Night At the Museum
The hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum are lined with the most amazing things – wild-eyed prehistoric creatures, fierce ancient warriors, long lost tribes, African animals and history’s legendary heroes – all frozen forever in time. Or . . . are they? In the action-adventure-comedy, "NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM," the brand new night guard at the Natural History Museum is about to discover that when the visitors go home at the end of the day, the real adventure begins – as the museum’s stuffed, waxed and well-preserved residents come out to play.
The fantastical adventure kicks off when Larry Daley (BEN STILLER), a down-and-out dreamer whose imaginative ideas have never paid off, finds himself in desperate need of a job. Larry has always believed he was destined for big things. But he has no idea just how literally gargantuan and hairy a challenge he will face when he grudgingly accepts the supposedly menial graveyard shift as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. On his very first night on the job, Larry is handed an over-sized flashlight and a dog-eared instruction manual, then left all alone in the eerily quiet, cavernous museum. At least, he thinks he’s alone.
But wait, what’s that noise? To his utter astonishment and disbelief, Larry watches in shock and awe as, one by one, the primeval beasts and storied icons that surround him stir magically to life – and total havoc ensues. Now, as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Attila The Hun carve a swath of destruction through the marble corridors, and lions and monkeys prowl the fragile exhibits, Larry is at a loss as to how to get the museum back under control. At his wit’s end, Larry must recruit the help of historical heavyweight Teddy Roosevelt (ROBIN WILLIAMS) just to survive the night. Facing the possibility of losing his job and letting down his son Nick yet again, Larry must wage an incredible battle to save the museum, hoping to become at last the bold, adventurous dad he’s always wanted to be. The man who’s been forever waiting for his moment of greatness – just found it.
STARRING: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Carla Gugino, Kim Raver, Mickey Rooney, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, Ricky Gervais, Rami Malek, Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson
DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy
STUDIO: 20th Century Fox
Wild About Movies Grade: C-
"Night At The Museum"
Behind The Scenes
ENTERING THE MUSEUM:
THE FANTASY BEGINS
At the heart of "NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM" is an imagination-tickling dream that anyone who’s ever wandered through a museum in wide-eyed awe has secretly harbored: that outrageous fantasy in which the stuffed beasts and molded statues of the ancient past suddenly burst their seams and bust out of their exhibits to come fully to life in the here and now.
“I think most of us have had that experience where you walk by a statue in a museum and you could swear that you saw its eyes follow you,” says the film’s director Shawn Levy. “It’s a little spooky and it’s also very cool to imagine what would really happen if that came true – and, as a filmmaker, it’s exactly the kind of wild, incredible ‘what if’ that is completely impossible to resist.”
Right from the beginning, the idea behind "NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM" proved impossible to resist. It was all sparked when Croatian illustrator Milan Trenc first drew a children’s storybook in which a brand new night guard at the Natural History Museum in New York dozes off only to discover that one of the towering dinosaur skeletons he’s supposed to be protecting has mysteriously wandered away! Suddenly, the guard discovers he is surrounded by talking, growling and prowling statues, which turn the place upside down. With its spirited humor and enchanting tale of an ordinary man faced with wrangling the greatest legends of the past, the story became a family favorite.
It also seemed destined for the movies -- and the book was soon optioned by Fox, with Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan of 1492 Pictures attached to produce, and 1492’s Mark Radcliffe attached to executive produce. The trio of filmmakers, who would later merge contemporary humor and cutting-edge effects into modern adventure classics with the Harry Potter series of films, envisioned an expanded story for "NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM."
When Fox executives showed the book to screenwriters Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant – who came to the fore as partners with the runaway television hit “Reno 911” (and the upcoming film version Reno 911!: Miami) -- the duo could barely contain themselves. “We literally leapt from our seats,” says Lennon. “I mean, we’re both from New York and we basically spent our boyhoods roaming the Natural History Museum. We could draw you a map from memory, that’s how much we loved spending time there. It was simply the coolest place on earth.”
Adds Garant: “The thing that really grabbed us is that we both had the same dream as kids of hiding out in the museum and getting a chance to see what happens in there after it closes. I think lots of kids, not to mention plenty of adults, have had that same dream. To be there alone in the dark with all those legends of history and all those humongous creatures would be the ultimate adventure.”
