Robert Shaye Q&A

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Among the spate of new movies opening Friday, on what is shaping up to be an especially competitive weekend at theaters, is The Last Mimzy, a family fantasy film based on the popular short story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett. (The story is about a mysterious box of toys; the title is a line from Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky.") For New Line Cinema, the studio behind the project, the movie is also a family affair. Production President Toby Emmerich penned several early drafts of the screenplay and studio co-chairman Robert Shaye is both an executive producer and the director.

A self-described film geek, Shaye, who's also an attorney and former Fulbright Scholar, founded New Line in 1967 with a plan to distribute art films. But over the ensuing 40 years, the studio has amassed a library of commercial hits including the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Rush Hour, Wedding Crashers and the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy to emerge as Hollywood's leading mini-major studio. (New Line is owned by Time Warner, which is also the parent of Time Magazine and In that time, Shaye directed just one film, Book of Love, a bawdy 1990 coming-of-age romantic comedy. "I'm still proud of it, even though it was more a succes d'estime I'm afraid," he says. Shaye tells Time's Sonja Steptoe why he decided to relinquish his role as mogul temporarily for a second turn as auteur.

What made you want to direct The Last Mimzy?
I was a big science fiction fan growing up and I read the story when I was 14. It stuck with me as a fascinating idea about kids having their minds opened to many different kinds of influences and teaching before their brains get hardwired. So when [producer] Michael Phillips walked into our office some 15 years ago and said he had acquired the motion picture rights to that short story, I really perked up. After thinking about it, rereading the short story and talking to Michael, I thought there wasn't anybody who could make a better film than I could. I don't mean to sound egotistical, but I just felt such clarity about the story and how to deal with it that I nominated myself to be the director.

Would you call this movie an allegory?
Allegory sounds too much like message film. To paraphrase [Hollywood legend] Samuel Goldwyn: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." It's a fantasy. But I've included some ideas that are worth considering. The whole thesis about losing behavioral traits if we don't use them is something that has only come up in the last three or four years, because of the ubiquitous blackberries, cell phones, iPods, gameboys and the Internet. We're using them to chat with people we've never met who don't even use their real names. We're typing things like LOL, c u later, and using a parenthesis and a colon to demonstrate joy, which I find awkward and desensitizing. I'm not an old fashioned guy, but the subtext is that over time it's possible that we may get so clad in electronics and isolation and distance and desensitization that we will not only lose our innocence, but we won't even think we need to be innocent. And that will be a bad time. This movie is intended as family entertainment that also has some depth and substance to it.

The two child actors, Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn, give affecting performances. How easy was it finding them?
It was difficult. The casting director saw thousands of children from all over the country and Canada. There's a lot of dialogue and it required some acting chops on their part because these kids had to carry the film. But we didn't want any of those Hollywood brats that you've seen in a whole lot of stuff. They pulled these performances out of their very being. The script was written by a 60-year-old guy and how's he going to know how kids talk really? I asked them what they would say [in certain scenes] and they came up with the most delicious ad lib moments and dialogue.

Why do you enjoy directing?
It's just something that's in my blood. It's great fun. It's really your movie [in a way that it isn't] when you're a producer or an actor. You are really the driver of the car. Of course there are mechanics and collaboration that go into the process; I don't believe in the auteur theory. It's the same reason I like to cook. You have all this stuff around you and you have to make something that you think will be tasty.

Who greenlights a project when the studio co-chairman is the executive producer and director?
Toby Emmerich, even though he wrote two drafts of the screenplay, put on his head of production hat and vetted the idea and then Michael Lynne, who is the co-chairman, independently made the decision to officially greenlight it. I impressed upon Michael the importance of being fair and even-handed because I didn't want anybody to be accused of nepotism.

Did you bring it in on budget and on time?
Under budget and ahead of schedule. It started out being $41 million, but ended up being around $35.5 million.

Was it important for you to set a good example in that regard — lest future directors and producers throw your spendthrift ways in your face evermore?
No. That would be rude. Everyone has his or her own style of working. Clint Eastwood is one of my role models in that regard and I don't think he does it for any reason other than impatience and the belief that after five or six takes of a scene it gets stale. In my experience, actors do their best work earlier in the process than in the 30th or 40th take. It just came out that way and I'm not throwing it in any filmmaker's face, either. That's just the way I work.

Which do you like better, directing or running the studio?
I like both jobs a lot and don't intend to drop one for the other. They are quite different. It's satisfying to be involved with films like Lord of the Rings, Wedding Crashers, Golden Compass and Rush Hour [as head of the studio]. I feel like they are part of my extended family. But they are godchildren, whereas I am the real father of the films I've directed. I feel a more paternal and genetic attachment to them.