Robert Shaye is known for a lot of things in Hollywood that don’t have much to do with directing movies (heading New Line Cinema, producing the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, sparring with Peter Jackson). Now the uber-exec’s going back to semi-uncharted territory with the family fantasy "The Last Mimzy," marking what is only his second directorial effort to date.
We met Shaye a few months back at the Sundance Film Festival, where New Line held a special screening of "Mimzy" to commemorate Shaye’s thirty years in the movie biz. Contrary to many a "LOTR" fan’s worst dreams, he’s a genial guy with an obvious affection for the movies whose passion for this project spanned more than a decade. With "Mimzy," Shaye steps out of the deal-making/producing arena to take on his first directing gig in seventeen years (Shaye’s first and, until now, last film was 1990’s "Book of Love").
RT spoke with Shaye about the making of "Mimzy" (based on Lewis Padgett’s 1943 short story "Mimsy Were The Borogroves"), the film’s core sci-fi logic that could be real, and Shaye’s own take on sitting in the director’s chair. [During the festival, New Line bought remake rights to Slamdance film "King of Kong," a documentary to be released later this year by Picturehouse about obsessively competitive video game rivals — look for Shaye’s businessman take on that as well.]
Rotten Tomatoes: "The Last Mimzy" is said to have been at least 12 years in the making. Why did it take so long?
Bob Shaye: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, because I wasn’t exclusively focused on it, and neither was Michael Phillips, who was the producer. Second of all, it came from a really great science fiction short story, but it was a short story that had for me a fascinating premise, but a totally incomplete story arc.
It’s the story about two kids who find a box of objects, and they don’t know what they are but they look like toys and they start playing with them; what they are in fact are teaching machines from the future. And it’s a true scientific fact that kids’ brains don’t get hardwired until they’re about six or seven years old, when they start throwing off all these synapses that are in there and their whole brain system starts to focus and reduce.
So if there was a way, theoretically, to communicate with kids whose brains are not hardwired yet, by somehow…getting a five year old girl to figure out what non-Euclidean geometry is, as an example, of something I haven’t a clue about, and other sorts of scientific stuff, those kids could theoretically become beyond what we consider genius now. And I thought that was a really fascinating idea.
["The Last Mimzy"’s press notes cite current research in physics and neuroscience alluding to theoretical possibilities of both time travel and the genetic loss of traits like innocence, both of which ground the film’s fictional logic.]
But it took a long time to put together, and we didn’t really know how to end the film; at least when we started the development process, we had the story…[it] actually ends with the kids getting their brains changed, and they become super geniuses and they disappear, and that’s the end of the story. I didn’t think that was going to be such a hot storyline for a movie! So we had to figure out a bunch of stuff — what the toys were, where they came from, what they were doing here, what is the effect on the family altogether, and eventually what the kids would do with them and what would make it into an exiting adventure that also was touching.
RT: The themes are a bit reminiscent of "E.T."…
BS: Well, obviously any reference to that is a great compliment, as long as people don’t think I was knocking off Steven Spielberg, ’cause I definitely wasn’t. But what we were hoping, and what initial screenings indicated, is that it’s a film that parents like to bring their kids to. There’s enough with Rainn Wilson and Kathryn Hahn, who play a kind of comedic sidebar, there’s a lot for parents to like; the extra pleasure for them is to have kids with them that they can see enjoying the film as much as they do, without being bored. It’s definitely not a pink pony movie. Actually, it was written too by the guy who wrote and won an Academy Award for "Ghost," Joel Rubin. I thought he was so clever in putting the Whoopi Goldberg character in the middle of that great dramatic story, so I asked him to write Rainn Wilson’s role, and Kathryn’s, so there was some comedy, there was some grown up stuff in it. But it’s still a PG movie, and we wanted to make sure that parents felt comfortable bringing their kids to it, as well as enjoying the movie themselves.
RT: It’s great that the concept of the kids doesn’t pander to children, like many children’s movies.
BS: And then there’s the last theme, that — I’ll say to you, as I’ve said to others — I’m definitely not a message filmmaker, I often quote Samuel Goldwyn, "If I want to send a message I use Western Union," and being pedantic or pointing a finger is absolutely not one thing I want to do. But in the context of this story, and what the toys are doing and what was happening, it did begin to dawn on me that there was a comment — not an instruction, but a comment — that we do seem to be losing our innocence a little bit, and that’s kind of the subtext of the movie.
RT: It occurred to me that maybe this film couldn’t resonate so well ten years ago, if you had made it right away, because we’re so technologically-obsessed right now.
BS: Yeah, that’s just great synchronicity. The movie’s about synchronicity, and Jung and all that stuff, in some very, very subtle way. But yeah, I don’t think this film would have worked ten years ago. There hasn’t been a movie like this, I don’t believe, for a very long time — since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," perhaps. The producer, Michael Phillips, produced "Close Encounters" before this. It’s about that we are very mortal, and sometimes some of us forget what being mortal really means.
RT: How would you characterize your directorial style, since we haven’t seen a lot from you?
BS: Well, my style is…first of all, I had a lot of baggage when I signed on to this thing — I was head of a company, started a company, I’d only directed one movie before, I directed some shorts and stuff, but still…it’s hard to ask professionals to put themselves on the line, you know, because I am the director and they can’t go off and make the movie without the director, like a symphony without a conductor.
So first of all I got to be great friends with all of the actors, including the kids. But my style is basically, let’s talk about the scene, let me tell you what I think about it, why don’t you give me some idea, show me what you want to do! And the most important thing for this movie, because it is so full of fantasy, is that they play it so straight, and real, and honest. So everybody did that, and I think they pulled it off very well.
RT: How’s the experience (at Sundance) different as a director rather than an exec?
BS: Well, they once asked Stanley Kubrick ‘have you ever taken a vacation,’ and he said ‘A vacation from what?’ So it’s fun to be treated a little bit like talent and not like some crummy distributor or evil producer, which has also been the case. It’s nice to be part of the product in this way as opposed to being a bystander.
RT: Not to stray off the bat, but a purchase was just made recently here at the festival, "King of Kong." Did you have input into that?
BS: Oh yes. It was brought to my attention, and we’re hoping eventually that the film could have a remake as a dramatic film, and we saw the documentary and liked it a lot. It started to resonate with me, it took a little bit of time to "get it," — but not too long, I thought about it overnight — and Toby Emmerich, who’s president of our production company was very enthusiastic, as was Richard Brenner, who’s his Number Two guy. I supported it, I’m very proud that they selected us; I know there was a lot of competition for it. Picturehouse, first and foremost, is going to be distributing the documentary, which is a perfect platform. If we get inspired, and come up with a good script and a good cast, it’ll really be a fun feature film.
It’s gonna be comedic, and we’ve got several outstanding comedians in mind to play the two guys.
RT: Anyone in particular?
BS: I can’t tell you. Stay tuned!
"The Last Mimzy" opens Friday in wide release.