Kevin & Robin Nations – My Dog the Champion

October 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

In the warmhearted family-friendly film “My Dog the Champion,” city girl Madison (Dora Madison Burge of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) moves into the country with her grandfather (Lance Henriksen) when her military mother is deployed overseas. While spending time with her grandpa, Madison begins to train a very special dog to participate in agility competitions.

On the eve of the Austin Film Festival premiere of “My Dog the Champion,” San Antonio-based directors (and husband and wife team) Kevin and Robin Nations took some time to talk about what makes their film stand out from other dog-centric movies and how Dora Madison Burge literally landed in their lap in the 11th hour.

What was your reaction when you were asked to show your film at AFF without even have submitted it to the festival?

Well funny you ask. Early on, we had decided that we weren’t doing festivals with this film. We knew we would have distribution early so we weren’t going to bother entering anything.  When AFF contacted us, we were thrilled! The same thing happened with the Dallas International Film Festival.  Both DIFF and AFF are putting more emphasis on family films this year. I suppose AFF heard about us and figured we were a good fit. Something we have learned recently is that festivals are not just an avenue to secure distribution, they’re also great for free marketing and public awareness.

When it comes to family dog movies, what makes “My Dog the Champion” stand out from others that have come before?

One of our goals when making family movies is not to talk down to our audience. We feel like we accomplished that with “My Dog the Champion.” Many family dog movies rely on cheesy banter and silliness, but our movie focuses on real conversations and relationships and still captures the child audience.  Of course we have some cute moments in there, but the heart of the film is between Madison, a teenage girl, and her grandfather.

You’re the only filmmakers from San Antonio who are showing at this year’s AFF. Does this concern you at all that there are not enough productions that are festival ready coming out of San Antonio? Would you like to see more San Antonio filmmakers submit their films to festivals in Austin like AFF, Fantastic Fest, and SXSW? Why don’t you think it’s happening?

Honestly, I think it’s a matter of timing. I know there are several productions shooting this year so hopefully they will get their shot in 2014. Also, I think it’s a matter of awareness. For example, Richard Dane Scott, a San Antonio script writer, was a finalist at AFF in 2010 and in 2012 he was invited to be a speaker. This year he spoke on another panel. The guy is blowing up and no one is even talking about him in San Antonio. But they should be. There are other San Antonio filmmakers that people should be talking about: Sam Lerma whose short films have screened all over the country.  Ralph Lopez and Yaké Smith are making amazing films and they will probably be screening their newest one at big fests next year.  San Antonio film is like a train barreling down the track, full speed ahead.

Working with dogs now in your last two films, what have you learned about the animal that maybe you didn’t know before? 

Gosh. We are constantly learning with this. We just recently learned that a great actor dog is 75 percent dog and only 25 percent trainer. They have a talent, like us humans. When the dog doesn’t “have it,” we end up doing take after take trying to get the performance we need.  Just like there is a right or wrong actor for a role, same goes for animals.

Actress Dora Madison Burge is such a charming actress in this film. What was it about her that led you to believe she could carry this film as your central character?

Frackin’ Becky Sproles, man! It doesn’t get any more endearing than that!  I am kidding, but I really loved that show “Friday Night Lights.” After seeing Dora play that role I was a big fan. Funny story, during our casting for “My Dog The Champion,” we had gone through many fantastic auditions and Robin was about to hit “send” on an email that would offer a different actress the role. At that moment, our phone rang and it was Karen Hallford, our casting director with Casting Works L.A.  She said, “Dora Madison Burge wants to read for your lead role.” I immediately thought she was joking.  I told her to stop joking with me and that I was tired and ready to turn in for the night. She said, “No, Kevin I’m serious. She would like to do it tonight if you’re free.”  Twenty minutes later, Robin and I were on FaceTime with Dora. After her read I said, “Uh, yeah. Where do we sign?” Dora was absolutely up to carry this role. She is amazing.

Tell us a little about your next film. What is it about and when do you hope to have it completed? What is the ultimate goal for the new film?