Inspired by these boyhood memories, the ideas came fast and furious to Lennon & Garant. “The first thing we needed to figure out is where this spell has come from that is bringing all the museum’s exhibits to life,” recalls Lennon. “We were both in complete awe of the Egyptian Hall at the Met in New York and since Egyptians were very into keeping things alive forever, it suddenly made sense that it all began with an ancient Egyptian slate and the age-old wish for eternal youth.”
As they wrote, the core of the story became the character of Larry Daley, who developed into an inveterate dreamer and schemer, unable to get even one of his endless slate of overly ambitious projects off the ground. More importantly, Larry is also a wanna-be stellar dad who takes the night guard job in the hopes of never disappointing his son again. “Larry is that guy I think we all know who believes in his dreams but doesn’t entirely believe in himself,” Garant explains. “He’s got these colossal ideas in his head all the time, but he’s never had the opportunity to prove to himself or his family that he can actually make something succeed – and he’s not sure he can, until now..”
With the characters set into motion, Lennon & Garant really started to have a blast, as they began to figure exactly who and what Larry might encounter as his first night on the job transforms from dull to downright mind-boggling. From the Hall of Civilizations to the American Railroad Dioramas, there were myriad possibilities. “We started off by making a list of all of our very favorite things from all our favorite museums – from the giant Easter Island heads to the dioramas,” says Lennon. “We also knew we wanted Teddy Roosevelt to be a major character because the Natural History Museum in New York is lined with quotes from him and you really feel the spirit of the man in there – not to mention that he himself, as a famous naturalist, wrangled some of the exhibits in there!” Roosevelt’s famous words of wisdom – such as “it’s hard to fail but it’s worse never to have tried to succeed” – became further inspiration for the themes underlying the entire story.
The screenwriters also engaged in an ongoing, typically boyish debate over which creatures in the museum would prove most fearsome once awakened – and had fun dashing any pre-conceived notions in that department. Notes Garant: “We decided the biggest things in the museum might turn out to be shockingly fun-loving, while the scariest of all are some of the smallest creatures!”
Along the way, Lennon & Garant refused to limit their writing in any way. “We didn’t even think about if we were writing for kids or for adults – all we cared about was writing a fun, action-packed movie that everyone would love,” sums up Lennon.
The results especially excited Shawn Levy, the director who has been behind some of the last decade’s biggest comedy hits, yet who, ironically, had been looking for a “quieter” film when he was offered the opportunity to take the helm of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. The screenplay soon convinced him otherwise. “To me, what was so exciting was the story’s blend of heart, humor and spectacle all in one big adventure,” he says. “The film, first and foremost, tells a great story, but with a level of visual spectacle that goes way beyond what you’d expect from a typical comedy and way more than any comedy I’ve ever done.”
Levy found himself not only dazzled by the audacious effects sequences but moved by the plight of Larry Daley – who, at rock bottom, is simply a dad doing his bumbling and blundering best to be a hero to his son. “I think if the story were only wild and funny and filled with bells and whistles and visual effects it would miss part of the point,” notes Levy. “What I loved about NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is that it was clearly going to be all those things but it was also very much about the heart of this character: a father who discovers that the one great moment he has been waiting for all his life -- and was always telling his son was coming – has finally arrived.”
Levy envisioned the film’s style as realistic, within the context of a big film with fantastical elements. “It sounds like a weird thing to say about a movie in which museum exhibits come to life, but because the whole premise is so wildly surreal, I felt that everything around that premise should feel totally real – from the performances to the photography to the digital effects,” he explains. “I think the best fantasies have that kind of grounding in reality. Especially in this case, the fun was going to be in allowing the audience to really and truly believe a museum could lead a whole other life by night. So that’s what we set out to do.”
THE NEW NIGHT GUARD:
BEN STILLER IS LARRY DALEY
Right off the bat, the filmmakers knew they wanted to cast Ben Stiller in lead role of the hapless, yet ultimately heroic, new night guard Larry Daley. Not only is Stiller one of today’s most popular comedic stars, but in films ranging from There’s Something About Mary to Meet The Parénts, Stiller has established a reputation for embodying characters facing circumstances that are outrageously stacked against them. His skill at depicting both the humor and heartbreak of the ultimate common man who must break the mold made him a perfect match for Larry Daley.
