|Girl Next Door Director Luke Greenfield: Interview with a Hardcore Movie Nut
by Scott Weinberg
Yeah you guys WISH this was your 'Girl Next Door'!
After getting his start as a director for Adam Sandler's production company, 32-year-old director Luke Greenfield set his sights on something a lot more personal. He found some inspiration in a teen-sex-comedy script entitled "The Girl Next Door", and spent the next nine months turning a broad farce into something a lot more...substantial. During a recent publicity tour here in beautiful scenic Philadelphia, Luke was kind enough to sit down and chit-chat with one of his new movie's biggest fans: me.
Scott: I’ve heard a lot of good things about your short film, The Right Hook. How important is it for an aspiring director to produce a “calling-card” short film?
Luke: I think it's crucial. I think for any young director looking to "break in", a short film or an independent film is the way to go. Another alternative is the music video/commercial world. But commercials can be tricky because I think the most talented and successful people to come out of there are the storytellers, like a David Fincher or an Adrian Lyne. I think the guys who come out of music videos and commercials who are all "technical" and are more into beautiful images should probably stick with the videos. I think the movies speak for themselves. But it's a hard road because in order to be a director, it takes money, it takes people to help you. It's not like being an artist who could create something all by himself. It's a tough path, but if you can find any way possible to just get a great script; it could be a short film or an independent feature, just do whatever it takes to make that film.
Although it did well at the box office and has lots of fans, your first movie, The Animal, was not exactly what one would call a “critical darling”. How does an up-and-coming director feel about negative critical reaction? Do you read many of the reviews for your films?
For something like The Girl Next Door, because I was so hands-on from the very beginning, the reviews have been a lot of fun to read. I hear that Steven Spielberg never, ever reads the reviews; he completely ignores them and just moves on to the next project. But, y'know, I am very interested in what people have to say, but I don't have to agree with them. If they didn't get the movie, y'know, bygones. There's nothing I can do. I can't sit there and watch the film with them and explain why they maybe didn't "get" a certain something. For the most part, as long as I'm happy, as long as I know I did the best film I could, which is definitely the case with The Girl Next Door... Whether you love it or hate it, that's me on the screen and I'm real proud of it.
The Girl Next Door was an original screenplay by the writing team of Brent Goldberg (Van Wilder) and David T. Wagner (My Baby's Daddy). Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith) was brought in to re-work some of the screenplay in its formative stage. Can you describe the evolution of the screenplay from early draft to finished product?
It was a very, very tricky script because we're playing with a volatile tone. There was an original script entitled "The Girl Next Door", written by Brent Goldberg and David Wagner, who are known around Hollywood for doing broad comedy, and they're very good at that. They came up with the concept of the kid who falls in love with the adult film star who lives next door, but the tone of it was a very broad, sometimes tawdry, sex comedy for teens. We loved the concept, and Chris McKenna and I were hired to do a re-write on the script. What we did is we grounded it in reality. Jim Brooks is one of my ultimate heroes, and that's the level I always try to strive for, although that's virtually an impossible level of excellence to achieve. Later, we brought on Stuart Blumberg. He and I continued for another nine or ten months trying to get the script where we wanted it to be. They always say that the best writing is re-writing and adding layers to the characters. The story was very high-octane and we wanted to make a "wild ride movie". We didn't set out to make a "teen comedy". When people come out of the theater and I talk to the audiences, they seem pleasantly surprised because of their early expectations.
One of the most outstanding components of The Girl Next Door is its soundtrack. This is not some haphazard collection of rock tunes culled together just to sell a soundtrack CD. The songs in this film really do complement the plot and raise the emotional stakes. Explain the process of choosing the appropriate music for a comedy like this, and what’s your favorite tune in the movie?
Music is so...SO...crucial to me as a filmmaker, and when we were writing the script, the way I write is to listen to my music and feel certain moods, and I try to make the audience feel that "chill". Like when the hair stands up on your arm and you get a shiver down your back. The music and the mood of the scene gives you this feeling, it creates a moment that you might never forget. The best examples for me would be Scorsese's Goodfellas and a lot of the early Oliver Stone movies like Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. I loved the music in Good Will Hunting and Election. It's just so important for me to make people feel the "chill" and to use music to capture a mood in which you can really feel what the characters feel and you're in their shoes...and you're "with" the movie. It can make it more than just a movie; it can be a real experience that maybe you'll never forget.
And you really did pull it off. There's at least four of five moments in the film where you'll go 'Aww, yeah. Perfect tune and perfect tone for this scene.' It feels great.
Thank you so much! Y'know, that's the reason you make movies. I love doing those "chills". A lot of times I feel them in trailers!
You'll see a fantastic theatrical trailer and you get this chill and it's "Wow. Jeez, I can't wait to see that movie!"
