Friday, July 13, 2007
Brian Robbins Sun Newspapers P. 2 6-29-07
Brian Robbins, director of Eddie Murphy’s smash comedy Norbit, takes us on the set of his next Murphy vehicle, Starship Dave.
Noë Gold’s most recent cover story on director Brian Robbins in all three editions of the Sun Newspapers may be found here ...
Noë Gold’s interviews with Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and Cameron Crowe are at www.noemedia.net.
Photo by robertevans.com
Here is my unedited manuscript for this piece:
Brian Robbins for the Studio City Sun
By Noë Gold
Driving onto the Fox lot on my way to see director Brian Robbins as he helms his second Eddie Murphy comedy “Starship Dave,” I pass a vigorous game of H-O-R-S-E played by some Star-Trek-cum-West Point-outfitted extras and what looks like the Oscar-nominated star of “Norbit.”
I later discover, talking to Eddie’s assistant Charisse Hewitt while watching him film some of his scenes, that that wasn’t her boss shooting baskets but his photo double doppelganger, who looks remarkably like Eddie but is about six inches shorter.
The basketball court is a constant on Robbins’ sets, not only because it provides respite from the shoot-and-wait-around endemic to all sets but because it is a hallmark of the sports-nut director’s working style, a loose camaraderie with the emphasis on playmaking and precision and a hardwood warrior’s sense of team play and strategy.
Like the original hardwood warrior, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Robbins is described by his producer Todd Komarnicki as “the zen master of the lens. I’ve never seen a director create such a casual and friendly work environment that at the same time is hard-working and on the button. It’s a rare combination of professionalism and personal connection and it really makes for great work,” he says.
And the pickup basketball game has its place in the entire aesthetic, he continues. “I’m happy to say that my producing partner is getting lessons there from Brian in friendliness and no-conflict filmmaking — if you don’t sharpen your skill set then you don’t put yourself out there. The first shoot is the fun time in the morning. People are on their game and convivial, and this project has been a truly enjoyable experience. Brian has been collaborative and instinctive and funny and warm. He stands up for what he believes in, and we all wind up with the best piece of material.”
The director and his star established their go-to relationship on the set of their last comedy together, the PG-13-rated “Norbit.”
The comedy was budgeted at about $60 million and went on to make $170 million and counting (it has just been released on DVD). Murphy was so happy with the process of making that one that he asked Robbins what he was doing next. The answer turned out to be “Starship Dave,” a big family comedy about an alien spaceship made to look like a human being that lands on Earth.
“It’s basically the story of people from a planet called Nil who are sent to Earth because they need something from the planet to replenish their energy supply,” says Robbins. “They had sent an orb down to Earth and it fell. So they have no choice but to come here and investigate why this happened. The hook is, that these people are no taller than an inch and a quarter. So they built a spaceship that looks like a human being so that they can come and interact with us and basically that spaceship is Eddie Murphy. So they’re also all inside the ship operating it like a giant Trojan horse, and also Eddie’s character is inside the ship — he’s the captain, which is why the ship looks like him.”
The scenes I have come to observe take place inside the “head” or cockpit of the spaceship. The set designers have built this big egg-shaped structure on a soundstage and peopled it with drone-like space men and women sitting at desklike seats with LCD monitors facing a big projection screen which in the finished movie will be showing what Eddie sees through his “eyes” as he interacts with humans in his fumbling, exploratory way. As he goes on dates in the New York-located shoot, the camera records what’s going on inside and outside his head, and the pieces are put together later in post-production.
“It’s a complicated movie. It’s tricky,” says Robbins. “The whole real world’s a fish-out-of-water concept: people don’t know that he’s a spaceship. And then there’s this whole other movie going on inside his body which is like a submarine.. And then everything that’s going on in the real world which we shot on videotape through his eyes — we’re playing that back on viewscreens that are inside his head. He’s controlling the outside so he has to experience it on the inside. We’re constantly trying to make sure that everything syncs up.”