“Larry is a guy who never really got his act together, who is continually coming up with another get-rich-quick idea that just doesn’t work,” explains Stiller. “He’s also worried about losing his connection to his son because his wife is about to get re-married. Everything is kind of coming to head and now, right before Christmas, he has to try to find a job. Of course, there’s just one job available: night guard at the Natural History Museum. He thinks it’s going to be the worst job imaginable but it turns out to be the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to him.”
From the minute he read the script, Stiller knew he wanted to be part of Larry’s grand adventure. “I just loved the ideas behind it,” he says. “I grew up about five blocks from the Natural History Museum and as a kid it had this really magical aura about it. It’s not just paintings on the wall but it’s where you can see all the very coolest things that ever existed -- lions and whales and Egyptians and dinosaurs – in one place. So the concept of everything coming to life in there at night couldn’t have been more appealing and exciting. It was something I felt I’d love to see.”
It was also something new for Stiller, whose comedy has never strayed into such a magical zone before. “I’ve never had a chance to work in a movie that was this fantastical before, where you have to sort of turn up the ‘fantastical meter,’” he notes. “But seriously, in order to make the fantasy work, I think you have to keep it very real so that there’s always an emotional connection to the characters. It’s that reality that allows you to believe in the magic of Larry getting to encounter all these characters and creatures from the long ago past. For me, the key was to just jump into the story and commit completely to the idea that this is really happening.”
To help Stiller dive head-first into Larry’s implausible reality, especially in scenes where he would be interacting with wholly digital creations, director Shawn Levy did what he could to contribute – often by pretending he himself was some of the museum’s inanimate creatures come to life! “There’s literally embarrassing, humiliating footage of me with fake Tyrannosaurus talons saying “Ra-ahh” and chasing Ben down a hallway to get a realistic reaction,” Levy admits. “Then they’d erase me in the computer and put in the dinosaur. And that’s how we spent our days on this film.”
Adds Stiller: “I don’t know if Shawn worked in a dance troupe or a mime company or an animal training facility, but he seemed to have a real affinity for playing off-camera animals – he had me quite scared!”
Indeed, there were myriad physical challenges for Stiller, many of which unfolded during his various and increasingly hilarious forms of running for his life. “Running was huge in Ben’s role but he did wind up in great shape,” laughs Levy. But whether Stiller was running from lions, Huns and miniature soldiers, or confessing his existential angst to Robin Williams’s Teddy Roosevelt, or hoping to show his son just how cool his new job could be, Levy found that the comic star was constantly pushing the bar – and the humor level. “The thing about Ben, and I really admire this,” says the director, “is that he is always looking for something better: a better performance, a better way of saying the line, a better nuance. So there was always a lot of improvising on the set – and hence, there was also a lot of Ben and the other actors cracking each other up!”
For Stiller, the key, he says, was keeping that childlike sense of wonder that hits people of all ages in a museum, at the heart of his performance – something that came easily to him. “I think all adults have a kid buried deep inside somewhere, but for some people it’s closer to the surface --for me, my inner child is stuck in my throat,” he deadpans. “But it’s that spirit that drew me to this film.”
THE OLD NIGHT GUARDS:
DICK VAN DYKE, MICKEY ROONEY AND BILL COBBS FORM A TRIO OF TROUBLE
When Larry Daley takes the new night guard position at the Natural History Museum, he replaces a trio of guards who appear to themselves be ancient relics – yet prove to have their own diabolical agenda. To bring the colorful threesome of Cecil, Gus and Reginald to life, the filmmakers ultimately chose three comic actors who have become legends in their own right: the inimitable Dick Van Dyke, the beloved Mickey Rooney and the prolific star of stage, television and screen Bill Cobbs.
Casting the octogenarian and septuagenarian stars was a blast for Shawn Levy. “I had the great fortune of auditioning pretty much every exceptional actor over 65,” he recalls. “It was amazing – I mean Dick Van Dyke actually came in for an audition. He doesn’t have to audition but he and Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs all came in and really showed what they could do with the material.”
Levy continues: “Once I saw those three actors together I knew it was going to be an embarrassment of riches having them play these characters. Dick Van Dyke with his svelte, debonair quality; Mickey with his charming, ‘non-tall’ quality and Bill, who has an enigmatic depth, worked so well together and truly embodied the mischievous spirit of Cecil, Gus and Reginald.”
