Director Brad Silberling on Land of the Lost: 'Like Crack For Kids'
In 1995's Casper, Brad Silberling had directed the first studio release with a computer-animated title character; nine years later, he'd direct Jim Carrey in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events -- an eccentric children's fantasy just a little too Terry Gilliamesque in scope to pose any real threat to the Harry Potter franchise. Now Silberling returns to the toy chest for his big-budget spin on Sid and Marty Krofft's Saturday morning serial, Land of the Lost, opening today.
Lost has the interesting effect of both eliciting awe for the power it held over us as children, and amusement over just how laughably nonthreatening the shoestring production values seem to us as adults. As such, it's sort of the ultimate nostalgia trip, and Silberling plays with that, plopping a quartet of skilled improv comedians in a perilous world that pays direct homage to the Kroffts' psychedelic flights of fancy, while self-consciously never letting stakes get too high. It's the kind of film best enjoyed just by sinking back and letting its mind-warping absurdity envelop you, taking the time to smell the surrealistic set pieces and skillful effects sequences along the way.
I spoke with Silberling yesterday, who met me at the La Brea Tar Pits, where some of the film's framing sequences were shot. We talked about show tunes, Will Ferrell's brain, and acid trips -- some of my very favorite things.
Was Land of the Lost a property you actively sought to make, or did it land on your desk?
It came to me very directly from Will. We'd been friendly since about '98 but never worked together. Two years ago we bumped into each other and had lunch, and he kind of cut me off at the beginning and said, "I know I'm hijacking the meeting, and you're here to talk about something you're working on now. But I want to try and make Land of the Lost. Will you do this with me?"
I hadn't seen the show in 17 years. But I watched it religiously, because the Kroffts did this thing: It was like crack for kids. They knew how to create these impossible blends of imagination. They never questioned why not have dinosaurs, and aliens, and sci-fi, and a banjo playing, why not do all these things? There's just this wonderful Grimms fairy tale quality to it, if you want to be scared as a kid. A constant, weird jeopardy -- are they going to get themselves out?
I dug the show. It was one of those early instigators for me wanting to make movies. So when Will brought it up, I went, "Oh my God." The idea of taking a lot of that jeopardy and some of the real strange imaginings from the show, and pairing that with a set of characters that aren't equipped to deal with them, and the kind of comedic sensibility that I like -- that seemed great to me.
What made you decide to change the dynamic from that of a father and his two teenage kids to two buddies and a love interest?
The Rick Marshall that we had in mind was so ill-equipped to have a family, just so myopic, that the idea that he can even begin to have a relationship with Anna Friel by the end of that movie is huge for that character. So it just didn't make sense. The travelmates would be more interesting, and could go weirder places, if they were all adults.
About those weird places. The marketing campaign is not doing justice to just how out-there this movie is. There's a long drug-induced, psychedelic sequence, and it kind of feels like the whole movie is catering to that genre of humor.
It's interesting, and an understandable and classic kind of studio conservatism, where early on they were reluctant to lean into the punch. But they've finally caught up with it, so there are more [tonally accurate] spots rolling now through the NBA Finals. Because I said to them, "That's your positive." It's Will's audience, and yes, you're going to have some teenagers who are going to want to see dinosaurs and strange stuff, but you can't shy from the very essence of what the movie is.
I wonder if you could talk a bit about the production design. There's some very beautiful surrealist imagery in the film. The desertscape was very reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting, and those pop touches -- a 76 Station ball or a full-scale motel poking out of a sand dune -- reminded me of Ed Ruscha.
What I loved about the original premise was that this was not just time travel back into prehistory: It's an alternate version of Earth. It's a collision spot of different worlds, and different cultures, and different tenses in a way. And the show would play with that -- suddenly they'd meet an old codger miner, or somebody from the Civil War.
[Cont.] Bo Welch is my production designer, and as great as they come in terms of both an imagination and a trust in a sort of simplicity -- because we agreed that we didn't want to just go off and create a Seussian world of pure whimsy. We wanted it to be elements that actually do exist on Earth. Not only the elements you see in the dumping ground, but even in terms of topography -- unusual collisions of them, or textures that you don't typically get to see. We talked constantly about the idea of what you might call graphic surrealism coming out of real objects, and real simplicity. I always feel that when things get too busy, you can't appreciate what's magical about them.
