Old Dogs

BEHIND THE SCENES

Take Robin Williams and John Travolta and put them in a movie about a couple of single guys who run a sports marketing firm, then toss in some of Hollywood’s funniest actors. What do you get?
"It’s definitely a broad comedy with a lot of funny set pieces," says producer Andrew Panay, "but most importantly, it’s got a lot of heart."

"I rarely read scripts where I’m just laughing out loud," says director Walt Becker. "It has a great balance of heart, comedy and wonderful characters."

"I love working with John; he’s a kick. He’s not afraid to try stuff. There are so many great people in this movie. That’s what’s been amazing," says Robin Williams.

"Kelly Preston—she’s fearless. Seth Green, he’s got it all going on, he’s funny. Rita Wilson, plus Matt Dillon as a scout master being the alpha male is pretty great, too."

On the heels of his immensely successful film "Wedding Crashers," producer Andrew Panay met with screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman at a favorite Los Angeles eatery where the story began to take shape. The film’s "old dogs"—long-time friends and business partners in their 50s—are indeed set in their ways. "One of the men discovers that he’s the father of fraternal twins that he never knew about, the result of a hasty one-day marriage," explains writer Weissman. "Now both men, who have never had children, are forced to deal with two 7-year-old kids and all the pitfalls that come with it."

The filmmakers admit that the script was developed and written with a cast already in mind. "Our first choices were always John Travolta and Robin Williams. There are only a few guys that this movie is right for, and they are two of the best in the world. I mean, you don’t get much better," says Panay. "It’s really an honor to cast two screen legends together in this film. It’s just a dream come true."

Walt Becker worked with John Travolta on the box-office smash hit "Wild Hogs" and was excited to have him on board. "John’s always great to work with. He’s just about the nicest human being on the planet and as an actor he elevates every single scene he’s in," Becker says.

"In terms of instincts, he’s always right. We’ve learned to trust each other, and when he’s feeling something is working or I feel something is working, we kind of run with it."

John Travolta viewed the role as a unique opportunity to combine broad comedy with deep emotion. "My character Charlie likes his privacy, he likes his life, and he has lots of nice, expensive things—a great apartment, a cool car. He never planned on a family," says Travolta.

"I look for parts that I can do something with. I like to think, ‘Can I contribute something special and make it worthwhile for someone to use me in a film?’ It’s very important that my interpretation of the character benefits the story."

Casting Robin Williams opposite Travolta created the ultimate dream team, according to the filmmakers. Says Becker, "This could be one of the greatest comedy pairings in a long time." Walt Becker describes Williams as the consummate performer. "It’s incredible. He’s an encyclopedia of jokes, but he’s also got incredible depth as an actor. He can throw so much emotion just off a look and in the next second be incredibly funny."

Robin Williams portrays Dan, a brilliant but uptight executive who is also a romantic at heart. And when he gets impulsive, it’s in a big way. While recovering from a difficult divorce in South Beach with his pal, Charlie, Dan finds himself in a quickie marriage—followed by a quickie divorce. Unbeknownst to Dan, he fathers twins during the brief encounter. Williams saw the film as an opportunity to revisit fatherhood. "Baby boomers are getting old. You find yourself taking a lot more time to do everything. We are now our parents; that’s frightening. You find yourself saying ‘I am my dad,’ and it’s a lot scarier dealing with children in your 50s than it was in your 30s."

The relationship between Travolta and Williams was also as real as it appears on screen. "I’ve known Robin for 30 years and consider him to be an old friend," says Travolta.

Says Williams of his co-star, "A lot of his stuff is really physical and that’s been good, because he throws it back. If you throw it out there, he’ll come and meet you right there, which is great." Kelly Preston was cast, not as Charlie’s girlfriend, but as Vicki, the mother of Dan’s twins.

"She’s so fantastic, one of the best actresses out there," says Panay. "And what’s really interesting is having her as Robin’s love interest, not John’s. It’s very exciting because we get to mix it up a bit."

"It’s so cool," says Preston. "Vickie is such a great character. She’s a little high strung, a little crazy, and that’s fun for me. And to be Robin’s love interest is just a trip. We had a blast together.

"It’s such a great part and a great script," Preston continues. "It was the perfect dream job, because I got to work with my husband and my daughter in her first movie."

Ella Bleu Travolta was cast as one of the twins after telling her parents she wanted to act. "Then this script arrived and it’s almost as if she predicted it," says John Travolta. "How often does a great role come along for a 7-year-old?"

John Travolta says he maintained a constant, but handsoff, presence on the set. "I knew how to do that because my mother was an actress and director, and she knew how to separate professional behavior from familial behavior. I’m always Ella’s dad, but I’m also professional with her. I never interfered with the director’s rapport," he says. The young actress says it was easy to work with director Walt Becker. "If I wasn’t saying a line okay, he’d help me with it or give me better lines," she says. "And he’s so sweet. He’d tell us we are so great and gave us high fives."

A worldwide search was conducted to cast the precocious 7-year-old Zach, the other twin; filmmakers discovered Conner Rayburn. "We looked under every rock and there was no comparison," says Panay. "Conner is a real pro. He’s fantastic."

