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An Interview with Tim McCanlies

We chat with the writer/director of Secondhand Lions.


By Ken P

February 6, 2004

2004 www.filmforce.ign.com. All rights reserved.

Be sure to read the excellent original article.

   

For years, writer Tim McCanlies worked steadily within the studio system, cranking out scripts he felt little attachment to besides as a source of income. One day, he snapped, and the Texas native wrote a script he called Secondhand Lions – a coming-of-age tale about a boy who goes to live with his ornery uncles on their Texas ranch, where he soon becomes enthralled by their storied past.

That was over 10 years ago.

The film could have been made many times over, but McCanlies insisted on one thing – he wanted to direct the film as well. Naturally, that became a bit of a stumbling block. He continued to write scripts (The Iron Giant) and develop projects (the concept for Smallville was his, but quickly became a legal matter that was settled with non-disclosure agreements all around), and bided his time until someone finally let him make Lions. In order to help convince a studio that he was capable, he wrote and directed the small film Dancer, Texas Pop. 81.

Eventually, he was able to convince New Line that he was the man to make Secondhand Lions, with a cast that included Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Haley Joel Osment . Released last fall, the film was a modest success at the box office and garnered positive reviews from critics.

The film recently made its way to DVD via a deluxe special edition, and we had a chance to talk with Tim about the process and the dedication that brought it to the screen.

 

IGN FILMFORCE: What is it about the concept of Secondhand Lions that made you stick to the script to the point where they had no choice but to let you direct it? Most working screenwriters would eventually say, "Cripes, the money's too good – here, take it!"

TIM McCANLIES: Yeah. Well, it's sort of a combination of things. I was sort of "action film guy" about ten years ago, and I got really tired of that, and I realized that that wasn't what I came to be a writer for in the first place – so I wrote this script really from the heart, dealing with issues that are personal to me. At that point I hadn't directed before, so I sort of reluctantly allowed other studios to kind of run with it and attach directors, but I retained director approval, which is sort of unheard of. I just met with so many directors that got certain things but didn't get the rest of it – and I've discovered this with other scripts I've written that people have directed, that I put a lot of layers in the scripts, and a lot of times these directors would maybe only get the top 2 or something, and there's usually a lot more to it that's maybe subtext or not on the surface that just somehow went by the wayside. There's a lot of talented directors out there who could maybe deliver more than what's on the page onto the screen…

IGNFF: They decide they have layers of their own they want to introduce…

McCANLIES: Yeah, well that's true, too. Sometimes certain directors have certain strengths, and they always try to take a script in a certain direction that will play to their strengths, and that's another thing. They try to make it their own. But I knew, while there were certainly talented directors out there, I could at least deliver what was on the page, and I just felt like most directors couldn't – because I put those words on the page! So at the end of the day, I make enough as a screenwriter that I could just afford to say, "Nobody's going to get this script unless I'm going to direct it." There are a lot of other lesser reasons, but…

IGNFF: What are the lesser reasons?

McCANLIES: Well, the fact that this wasn't a comedy, and it would have been real easy for someone to make it Cheaper by the Dozen or "Two Crazy Old Men with a Kid." You know what I mean? And just try to go for the gags…

IGNFF: Eddie Murphy and Bernie Mac in Secondhand Lions …

McCANLIES: Yeah! Yeah… Absolutely. In fact, Warners one time said, "Let's get Lemmon and Matthau! They're so good, and we'll get them in this…" They really did, and they were trying to find a way to make it into Grumpy Old Men 3. I kept telling them, "This is not a comedy – this is a drama. It's just got comedy in it, but these guys are playing it for real." It's a very Texan sort of humor… A very dry sort of – you may say outrageous things, but you say it with a straight face.

IGNFF: The film very much reminded me of those classic Disney films, when you go back to Pollyanna and Old Yeller …

McCANLIES: Oh, sure!

IGNFF: It's not straight comedy, it's not straight drama – it's this unique mix…


McCANLIES: And they had dark sides – as I recall, Pollyanna, like, dies…

IGNFF: I think she broke her legs…

McCANLIES: Yeah, that's right… There's really darkness to a lot of that. All the great stuff, going back to Grimm fairy tales, has really dark edges to it, and that's what gives it depth, I think. And that's what I shoot for.

