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Kevin Arnold Directs!: An Interview with Fred Savage

by Brian Orndorf

The former “Wonder Years” star and veteran television director Fred Savage takes a massive leap from the small to the big screen with his feature-film directing debut, “Daddy Day Camp.” The semi-sequel to 2003’s “Daddy Day Care” replaces Eddie Murphy and Jeff Garlin with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Paul Rae, but the madcap tone is still firmly in place.

Recently, Savage paid a visit to Scottsdale, Arizona to talk about the making of his new film and the challenges that ensued.

Q: “Daddy Day Camp” is a sequel and it isn’t. What were the challenges of following an Eddie Murphy blockbuster without Eddie Murphy?

Savage: Well, I think it really represented the best of both worlds for me. I think we were able to be apart of the “Daddy Day Care” brand. It’s an incredibly successful movie that kids love and parents trusted and knew it was a good movie, a wholesome movie, for families and kids. We have that going for us, which is great. But at the same time, using the same characters and the same kind of background but with a new cast, it allowed us to make our own movie. So you get all the benefits of the first film, with people being familiar with it – they know the characters, they know the brand – we can piggyback off the first one. Because the kids are older now in “Camp,” we could kind of make our own movie.

Cuba certainly isn’t trying to do an Eddie Murphy impression and I’m not trying to do a Steve Carr impersonation. We really sat down and made our own film. We were similar enough in the brand but different enough because we had our own people. So, it freed us up creatively to make our own movie.

You mention “Eddie Murphy movie without Eddie Murphy,” and it’s not like we got some guy off the street. We have Cuba Gooding Jr., who audiences love, who’s a hilarious and terrific comedian, and an Academy-Award winning actor. I think we did great.

Q: Was Murphy ever attached to the project?

Savage: When I came aboard, Cuba was already on.

Q: How did your extensive career as a child actor help you to direct this film?

Savage: It was good preparation. I felt really well prepared. I started directing on the Disney Channel, I did a lot of work there and over at Nickelodeon, and even though I’ve expanded beyond there since then I still go back. I love working with young actors. I just think there’s no other actor that brings such a freshness and a unique approach to work than young actors.

And I love working in comedy. I love gags, goofs, and stunts. Making people laugh. It was a niche I fell into during my television directing, so when this came across my desk I read it and really responded to it. It was the mindset I was in. I felt I knew the tone, I knew the audience. I’d been working in kids’ television for so long I felt comfortable transitioning from that.

Q: Were there any summer camp films that inspired “Daddy Day Camp?”

Savage: There were a lot of movies I was watching while I was prepping and shooting the movie. It wasn’t all camp movies. I was looking at family movies that worked. Things that entertained kids but also has an emotional core. I didn’t want to make just this silly, goofy movie. It was important to me that there be this real foundation to it, and for me this movie was about families. About what a father will do to forge a closer relationship with his son. I watched the Nancy Meyers “Parent Trap” a ton, “Home Alone,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and “School of Rock.”

I watched movies that I felt were really good at three things: being funny, servicing a large group of kids but still keeping them individuals. There were many large, ensemble casts where the kids all blend into each other. I wanted to keep each personality unique. Each kid has their mini-arc in the movie, so I wanted kids who were distinguishable.

Finally, I wanted to straddle that line between kid hijinks and a more heartfelt undertone. Those were the kind of movies I gravitated towards.

Q: Where did you find Paul Rae?

Savage: Paul Rae was a guy we auditioned in L.A., he was someone who came in and gave, by far, the best read of anyone. We saw him on tape and loved him, met him in person and he cracked us up. He was just from casting.

Q: Did you attend summer camp as a child?

Savage: Oh yeah, absolutely. I went to summer camp from when I was five or six to, probably, ten. Day camp. I wasn’t a sleepaway camp guy. Day camps, like the ones we show. I drew from that, and from a camp I went to outside of Chicago, that’s where I grew up, called Tamarack, and their colors are yellow, green, and white, which I used for the Camp Driftwood colors. So that was a nod to my summer camp experiences.

Q: Bodily-function humor is such a big part of both “Day Camp” and “Day Care,” is that a studio mandate, or do you find it just a surefire way to engage family audiences?

Savage: No, it definitely wasn’t a studio-mandated thing. As a matter of fact, when I came in there was a script already and with the studio we took out a lot of stuff. If you lean on it too much, it’s way to get some laughs, but at the same time, it’s funny. I think it’s funny.

One of it comes from a character trait, you know, Mayhoffer, the kid that vomits, that’s his character trait. I think we have a fart. There used to be a lot more and we got it down to one in the movie. There’s peeing, belching…

Q: All the good stuff.

Savage: Yeah, all the good stuff, but I think, with the exception of the vomiting, we tried to keep it to a minimum, but at the same time, it’s funny. I don’t care what you say, but if a guy slips on a banana peel you’re gonna laugh. As easy as that might be, as easy as that is. I tried to do what I thought was funny, but also you want to appeal to your audience. I thought that was funny when I was eight, and I think eight year-olds still do today.

Q: Directorially, you’ve spent a lot of time in the family entertainment trenches. Do you have any desire to move on to more adult fare?

Savage: I’m actually zigzagging back and forth. The next thing that you can see that I shot, I directed “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the show for FX, which is very adult humor, very off-color. A real brash, bold sense of comedy in that show for sure. The third season starts next month.

There’s definitely two sides that I can bounce back and forth from. As I look forward to my feature-film directing career, I look at the career of someone like Chris Columbus, who started in kids’ fare, who makes warm, heartfelt comedies that appeal to a broad audience. You look at a career like that, or Shawn Levy, guys who made comedies that families can go and enjoy together. Those are the careers I look at and those are the kinds of movies I want to make.

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originally posted: 08/08/07 07:48:44
last updated: 08/08/07 08:01:21
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