Dick Van Dyke, who in addition to being one of the world’s most popular comedians, is also indelibly entwined with such family film classics as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Immediately enchanted by the story, Van Dyke was excited to take on the role of Cecil, the former head night guard who helps to recruit and “train” Larry Daley. “With all of the dinosaurs and Huns and animals, I thought it would be a riot,” Van Dyke says. “When I read the script I knew it was that rare thing: a great all-audience film. So I said, I’ve got to be a part of this. It’s one of those stories I can’t wait for my own grandkids to see. And between Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, we’re all about the same vintage, so we had great chemistry as these old guys willing to do anything to be young again.”
For Ben Stiller, getting the chance to star with, and get duped by, Van Dyke was a thrill. “I think Dick really does have an Egyptian tablet at home that’s the fountain of youth because he’s like twice my age and I have about half his energy,” Stiller quips. “He’s a great and funny actor who really knows his stuff so it was such a pleasure to watch him work.”
As for Mickey Rooney, Stiller says: “I never thought I’d get a chance to work with the great Mickey Rooney – let alone be beat up by Mickey Rooney!”
Rooney, who began his career in the 1920s as an infant, has literally grown up with the movies. “When I came to Hollywood, there was almost nothing here,” he recalls. “I was right at the beginning of it and it’s been a thrill ever since.” Despite all the changes in motion picture production, Rooney remains most attracted to what he believes is the consistent heart and soul of movie-making – a great story – which is what drew him to NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. “I think we need more pictures like this,” he says. “Something the whole family can see that’s historic, clever and funny. There aren’t many pictures like this that can bring the whole family together in one entertainment.”
Rounding out the surprisingly treacherous trio is Bill Cobbs, a familiar face from countless film and television roles, in the role of Reginald. He loved having the chance to riff off Van Dyke and Rooney. “I’ve had a lot of good times in film, stage and television but this was one of those truly great experiences where you not only get to combine comedy, drama and improvisation but you get to watch masters come up with fantastic ideas,” he comments.
Cobbs especially enjoyed playing such a shady, and not even remotely geriatric, elderly character. “To have me, Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney playing the bad guys is very unlikely, so you’ve got the makings of something very funny right from that idea. We look like a bunch of harmless old men but we’re not -- and that’s what makes it so fun,” he sums up.
Screenwriters Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant were especially gratified by the casting of the old night guards. Says Lennon: “We were thrilled by this trio – it’s like a little time capsule of every funny actor since the Talkies began!”
THE MUSEUM’S RESIDENTS:
ROBIN WILLIAMS HEADS A CAST OF LARGER-THAN-LIFE CHARACTERS
Once the old night guards transfer their mantle to Larry Daley, he spends his first night at the museum – a night that proves wildly unforgettable as the wax, stone and stuffed exhibits that surround him in the dark roar to life. Amid the flying fur and chaos, Larry discovers some amazing people whose help he’ll need if he’s going to survive until morning.
Larry’s greatest guidance comes from no less than one of the most lauded Americans in history and a man who truly believed in the awesome inherent power of the “common man” – the 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.
To play Roosevelt, the filmmakers knew they would need someone who could hit all the big comic notes of the situation while still bringing out the colorful, inspirational personality of the real man. The person that came instantly to mind was Academy Award® winner and four-time Oscar® nominee Robin Williams, whose career has careened between unbridled comedy and intense dramatic portrayals. When offered the chance to play Roosevelt – who, like Williams, sported a wide-ranging interest in history, politics, science and nature – he could not pass it up.
“He was a larger-than-life figure in real life,” Williams says, “an extraordinary man and an outrageously independent person who basically fought for what he called ‘the little man.’ Reading about him established the idea that he was both a very ethical and charismatic person. It was a blast getting to inhabit that kind of persona.”
Like the rest of his cast-mates, Williams, who previously starred in the hit family fantasy Jumanji, couldn’t resist the imaginative concept of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. “Museums naturally lend themselves to the question of just what goes on in there at night and to have history come to life -- and confront you -- wow,” he says. “I love this kind of story that’s part fable and part grand adventure. I especially loved the dioramas coming to life because I collect miniatures and the idea of something on that scale coming alive is like ‘Yo, dude!’ And it’s great fun to have Neanderthals and Huns running around again – they’re always good for a party.”
