Christmas Is Here Again - An Interview With Robert Zappia
Heartland Film Festival fans will remember Robert Zappia quite well. Zappia's animated feature Christmas Is Here Again was a family favorite at the Heartland Film Festival in 2007. A musical journey about the adventures of a young girl named Sophianna who sets out on a heartwarming and life-affirming adventure to help recover Santa's magical toy sack, Christmas Is Here Again offers up some very unlikely heroes who discover their potential for compassion, loyalty and the importance of never giving up. The Independent Critic has stayed in touch with Zappia since his appearance at Indy's Heartland Film Festival because, well, he's an awfully nice and a very interesting guy! After a couple years of contemplating further collaboration, The Independent Critic finally sat down with this Heartland filmmaker and discussed Christmas Is Here Again, his career, film-making, the importance of never giving up on a dream and much, much more. Christmas is here again, indeed, and so is Robert Zappia.
We've been acquainted since you came to Indy for the Heartland Film Festival promoting "Christmas Is Here Again." Since we're doing a promo for that film, that's a good place to start. Looking at your incredibly diverse cinematic history, it almost seems like an unusual choice for you to direct as a full-length. What inspired you to create "Christmas Is Here Again?"
"Christmas Is Here Again" was truly a passion project that was a lifetime in the making. When I was little boy - a toddler really - my dad used to tell me and my older sister, Roxanne, a Christmas bedtime story around the holidays. Each night he would tell us a little bit more of the story. It was like a serialized radio show. Years later, I learned the reason he parsed out the story a little each night was because he was making it up as he went along. Sometimes he'd even ask my sister and I, "What do you think happened next?" We'd give him an answer and he'd say, "Exactly! How'd you know?" And then he'd go on with the story. My father was also very musical and always had instruments in the house. He used to play us songs he made up to accompany the Christmas story he was telling us. As we grew older, our friends would want to hear the story and the songs. Year-after-year it became a holiday tradition to sing the songs and listen to the story with our family and friends. In all those years, nobody ever actually wrote the story down. It was just a story we passed on verbally. My wife, Pam, was the one who encouraged me to actually write it. And I knew if I wanted to keep it true to the story I had grown up with, I'd have to do it outside the studio system in order to maintain complete control. To that end, not only did I want to write it, I also wanted to direct it.
You've been working pretty steadily in Hollywood since the early 90's...you've got a pretty amazing vocal cast for "Christmas Is Here Again." How did you manage to put this cast together?
I knew it was important for us to have at least one recognizable name in our cast if we wanted any chance of securing distribution for this small little indie film we were going to make. I had written for a television sitcom in the early 90's called "Thunder Alley" that starred Ed Asner. I had also worked on that show with Jim Praytor, an immensely talented director, writer and producer who I was lucky enough to convince to produce Christmas Is Here Again. Jim approached Ed on our behalf about being in the film and Ed said yes without hesitation. Once we had Ed on board it immediately gave our production credibility.
We were thrilled to have our "one piece" of name talent! Many of the other cast was thanks to what I call "Six Degrees of Daniel Roebuck." Dan was another one of the voice actors in the film (he voices the elf Paul Rocco). Dan and I met because our sons go to the same school together. Dan and I immediately hit it off and were looking for a project to work together on. One of Dan's many roles was playing the part of Jay Leno in HBO's The Late Shift. Dan told me that Jay Leno had called him after the film aired to thank him for his fair portrayal and said if Dan ever needed anything to call him. Dan said he would call Jay and ask him if he would voice the role of the narrator. I thought Dan was nuts. I was like, "When Jay said if you ever needed anything to call him, I think he meant an autographed picture or tickets to The Tonight Show..." But Dan insisted on putting in a call. And I'm glad he did because after reading the script and agreeing to donate his fee to charity, Jay said yes. Dan also approached Kathy Bates who played his manager in the Late Shift. She read the script and also came aboard. Dan had also worked with Norm Macdonald on a series and approached Norm. Again, Norm came aboard. Dan also had worked with Andy Griffith on Matlock for years. Dan said, "Wouldn't Andy make a great Santa?" I couldn't agree more. But again, I thought Dan had been sipping a little too much eggnog. I was proven wrong again when Andy agreed to come aboard. All this to say, thank God for Daniel Roebuck!