IGNFF: And it's a hard genre to crack – I think the last person who was able to do it was Terry Gilliam, with Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits before that…

McCANLIES: That's true! Which is a great film… One of my favorites.

IGNFF: At what point did you realize you had hit the wall as the "action script guy"? Was it a revelation you woke up with one day?

McCANLIES: It was a slow revelation. You know, at a certain point action films just become like a problem on the math board – every 10 or 15 minutes you have to have this. They're just like a physics problem – you just kind of work them out. They're almost by the numbers, and I just felt that really good storytelling should be surprising. Any kind of plot-driven movie, to me the characters are never very rich because the characters have to sometimes zigzag and do things that no real person would do in order to get from Point A to Point B in the plot. You know what I mean?

IGNFF: Was it hard to make that decision? Because obviously you could go on and make a wonderful, lucrative career out of continuing to churn those scripts out…

McCANLIES: Well, that's true, but that's not what I became a writer for…

IGNFF: But that's what Hollywood looks for…

McCANLIES: Well, I know! And I always feel like I'm going upstream sometimes. Like, for instance, there's this one manager I know that will make every writer stick to a certain genre – that you'll have a better career if you're known as a "horror guy." And there's a lot of truth to that – that you get known for doing a certain thing, so you're the go-to guy for horror, or whatever. But I'm uncomfortable with that.

IGNFF: Hollywood doesn't like an irregular-sized box…

McCANLIES: Yeah. And so I realized, when this movie came out, that there would be some critics… There's no template for this movie. When it's a horror film, you can always measure it against the last 10 horror films. Does it scare you more? The next Cheaper by the Dozen, you can measure it against the last 3 or 4 Steve Martin films, and are there less laughs or more laughs? There's sort of a formula for even judging a film, and mine – is it a comedy? Is it a drama? I think it puzzles some people, in some ways.

IGNFF: Was there ever a point where you gave up hope of ever getting it done?

McCANLIES: Some days, I would have. Other days I felt pretty optimistic. It was always a well thought-of script around town. And on some days, when there'd be a perfectly awful thing that happened to me in Hollywood and they'd screw up something of mine, this script was like a life preserver. I would say, "Well, at least they'll never screw up that one." Because I wouldn't let them have it! So in some ways it was almost like a life preserver for me, because I had it there, it was untrammeled and un-stepped on. Of course, the script is always like Woody Allen talks about – you start out and the idea is 100%, and then you script it and it's 90%… There's budget limitations and all that…

IGNFF: How many rewrites did the script go through?

McCANLIES: You know, it really didn't go through that many. I went through probably 4 or 5 – polishes would probably be the best term. And the best thing that happened – and this was back 10 years ago when I first started writing it – probably the best thing that happened was that the big scene with Haley and Robert Duvall out on the lake, where he asks him what happened to Jasmine and Robert Duvall opens up to him for the first time, that was sort of the big scene that wasn't there. The rest of the script was pretty much there, but that scene sort of brings a lot of things together for it. To New Line's credit, when they read the script a couple of years ago – it's almost 2 years to the day here – they first read the script and they said, "We love it, we don't have any changes, we're not going to screw with the script at all." You can count the times that's happened on one hand!

IGNFF: So you were ready to wake up at that point…

McCANLIES: Yeah! And as one imagines, over the next weeks or two, they do come up with ideas. And I was waiting for that… I was like, "Eventually, they're gonna – they're not going to quit thinking." Especially when it came to budget scenarios, they were saying, "Do you need five dogs? How about one dog…"

IGNFF: "Isn't two brothers kind of redundant?"

McCANLIES: Yeah! Right! "Can you do just one brother?" So that kind of thing. You start finding it in those terms. And it is a balancing act, because every movie doesn't get as much money as it can or should have, and so you have to sort of juggle things. I mean, I would have loved to have gone to Spain or Morocco to have shot the fantasy stuff, but we had to shoot it in Austin, Texas with no money – but I think we pulled it off pretty well.

IGNFF: With what you encountered during production, do you think you could have handled things as well as you did had you not had the prior experience of shooting Dancer, Texas?