A few sequences really stick out in my mind. The giant crab sequence, for one.
I will tell you that it's weird where things come to you from. The crab itself is an homage to a few things --
I immediately thought of Ray Harryhausen.
Right, from Mysterious Island. They shot a sequence in that film where a bunch of sailors have this battle -- a great Harryhausen battle -- and it was so clearly a photographed crab, the scale just looked ridiculous. Knowing we were going to create this sequence for Chaka, in which he feeds them this incredibly narcotic fruit, we though, what could be the worst thing that would happen to these guys when they're fairly incapacitated? And we were like, that would be genius! Of course the payoff actually then being, as they're probably in a very hungry mode, that they get to have this incredible feast. For that moment, Bo and I had built that motel out in this salt flat. We actually sunk that piece of set design. We bought a prefab pool, and drove it in as if the whole thing had just crash-landed there.
How much of the dialogue was improvised?
Almost every scene has an element of improv. In the crab-eating scene, the only thing really scripted was the weird, tripping apology from Marshall. Everything that follows -- Danny's whole thing about it being a Sandals resort, and then challenging the other two to make out -- all of that was completely on the fly. They were constantly riffing off of what was just here. In the scene where they discover the first big pylon, all that business about "hauling the sucker home" and the Latin Grammys, that was just Danny riffing.
What about when they put their hands on the pylon, and you think it's going to be some incredibly profound moment, and they just use it to sing Cher's "Believe?" That killed me.
Cher was planned. We knew we were going to have him do the wrong thing there and hold on to it and use the vibrations. There was a lot of debate there. We went through an "Aqualung" moment, but again you always want the surprise. We figured if it were just a metal thing with Danny that wouldn't be a surprise, but it would be really weird and funny if he did Cher. And the autotune, of course -- we wanted something with an autotune vibrato signature in it.
You're also very committed to a running joke involving a song from the A Chorus Line soundtrack.
When we were at a story level, however simple it was just working out the quest that had to happen -- that they had lost Marshall's invention, this "tachyon amplifier" and needed to get it back to get home -- for me, nothing is worse as a director than having an object, especially in vast landscapes, that's not going to be seen. How do you know you're even close? It needed an audio signature. Anything juxtaposed to that world would be awesome. And then we started talking about it, and decided the one thing you wouldn't expect of Rick Marshall was that the guy really thinks show tunes reflect human existence.
It's like you've embedded your film with gay musical code.
Yeah! My favorite Will line, again riffed, was when the song comes on and Anna goes, "It's a little gay," and Will says, "It is great." He's not even listening. I was like, where did that come from? Fantastic.
How do you shoot?
We shoot on 35mm film. I don't tend to over cover things. And depending on what the movie is, I try to let things play out in sort of an odd, real-time way. Which was the case in this. I wanted there to be almost this banal quality of, well, we're all here together. I shot most of the film on the shoulder, as opposed to very formal set-ups, which you'd expect in a big effects movie.
We rolled a good portion of film, but it sort of pales in comparison [to other productions]. I know Judd Apatow, and I like Judd a lot, and I drive by his sets and it's amazing because they never shoot less than three cameras simultaneously. They roll out mag and after mag. It's like the old Elaine May way of shooting. And that I don't do. I roll as long as I think I need to keep an improv going, but if not I move on.
Will and I talked a lot about the fact that you've got to be ballsy, and commit to playing some of these things out, and to the fact that the audience can't believe you're playing them out.
It reminds me of the Sideshow Bob sequence from The Simpsons where he steps on rake after rake long enough until it manages to become funny twice.
There's a whole tension. It's actually suspense. Is this actually going to go on? Oh my God, it's going on, and now it's taking a new turn. I believe in that. Will was talking about when he and Adam [McKay] did the famous dinner scene in Talladega Nights, the Baby Jesus scene, the studio was horrified, saying, "Oh my god, you're not going to actually let it go on." And they were like, "No, we actually want it to go on longer." Because that's where the real laugh is. You gotta go deep to find the real heart of the artichoke. ♦