The New York City-born Studio City transplant is on a roll these days. “Norbit’s” commercial success was echoed by that of “Wild Hogs,” which he produced with partner Mike Tollin. Tollin-Robbins Productions, which is on Ventura Boulevard, is in post-production on the TV movie “The Bronx Is Burning,” and in pre-production on the next Halle Berry-Billy Bob Thornton drama “Tulia.” On top of that is his ongoing involvement in a raft of TV shows his company produces, among them “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill.” Robbins recently set up his own shingle, Varsity Pictures, in West Hollywood.
Robbins moved to the Valley in his early teens, went to Grant High School and immediately got into the entertainment biz. His father is the character actor Floyd Levine, who played Abe the Tailor in his son’s movie, “Norbit” and Dr. Stein on “Melrose Place,” and appeared in many TV shows including “Knight Rider,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “T.J. Hooker,” “The Love Boat,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “Kojak.”
Perhaps due to his father’s mentorship, or maybe just his own drive, Robbins parlayed his student involvement into a career. “I started out acting in plays in high school,” he says. “I got my first agent and started auditioning for roles. After a while I did a few pilots and soon after that I landed on “Head of the Class” for five years. I ended up guest starring on every sitcom on TV like ‘Different Strokes,’ ‘Facts of Life,’ ‘Three’s Company,’ ‘Taxi,’ ‘Cagney & Lacey.’
“And when I was on ‘Head of the Class’ I realized that there must be more to life than sitting in a trailer and waiting to come out and say a few lines,” he adds. “I started wanting to write and direct and to realize that that was where my real creative outlet was. So on the show I got to co-write an episode and I started to develop a few ideas. And when the show ended, I produced this TV show with Magic Johnson, this celebrity basketball show, and from there I met Mike Tollin who was to become my partner during the last 12 years. We hooked up on that and we made this documentary for Fox called ‘Hardwood Dreams’ and that became the foundation for Tollin Robbins. We developed and did the pilot for ‘All That’ on Nickelodeon, we did ‘Arliss’ on HBO, and also we made a Hank Aaron documentary for Turner which got nominated for a Peabody. All this happened in the first year and a half — an amazing start for our company.
“From ‘All That’ we were able to make our first feature film, ‘Good Burger,’ which Dan Schneider co-wrote and I directed. I really had only directed a couple of things for Nickelodeon, and Paramount let me direct it and it worked out really well. Right after that I got the script for ‘Varsity Blues.’ From there we were legitimately in the movie business, and I was a director.
“We got a deal with Warner Bros. to do television shows. And that’s how ‘Smallville,’ ‘What I Like About You’ and eventually ‘One Tree Hill’ happened.”
So what is his formula for success? The director is not really forthcoming on that one. “I don’t know if I have a secret and if I had one I probably wouldn’t tell you,” he replies. “I think TV is a whole other animal but movies are completely intangible. You think you have a good script and you assemble a good cast, and then you work really hard to try and make the best movie you can but you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out until you’re sitting in a movie theater and watching the first preview.”
And if you go by Robbins, he is just beginning to figure it out. “I’m at the point now that if I’m working on a movie for three or four weeks and I watch it the first time I know whether we are in really good shape or if … I’m not sure. ‘Norbit’ was amazing. I thought ‘Norbit’ worked as soon as I put that thing on a monitor. I thought it worked so well, it played so loud and so uproarious, that it was really a thrill.”
If there’s one thing Robbins knows, besides sports and actors, it’s comedy, but he doesn’t know why. It’s not something you can analyze, he says. “Comedy is so amazing. It’s a strange thing. It’s hard to manufacture. I was talking to Eddie the other day and we were watching something and it got such a big laugh and I said God that was so funny. Eddie said, ‘Why was that so funny?’ And I said, ‘I can’t tell you why.’ I think the one gift that I’ve gotten is after so many hours of television and so many types of movies — I’ve spent the last 10 years constantly in production — it’s just experience.”
Noë Gold is a contributor to Variety and former features editor at the Hollywood Reporter, editor-in-chief of Movies USA, Bikini and Guitar World and columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Daily News. His interviews with Cameron Crowe, Frank Zappa and other luminaries may be found at www.noemedia.net and www.doctornoemedia.com .