized crabs, and Silberling brilliantly brings the film's fantastic world to life. Cinematical recently spoke to the director via telephone from the film's Los Angeles press day, where he discussed the prospect of making a madcap, foul-mouthed summer movie, explained how (and why) he managed to include an extended homage to "A Chorus Line," and talked about the summer movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker.
Cinematical: I really enjoyed Land of the Lost, but I'll be honest with you – it's one of the weirdest summer movies that I've ever seen.
Silberling: Oh that makes me so happy! Well, it is.
Cinematical: You previously said you were trying to create a representation of your emotional memories of the show, but when you were coming into this, how much of it was interpreting those emotional memories, how much was knowing you had to include certain iconic characters or moments, and how much was just creating something original?
Silberling: Well, certainly from a studio standpoint, they came in with the assumption that no one was going to [know the show]. They always do – they come in with the assumption that no original audience will come to the movie, so there was certainly no mandate whatsoever from them about including any touchstones from the original show. It was more about, frankly, the geeks, which is me, and to a certain extent Will [Ferrell] and Chris and Dennis, the writers, but I think I looked at it more as an opportunity and a fun kind of challenge to include elements that to someone else might be a throwaway. Like the reference to the Sleestak god at one point when Holly's there in this cage, and even that sequence of her being held in a cage over a glowing red pit, which to an unsuspecting younger audience member will just look like a girl in distress, to me was an iconic moment from a key episode in the show. So it was sort of really at our pleasure, where we included them as we wished; even the theme song, rather than just trying to force it earlier into the movie, I just thought what if that was Will coming in and masquerading this as a song he's just created as an apology – and then he never gets through it. So to me the balance wasn't hard to strike, it was worked out organically.
Cinematical: One of Will's strengths as a comedian is that he can stay in character and yet sort of step outside himself and sort of comment on what the conventions are that he's part of. What advantages did that degree of self-awareness afford you when you went in to create this film?
Silberling: I think it allows your audience to more fully participate in the ride, because you're not asking them to check their own intelligence at the door. I had a great mentor in film school who said if you have a coincidence in a movie, call it out as a coincidence. Otherwise, you're just haunted by it, and the way you inoculate yourself is someone says, "wow – this is really a coincidence!" It's the same thing there, because it lets you commit to executing, you know, that chase up to the catapult to fire [in the movie]. You can actually commit to that as long as you also know inside of it you've got characters who are kind of aware they're in that chase sequence moment, and it lets the audience more fully enjoy it, I think. So I think you hit it on the head with him, and also the fact that the audience is sort of willing to go places with him, because it doesn't matter if he's vain or a buffoon, almost anything he does, they know there's a palpable humanity there too. I think it's that combination, but certainly for this movie harnessing that sort of meta-perspective let us go play with some of the conventions of fantasy or sci-fi, and yet, McBride steps inside the first Pylon and thinking it's like Snoopy's doghouse because it's awesomely large. You've got to call those things out, and then you actually get a laugh at the same time.
Cinematical: The film also lends itself to a less conventional narrative structure. It has a certain momentum, but the set pieces seem able to exist by themselves. Was that a deliberate choice, or did you start with a throughline and construct the set pieces around it?
Silberling: Well, it's like any road movie, in a way – it's really only going to work on the strength of the character interactions or the people you stick in the car together. So as long as we had enough of a road map and just say we're kind of trading on the conventions of "a quest" – like, what's the magic prop that is necessary in order to slay the dragon, or in this case it's to get themselves home. To us it was if they have to get from A to B, what is the most rich way to watch the characters have to get there, or have a sidebar, like Holly who thinks she's suddenly found an entry to a second Pylon, and they have the tachyon amplifier. It's a perfectly wrong time for Chaka to get the guys wasted, but that is exactly when it happened, and we decided to actually make the scene with them eating the crab extra long just because it was the perfectly wrong moment to do that. We just thought this is exactly when these guys would be lolling about, you've got your other character potentially in jeopardy, and we kind of wanted to make it oddly more tense by having these guys just go on. So I don't think they were conceived independent of story. We knew, for example, I had in my mind from the get-go that I wanted to tachyon amplifier to have an audio signature so that if it was nearby they would hear it and they would know they were on to something, and that led itself to the choice of "A Chorus Line." But I knew the audio signature would be some crappy something that was stuck on an iPod; it sort of becomes an evening of a binge, he stole all of these components from around his building, and that happened to be the one thing he left on his data drive. Which was sort of an error, but all of that's still kind of building itself out of story, but then it's just going places with it that are just crazy weird and you don't expect.