Diving into research, Williams was increasingly fascinated by Roosevelt, and especially his untiring, “can-do” attitude, which he attempts to get across to Larry Daley. “His message to Larry is ‘you can do this, lad, and if you can bring order to this place, imagine what else you can do.’ He offers him that old but great idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Once on the set, Williams was fully in his element. “This whole thing for me was like Halloween,” he says. “One minute you’re with Tyrannosaurus Rex and then you see an Egyptian King go by and the next you have a crush on Sacajawea. It was just like time traveling.”
For Ben Stiller, working with Robin Williams made the fantasy all the more real, and all the funnier. “Robin Williams was really the only the person who could do this role because he’s so inimitable,” says Stiller. “He’s an iconic comedic fixture – which makes him sound like a faucet or something – but he’s also a real student of history so he was perfect to play Teddy Roosevelt. He brings the reality and soulfulness to this guy who, let’s face it, is really just a wax figure – and he’s also incredibly funny. In the end, Teddy becomes Larry’s true friend as he helps guide him through the museum and survive all the craziness.”
Also joining the museum's cast of characters, and reuniting with Ben Stiller after their comedic repartee in such films as Starsky and Hutch, The Royal Tenenbaums and Zoolander, is Owen Wilson in a literally miniature but rip-roaring role as the diorama cowboy, Jedediah. Just inches high, Jedediah nevertheless sports a rugged attitude and an outsized wit - and faces his own nightly battle with his museum neighbor, Octavius of the Roman Legion, played by British comic star Steve Coogan. Says Shawn Levy of the sparring duo: "To their credit, Steve and Owen came in with so much energy, and such a desire to really play and have fun with each other, that their characters became real highlights of the movie."
Other historical figures upon whom Larry Daley must rely in his quest to save the museum include Sacajawea, the famous Shoshone guide who played an invaluable role in Lewis & Clark’s historic expedition through the Pacific Northwest. In NIGHT AT THE MUSUEM, she uses her famed skills to help Larry get the out-of-control museum back in line. “She’s a tracker,” says rising young actress Mizuo Peck, who takes her first major Hollywood role in the film, “so she’s smart and resourceful and really, really good at finding things.”
Peck was especially thrilled to get a chance to trade flirtations with no less than Robin Williams, who plays Teddy Roosevelt, the fellow museum exhibit who catches Sacajawea’s eye. “I still can’t believe it,” she says. “In our very first scene together, Robin has to come up to me all awkward and shy and unable to talk. He was so sweet and vulnerable and tender, he made it so easy for me. I instantly felt comfortable with him. Really this movie was everything I’d ever dreamed about Hollywood magic – with all the giant sets, with sphinxes and wild animals running around, plus Robin Williams. It couldn’t have been more exciting.”
Also excited to explore the ancient past was Rami Malek, the young Egyptian actor currently seen on TV’s “The War at Home,” who portrays the Pharaoh Ahkmenrah, the Egyptian mummy and teenaged king who has been sleeping for centuries, just waiting for his chance to rule. Even Malek’s audition wasn’t run-of-the-mill – rather than simply read lines, he had to reveal his own creative techniques for emerging from a sarcophagus!
Malek especially enjoyed the cliché-busting portrait of an Egyptian king. “You expect this austere presence to come from a Pharaoh who is part of this big curse, but instead you get someone who comes out with all this youthful exuberance, who’s basically a teenager looking for a big adventure, so it’s a different take that’s really fresh and fun but still rooted in tradition,” says Malek.
One of the most troublesome of the museum’s exhibits isn’t human at all, although he is a primate – the diminutive capuchin monkey Dexter who wreaks mischief way out of proportion to his size. Dexter isn’t digital either – he’s played by a real-life capuchin monkey named Crystal who was trained by Mike Alexander and Tom Gunderson of Birds & Animals Unlimited. “Dexter is a very mischievous little monkey but Crystal is quite good-natured,” notes Alexander.
That was good news for Ben Stiller, who in one scene, has to endure Dexter biting his nose, a trick that required some rather delicate training. “It was important that Ben be completely comfortable with Crystal and that Crystal be comfortable with him before that scene – so we actually went to Ben’s house and brought Crystal with us so they could get to know each other. Lucky for everyone, Crystal liked him a lot,” Alexander says. “To be honest, she mostly saw him as a prop!”
