INTERVIEW: Director Dennis Dugan on comedy, sports and his sixth time helming for Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions

We "Go Long" with Grown Ups Director Dennis Dugan

on May 10, 2010 by Amy Nicholson

dennisduganfeature.pngYou started as an actor-how did that shape your directing?

It definitely did. I had to learn how to shoot, how to hold a camera, editing, all of those things. But the nice thing was I studied so long being an actor that performance is a strong card in my deck. And I just love doing comedy, so that's what I gravitated to once I started directing.

This cast is huge. When you're working with so many different comedy styles, how do you wrangle them so they're all serving the same movie?

There's a specific way that we work together. The script is written by Adam and his collaborators and then I'll give notes on it, but we have a similar approach to comedy: as crazy as it gets, we try to base it in reality. We tell all the actors who work with us that. Everybody can get as goofy as they want, but we try to keep in all in the same style, while giving everybody's different quirks the freedom to bring to the character as much as they want. For instance, last night [while shooting the upcoming Just Go With It], it was Nicole Kidman's first night. The producer and the assistant director said "Who do you want to shoot first?" I said we should do Adam and Jennifer Aniston first, and then we'll do Nicole after we've done their coverage. They said, "Why? The light will be better if we do it this way." It may be better for the light, but this is Nicole's first day on a movie that's been shooting for 35 days and I said I wanted her to be able to work on the scene for a while when it's just over her back so she can see how Jennifer and Adam are working and she can start to get into the rhythm of the whole piece without having to be on camera first.

I feel like a comedy director has an unusual role. You're given people who are already funny, who have natural talents for humor. Do you feel like your job is setting them up and letting them run with it? Where does the directing come in?

You hit it on the head. People ask, "How do you corral these people?" You don't corral. If you're smart, you don't corral-you let them run free. One of the tricks is you let them feel as comfortable as possible so they can be goofy. And also feel like they can flop and not be judged or have their egos bruised. I'm a gigantic fan of comedy and all these people I'm working with, I'm just so thrilled by them that I think they get that sense that we're here to go have fun. We're goofing around on set, we're having a great time-it's a real familial atmosphere. But we help everybody feel relaxed and brave.

Are there any standout moments in Grown Ups that sprung from that improv-ish atmosphere?

It wasn't even improv-ish. It was designed that way. These guys-most of them who have known and worked with each other for years and years and years-for them it was a reunion of sorts. There were scenes where we'd do 45 minute takes. We'd start with the scene and then they'd just start riffing. Sandler was the bandleader and we'd go, "What did you think of that?" And he'd do stuff, and then Chris Rock would take it and fly off for a while, and then David Spade would throw in his acerbic comments. Kevin James would take it up and then Rob Schneider'd be jumping all over it. We'd just go on and on and on. The problem with doing a 45 minute take is then you've got to give it coverage. We'd have two people writing everything down as frantically as possible, so when we'd turn it to the other side, I'd have this list of things they'd talked about. I'd say, "Do the drugstore part! Do the McDonalds part!" They'd jump back in. Last night was again a perfect example. We did Adam and Jennifer's side of the scene, and then at the end of the night when we turned around on Nicole and Dave Matthews, Sandler came up with a really funny one-line thing. But you had to see his face and we didn't have the luxury of spending another hour to turn back around. So I said Adam should just stand in Dave Matthews' light. It's just one line-maybe we'll get away with it! If we have people moving around in the background, maybe audiences won't know! That's one of the problems of doing a comedy. When Martin Lawrence and I did National Security, we'd turn from him to the other people, but then he'd be so funny that we'd have to turn back around and do it again. I'm not loathe to do it because the whole job is to make it funny. Whatever you need to do to get it funny, and if you have to turn back around, you turn back around.

Those last minute moments are a great curse. Both Grown Ups and The Benchwarmers have a connection to sports-what's the link between sports and humor?

Sandler loves sports, I love sports. We're all baseball fans, Sandler's a big basketball player. Happy Gilmore was golf and hockey. Pretty soon we're going to run out of sports!

On screen, Adam Sandler doesn't look like Shaq, but when you look at his films, he's obsessed with sports. The Waterboy, The Longest Yard...

He's a wonderful athlete. He plays tennis, he plays basketball religiously. He's a good basketball player. He did most of those shots in Happy Gilmore with that golf club, which is unheard of. On set in the Video Village, we have ESPN playing the entire day. Unless there's NASCAR on, which Jack Giarraputo loves. NASCAR or the Yankees game, or we fight over the Lakers-some people love the Lakers on our squad, some people hate them. It's sports, sports, sports, comedy, comedy, comedy. All day long.