Really, the only two actors that we approached through an agency rather than directly were Brad Garrett and Shirley Jones. And that was after we had the other name talent attached. We held auditions for the lead role of Sophianna and with the help of our talented casting agent, Rene Haynes, and her casting associate, Jeff Ham, we found Madison Davenport. Madison was actually the first girl to audition and I knew the minute I heard her audition that she was "the one." We were very lucky the actors responded to the material because we didn't have money to entice them (we didn't have 1/100th of the budget that the studios have to offer).
Funny side story about Ed Asner... When our film was finished we had the opportunity to show it to John Lasseter in a private screening at Walt Disney Studios. For those who don't know, John is the driving creative force behind Pixar and now Disney Animation. Our animation director, Darrell Van Citters, went to the California Institute of the Arts with John. John watched the film and was extremely supportive. He was also incredibly impressed with Ed's performance. So much so that not soon after Lasseter offered Ed the role of Carl in Pixar's UP!
You do have quite the history. Can you tell me how it all started for you? I see where you went to USC. Were you one of those kids who grew up making films around the house? How does one go from film school to suddenly working on Home Improvement (which looks like it was one of your early gigs)?
My father, Marco Zappia, is an Emmy award winning editor. So I grew up around the entertainment business. I would spend afternoons in the edit bay watching him edit (and I would frequenlty play on the video switcher pretending I was in the Death Star - the post house had the exact Grass Valley switcher that was used in the original Star Wars film. Jackpot!). I never really wanted to edit, because it took WAY MORE patience than I was capable of. But I learned an immense amount about story telling and production being in the edit room and watching how my dad would build moments and create a story using the footage he had to work with.
I was eight years old when I saw Star Wars and that film had a huge impact on me. When I say "huge impact" I'm not talking about the Star Wars wallpaper and bed sheets (we won't even mention the Underoos), I'm talking about the desire to direct that it instilled in me. I knew I wanted to tell stories in a visual way that entertained audiences the way George Lucas entertained me. That's when I started making films around the house and in the yard and at the school and anywhere I could film. I had to write my own scripts so I'd have something to film, but I never thought about writing as a career. For me writing was a means to an end - "What I really want to do is direct." The mantra of each and every student that has ever gone to film school...ever.
When I graduated from U.S.C. I expected there to be a line of studio execs with scripts in hand clamoring for the my talents. Not so much. Not one studio. Not one script. Not one job offer. Well, one...a production assistant gig on a new television show on NBC called "Carol & Company." And I think the main reason I was offered the job was because I had a car phone - an absolute rarity in 1986. Carol Burnett was making her return to prime time with a new series created by Matt Williams (who had written for The Cosby Show, A Different World and created the hit sitcom Roseanne). Having no other options that didn't involve flipping something on a grill, I took the job with a smile. And boy am I glad I did....
I'm not saying being a production assistant was fun. It wasn't. You're basically an errand boy with a title that sounds kind of cool to people who don't really know any better. That's where I first met Jim Praytor (who as I mentioned produced Christmas Is Here Again). He was my first direct boss and I remember him telling me, "If any one EVER calls you a 'runner,' you tell me who and I'll make sure they never do it again. You're a 'production assistant.'" I'll never forget it. We've been friends ever since.
After working there for a few months, I quickly realized the writers had a lot of power and made a lot of money. Did I mention they make A LOT of money? So, I started writing. Looking back I realize I was Awful (notice the capital "A"). My first spec I wrote was a half-hour Carol & Company that was 72 pages long (they're supposed to be about half that - and no, I wasn't going for a two-parter). I would come in to work after the writers finished working on that week's script (typically around 3-4 AM to make copies for the cast and crew). So in I come at 4 AM with my 72 page "half-hour" script. I go right into Matt William's office - who had probably been up for 48 plus hours straight at that point - and I asked, "Matt, I just wrote this spec Carol & Company. Would you read it?" And God bless the man, without skipping a beat, he said, "DId you really? That's great. I 'd love to read it." He asked that I be patient with him because his schedule was pretty heavy (gee, you think?) and that he would definitely read it and get back to me. And that's exactly what he did - maybe three weeks later he called me into his office...