While Larry Daley is dodging fanged animals and spear-wielding tribesman by night, by day he is fighting to keep his job – no easy feat considering he has a living nightmare of a boss: the ridiculously officious Dr. McPhee. Playing McPhee is one of the brightest comic stars from Britain, Ricky Gervais, who created and starred in the groundbreaking BBC series “The Office.”
Gervais was drawn to the character of Dr. McPhee because he’s exactly the kind of takes-himself-way-too-seriously character at which Gervais excels. “Here he is, in charge of this place of education but he’s not quite articulate or smart enough to cut the mustard,” Gervais explains. “He’s trying to run a tight ship and then he finds himself in a battle of wills with this lowly security guard who has mucked up everything and frustrates him to no end. There’s something very funny about a person in authority acting like a child!”
Especially fun for Gervais was the chance to trade barbs with Ben Stiller. “It’s been such a joy working with Ben and we have a really fun dynamic in that we kind of each subvert our roles,” he continues. “He’s supposed to be my subordinate and the kind of person who’s always getting into trouble and I’m the one in charge – but when it comes down to it, my character turns all bumbling and nervous, and Ben becomes the hero.”
Ben’s quest to get to the bottom of the museum’s mystery also leads him to grow closer to one of the museum’s most impassioned Docents – Rebecca Hutman, who is fervently researching a thesis on Sacajawea and is moved by Larry’s unexpected observations about how “alive” history seems to be in the museum. To play Rebecca, the filmmakers chose Carla Gugino, whose diverse career includes playing the mother of a family of underage spies in the popular Spy Kids series and was most recently seen in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. Says Levy of the choice: “Carla has a combination of intelligence, beauty and gravitas that was a great match for the role of Rebecca.”
Gugino couldn’t put the script down, she was so riveted by the fantastical storytelling. “To have a story like this one that celebrates history and brings the past and the present together in such a fun and exciting way was really unique,” she says. “I had that same gut feeling as with ‘Spy Kids’ that it had all the elements of a great, timeless story.”
Also joining the cast as Stiller’s son is newcomer Jake Cherry, who won the role after extensive auditions. Though he was thrilled to get the part, Cherry really started to get excited about what was ahead when he saw the sets for NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. “There were mummies and sarcophaguses and jackal guards and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he sums up.
Another cast member already had a very intimate relationship with Ben Stiller – a woman who is another legend in comedy history and Stiller’s real-life mother: Anne Meara. Meara plays the employment agent who sets Larry up with the museum job. Although Meara appeared in Reality Bites and Zoolander, it turns out this is the first time she and her son have ever had a scene together one-on-one. Says Stiller: “She’s so funny and so talented, it was great to finally work with her!”
Sums up Shawn Levy of the film’s entire cast: “This was a director’s dream – to have actors ranging from Ben Stiller to Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais to Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney, you just knew that each performance would stand out on its own and be exceptional. It was like a heavyweight bout of comic giants.”
BUILDING THE MUSEUM:
THE FILM’S DESIGN
When it came to NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM’s visual design, Shawn Levy knew he faced a task of an out-sized scale. As he puts it: “When you have all of history to draw from, that’s a pretty huge palette!” He began by assembling a crack team of artists led by Academy Award winning production designer Claude Paré and sought-after costume designer Renée April.
Their mission was nothing less than creating the interior of a world-class museum -- from scratch. While the film would use New York’s globally recognizable Natural History Museum for exteriors, there was no way the production could unleash the story’s mayhem within its halls lined with precious artifacts and priceless antiques. As Robin Williams notes: You don’t want to hear, you’ve just knocked over a 14th century divan that was Louis the Fourteenth’s!” So, the decision was made to create an unprecedented set of wonders on a giant soundstage at the appropriately named Mammoth Studios in Vancouver – one that would replicate a kind of “greatest hits” of the most riveting natural history exhibits in existence.
The job of forging Shawn Levy’s vision for the innards of the museum fell in large part to Claude Paré, who previously won an Oscar for the lavish, historical art design of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. He knew this project would be a dizzying change of pace –yet he couldn’t help but be excited by the gigantic challenge of it. “Usually a designer focuses on one or two periods, but with NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, there was a chance to touch on so many different kinds of design, from ancient Egyptian temples to Western Cowboy scenes, and to have fun with each of them,” says Paré.