Your son Kelly Dugan was just drafted to play baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies-how does that work when you live in Dodger town?

I was a Dodger fan forever. I grew up in Chicago, so I was a Cubs fan first, but when I moved to LA, I went Dodgers. But then my son was the number one pick for Philly. It turns out that I have a price for my loyalty, and that price was the exact amount of Kelly's signing bonus. I love the Dodgers, I've loved watching them for all these years, but now my heart is with the Phillies. At least my wardrobe changes.

This cast has comedy heavy-hitters, many of whom have been at the top of the heap for the last 15 years. Do you scout for newcomers to add into the mix? Is there even room for newcomers between Adam Sandler's team and Seth Rogen's team?

There always is. One of the new guys Sandler befriended who's become part of the squad is Nick Swardson. Sandler had seen a comedy special he did for Comedy Central or something like that and hired him to write a couple things with him. He co-wrote and acted in Benchwarmers and since then has done a bunch of things. A couple movies with me, this one now. He's an example of how you break in. Funny is funny. He's working on this movie with us as an actor and writer, so the squad keeps expanding.

With YouTube, does it seem like the way comedians break out has evolved?

I think so. There's a writer I've been working on a couple things with, he and his buddies have a mini-short film company and they're always doing little three and four minute films. They introduced me to Internet short film contests. For somebody who wants to be a comedy writer, a comedy director, a comedy performer, it's a good and cheap way to get your product out there and get seen. It's better than just working at the comedy clubs.

Post-I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, have you become the unofficial gay marriage expert at dinner parties?

I haven't, but I'm a huge proponent of letting anybody who wants to get married get married. I don't understand what all of the fuss is about. It doesn't threaten me in any way. And I think the more people can be happy in this world, the better the world is going to be. I'm all for tolerance.

On a similar note, I think You Don't Mess with the Zohan is going to be unveiled as a smarter and more sophisticated film than it was given credit for when it first came out.

I understand that we got a really good review from the New York Times. I don't read reviews, but I understand it was a thoughtful review, which is nice. Comedies don't get awards; comedies are not thought of as sophisticated films. But I would say that the amount of work and thought that goes into a comedy is equal to or greater than the work that goes into a drama. Adam thought it was a very big, very serious subject that, if we treated it in the right way, might make the idea of peace and tolerance more accessible to people who normally wouldn't think that it's a subject for comedy.

Right now, you're in Maui shooting Just Go With It-how do you keep your mind on your work?

It's beautiful. Just beautiful. I can't lie to you-even though we're working like crazy, it's great. We've been working nights, so you just try to keep your eyes open and on the task. And have a five-hour energy drink in your left hand. Maui would be an awesome place to live, but I can't do it. It's too relaxing.

Nicole Kidman is a great comedienne and it's been a while since she's had a chance to show that off. I'm curious about the rest of the cast-there's such a range: Dave Matthews, Heidi Montag. Jennifer Aniston hasn't had a comedy script that's played to her strengths in years.

Adam and Jennifer together is magically wonderful. They just get each other. When they start improvising, it's just thrilling. I've always thought that she was one of the absolute best: she can do comedy, she can do drama, she can do anything. I was very excited to have a chance to work with her, and she has met and exceeded my expectations by miles. She's always in the moment, always prepared, always completely professional, and just as funny and charming and witty and sexy as anybody can be. And Nicole, she's a wonderful actress who does stuff you don't expect. She doesn't do the obvious. She does little quirky readings and you go, "Oh my gosh-I didn't see that there." And so professional. Every phone call, every interaction I've had with her, she's delightful. Dave Matthews is a terrific guy, a buddy of Adam's for a long time. He first did a little bit in Chuck and Larry, and then a bigger bit in Zohan-both of them real character-y parts. This time, he plays Nicole's husband. Here's a guy who plays to stadium-sized crowds and he's doing his scene last night and he goes, "I'm so nervous! Look who I'm standing on the set with." It's those three and Dave. I said, "Dave, you kill-you sell out the Hollywood Bowl and you're not nervous. This is nothing, just look at them and talk." He's playing a straighter part, a regular human being instead of some whacked-out character, so he's got to be more vulnerable than he's used to being. But he did great. He's a very funny guy, terrific, hangs around the set even when he's not filming. There's nothing bad I can say about my experiences. Right now I'm in Hawaii, looking out over the ocean, and everything is beautiful.


Tags: Dennis Dugan, Adam Sandler, Just Go With It, Grown Ups

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