McCANLIES: That's really a good question. I think probably not. It was great to feel like "you know where to yell action and where to yell cut" – which is really valuable – and I knew how to cover a scene, so it was great to have that experience. Plus, I think a lot of it is too that there's a lot of skepticism of a first-time director, and so on this one I wasn't a first-time director. Even if you see a first-time director who knows what he really wants and knows how to get it, everyone sort of goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah – well let me tell you how we do it here in Hollywood, kid." So I encountered that a lot on my first one – that even though I knew what I wanted, I still encountered resistance, because "I've shot 20 movies!" On this one, it was just assumed that I knew what I was talking about, which was just a big blessing.

IGNFF: Internally, do you think there would have been a confidence issue that you got out of the way by having a film under your belt?

McCANLIES: Yeah, I think so. And I hadn't really dealt with actors until my first one, which really helped. In fact, the studio would not have given me the money to do this money had I not done one before. In fact, they were intrigued, but they took a hard look at my first movie, Dancer, Texas, and saw it and said, "Okay, he can do it."

IGNFF: And Dancer was a calculated move to that effect, right?

McCANLIES: Yeah. Absolutely. That's why I did it – to show that I could do it.

IGNFF: Was there ever a point where they approached you with a package that was almost good enough where you would have parted with the script?

McCANLIES: You mean over the years?

IGNFF: Yeah…

McCANLIES: There were a few times where they'd come to me and they'd go, "Well, what if we got so-and-so, and what if we got such-and-such?" And I'd go, "Ehh, I'm not really interested." Especially after it looked like I was going to do Dancer, I took this script off the market and never really put it back on the market. Now, when I had my first meeting with New Line – I'd met with other people, but I came in to meet with Toby Emmerich, who's head of production. And everybody said, "Okay now, Tim, you have to go in and you have to really wow Toby. They really like the script, but they're not sure about you, and so you really have to show them that you're a director and you really have to wow Toby." So basically I go in and everybody's just puckered up, because it's all riding on me wowing Toby. In fact, on the DVD there's a 26-minute documentary on sort of how the script got made, and they interviewed a couple of my producers who went to the meeting with me, and they're talking about how scared they were – and I had no idea they were scared! I wasn't scared. But they were like, "Yeah, I was really scared. Tim's a writer and he's a nice guy, but he's got to act like a director." And I thought, "Oh my god, I had no idea you guys were that nervous!"

IGNFF: Well, Toby is a writer himself…

McCANLIES: Yes, and so I knew that I could talk to him writer-to-writer and he would know the language. So I sat down with Toby, and sort of in the first shot it was what I was expecting, and what you were asking, his first shot was, "What if I was to tell you that we love this movie, we want to make the movie, but we're not sure that you're the right director for it and we want to go with really a big name director?" And so my answer was, "Well, I would say no, because this is my movie, I'm going to get my movie made, and the only question is whether I'm going to make it here at New Line or somewhere else." And so Toby started asking me sort-of "director" questions – things that the director should have the answer to, and all of which I knew. I'd been piddling with this script over 10 years, and I knew where every comma was, where every shot was going to be, and so I'd start in on the answer and Toby would go, "Okay, okay, okay…" and then he'd start on the next question. So he wasn't even so concerned with what the answer was, or wanted to hear what the answer was and see if that was the right answer – he just wanted to know that I had an answer, and after a few sentences he'd know that answer was fine. Basically – I wouldn't say it was 20 questions because it was about 100 questions – but they were all rattled off, all of which I'd jump to answer and then didn't even finish the answer before here came the next question.

IGNFF: So he was just feeling you out…

McCANLIES: Yeah, basically. I don't know if he was trying to rattle me, but he basically put me through a little bit of a ringer, I think. And at the end of it, he stood up and said, "Okay, let's make the movie…" And I said, "Okay!" That's what I came in there to do, so my heart rate never went up… John Glenn on Freedom VII – his heart rate never went up because that's what he had practiced and trained for his whole life. So I was never concerned. My two producers like almost fell apart once they got out of the meeting! I was like, "Why, were you worried?" And they were like, "No, no, no…"

IGNFF: No producer would ever admit it…

McCANLIES: Nope, uh-uh.

IGNFF: How much of your persistence and perseverance in trying to get this project going owed to your experiences over the years?