Walt Becker says of his two youngest stars, "These are two little pros. They hit their marks. They did their lines. They even came up to me to suggest new lines. They really grew as actors." To portray Craig, the ambitious young maverick longing to succeed in the sports marketing business, the filmmakers cast the versatile Seth Green. "I was thinking about who was going to play this guy, and just the visual of Seth Green standing next to Robin Williams and John Travolta made me laugh," says Becker. "He could be one of the funniest guys on the planet.

His delivery is just so dry. In every scene, I could cut to him, and with just one look, huge laughter follows. He was really a treat."

Seth Green tips his hat to his co-stars. "All of my scenes are with Robin and John and that to me was very exciting. I’ve been a fan of both of them for so long," he says. "I’ve been in films with John, but we haven’t really gotten to do a lot of interacting. And Robin is really a hero of mine, I’ve loved him for as long as I’ve wanted to be an actor. So getting to act with him was thrilling."

The late Bernie Mac was cast as Jimmy Lunchbox, an over-the-top children’s performer and puppeteer, who also happens to be a genius with electronics. Lori Loughlin portrays Amanda, the beautiful Japanese interpreter who turns Charlie’s head. "She comes into the picture when Dan and Charlie are trying to form a deal with a Japanese firm," says Loughlin. "She and Charlie become smitten with each other."

The talented Matt Dillon was cast as Barry, an earnest Pioneer scout leader Dan and Charlie encounter during a family camping trip. "My character is a little overzealous," says Dillon. "He takes being a scout a little too seriously. I really like doing comedy, the chance to really have fun. I think the best way to play comedy is to play it straight, to play it sincere. I think it’s gotta be heartfelt."

Says producer Panay: "What Matt brings to the table is incredible comedic chops. People loved him in ‘There’s Something About Mary’—he is unbelievably funny in that film."

Rita Wilson, who portrays Jenna, a hand model and Vicki’s best friend, was thrilled to be working with her real-life dear friend. "I love working with Kelly," says Wilson. "We’ve known each other for probably 16 years, and I think there is definitely a shorthand if you already have a friendship with someone. It makes coming to work that much easier."

"Rita is absolutely hilarious," says Preston. "She always makes the character her own."

"It’s wonderful when your two stars are Robin Williams and John Travolta and then the supporting cast includes these incredible actors," says Becker. "There’s never a dull moment. The material is already terrific and then it gets elevated by such great performances."

The filmmakers selected iconic Manhattan locations, including Central Park, Top of the Rock, Grand Central Station, Radio City Music Hall, Shea Stadium and Times Square. "Anytime you get an opportunity to shoot in New York City, you take it," producer Andrew Panay says.

"It’s a challenge in terms of the crowds and traffic, but wow, what an energy it gives to the performances."

Adds director Walt Becker: "There are horns honking and people screaming for John and Robin in the middle of takes. But it’s well worth the trouble."

The director says they chose several unique locales for the production. "We shot the Bloomberg Building. We shot Top of the Rock, which has never been in a film before. I think we sold New York in a way that was special and unique." Walt Becker credits production designer David Gropman with creating an exciting visual palate.

"I told Gropman that I want to be able to watch this film without the sound and still be entertained, and he pulled it off. He did a fantastic job," he says. One of the more challenging shooting days occurred at Shea Stadium, where filming took place during an actual ballgame. "Shooting during a live Mets game was a good idea on paper," says Becker. "This was probably as close to combat as I’ve ever come. We had 15 minutes to shoot the entire thing. It was kind of guerrilla, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants filming. There were fans throwing stuff, taking pictures. I think I aged more in that 15 minutes than I ever have doing a scene.

"We also did one of the bravest things ever tried in a production, which was to show our actors live on the Jumbotron," Becker continues. "It was amazing, because you see Dan and Charlie up
there and everybody’s on the screen waving. There were our two old dogs in the middle of 40,000 cheering people and the Jumbotron read ‘Happy Grandparents Day.’ Just priceless. The Mets organization was so supportive."

After two weeks of filming in New York, the production moved to Connecticut. Several interior sets were constructed there, including Charlie’s New York bachelor pad where Dan brings the kids to stay. Production designer David Gropman designed a two-story childunfriendly apartment within a studio in Stanford. "We added the stairs, lots of glass, stainless steel and sharp edges," he explains. "I also designed a large deck just outside the windows.

Executive producer Garrett Grant looked at my model and said, ‘Why don’t you put a swimming pool out there?’ So we put an infinity pool on the deck of a five-story New York apartment, which added the final touch to our kid-dangerous dwelling."

Several breathtaking exterior locales were used, including the historical Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, Conn., where Dan and Charlie take the children to the Pioneer Scout Jamboree. The park dates back to the 1800s, and Becker wanted to keep that authentic feel. "Walt wanted a real, classic camp look," says Gropman. "So instead of using contemporary scout tents, we used beautiful canvas tents of all sizes. It was fun to do, because it was a beautiful location where we had this great Adirondack piece of architecture."

