Thursday, December 15, 2005

On Cloud 9: A conversation with Burt Kearns & Brett Hudson

Brett Hudson (l.) & Burt Kearns, the creative forces behind Frozen Pictures, are hard at work in anticipation of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s DVD release of their motion picture, Cloud 9. The busy producers and writers took time from a rewrite of their script, Queer, to speak with Yasmin Brennan. In their offices overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hudson and Kearns recall the genesis of the unlikely laugh-fest that stars Burt Reynolds as a conman who forms the world’s sexiest beach volleyball team-- with strippers! 

HUDSON: It all began in a Chinese restaurant on Pico Boulevard, where we shared many a lunch with Al Ruddy. I’ve known Al for 25 years. 

KEARNS: Al is Old Hollywood. He’d won the Oscar for producing The Godfather. He’s got the office in Beverly Hills. He’s best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

HUDSON: And a couple of years ago, he was at a crossroads. 

KEARNS: Al was tired. 

HUDSON: He and his partner Andre Morgan had poured millions into a TV project called Flatland and they couldn’t sell it. Al was developing a script called Million Dollar Baby and was having a hard time getting a director or star attached. 

KEARNS: In the meantime, we were all working together. We were producing the Showtime series, My First Time. We were pitching an afternoon talk show. And developing my book, Tabloid Baby, as a dramatic series. 

HUDSON: And we were developing and pitching projects from China. Ruddy-Morgan and Frozen Pictures were in business. 

KEARNS: We’d have lunch in that joint on Pico. Me, Brett and Al. And we always talked about movies-- 

HUDSON: So this one day, Al had just gotten back from New York City, where he’d visited his son at NYU. He said his kid had a poster of Gabrielle Reece on his dorm room wall. Al said, “I didn’t know you liked beach volleyball.” His kid said, “I don’t. I like Gabrielle Reece.” Ruddy said to us, “We oughta make a movie about beach volleyball.” 

KEARNS: That was the genesis. We were helping Ruddy-Morgan on the television side. Al was our entrĂ©e into movies. 

HUDSON: Back at the Frozen office, someone had sent over all this footage of a pole dancing competition— exotic dancers, strippers, whatever you want to call them. We were doing documentaries, pitching reality series, so I brought the tapes home and was amazed at the strength of these women, suspending themselves in midair. I showed my wife, who’s a dancer, and she said it’s simple. “These women aren’t dancers. They’re athletes.” Bang! Strippers as beach volleyball players. 

KEARNS: Brett and I got to work right away on a treatment. We both live out at the beach, so we set it in Malibu-- pretty fertile territory for a comedy. We built the story around a conman and his friends-- people who live the con game in a town and industry that’s built on the con. Combine that with a sexy sports comedy. Volleyball’s already a sexy sport. 

HUDSON: We just made it sexier. 

KEARNS: Then we pitched it to Al. 

HUDSON: I’ll never forget that day in Al’s office. Strippers and beach volleyball had him howling with laughter. But what hooked him was when we told him we’d written it with an actor and a particular role in mind. Burt Reynolds. Imagine the character of Paul Crewe from The Longest Yard-- thirty years down the road. 

KEARNS: If he’d gotten out of prison. And moved to Malibu. 

HUDSON: A trailer in Malibu. Albert S. Ruddy produced the 1974 Burt Reynolds film, The Longest Yard. 

KEARNS: Al said go for it! Let’s make this one! So Brett and I fleshed out the characters and the story. And it's real to Malibu. 

HUDSON: Jackson, Billy’s right hand man, is this stoner kid who lives on the beach. He's based on a friend of my son. 

KEARNS: Wong, I came up with. He's probably the most controversial character, a Chicano who masquerades as an Asian. 

HUDSON: (laughing) For business purposes! 

KEARNS: A little bit of social satire. Based on the plight of the very hard-working Latino day laborers and gardeners in Malibu and Pacific Palisades. If you live on the Westside of LA, you know what I mean. 

HUDSON: We wrote the first draft in about a month. Along the way, Al would read it, make a few notes and add some ideas of his own. 

KEARNS: Al has a way of bringing old-time Hollywood heart to a script. And he tweaked the volleyball scenes into real heart-stoppers. 

HUDSON: There were lots more lunches at the Chinese place. 