McCANLIES: A lot of it did. I kind of feel like I'm a writer by nature and a director by self-defense. Certainly there's a lot of that – to not want it to get out of your hands because, again, I've seen projects of mine directed by other people, and they start off with bad casting and just go downhill from there. At least I know I can deliver what's on the page up on the screen – which is more than I can trust most directors to do with my stuff. That's a lot of it. I feel like it's so hard to get a movie made, but I know what's important and what's not important, and I can prioritize.

IGNFF: And I'm sure it's also having that personal investment, and knowing that whether it succeeds or fails, it was completely yours…

McCANLIES: Sure. And I think that travels down the line to the cast and the crew, too, because when Bobby and Michael came on board, they loved the script, and the fact that I'm the writer meant a lot to them – do you know what I mean? That it was my project, that it was my personal thing, and so to them it was more than just a paycheck. And I think it's that way across the crew as well.

IGNFF: Was it a blow, at the time, when Tommy Lee Jones dropped out?

McCANLIES: Yes and no. I mean, I felt like I was going to get the movie made. We always had a concern with New Line whether the money would work out, because Tommy's like a big, $15 million movie guy. And that was my below the line! So there was always concern whether that would work out. I really enjoyed meeting him, but I think we ended up with a perfect cast.

IGNFF: And I know Michael Caine was thrilled just with the acting challenge of adopting the accent…

McCANLIES: Yeah, well, thrilled and a bit scared at the same time. I put him with a real Texan rather than with one of these L.A. guru accent guys, I put him with a real guy who's a friend of mine, who's in Dancer, Texas, who's the real thing and who's got a great accent, and I think that went a long way to really getting him there in a real way with just enough of the music of the Texas accent – but still make him sound like Michael Caine. It didn't sound like somebody doing a horsestuff accent. As big a challenge, if not a bigger challenge, were these storytelling sequences where Michael – you know, it's not just a guy narrating. And I told him up front I was going to shoot these scenes where he's telling Walter these stories, you know – I was going to shoot them. It wouldn't be that I was going to do these on the dub stage. I was going to shoot the whole scene, so I'd have three minutes of Michael talking, telling the whole story. Because for one, you never know when you're going to get something golden, so you'll come back to Michael for that moment. Whereas if you don't shoot that, you'd be off on the fantasy sequences, because on most of the fantasy sequences you hear Michael but you see the fantasy stuff. But two – and Michael wasn't sure about this, and I finally had to show it to him – that even when an actor's reading and trying to give a performance on it, when you're reading you're reading. And when you're acting it, you're acting it. It's so different when you're telling a story to a kid or when you're reading it off a page. Even if you try to make the reading of it sound like you're performing it…

IGNFF: There's still an artificiality to it…

McCANLIES: Yeah. There's a real different rhythm to it. It just doesn't sound like somebody telling it to you.

IGNFF: When you talk about the fact that it was a small budget and yet an ambitious script, how painful was the process of having to evaluate the script as a director with a limited budget, and make alterations and deletions based on that?

McCANLIES: Well, it was painful, but the guts of the movie are still these three people, and that's the one place where we had the best money could buy. I was really lucky in that way, so at the end of the day you sort of realize it would have been nice to have this, it would have been nice to have that… A lot of these are on the DVD, stuff that we shot. It's funny – I went in with a 105-page script, but I still ended up with an over 2-hour cut, because actors just do great things and you want to stay on them. That was probably the hardest thing – cutting it down to 100-minutes, just because of pace. And, of course, a lot of that's on the DVD. It might have been interesting to do a longer DVD version if there was the appetite for that… I don't know if there is. Certainly with The Lord of the Rings, I prefer watching the longer version.

IGNFF: Just for the added nuances…

McCANLIES: Yeah. And sometimes the longer versions of a movie seem shorter… It's a weird thing. Because things take a more natural pace sometimes. And I think watching it at home on DVD is a different experience to watching it in the theater for people, too.

IGNFF: Are we ever going to get a book with Berkeley Breathed's drawings for the film?

McCANLIES: We are! You know he's doing Opus again, right? What's going to happen is that he's going to – in 2 or 3 years when he has enough of those cartoons – he's going to come out with a book, and it's going to have all of the other drawings in it.... All the ones that he did for my movie, in that book.

IGNFF: Wasn't there some talk at one point of putting out a script book?

McCANLIES: They did a novelization, which I was not thrilled with the idea of, because these tend to be pretty slavish, by-the-numbers kinds of things. I said, "Look, people love the screenplay – the screenplay is very readable. Let's just publish the screenplay." But for several reasons, they didn't want to do that. For a family film, I guess they wanted the kid audience.