He spent close to an hour with me going through the script, giving me notes, etc... It was fantastic. I was getting paid to learn from one of the most talented creative forces I've worked with in my career. It suddenly made making a writers' room full of cappucinos (no Starbucks in those days, kids) worth every froth job gone bad. Matt told me what books to read (The Art of Dramatic Writing, Write That Play, Screenplay by Syd Field, etc...). I read them all. Twice. Then wrote another script, then another and another. Each time giving them to Matt to read and getting his notes. I remember on one of my scripts Matt telling me to rewrite it without the jokes. I remember thinking, "Huh? It's a sitcom - situation-COMEDY. No jokes?" Matt's point was that I was writing to the joke rather than letting the character and situation create the humor. That was such a great exercise and a valuable lesson that I've never forgotten when writing comedy.
Matt was about to create a new show and he told me he wanted to promote me to a writer's assistant so I would be in the room with the other writers and could learn even more seeing the "inner workings" of the writing process. That new show was "Home Improvement." What an incredible experience it was seeing that show created from the ground up. Being in the writers' room was an invaluable experience for me. It was my job to take notes as the writers pitched out the show. It was great to get into their minds and see how the process worked...how they broke a story...how they rewrote an episode...etc... It really demystified the process for me.
I continued to write specs and turn them in to Matt. At the end of the first season Matt told me he felt I was ready to tackle a script for the show. My own episode! That was definitely one of the high points in my career. What a thrill it was to be 23 years old and writing for the #1 show on television viewed by more than 20 million people each week. It was surreal and I'll be forever grateful to Matt for the opportunity.
You've worked on production, as a producer, as a director, as a writer...Is there an area you actually prefer? It seems like your most extensive background is with writing?
There are actually pros and cons to each. I think the most difficult for me is writing. It's so grueling (for me at least) to create something from absolutely nothing. That blinking cursor sitting there waiting for inspiration to strike. Deadlines looming. A million opinions waiting to be unleashed on your finished product. Every position from costumer to director interpret the written word, but only the writer starts with a blank canvas. I have so much respect for what the writers does. Mostly, because it's such a struggle for me. I think Dorothy Parker said it best, "I hate writing. I love having written." Amen to that.
Having gotten to know you through "Christmas Is Here Again," I must confess I chuckled when I first found out that you also wrote the script for Halloween H20. I think this goes back to the diversity of your background. You've really got quite the background of projects. Are you one of those rare people who can tackle virtually any project? Or do you just have that twisted of a mind? :) How was it tackling a script for such an iconic horror series?
Many would definitely argue I just have that twisted of a mind! They certainly could make a strong case for it. But truthfully, I just love the art of storytelling. And I love all kinds of stories; comedy, drama, romance, thriller, sci-fi, horror, action-adventure, etc... When I was writing sitcoms I would write feature specs during my summer hiatuses. Since I wrote comedy for nine months of the year, I usually picked action or sci-fi to write for my feature scripts. I wrote a big sci-fi action feature called "Population Zero" that caught the eye of an exec at Dimension Films, Richard Potter. Richard said they wanted to work with me but the only project they had at the time was a direct-to-dvd sequel called Halloween 7. Well, I was a HUGE John Carpenter fan and LOVED the original Halloween film (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano). So I didn't care if it was Halloween 17 and was going direct-to-the trash bin. I wanted in!