Cinematical: Absolutely. Another aspect that I found really surprising was how dirty the movie is – and I don't mean that as a criticism at all. How much freedom did you have or how many risks did you want to take in terms of interpreting this story, which by virtue of its source material, was going to be aimed at family audiences?
Silberling: You're exactly right, and what we talked about with the studio from the get-go was because we all grew up with this property, it was obviously in its day Saturday-morning programming, but now you have adults who are now taking from it these elements to make it a comedy for us. The challenge, you know, we said this early on and they obviously read the script and we said you know this is a very decidedly PG-13 movie; we're not going to make it R, but we know we're going to make it PG-13, and everyone else sort of has to sign off on that – and they did. I actually took it to the ratings board earlier than you might normally do just to make sure that even as we were still making choices about what was going to remain in the movie, that we at least felt comfortable that we had our PG-13, which we did. And the studio is being very smart about it; the challenge is that the moment people see dinosaurs, they immediately can make an assumption like [it's for families], though I actually crack up because I think a lot of families didn't take their kids to see Jurassic Park. But certainly people can make an assumption about a family movie, unless the studio wants to actually explain the tone, and that's something that we talked about early on. They made decisions not to promote trailer work on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon or any of these sites that can truly be pandering to the soft family audience. But that's why we made it; none of us was really interested in just going off and making Will's first cute family comedy. We loved the idea of putting these personalities into that world and just having those great moments that you talked about. And I would say there's a couple of things that we left on the floor that I will probably put in the extended cut at some point, but there wasn't any sort of crazy, R-rated sequence that we [shot].
Cinematical: Do you have a quintessential or favorite summer movie experience that you can remember?
Silberling: Pretty easy. It was the very hour I decided to start making and actually did. It was June 5, 1975 the first showing at 11:30 in the morning at Century City, California of Jaws. I went to the very first showing of the movie on its opening day; my father was working upstairs in an office in Century City at the time, and I begged him to take me to work that day so I could get dropped off at the movie theater. I was 11, and ten minutes in, I didn't know if I was going to make it. I was so freaked out by the movie, but it was early enough even though it became a massive hit that the audience was not that full, and the theater in Century City had these big tall airplane-like seats that were really new, and all I knew was that I couldn't see anybody around me and I was freaked out. But by the time the movie was done, it was the first time I really had the sense of a hand guiding me through a film experience. I literally felt the hand of a filmmaker taking me through this experience, and I was mesmerized. I thought, who has that job, and I did that weekend, I went home and got my dad's super-8 camera and started watching movies. That was a huge defining moment for me.
Cinematical: Is there meaning for you to releasing this film during the summer?
Silberling: Yeah, I think for us it's the vibe of – the closest analogy I can give you is I remember literally walking out of finals, I was in college and walking out of finals in 1984 and going straight that day to the first day of Ghostbusters, and it's that spirit that to us made it feel like a summer movie. That was a film that in our minds would come up from time to time in terms of taking the scale and fun of a sort of genre but then having that subversive humor in the film. So we tried to create that kind of an experience, and if it's anything like that this would be the perfect time to do it.
Cinematical: Finally, there are a lot of open-ended plot developments in the film. What could be a possible storyline if you were lucky enough to do another Land of the Lost film?
Silberling: Well, I'll tell you, and it's not sort of political coinage. Everybody in the movie had an extraordinarily great time, and these movies usually just take it out of you. We had a really wonderful experience, so to the person we would all enjoy the experience again and I would not run the other way – I'd be thrilled to do it. But beyond that thought, which is you have to wait and see how the film plays and if it finds its audience. If it does, I think you'll have a whole lot of spitballing, but I do know that at this point, there's no sort of wonderful script waiting in a drawer to throw down on the table, as much as the studio probably would prefer that there were. There's really not, but we laugh about, now why would Will send a distress call? He's surrounded by babes and he's very happy like The Man Who Would Be King. I don't know if that's the reason why they would come back. We chatted about it, but at this point, no, there's no specific story as of yet.