IGNFF: That's unfortunate…

McCANLIES: Yeah. It would have been fun to have done a screenplay book and have all those drawings in it. On the CD soundtrack, they used Berkeley's artwork quite extensively.

IGNFF: Would it still be an option, if a book company were to step forward?

McCANLIES: Oh, absolutely. Sure. I would love that.

IGNFF: How much control do you have over proposing that?

McCANLIES: I think it would be no problem to get the studio to sign off on that. It was a very readable script. A lot of people when they write scripts, they put a lot of CUT TOs and ANGLE ON, and to me, that kind of pulls me out of it. I want you to be sucked into the reading of a script like you'd be sucked into the movie. So I try and approximate that experience in the script. I use a lot of language…

IGNFF: Novelistic language…

McCANLIES: Yeah, novelistic language, even though it's in the narrative an no one will ever see it. Like I'm really proud of my description of Mae, when you first meet her….

IGNFF: So it's like a John Milius script…

McCANLIES: Yeah! He does that. Absolutely.

IGNFF: As far as the learning curve coming off of this, what can you point to as the biggest lessons you've learned from the process – as opposed to Dancer, where the learning curve was much more about fundamental issues?

McCANLIES: There's a million things. We didn't test Dancer, but sitting in an audience full of people and seeing the movie with them – you feel if their attention is starting to lag, or if they're confused, or if they're with you, or if they're not. That was really valuable. I learned just how brutal pace has to be in that kind of movie. I mean, Dancer, by its very nature, is sort of a talky kind of movie, and people come to that movie knowing that and have to be prepared for that. But with Secondhand Lions, things that had played well on paper – 3– and 4-page funny scenes – played long on the screen. It's just how brutal the demands of pace are for an audience, and I think that's one of the big lessons I learned.

IGNFF: Just learning to utilize the visual language…

McCANLIES: Yeah, certainly – learning how to tell a story visually. Of course it's – and I had it this way with my first movie – I had it so blocked out in my head and storyboarded in my head, and I actually did storyboards on this, the way I saw the movie, but what happens is that on the day, the actors come in and so you run through it with them. You know, Bobby's not going to sit down where you want him to sit down, in your storyboards. He's gonna want to stand up and go over here, and so no matter how much planning you do, the actors are going to want to do stuff that requires you to cover the movie differently. And, of course, what an actor brings to you or does will be so much better than you thought, so you have to be so incredibly prepared – yet be ready to throw that out at a moment's notice and go with something that's better. And you have to know immediately if it is better, you know what I mean? There's a lot of laziness I think, sometimes, when somebody just does something on the set. It may not be better than what's in the script, and if it's not, you need to go back to what's in the script. That's one of the big dilemmas for a director – especially if you're the writer – is to be ready to throw out the script, and yet be ready if what they're doing is not better, to just then beat them up with the script.

IGNFF: So you have to be able to both be faithful and be in the moment…

McCANLIES: Yeah, absolutely.

IGNFF: Did the process spoil you for ever going back to being just the writer?

McCANLIES: Well, it does, in a way. It's funny – after Dancer, it took me another year before I said, "well, I'll do that again." Because it was a brutal four week experience. On this one, right after I wrapped I said, "Yeah, I'll do this again." Working with actors of that caliber certainly spoils you. These guys were so good, and they'd come up here and 2 or 3 takes they'd have nailed it so right, and it was like, "Okay." They would come in, and we would just do blocking and they would do it, and then they'd turn to me and I'd go, "I don't have any notes! That's right! Okay, we'll do lights and we'll see you guys in like 15 minutes, and we'll be ready to go!" And they were like, "Okay!" It was pretty ****– these guys made it easy. It was great.

IGNFF: Was the film received well enough to where it's going to be relatively easy for you to segue on to another project?

McCANLIES: Yeah. Part of it's the box office. It did quite well – we didn't quite double our budget, but we almost did.

IGNFF: Considering the level of advertising, it did pretty well…

McCANLIES: Yeah. They didn't spend a lot on advertising. New Line had never released a PG movie before, they think… They may have picked one up like 20 years ago, they think, but they had never released a family film before. It was a whole new territory here, for them.

