Director Dennis Dugan makes movies that audiences love, studios revere (read: blockbusters) and critics, um, moving on... This month, the man behind Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy socks it to us with another laugh-in, Saving Silverman. By Joe Neumaier
Most filmmakers like to appear unflappable when they’re in the director’s chair. Not Dennis Dugan. “As a badge of honor, I make my sets the most fun in Hollywood,” he says proudly. Those good times translate to the big screen when Dugan’s latest laugh riot, Saving Silverman, hits theaters on February 16. The $26 million comedy stars Steve Zahn and Jack Black as two losers who try to get their pal Silverman (Jason Biggs) out of an imminent marriage to a cold-hearted—albeit sexy—woman (Amanda Peet). Their less-than-ingenious plan? Kidnap her! Only problem is, said female is tougher than all three guys combined.
The real-life brains behind this operation, Dugan, 54, started as an actor (he appeared in Richie Brockelman, Private Eye in the ’70s and Hill Street Blues in the early ’80s), then began directing for television in the mid-’80s. He helmed Problem Child in 1990 and turned Sandler into Happy Gilmore in 1996 and the late Chris Farley into Beverly Hills Ninja in 1997. Of his preference for slapstick, Dugan says, “I’m a comic enabler. I take comics, feed ’em lines and stoke the fire.”
Q: It’s been said that comedy is in the editing. Do you agree?
A: You can’t edit s--- together and make it funny. You need a funny script and funny people. But I do edit the script while we’re working on it. I ask the writers, “Is this scene gonna stay in when we’re at 96 minutes and trying to get to 90?” If not, we’ll put any information we need somewhere else and cut the scene.
Q: How about rehearsals?
A: I always try to put in two weeks of rehearsal, though you’re lucky if you get an hour. Everybody’s always doing another movie or promoting one. On Silverman, we were able to rehearse for a week in L.A. and a week once we got to Vancouver, where we shot. I like to get a rhythm going at rehearsals, but really, there’s not a lot of subtext here—we’re not doing The Ice Storm. I also like to retain a certain amount of spontaneity. Generally, we don’t rehearse as much as we need to, but we get in as much as we can.
Q: Do you let your actors ad-lib?
A: On the set, my main direction is pace, pace, pace. Keep your cues tight. Then I encourage a lot of ad- libbing. Once we get a couple of good takes, we’ll start floating.
Q: Which scene took the longest?
A: There was one dopey little scene with Amanda running out the door and scaring Jack. It didn’t work the way I’d written and blocked it, so we just did it and did it, and it took, like, 25 takes. We tried adding elements and we finally got it. It’s a huge laugh now, but, ah, it took forever.
Q: What’s up with your cameos?
A: I did it for a lark on Happy Gilmore [he played the PGA Tour president.] Then the writers wrote a part for me in Big Daddy [the reluctant trick-or-treat giver]&Mac226; and I played the referee in Silverman. I get a kick out of it.
Q: Silverman is wackier than Big Daddy, which helped soften Adam Sandler’s image.
A: It may seem broader, but the theme—that everyone has a one-and-only someone—is really sweet.
Q: What’s Adam Sandler like?
A: I loved working with Sandler be-cause he’s completely involved in the process. He’s not just an actor who shows up and is funny. He produces, writes, is in the editing room and helps with the soundtrack.
Q: One of the film’s inspired elements is Steve Zahn and Jack Black’s Neil Diamond obsession.
A: That wasn’t in the original script. I knew Steve and Jack both played guitar, and I thought they should have a cover band, and it should be of someone who’s hip, but not of their generation. When we first approached Neil, his big concern was that he didn’t want to be made fun of. I assured him that wasn’t our goal. These guys would be crazed but genuine fans. Once he trusted me, he was 100 percent on board. And he even suggested some bits, like using his song titles as dialogue.
Q: There are some serious Diamond fans in the concert scene at the end.
A: His fan base is insane. Once it got out on the Internet that Neil was doing a one-song concert [“Holly Holy”] in Vancouver, people flew in from all over America and as far away as Germany and Australia. Usually, when you have a crowd scene, you start with 6,000 people, by lunch you have 3,000 and then it gets to the minimal amount. So we shot all the crowd stuff first, thinking the audience would dissipate. After lunch like 13 people had left. And after 14 hours, we had lost less than 15 percent.
Q: You direct both television and films. Is it hard going back and forth?
A: In film, you’re the boss. With TV, the crew can shoot it better than you can and the actors know their roles. It reminds me that I’m just part of the machinery. You’re a guest host, so you have to be a chameleon. And you have eight days to get comfortable and shoot it. I do it to keep sharp.
Q: What’s the oddest direction you’ve ever given to someone?
A: Once on a TV series, an actress who I won’t name was in a terrible mood, and she was just walking through a scene. I said to her, “You and I have the same goal here. We both want you to be terrific.” “Okay, what should I do?” she asked. And I said, “Act better,” and she started doing just that on the next take.
Q: What are the best and worst things you’ve read about your movies?
A: I don’t read reviews. I know I don’t get good ones because generally critics do not treat comedies with any respect. They don’t really think of comedy directors as filmmakers, and that never fails to astound me. There are some very good directors making comedies. And we work as hard as Gus Van Sant did on Finding Forrester or Robert Zemeckis did on Cast Away. Newspaper editors would never have their classical music guy write a review of the new Dwight Yoakam album–it’s not his interest or area of expertise. If there were comedy reviewers, there’d be some basis of comparison. The people who see the movies like them, but the people who write about them aren’t comparing things from the same universe.
Q: Does it bother you that you may never win an Academy Award?
A: When you get a theater full of people cracking up, who cares about the Oscars? You think the movie up, cast it, direct it and edit it, and from that you get a whole group of people enjoying themselves—there’s nothing better.