The fact that I thought it was going to be a direct-to-dvd release, really helped eased any pressure I might have felt otherwise. I just had fun with the script and tried to bring the franchise back to what I loved about the original Halloween film. It wasn't until I turned in my first draft, that Bob Weinstein informed me that they were going to do a 20th Anniversary theatrical release of Halloween 7 and that he was in talks to bring back Jamie Lee Curtis. I could barely hear him above my pounding heart. But I think Bob asked if I could incorporate Jamie Lee's character into my draft that took place at the private school. I was thinking, "Are you seriously asking me?! OF COURSE!!!!" At that point, I had laid the structural groundwork for the film, so it was a matter of having fun envisioning where Jamie Lee's character "Laurie Strode" would be twenty years after her brother went on a Halloween killing spree. The process certainly wasn't without it's challenges, but being a part of that seminal horror franchise will always be a personal highlight of my career. I'll never forget being at the premiere and sitting directly behind Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh and thinking, "If a meteor strikes this theater, I'll die happy." Thank God it didn't.
You've also had a couple of interesting experiences recently...you worked on the 140 film (I believe you contributed a piece to it) and you were a segment producer (if I recall) on "Jackass 3-D." "Jackass 3-D" has ended up being the biggest Jackass film yet...How did that come about? What was your role with the project (if you could explain it in layman's terms)?
I learned pretty early on in my career never to turn down work. Even if it's a crappy gig. Even if you don't need the money at the time. You just never know who you'll meet or what it might lead to down the road.
"140" came about from meeting another Heartland Film Festival attendee, Frank Kelly. Frank is an Irish filmmaker whose short film Emily's Song was a previous Crystal Heart Award winner at Heartland. Frank's love for filmmaking is evident and contagious. Our meeting was brief, but I knew we were kindred spirits the moment I met him. Shortly after Heartland, he extended the invitation to direct a segment of a project he was putting together called "140." Based on Twitter (the social networking site), the idea was to get 140 filmmakers from around the world, shooting 140 seconds, at the exact same time. It was really an amazing project Frank pulled together and I was excited to be a part of it (1/140th of a part to be exact)!
If just two years ago you told me I'd be a Segment Producer on Jackass 3D the movie, I would've had you committed or at the very least recommended extensive therapy. A couple years back I took a job (my first in reality TV) on a Bravo reality show called "Chef Academy." I was hired by the post-producer, Volney Howard. Volney and I hit it off from day one. Volney had worked for Dickhouse (Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine, and Johnny Knoxville's production company) for eight years. When Volney went on to do another Dickhouse production for MTV called "Nitro Circus" he called me and asked if I was interested in being a part of the "story department" on that show. I was happy to continue exploring the reality side of television and worked as a Story Producer on Nitro Circus for two years. When that show ended the Dickhouse gang went onto their next project - Jackass 3-D...celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Jackass. Once again, Volney and Trip Taylor (who was the Executive Producer of Nitro Circus and Jackass) asked if I wanted to be a part of the film as a segment producer. Honestly, I said "yes" before I knew exactly what it entailed!
That ten month experience is definitely one of the most interesting of my career. I was one of the few "newbies" to the group. Most had been around since the early days of the Jackass series. But they welcomed me with open arms. They really are one big dysfunctional family. While they might all be crazy, they're such good people.
Anyway, in layman's terms my role as Segment Producer was to oversee any given segment from start-to-finish. We shot over 200 segments for the film (over which only 50 or so made the actual film). A segment is considered any one of the many two-three minute bits in the film (i.e. Buffalo Roller Skate, Lamborghini Tooth Pull, etc...). It would take literally half a day sometimes to get the perfect result from a bit or gag (and by perfect, I mean "most idiotic"). Once we have the footage, we watch it (sometimes two-to-three hours worth) and take extensive notes. We compile all of that into what we call a "string out" for the editors. It's basically the "best of" the material strung out into 15-25 minutes. From there we work with the editors to get the best 2-3 minutes segment for the director (Jeff Tremaine) to watch and give notes on. That process continued until Jeff was happy with the cut.
The film has been a huge success and so far has grossed over $150 million dollars worldwide. It's been a few months since we finished the film and I find myself missing it. Every day was an adventure. Never a dull day at the office! But those are stories for another time!
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