IGNFF: Actually, they released John Landis's The Stupids …

McCANLIES: I didn't know that…

IGNFF: But they had the same problem of "What are we going to do with a family film?"

McCANLIES: But with this, they actually set out to do family films, because that's a business they wanted to be in. It's a very lucrative home video business, family films. Most movies now don't make their budgets anyway – something like 70% don't even gross their budgets, but then they make it back on home video. So we were in the upper percentile of that. We always knew we'd do quite well on home video.

IGNFF: Now that you've realized your major driving creative ambition, what now?

McCANLIES: That's the central dilemma of my life. For 10 years, this was the big one to do, and I've done it. You're right… I sort of feel like Clinton after 8 years in the White House – "Now what?" I've got a couple of lower budget, sort of fun to shoot in Austin kind of things to do. But then I also have – I always wanted to do a sort of big canvas sort of fantasy… I hesitate to say Harry Potter, although I would love to have written Harry Potter… But something that's just so imaginative, and a big canvas, and is a sort of a world-building thing of imagination. So I've been working on that the last couple of weeks, and I'm about to go out and pitch it in Hollywood. It's the kind of thing that generally almost always is a novel first. There's an interesting article in today's L.A. Times about how Hollywood, especially with dramas, they're almost always adaptations and why. Something being presold, like Harry Potter, certainly helped with getting Harry Potter made. I'm not sure if somebody was going around town pitching Harry Potter – would it be so easily made? I don't know. So I'm going to try pitching basically my – it's not Harry Potter, it's not His Dark Materials, it's not Wizard of Oz, it's not Back to the Future – but it's sort of my franchise, so to speak. I'm going to go around pitching that around town and see what happens.

IGNFF: Do you think your tendencies skew towards the family-friendly vein?

McCANLIES: You know, I think so. In some ways, I think you can tell more important stories in this genre. When I was the "action film guy," I got really tired of formula-type plots, and I looked at the movies that really stayed with me – and they were movies that were so-called "family films." We ought to separate kids movies that are, you know, braindead for adults versus family classics like some of the early Disney stuff or say a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie with a 9-year-old protagonist and yet tackled bigger subjects than 99.99% of the movies out there.

IGNFF: Do you think it's because it's a genre that's able to incorporate all other genres?

McCANLIES: Yeah, I think so. Certainly comedy and drama, but usually the best of these movies are about something. They're usually about a kid who is facing big life lessons – whereas most movies for adults these days, the Ocean's 11 and stuff, we're adults and we're too hip and jaded and stuff…

IGNFF: Hey – how else are you going to learn to rob a casino?

McCANLIES: Yeah – let's learn how to rob a casino! That's true! It's good for that…

IGNFF: See – there's a societal function to films like that…

McCANLIES: I think we're too hip and jaded as adults to do that, but when a movie has a young protagonist, I think we open up more as adults, because we kind of put ourselves into that young protagonist's shoes and we remember when we were a kid and how scary the adult world was and how we didn't know what we were going to do with our lives, and how huge that was, and what kind of person we were going to be when we grew up. Those are big, scary issues that are much more scary, I find personally, than robbing a casino…

IGNFF: And the audience gets to explore the issue along with the character…

McCANLIES: Yeah.

IGNFF: Did your experience with Smallville turn you off to ever going back to TV?

McCANLIES: Ummm… It wasn't helpful… (laughing)… TV is a whole other world. And certainly writers at the top of TV are treated well, because they tend to be showrunners and such, but yeah – the way certain things happened to me… Which I can't get into because I'm under a nondisclosure agreement because of the settlement… I've already gotten one dirty letter from Warner Bros. by talking about Smallville … But maybe someone wouldn't be treated – I think my profile is higher on the film side, too, than it was in television. That's another odd thing, is that you can be the biggest frickin' guy in film, and in TV you're nobody. It's weird. But yeah, I kind of feel like certainly a lot of the executives I dealt with – specifically one executive – they're just not as smart as people in films.

IGNFF: They're writing letters already…

McCANLIES: By saying that, I've just ensured that I'll probably never work in television! I just think a lot of people end up in TV because they couldn't maybe work in film… I don't know.

IGNFF: What is your very next project?

McCANLIES: Well, hopefully it is this big canvas thing…

IGNFF: Didn't you do some writing on Around the World in 80 Days?