Producer Andrew Panay says Travolta and Williams exhibited two completely different styles of improvisation. "John has such a controlled improv, it’s always coming from a real place. He’s always finding the joke within the joke. Robin is a machine gun. He keeps on firing the funnies. So you have two different approaches, both incredibly funny," he says.

Director Walt Becker’s easygoing style was a good match for his creative cast. "I always feel like if you’re not letting your actors contribute, you’re not getting everything you can from them," he
says. "And, frankly, I don’t care if an actor wants to do a scene standing on his head, because that’s just the way I go. I get one take for the script, one for me, and the rest are for the actor."

Walt Becker’s method is one the actors truly appreciate. Says Travolta, "I never go outside the box of the character, because if I do, it’ll end up on the cutting-room floor. I make sure all my
improvisations are character-motivated."

Kelly Preston says she enjoyed the environment filmmakers provided. "Walt is pretty much accepting of anything. We definitely stay on the page, but he’d suggest I do something else or come up with ideas. For example, in one scene, I’m dropping the kids off with Dan, and I really wanted to make it seem more personal, so I used scenarios that happen in my own life.

"And of course, with Robin, he doesn’t need any encouragement," Preston continues. "He just takes it to wherever, and Walt won’t cut for the longest time. That is such a blast."

Rita Wilson says she, too, wanted to add another dimension to her character, who she describes as a bit eccentric. "I love the idea of being a hand model, because that’s a job you see all the
time but take for granted," says Wilson. "But I gave Jenna a facial characteristic which wasn‘t originally written into the script, a lazy eye. I am so thankful that Walt is so open to new thoughts and ideas."

The laid-back attitude amongst cast and crew brought about fun and levity on set, particularly between the two stars. "John is one of the funniest human beings on the planet, and he’s always riffing and joking," says Preston. "So between John and Robin, who’s always on, it’s almost too much. They’ve got their on-camera schtick and their offcamera schtick. It’s hilarious either way you look at it."

Daughter Ella says it became one of her biggest challenges. "It’s hard, because when Robin or my dad are being so funny in a scene, we can’t laugh. We want to laugh, but we can’t. It’s fun."

Both Travolta and Williams were called on for physical comedy. "It’s been exciting to be this physical at this age—flying 65 feet in the air in a superhero suit that looks like Liberace’s stunt double on steroids," says Williams. "If you want something funny, just run me into a wall."

One of the most physical and enjoyable days on set was the Pioneer Scout Jamboree in the park. As part of his "Dad’s to-do list," Zack, a Pioneer scout, asks Dan and Charlie to take him and Emily camping. They find themselves attempting to pitch tents, playing extreme Frisbee and shooting skeet. They must also contend with troop leader Barry, played by Matt Dillon, a serious scout who comes from four generations of Pioneers.

During the extreme Frisbee match, Becker admits that he let his actors go wild. "We did a little ‘The Right Stuff’ beat with John and Robin coming out in slow motion," says Becker. "It was just fantastic seeing this game, which is supposed to be a non-contact sport, degrade into an all-out prison-rules game. We had a few casualties, too. Robin pulled a muscle, because he was going at it so hard—those guys did nearly all their own stunts. Robin and John were getting the crap beat out of them. The scene worked really well."

Matt Dillon says he got a kick out of the skeet-shoot scenes. "The script had Barry just firing at the skeet in a typical way, but Walt added a layer by having Barry shoot cowboy-style from the hip. It’s probably what makes the scene so ridiculous," he says.

Seth Green found his ultimate performance test while shooting an elaborate Japanese karaoke scene. His go-getter character immerses himself in the Japanese culture in preparation to run the business out of Japan. "On my second day of shooting, I did this glitzy karaoke scene in front of 150 extras. I got to sing and entertain them, which is not something I typically do. I owned that stage," he laughs. "It’s very silly seeing me in this kimono with eyeliner and these sparkly shoes, screaming and jumping around to songs like ‘Mr. Roboto’ and ‘House of Pain.’"

The film wouldn’t be complete without its four-legged co-star. Filmmakers tapped Sebastian, a 9-year-old dog, to portray Charlie’s aging hound Lucky. "Obviously, he’s not supposed to be doing too much, because he’s basically got one foot in the grave," says trainer Dawn Barkin. "He does a lot of hanging out on the bed with John. His big, funny sight gag is that he gets to raise his leg and pee on a plant."

Barkin, who works for a company called Paws for Affect, has been training Sebastian for several years. She says getting the seasoned canine to do the leg-lift was surprisingly easy. "He picked it
up in a day and a half, which is extremely quick, and he loves to do it. He walks up to objects and just lifts his leg up like it’s the funniest thing in the world. It’s a behavior he enjoys doing," she says.

The filmmakers agree that the whole process was an enjoyable one—one they think will come through on the big screen. "I think the audience can expect to have a really fun time," says Becker.

"And that’s whether you’re a 90-year-old grandma or a 9-year-old boy or a 20-year-old college student."

"I want to make movies that make people happy and make people laugh," says Panay. "I believe we’ve done that with ‘OLD DOGS.’"