Like an inspired curator, Paré put no limits on how far he could take things. “We did match the big arched windows at the museum in New York for continuity from exterior to interior,” Paré explains, “but other than that, from the moment you enter the revolving doors, you’re entirely in the environment we created for the film -- apart from the Ocean Life Hall, which is a digital composite of an exhibit at the New York Natural History Museum.”
For several weeks on end, the film’s set designers became temporary museum designers, creating individual exhibits that tell unique stories -- from Inuit fisherman surviving on the ice shelf to Neanderthals in their grotto attempting to make fire. “Each one of these exhibits had to be individually illustrated, planned, built and set within their own niche,” explains Paré. “At one point we had ten designers all working just on the plans for the various museum exhibits. The goal was to make each one completely believable so we paid extreme attention to detail.”
To keep up, the film’s construction shop ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, churning out statues, models and miniatures. Paré even had his team building pyramids for the Egyptian Hall, which was partly inspired by the beloved Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Though Egypt’s pyramids required the labor of about 30,000 people for each structure, Paré had to make do with a far smaller, but very resourceful, force. “Our goal was to ride the line between creating a colorful and fun temple-of-doom kind of set while also keeping the design authentic to what you would see in a museum,” he says.
Meanwhile, the team set about carving one of the film’s key statues: the famed sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt mounted upon a horse and waving his sword through the air, which had to be reconfigured to match the familiar silhouette of Robin Williams. To make sure the statue would look just like the character who comes to life at night, Williams had to pose in the position – meaning the famously hyperkinetic actor had to remain unusually still -- while being wrapped in plaster bandages to make the mold. Later, the mold was filled with fiberglass and given finishing touches that lend it the essence of Roosevelt in the shape of Williams.
Even as these larger-than-life objects were being built, a slew of skilled model makers was recruited for work in the opposite extreme: carving the painstaking miniatures for the museum’s mini-sized dioramas, which also come magically and robustly to life, turning Ben Stiller’s Larry Daley into a kind of trapped Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians.
“For the dioramas, first we had to research the subjects of each of the exhibits – from the Mayan culture to the history of the American railroad,” explains Paré. “Then, we really got into the precise measurements and layout of the Diorama room so we could figure out exactly how much space the models would need and then how much space would be needed for Ben to have interaction with all the little figurines,” recalls Paré. “The work required lots of patience and lots of care.”
While many of the film’s sets and props are spectacular in scope, one of Paré’s favorite elements of the design is actually one of the most subtle: the museum’s high gloss floor, which became key to NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM’s visual motif. “The floor might just be the most important part of the set,” comments Paré. “You get all these wonderful reflections from it which makes everything in the museum look more grand. And it was also quite useful for Ben Stiller sliding across it!”
As the cast began to arrive at the Mammoth Studios, they too were transfixed by what Paré and his team had accomplished. Comments Ricky Gervais: “Entering the set was a bit like walking into the most giant toy box in the world.”
Like Claude Paré, costume designer Renee April face the unusual task of designing costumes not just for one or two eras – but for periods throughout the whole of history, ranging from fur-covered Huns to loin cloth-sporting Mayans to armored Romans to uniformed Civil War soldiers, all the way to contemporary security guards. April, whose past work includes the upcoming action-adventure film Pathfinder and the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow as well as such celebrated period films as The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, was attracted by the chance to dive into one aspect of her job that she especially loves: historical research.
After several field trips to New York’s Natural History Museum, April was inspired. Part of what she hoped to accomplish was to not only match the diversity she found there, but to tie all the disparate costumes of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM together into one consistently comical big picture. “The challenge was to translate all those different period costumes so that they each play equally well in a comedy,” April explains. “I needed to keep a thread of veracity, but I also wanted to make everything bigger than life.”
One of the toughest costumes on April’s prodigious list was that of the Egyptian king Akhmenrah, as played by Rami Malek. “Because he’s a mummy, we had to create a costume that could be wrapped in cloth,” she remarks, “yet still give him all the splendor and the glory of a great Egyptian King with a full headdress and big, golden coat. That costume took a lot of work and many, many, many little beads.”
Another fun costume was that of Attila the Hun, of whom of course no pictures exist, so April was able to go a bit wild with her imagination. “We bought old blankets and lined them with fur and then we carved our own metal armor and those big, horse-hair helmets,” she says. “It might not be entirely accurate but it’s very colorful and definitely Hun-like.”