We start shooting our new film, “The Adventures of Pepper and Paula,” November 7.  During the shooting of “My Dog The Champion,” Robin got an email from Pistol Packin Paula, a Wild West performer at Enchanted Springs Ranch in Bourne, Texas.  She had heard that we do inspirational films and knew that her story could be our next awesome family film. At the time we got this email, we were so busy that we blew it off and never got back to her. Months passed and we were kicking around ideas for a new film when Robin remembered the old email. We reread it, went to her website and found that she was right. Paula’s story has the makings of a great family film. So we contacted her, drove out to Enchanted Springs Ranch with our writer, Richard Dane Scott, and the rest is history. We hope to have the film completed by Spring 2014. Our main goal with this film, as with every film, is to run a set where everyone is at their best, feeling appreciated and collaborating as artists to make a fantastic product that audiences will enjoy.  We love to play to families and younger audiences because we hope our movies are instrumental in promoting family time and movie nights. After completing Paula’s story, our next film, slated for Spring 2014, is about another real life San Antonio hero, “Lefty” O’Neal.  The film is called “Dreaming of the Majors.” We’ve set up a website to let everyone know what the movie is about:

When it comes to movie dogs, make your pick: Lassie or Benji. Why?

Benji all the way. The original Benji movie had a lot of heart. It was a “real” story. It was one of Robin’s favorite movies as a child, so much so that she bought a white Maltese and named her “Tiffany.” If you’re a true Benji fan, you’ll remember that Tiffany was Benji’s girlfriend. The pacing of the film was interesting. In some parts you just get to follow Benji around town watching what he does and who he interacts with. I like that. Haven’t you ever wondered what dogs do all day? Where they go? Do they have their normal routines? Am I a geek to be that fascinated with dogs? Maybe.

“My Dog the Champion” screens Saturday, Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. (Alamo Drafthouse Village)

For more Austin Film Festival Coverage, click here

Scott McGehee & David Siegel – What Maisie Knew (DVD)

August 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the emotionally poignant drama “What Maisie Knew,” directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Bee Season”) tell the story of a divorce through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl (Onata Aprile). The film was adapted from a late 19th-century novel by author Henry James.

During our interview, McGehee and Siegel talked to me about their amazing experience working with young actress Onata Aprile and shared with me what they were thinking one night on set when Onata fell asleep at a most inopportune time.

“What Maisie Knew” was released on DVD and Blu-ray Aug. 13.

What was the casting process like for Maisie and what led you to an actress as natural as Onata Aprile?

David Siegel: It was certainly something we were concerned about. We thought that authenticity and simplicity was something that were important touchstones for the character. You want audiences to be with her as strongly as possible. We went through a long casting process – about four months – and saw hundreds of kids. We didn’t find Onata until we were less than a month from production. It was scary.

As you’re auditioning all these kids, who would you cut right away? Would you cut the kids who were “acting” too much?

Scott McGehee: It was a process. I mean, we came into the process thinking we needed an older girl who could play younger. We learned really quickly that there was something honest and innocent about 6-year-olds that we weren’t seeing in older girls. Some kids were really good at learning lines, but they lacked a simple authenticity. Some kids you could tell just weren’t mature enough to do it. Those were the two extremes. We knew the whole movie was going to hang on Maisie, so we needed a kid we were going to fall in love with and who was going to break your heart and who was going to be engaging to watch.

You had worked with a young actress before in “Bee Season,” although not as young as Onata. How does your approach as a director change when working with someone so young?

DS: You know, it’s really interesting because Onata could really work and play with the other actors like a grown up. Once we started rolling, she was able to act in a scene like a grown up. She didn’t really require a lot of extra preparation or coddling in any kind of way. She didn’t require us to shoot around her in any particular way. She is so natural and able to live in front of the camera. With [actress] Flora Cross in “Bee Season” – not that she’s not a talented actress – it required a lot more preparation and special help because Flora was pre-adolescent and more awkward in her body and more self-conscious. All of these things we found didn’t get in the way with Onata.