McCANLIES: Yeah, I did, and I don't know if I'll end up with credit on that. I came in to write the Jackie Chan version of that. Before me, there were a couple of guys who wrote a perfectly fine script that was very close to the book. Suddenly, they had a shot at getting Jackie Chan – which made it an entirely different animal, because not only is it a Jackie Chan movie with great stunts, because that's what Jackie does, but Jackie was playing the butler, who was the second banana in the book. Now, suddenly, the butler is the main character.

IGNFF: Passepartout, right?

McCANLIES: Yeah, Passepartout. So that puts a real spin on things! Basically, it was like, "Why do I even need to see these other scripts?" My job was to write a script that got Jackie Chan, so that's what I did. I only had a window of like a month before I had to go back on Secondhand Lions and start pre-production, so they had other writers that came along. I've not seen the movie, so I don't know what remains of my script – although the structure is certainly mine, because even the structure changed a lot. One of the conceits of the story is now that Jackie is basically a secret agent and he has to get back to China, so Fogg is his ticket to get back into China with this valuable thing that the Chinese bad guys are after him to get. In the book, they didn't go through China – they went through India, and then via boat to the U.S. I had to have him go through Tibet into China and out that way, so the whole second act is a departure.

IGNFF: I guess you'll find out soon enough…

McCANLIES: I will. Like, for instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a character whose name I don't recognize, so that certainly is different. One of my favorite scenes from my script I know is not in it was Jackie Chan on the Nautilus – Captain Nemo's ship – which probably they couldn't do because of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sort of did that character. But Jackie fighting a giant squid was one of my favorite scenes from my draft that's no longer in it…

IGNFF: See, now that's a painful loss…

McCANLIES: It is, because it was pretty great! Basically you had these two electric leads that he had to basically, like, thrust into the squid's head, that turned it into a light bulb, and then it exploded. So it was pretty fun…

IGNFF: See, now if you were directing it…

McCANLIES: Maybe we would still have that!

IGNFF: Maybe it would still be in there…

McCANLIES: That's for darn sure! I'd say, "It's all about the squid! You can't cut the squid!"

IGNFF: When you look at Secondhand Lions, what's your one regret?

McCANLIES: Oh gosh… It's not any huge thing. There's a number of little things. Like, one of my favorite sort of little beats in there, and it's a deleted scene, was this scene where Walter, after waking up at the lake from having seen Hub do sword-fighting, he comes in and finds Garth – and he's sending out a bunch of letters to different sales companies telling them to send salesmen. It was really a great reveal to go, "So you ask all these salesmen to come here, so you can shoot at them?!?" And he say, "Well, every man needs a hobby. Don't tell Hub." I really loved that beat, but it took like 3 minutes from Haley kind of skulking in and finding it. It just took too much time, but it was really such a wonderful reveal, and really spoke a lot about the relationship between Hub and Garth, that Garth is there sort of unbeknownst to Hub doing all these things to sort of keep him interested and alive and around.

IGNFF: So next time, you have to so Secondhand Lions as a miniseries…

McCANLIES: Yeah, there you go! I'll put it back in. Well, again, there's 30 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD. Thankfully – and I pushed New Line on this – a lot of times these deleted scenes are off the AVID or something… They're really ugly and they don't look very good. But what we did is we actually cut negative of the deleted scenes and then merged it with what we already had, and so it really looks as good as the film.

IGNFF: What percentage of those deleted scenes would you put back in to the film proper, if you had a chance?

McCANLIES: For a DVD, especially, that could maybe open up a little more, I wouldn't mind a 10– or 20-minute longer version of the movie.

IGNFF: So there are at least 10-15 minutes that you still believe were judicious cuts…