When it came to Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, historical accuracy was easier. “Roosevelt’s costume is probably the closest to historical reality because we pretty much know what he wore right down to the buttons,” says April. “Once we put all the pieces together and Robin tried them on, he was perfect.”
Key makeup effects supervisor Adrien Morot further enriched April’s designs, adding finishing touches to each character, including a waxy, translucent sheen to the faces of those playing living sculptures and facial prosthetics that transformed modern-day actors into Neanderthals and Huns. “In most films you’re trying to make things look more real. The interesting challenge with NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM was trying to take real actors and make them look like fake statues!” says Morot.
For Shawn Levy, watching these artisans morph a bare soundstage into the museum he had dreamed of when he first read the script was exhilarating. He says: “To see it all come to life was an incredible experience. It kind of gets you addicted to filmmaking on a such a large canvas.”
THE MUSEUM COMES ALIVE:
With the characters in the hands of legendary and rising comic stars and the museum’s elaborate sets being erected by dedicated craftsmen, there still remained that last bit of magic that would actually allow the Natural History Museum to take on life – in this case, not an ancient Egyptian spell but digital wizardry in the form of cutting-edge visual effects.
At first, Shawn Levy was nervous about the film’s intensive use of CG – especially because he’d never headed a production as digitally driven as this one. But he was heartened by the tremendous and highly experienced support he had behind him. “I got a lot of advice early on from Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, my fellow producers, who, of course, had worked on the Harry Potter franchise,” explains Levy. “They said not to worry about all the high-tech lingo. Rather, they said, the important part was to really know exactly how you want stuff to look in your head … and then let your team help with the how-to. So I took that to heart and spent a lot of time storyboarding because I felt that if I could clearly show my team what I wanted on the screen, they could figure out how to get it there!”
Levy also brought a fresh perspective to the effects, infusing them with comical improvisation. “Usually, people preParé for effects shots well in advance, but we did it in a completely unconventional way,” he explains. “Let’s say Ben was supposed to get hit by Tyrannosaurus Rex’s tail and go sliding across the floor in a scene – but on the day he did the scene, he decided instead ‘wouldn’t it be funny if instead I did a double back flip and landed on the staircase’ – well, you want the best idea to win. So as a result, we were constantly changing things and the visual effects team had to roll with that. They said it was by far the most improvisational effects movie they’d ever experienced. And I think that’s because Ben Stiller and I don’t really do effects movies. Everything we do is in the quest of the best joke or the best moment. To their credit, the whole team rallied behind that edict.”
To bring movement and life to the museum’s creatures and statues, Levy relied on the VFX Supervisor Jim Rygiel, (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects houses, Rhythm & Hues – which is renowned for its exceptional work in creating photo-realistic animals as seen recently in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Right off the bat, the challenges were literally big and muscular as Rhythm & Hues set about creating the lion that leaps out of the African Mammals hall and chases Larry Daley. “The jeopardy for Larry in these scenes hinges on the fact that the CG lion has to be a completely photo real animal,” says Dan Deleeuw, VFX Supervisor for Rhythm & Hues. “But working with realistic animals in CG is difficult because you don’t have the kind of fantasy environment that will let you get away with certain tricks. We used very original and careful staging in this sequence so that it really looks like the lion’s claws miss Larry by mere inches.”
Another big challenge for the VFX team came in working with the truly tiny – making diorama armies of just a few inches high look like photo-real Mayans, Romans and American Cowboys battling one another. “For the diorama armies, we created 89 base models which then became the basis for several hundred variations that were created in the computer,” Rygiel explains. “We used real actors, shot them in various action sequences, and then duplicated them in their exact actuality so that now, when you see the cowboys fighting the Romans across a whole diorama floor, there will be several hundred variants with individual characteristics.”
The dioramas sequences also presented potential problems of scale. “If you’re photographing something in the diorama world and the camera moves two feet, with the scale issue, when you photograph a human on the green screen to match it, you’re actually moving 48 feet. and suddenly you’re above the height of the ceiling on the sound stage! So a lot of planning had to go into the photography,” Deleeuw notes.
With the actors, designers and effects team all working hand in hand, the footage suddenly took on the mix of reality, comedy and enchantment that Shawn Levy had sought from the start. Sums up the director: “In the end, these guys literally were able to get the museum and everything that happens in it to look exactly how I dreamed of it all in my head.”