KEARNS: Al Ruddy at this point was a lion in winter. His most recent flick was about three years earlier— and it was a TV movie, with Tom Selleck. But he was a lion waiting to regain his place as king of the jungle. We were working with him that whole time-- 

HUDSON: And we had other projects with Al. The three of us wrote a TV movie treatment for Jimmy Carter’s book, Christmas in Plains. And we were working up ideas for a movie based on Hogan’s Heroes-- a show Al created. 

KEARNS: Brett and I wrote a comedy called Live from the Gaza Strip. A Hollywood agent on the run from the Mob hides out in Gaza and discovers a young Jay Leno—a Palestinian Jay Leno. 

HUDSON: All of it got Al really motivated. 

KEARNS: It was fun! 

HUDSON: Al’s secretary is Mary. She said she’d never seen him laugh so hard or seem so young as he did in those days when we were working together. 

KEARNS: Then Cloud 9 got greenlit! Gray Frederickson was Al’s associate producer on The Godfather; later he produced Coppola’s movies -- like Apocalypse. He’d gone back home to Oklahoma and got up a consortium of motion picture investors. He went to Al looking for a script. They put up the money. And Cloud 9 got made. 

HUDSON: They brought on Harry Basil as director. Harry Basil was a stand-up comedian who’d directed two Dangerfield movies, The Fourth Tenor and Back By Midnight. Basil had also worked on Ladybugs, the 1992 Dangerfield film produced by Ruddy and Frederickson. 

KEARNS: Al and Gray both knew Harry from the Rodney days. We’d see him at the Chinese restaurant. He was known as “Rodney’s man.” He did a stand-up act based on classic movies. He’d sit and act out entire sections of The Godfather and keep Al in stitches. Brett and I brought Harry out to Malibu, we gave him the lay of the land. 

HUDSON: Harry didn’t get it at first. He didn’t know there were trailers in Malibu. He didn‘t get the “con” aspect of the story. I grew up on the road with my brothers. I knew it first-hand. 

KEARNS: Harry’s a great guy. He does very basic comedy. He’d be perfect for directing the next Rob Schneider movie. He’d just finished doing second unit work on a movie about a monkey that did karate. He didn’t get the nuances of Cloud 9 at first. He wanted to do a rewrite, make it more “Comedy 101,” he said, bring in elements of the monkey movie. We explained that this was the next level. 

HUDSON: This was Burt Reynolds— 

KEARNS: Malibu. Blake Edwards territory! 

HUDSON: “S.O.B.”! Not Harry, the Blake Edwards movie. We explained the nuances. Those little scenes and bits that make the film special. 

KEARNS: Then we let him do his thing. 

HUDSON: Harry brought in the people he liked to work with. But Burt and I were hands-on producers. We scouted locations, we were there for casting, and worked on product tie-ins. Once shooting started, we were on the set every day. 

KEARNS: We shot most of the film down the beach from Brett’s place in Malibu, and the rest down the hill from my house on the beach in Pacific Palisades. 

HUDSON: Just as we wrote it. 

KEARNS: But this is a Harry Basil movie. 

HUDSON: Make no mistake. 

KEARNS: When you’re a producer on a movie set, if you’re lucky, there’s not much to do but let the director and production staff do what you hired them to do. 

HUDSON: Let them handle the small things-- and hope no big things come up! 

KEARNS: We were there when we were needed. We put out a few fires here and there-- 

HUDSON: We tried to make sure they shot the script! 

KEARNS: We made sure the actresses looked like strippers, we put a few whispers in Harry’s ear-- 

HUDSON: And we worked with Burt Reynolds every day. 

KEARNS: We’d meet in his trailer. 

HUDSON: Script revisions, ideas-- 

KEARNS: Working with Burt Reynolds was a gift. He’s always a step ahead, thinking of ways to improve a scene, a line. 

HUDSON: The creative process never ended. 

KEARNS: We had our hands full. Frozen was also shooting behind-the-scenes footage and still photographs. 

HUDSON: Al showed up on the set a few times. 

KEARNS: Yeah, but one of those times was historic. 

HUDSON: The day Cabo Wabo delivered the tequila? No, seriously, we were all having lunch on the set in the Palisades when Al’s office assistant showed up with the contract for Million Dollar Baby. Clint Eastwood signed on to direct it. Mark stood there and Al signed the papers on his back. 

On February 27, 2005, as producer of Million Dollar Baby, Ruddy took home the Best Picture Award at the 77th Academy Awards. Within a week, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment bought North American distribution rights to Cloud 9. 