SM: Even watching Onata now at 8-years-old, I have confidence that she would be as interesting in a movie now as when she was six. We definitely saw some tendencies. There was a line of demarcation between ages six and seven. Even before we chatted with a little girl, we could tell if she was six or seven. (Laughs) We thought we were experts.

I read a story about a night you guys went out to shoot a scene and Onata fell asleep. As directors, what do you do at that point?

DS: Cry. (Laughs) I don’t know how much you heard about that experience but it was really dicey because it was Alexander [Skarsgard’s] last week of production. We had crammed so much work in those last two days for him. We were a little behind. We knew there was no way we were going to get back to that location. And Onata was asleep, so we couldn’t shoot the scene with her. We had to figure out what we needed from Alexander without Onata in the scene before we could let him go. It was a bit of a panic.

Well, I have to ask this question since it’s so logical: Why didn’t you just wake her up?

SM: (Laughs) Well, I’m not sure we wanted to wake up a 6-year-old at 10 p.m. and ask her to deliver a performance. (Laughs) I mean, I don’t know. She just wasn’t wakeupable.

DS: Her mom also told us that wouldn’t work. She said once she was asleep she was down. But it’s tricky. There’s a fine line between wanting a kid to give you a professional performance and child abuse.

I’m assuming you wouldn’t have been so nice if it was Steve Coogan who fell asleep.

SM: (Laughs) We would’ve wakened Steve Coogan.

DS: (Laughs) Yeah, we would’ve kicked him a couple of times.

There was a lot of debate last year when actress Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Some people argued that, while she was amazing in the film, her performance was more about what the director was able to pull from her through certain techniques as less about her making a conscious effort to act. Did you feel like Onata knew she was acting because I know you used the word “pretend” on the set?

SM: Early on, we kind of stopped using that word on the set, which was interesting. That was a request by her mother. Do you remember that, David?

DS: Not entirely.

SM: She said we shouldn’t talk about it as “pretend.” We should talk about it as a different kind of thing. Maybe there is a semantic difference between pretending and acting. But I would say Onata was acting. She understood the emotional stakes of a scene. She was playing a character in a moment just like any other actor. Her process wasn’t so different.

DS: I would say unequivocally Onata was acting.

SM: It’s a strange thing that Onata in “What Maisie Knew” was doing the same thing 41-year-old Tilda Swinton was doing for us in “The Deep End” (in 2001). You want to say, “But she’s only six,” but that really is Onata’s performance. It was kind of a thing to behold. Everyone on set – the cast, technicians, crew – saw it. They knew they were watching something unusual.

It’s really interesting because director Benh Zeitlin has said for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” when a scene called for Quvenzhané to cry, he and other members of the crew would tell her stories about people they lost in their lives and were able to pull her emotions out that way. How do you feel about that? I mean, he got the performance he wanted from her, but he didn’t let it necessarily unfold in a natural way.

DS: I don’t really judge him for that at all. I think that’s fine. You’re putting together pieces bit by bit and creating something discretely. Then you string them together to create a continuous emotional experience. It’s all artifice. It’s all a trick if you want to think about it that way. With any actor, you’ll take a reaction in a way that wasn’t in continuity and you’ll put it in because it works. That’s the process of montage. We were prepared for that sort of enterprise. We had different strategies to affect a look or a mood. It just happens that in Onata’s case, she was an actress.

So, did she actually know she was making a movie about a divorce, or did you work around those aspects of the story?

SM: No, she understood the story to the extent a 6-year-old understands that kind of a story. She understood Maisie was a little girl who was left alone a lot by her parents. Both of her parents loved her but were unable to really show her the love she deserved – and on and on from there. Onata understood that story clearly.

DS: So, in a scene it would be us telling her something like, “You’re at breakfast with your dad and you want to go to England with him but he’s going to say goodbye instead. How would that make you feel?” That was the level of our conversation with Onata. It was very much telling her the scenario and asking her what emotional experience that suggested to her. Then, that’s what she would give us.