McCANLIES: Yeah. There's a couple of fantasy sequences where Walter would kind of jump into his head – even before the Arabia stuff starts – there's a couple early on. Like there's one with his mom in the opening, when they're in the car, and she's saying, "I'm going to go off and do court reporting," and we sort of jump into Walter's head and we see her court reporting professionally away in a courtroom, and we kind of pan around the room and we see all these good father-type men, all these upstanding citizens all sort of smiling at her and admiring her, and we come to rest on this convict in chains – and that's the one that she makes eyes with and flirts with. It establishes that we can go into Walter's head, and what he thinks of his mom, you know what I mean? It says a lot about his and her relationship, and it's really a cute, funny thing, but right in the middle of this long exposition scene in the car where she tells him everything he needs to know – I sort of had to do so much getting you up to speed with who they are and who the uncles are in that scene, and I cut that scene so many different ways because it had such a burden of exposition, that planting that one scene right in the middle of that scene made it two exposition scenes. So boy, it was a no-win situation, so I promptly lost that scene. But in a movie on TV or DVD, I think you can maybe let things open up and expand. There's a little bit more breathing room for home video, so I wouldn't have minded another 10 minutes. For network TV, sometimes they put in a little stuff, so who knows.

IGNFF: Maybe in the sequel you can concentrate on the adventures of Garth and Hub…

McCANLIES: Well, that's the other thing I kept telling the studio – "You know, we should do a prequel." Instead of 90% present-day – and by present day, I mean the '60s – and 10% the Arabia stuff, we should have the reverse, and have it be these two guys. I had a whole story about Hub and Garth getting out of the Foreign Legion and having this treasure map and going all over North Africa. That would have been a lot of fun, because I think Christian Kane did a great job with all the sword fighting…

IGNFF: And a wonderful actor, as well…

McCANLIES: Yeah, he's terrific. He's a great guy…

IGNFF: And one who deserves a bigger spotlight…

McCANLIES: Yeah! In fact, when Bob Shaye finally saw this movie, he said, "Boy, this guy's a star!" And I said, "I've been telling you! We've got to do the prequel!" In fact, Christian was on Angel for a couple of seasons…

IGNFF: And he's back on now…

McCANLIES: Yeah, he's back on now. In fact, those guys doing Angel – I just saw Christian a couple of days ago – he said that they saw Secondhand Lions and they went, "Oh my god! I didn't know you could do swords!" He said, "Well, yeah…" So the last 20 minutes of the 100th episode is this 20-minute sword fight between him and Angel.

IGNFF: And it's all because of you…

McCANLIES: It is! Christian said it's exactly because of me. They just saw how good he was, and so they choreographed this 20-minute frickin' long sword fight, which I thought was very, very cool.

IGNFF: So when he eventually accepts his Oscar, he should be thanking you…

McCANLIES: He should be thanking me, that's right! (laughing) I showed the world that he could swing a sword.

IGNFF: Well, here's hoping you do get to do a prequel eventually…

McCANLIES: I think that would be a lot of fun.

IGNFF: Is it something you would seriously pursue?

McCANLIES: Absolutely! And go to the south of Spain, where all the Moorish influences are. It's just gorgeous there. And I think you can do it for a price, too, but who knows?

IGNFF: Well, the world needs a good Indiana Jones story…

McCANLIES: It really does, and that would have been a real fun one – and to do it in a larger-than-life, sort of Princess Bridey way, because it's storytelling that we're now seeing on screen, just how Secondhand Lions was. But I'd get Michael and Haley for like three days, and just shoot them on a front porch set, and then the rest of it would be telling the story.

IGNFF: The beauty of those flashbacks was that it was the wonderful combination of Indiana Jones and what Gilliam was doing with Baron Munchausen …

McCANLIES: Right. Well, what I was trying to do – and I'm not sure that people were ever really sure that it was – but they weren't flashbacks. They were more like how Walter imagined it in his head while hearing the stories.

IGNFF: Yeah – there's a very heroic, stylized aspect to them…

McCANLIES: And very influenced by comic books and movies up to the '60 s… Errol Flynn stuff…

IGNFF: It had that Technicolor feel to it…

McCANLIES: Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly what I was going for, as far as the look, was that kind of look – as opposed to more present-day kind of stuff. Like in the sword fights – you slash a guy, but you don't disembowel him. You know what I mean? They just go down. That kind of thing.

IGNFF: Almost as if, "What would this be like if it were made in the '30s?"

McCANLIES: Absolutely. It was very Errol Flynn. I showed these guys Captain Blood – I showed them all of that stuff.

IGNFF: Well, you've got me sold on it…

McCANLIES: Yeah, and that Technicolor Robin Hood is so beautiful…

IGNFF: The restoration is amazing…

McCANLIES: It is, isn't it?

Be sure to read the excellent original article.

 

**Many thanks to FAIR for this article.

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