HUDSON: Our partner is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar while we’re in post-production on our film with him. We couldn’t have been prouder. 

KEARNS: And he wins! And we're told we were the ones who got him revved up and revitalized. Al Ruddy’s the greatest. 

HUDSON: It’s funny to think that Al Ruddy’s follow-up to his Academy Award picture is a movie about beach volleyball strippers! 

KEARNS: But there’s a real kinship and heart to both films. They're flipsides to the sports movie. And Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. They’re icons. But they’re also old friends. While both films were in production, they’d get together after hours. 

HUDSON: Cloud 9 was delayed by the success of Million Dollar Baby. We’d hoped to get this movie out around the same time as the 2004 Olympics. Women’s beach volleyball was the major attraction on TV here. And we had the volleyball goddess, Gabrielle Reece! 

KEARNS: Dane Selznick was our technical adviser. He coached Kerri Walsh and Misty May to the gold medal in the Olympics. He got the best female athletes involved in our little movie. But all of a sudden Al had a prestige picture on his hands. So Cloud 9 took a backseat to Million Dollar Baby. But hey, who can blame him? We don't! 

HUDSON: Early on, we had this budgeted and scheduled to get Cloud 9 out for the Olympics. This was going to be a real 21st Century production. We were going to shoot this on Hi Def. We had a top DP who knew Hi Def in and out, and we had Panavision ready to do tests. But Harry and his crew wouldn’t hear of it. They pleaded for film. And Al’s old school instincts won out. 

KEARNS: Of course, it’s the best of the old school. In the end, all our experience and styles produced one hilarious, exciting picture. Harry goes for straight, lowbrow comedy. Al has the classic Hollywood sensibility. He knows how to tug at the heartstrings. Gray is from the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era. He was in Big Wednesday! Burt Reynolds, what can you say? He’s an all-out legend and a true artist. And us? 

HUDSON: Well, we made it happen. And we brought the contemporary vibe. 

KEARNS: We kept reminding these guys to keep it more Ben Stiller and less Jerry Stiller. 

HUDSON: More Vince Vaughn and less Robert Vaughn. 

KEARNS: More Dodgeball, less bocci ball-- 

HUDSON: We get the picture. 

KEARNS: Because of all that, because of the mix, Cloud 9 works. 

HUDSON: We’re going straight to DVD, of course. 

KEARNS. We'd hoped to get this picture into theatres. 

HUDSON: But Harry is a direct-to-DVD director. That’s the kind of picture he makes and everyone knew that going in. And that’s not negative. It’s a whole new business and DVD and direct demand are the way of the future. Cloud 9 is going to be a great seller and a perennial rental. 

KEARNS: January 3, 2006. Remember that date. 

After Cloud 9 was completed, the Frozen team decided to fly solo, and joined with Malibu Motion Pictures to finance their films, beginning with their scripts Psych House and the caper comedy, Two Buck Chuck. Meanwhile, they’re about to pitch another comedy, Queer. 

KEARNS: Yes, you could say Queer is edgy. It’s a comedy. It’s about a young man in West Hollywood who becomes a cause celebre after he’s gay-bashed into a coma. 

HUDSON: That's not funny! 

KEARNS: But when he comes out of the coma, he’s not gay anymore. 

HUDSON: Hilarity ensues. Believe me. 

KEARNS: It’s actually poignant. 

HUDSON: It's really about fathers and sons. 

KEARNS: And Frozen and Malibu Motion Pictures are prepping other scripts. Eric Cohen has an outrageous comedy called Wilde High. 

HUDSON: Eric is a comedy giant. He wrote for the Tonight Show. He produced Welcome Back Kotter and he created the Olsen Twins series on The Disney Channel. 

KEARNS: The Olsen Twins? Can I get an introduction? I’ve also been reading a script from Bob and Muriel Campbell called Player. 

Robert F. Campbell is a former writer and producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. 

BRETT: It’s about a dog. 

KEARNS: It's the best family comedy I’ve read in a long time. I hope we can acquire it. 

HUDSON: Then there’s Two Buck Chuck. A heist comedy. We wrote a special role for Gabrielle Reece. 

KEARNS: She’s a real find from Cloud 9. 

HUDSON: Things are cooking. But remember January 3rd 2006. That’s the launch.d

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