Couldn't agree more. Going back to something the guys wanna know: Elisha Cuthbert is both achingly beautiful and exceedingly sexy in Girl. Did you ever wonder how far you should “push it” with her character’s sexuality? Was the movie ever on the lookout for a PG-13 rating?
Yeah, to start with the second part of the question: the studio, any studio, is looking to minimize their financial risk and PG-13 is quite often the way to go, but we just never wanted to make a PG-13 movie - strictly because of the content. We didn't want it watered-down; we wanted to keep it more "real". And the studio agreed in the end, and we set out to make an R-rated movie. As far as working with Elisha, she was very concerned about keeping it tasteful, so we both agreed to try and make it as sexy and as seductive as we could. She totally understood that Danielle, the character she plays, is an ex-adult film star, and we wanted to make it really mysterious, really seductive, in ways that work. You'll find yourself watching the movie and you'll feel yourself looking through the window, watching her undress, and you'll feel like you're there. The sense of reality that's there is much more seductive than any over-the-top stuff. I still have friends in their late 20s and early 30s who think the Victoria's Secret catalog is the most seductive thing in the world.
Can't really argue there! Based on the work of only three movies (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The Emperor's Club and now The Girl Next Door), I’m now convinced that Emile Hirsch is poised to become one of America’s most admired young actors. Your thoughts on his evolution over the past few years?
Oh yeah, he really is amazing. He was only 17 when he filmed the movie, and the kid is so sharp. Y'know, he wants to be a great actor. He does not want to be a movie star or a "celebrity". He's been studying his hero, Marlon Brando; he loves Edward Norton. He just wants to do great roles and he is his own most important critic. He turns a lot of roles down; he turned US down about seven times! He hadn't read the script, but knew the original draft was a broad comedy and wanted nothing to do with it. So I wrote him a letter saying "You gotta meet me. You gotta listen to the movie I really want to make." He sat down with me and we spoke for hours about Brando and De Niro and by the time he finished with the script, he was shocked. He said "I had no idea you wanted to make this kind of movie!" I said "That's what I'm going to do," and he signed on right away! The honest-to-God truth is: I was not going to make the movie without him. I made that very clear to the studio and to producer Charles Gordon. Emile has the rare talent of being very, very honest and very real. It's something that's tough to find. He carries the movie.
Your supporting cast is quite excellent. Timothy Olyphant (Go) steals several scenes with his cocky charm, James Remar (48 Hrs.) is sleazy good fun, and it’s always great to see Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) onscreen. Besides the fact that they’re all fine actors, what made you choose these three?
Timmy...is the greatest guy in the world. I'd watched Go several times; Tim plays the menacing drug dealer. I'd spoken with him on the phone while we were working on the script, and he was very intrigued by the character. You gotta see some of his 'behind-the-scenes' moments (which will be included on the DVD) because Tim's just so warm and such a funny guy. He literally is one of those guys who could be in Swingers, and it's funny because once Tim takes off his smile, he has these piercing, menacing eyes. We wanted his role of Kelly, who is the "villain" in the movie, to come off in the beginning like a good guy. He's the older brother that [Emile's character] Matthew never had, and he's trying to give Matthew confidence in high school. He's not any sort of "black and white" bad guy.
James Remar is the man. I loved him in 48 Hrs. Our producer, Chuck Gordon, produced 48 Hrs. so he was very good friends with him. During the casting process, Chuck said "Know what? How about Jamie Remar?" I'm thinking about this tough, evil guy from 48 Hrs., but then he came in to the casting room, and he's this really hilarious guy. He was perfect. Most people probably know him well from his character on Sex & the City. He's a pro who loves his craft and loves having fun...and he's an improv master.
Timmy Bottoms is also a huge pro. To have a veteran actor like that on the set and in the movie... Miraculously, Tim Bottoms came to us. We had an incredible casting director, Mali Finn, and she brought him in immediately and he was perfect. We were sincerely lucky to have him.
Was there a lot of improvisation on the set?
Yeah! I totally encourage that. Obviously I believe in going to the set with the best script possible, so that you're not making the movie up as you go along...but I love doing a lot of rehearsals and getting the actors really into their roles so that sometimes they can ignore the dialogue and just be their characters. If you have great actors, the best stuff on the set is inspiration and spontaneity. And these guys did what they do best, which is being in character and just running with it.
Whereas most teen-sex comedies possess a certain degree of classlessness, The Girl Next Door seems intent on presenting teenage sexuality as something normal and even fairly wholesome. Was that something you specifically tried to get across?
I wanted to keep it "real". I wanted to keep it earnest. I really wanted to show the reality of infatuation and the reality of virginity... There's a love scene in the movie where our kid loses his virginity and the "adult film star" is making love for the first time. The original scene was a lot longer, and I think we cut it down because it was almost TOO "real". It was extremely sensual and it felt like watching 'raw innocence' on the screen...and it might have gotten just a little bit uncomfortable.
Early buzz on The Girl Next Door calls the movie reminiscent of Risky Business, Clueless, and the original American Pie. Do you think these are accurate comparisons, and how do you feel about your movie being held up to these well-admired comedies?
I think that's the greatest compliment in the world. To be compared to a brilliant film like Risky Business... The writer/director, Paul Brickman, is a genius; his movie Men Don't Leave is incredible and to be compared to a movie like Risky Business...it's all I could ever ask for. And that was the 'vibe' we were definitely going for: the tone of Risky Business combined with another movie that was a huge influence on me as a kid: Jonathan Demme's brilliant Something Wild.
I’ve been burned by the teen-sex farce over and over. Eurotrip, Slackers, Van Wilder, Sorority Boys, etc. What would you say to someone tempted to dismiss The Girl Next Door as just another leering raunch-fest?
I honestly don't think we're a "Teen Sex Comedy". Currently, we're working on some changes on the marketing end. It's very hard, in a 30-second TV commercial, to present to America what the tone of this movie is. We are not a "teen comedy", we are not a "broad comedy". We're about a kid on a wild journey, but hopefully still a realistic one.
Did you have any input in the marketing of the movie? Are you happy with the trailers and TV ads that Fox has come up with?
In the beginning, I did not. There are people who are experts in marketing, and Fox is a genius at stuff like that. I think that is a fairly challenging movie to market. It covers a broad spectrum. They want to aim 14 to 40 in age range. Even if the kids aged 14 to 25 are gonna love it, we think the movie's got something for everyone. We've been pleasantly surprised with how well the movie has been tracking with women!
As far as the trailers and TV ads, we are definitely going to be making a few new changes. We are going to take a different approach to it, and kind of hone in more on the tone of the actual movie. We are in the process of cutting new spots.
Obviously I'm jumping the gun a little bit here, but what can you share about the movie's eventual DVD release?
We're just finishing it up right now, and it's going to be chock-full of material. There'll be an 'uncut' version of the movie, my short film The Right Hook, will be included as an extra feature. There are many deleted scenes, there's a huge outtake reel. Most importantly, we take a character from the movie, Eli's character, who wants to be an up-and-coming adult film director, and we actually bring him to the real Adult Film Convention in Las Vegas. We have him holding real auditions for his various, er, projects. [Laughs.]
So we're looking at a full-blown Special Edition from Fox Home Video!
Oh yeah. I hope to make it an incredible DVD.
Aside from a healthy amount of belly laughs, what is it that you hope moviegoers ‘get’ from The Girl Next Door?
That life is a journey and not a destination...to quote Aerosmith. Don't live with blinders on. Take a chance, take a risk. If the juice is worth the squeeze...go for it! That's what life is all about. Don't let your fears stop you.
To be totally honest, I think you have a big hit on your hands. But what’s next on your plate?
Thanks, man. I just started a company and right now we're working on a bunch of things at the same time because...in this business you never know what actors will be available when. But my next 'passion project' is a movie currently known as "Untitled Destiny Project". I hope it will be a combination between a Steven Spielberg movie and a Jim Brooks movie, and it's about a guy who can see his own future. I'm working on it now with another writer.
That sounds more than a little compelling. You seem to be a guy with more on your agenda that just a Rob Schneider sequel.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but The Animal was a great opportunity. I was the luckiest 28-year-old alive. Although it's the first project I've ever worked on where I didn't contribute as a writer, I couldn't have done it with better people. Adam Sandler is one of the greatest guys I've ever met. But again, it's not something I had any input on until I was hired as director, so it was a very challenging project for me.
So your goal would be to mainly work on movies that you've written or co-written?
Not necessarily. It's hard, but if a great script comes my way, I'll jump all over it. I remember when I was in film school, I read a script that knocked me out of my seat, and it was the very first draft of a movie called The Truman Show, which was incredibly different from the movie. I'm telling you...as I read that script my hands were shaking. All I could think was 'whoever is lucky enough to make this movie...it's a gift from God'.
I know you had a screening last night for a capacity crowd full of college students. How was the reaction?
It was huge!
How does it feel when you're sitting in the back of the theater and the audience is laughing at the jokes that you tweaked eleven times so they'd be perfect?
It is the main reason I make movies. There's nothing more enjoyable than sitting in a packed theater in the dead-middle row and just hearing the audience enjoy your movie. There's just no better feeling in the world.
And that's it between me and the very cool Mr. Greenfield. The Girl Next Door opens wide on April 9th, and I for one think it's a damn fine movie. Check it out for yourself!
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1020
originally posted: 02/27/04 05:02:31
last updated: 09/23/05 14:11:31