The “Charlotte’s Web” producer talks to Clint Morris
To compare the all-star cast of “Charlottes Web” – the long awaited live-action film adaptation of E.B White’s book– to that of the voice artist casts of other high-profile family films, you’d think Hollywood were in the middle of a ‘Whose got the biggest’ competition right now.
While he can’t talk for the others, Producer Jordan Kerner says he just wanted the best people for the job – and if they happened to be pricey A-listers like Julia Roberts, Robert Redford and Dakota Fanning, then so be it.
For the main human character in the film – largely carried by animals – Kerner couldn’t think of anyone better to play Fern than Dakota Fanning.
“There was a time when she was so caught up in War of the Worlds that we thought we wouldn’t get her”, he says. “We had to end up going on a search for other young actresses, just in case. And although a couple of those people would’ve been grand, they would never have been as good as Dakota. They would have been nothing compared to her”.
Fanning, says Kerner, is “the actress of her generation, and aside from being that, she’s an amazing person. “She is a 40-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old body.”
“The night before last, Dakota was very sick with a 24-hour bug – but yet she went to the premiere yesterday, sat through the movie, and stayed for three hours signing autographs. She never acted tired. Never wanted to sit down. She’s just extraordinary to me. Having said that, the subtlety of her performance, her adult understanding of all these things, it’s a wonder to behold. She’ll wrap a scene and then [clicks fingers] she’s off running around with the other kids in the movie, throwing the ball or something like that. My oldest daughter is quite in awe of her – to have the ability to be so focused and then turn it off and become a child”.
Fanning was a huge fan of the book, and wanted in from the moment Kerner asked her to do it. “She so wanted to play Fern – it’s a character she’s always loved. I’m so glad we got her”.
Unlike Fanning, interestingly enough, the all-star voice cast of the film was chosen blindly – as in, the producers did not routinely chase big names; they merely went after ‘the right voices’.
The producers decided to record the voices of a number of actors – scenes taken from some of their more obscure films, so that it wouldn’t be known whom the voice belonged to – and then consequently give each voice a numeral. For instance, Robert Redford – though not everyone recognized the voice as Redford’s – would only be known as ‘voice actor A’.
“We went through these recordings. We didn’t know who they were. We wanted to be careful not to cast big names just for casting big names. We had lesser known character actors up to big name stars on these tracks, and we just picked them out based on who had the right voice for each character”.
The process was an interesting one, says Kerner, because they found themselves eliminating actors and actresses for the roles that they thought they’d automatically consider.
“There was one particular actress, who I won’t name, who we thought we’d automatically go for. Thing is, we didn’t know it was her. Problem was, her voice was just too high for the role of Charlotte. It just wasn’t right. When we discovered whom the voice belonged to, it was such a surprise – if I hadn’t of sat and listened to her voice without knowing who it belonged too, I would’ve straight away thought she’d be perfect for the part.”
Julia Roberts was ultimately asked to play the title role.
“I pressed and pressed and pressed on her”, says Kerner. “She was in anti-natal care at that time, because she was having her two babies and she had to hold them in a little longer and so she was in no mood to hear about another movie. Her agents got her to say yes though. She then had the babies about ten days later, and then we waited six weeks to record her – this was a week before filming”.
Kerner was just as joyous to sign Steve Buscemi to voice Templeton.
“Steve Buscemi was the right voice to be a rat. There were other people, like say Jack Nicholson, who could’ve been right, but Steve is just so that guy. When we heard that voice, disembodied, it was just a rat’s fest. Steve often remarks that he doesn’t know whether he should take that as a compliment or a criticism – that he sounds like a rat – but he was just divine”.
Just as Buscemi was the right voice for Templeton, Thomas Haden Church – whom Kerner had worked with on both “George of the Jungle” movies – had the perfect voice for one of the film’s new characters, one of two wisecracking crows.
In the original book, a couple of blue jays were mentioned, but because the film was being shot in Australia and blue jays weren’t a common bird down under, they decided to write the birds as crows.
“They were thugs, as the script was written, they were thuggy birds – kinda like out of [the film] Grease, but it just didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t original. We ended up coming with something we liked though, and immediately I thought of Thomas Haden Church. Tom was such an easy choice. “
The idea for a “Charlotte’s Web” film came upon Kerner when he was working for the Walt Disney company – where he produced films like “The Mighty Ducks”, “Snow Dogs” and “George of the Jungle”.
“I started investigating the rights [to the film]”, says Kerner, whose first film as producer was the 80s drama, “Less than Zero”. “I found out that Paramount own the North American rights and that Edgar Bronfman Sr, the chairman of Seagrams, owned the international rights. It took me about a year and a half to convince Edgar to let us make the film, and get a deal done between the two of them.”
The film got the greenlight in 2002, off the back of a 28-page treatment that Kerner had written.
“The studio said yes they were going to do it immediately”, he smiles.
Interestingly enough, Kerner didn’t base his outline – let alone the impending screenplay – on the original animated film version of “Charlotte’s Web”.
“We based it totally on the book – we wanted nothing to do with the original film”, he says. “The original film for me – and I know it’s a film that people your age grew up with and love, and as a musical it was really geared to you guys as kids – was nowhere near as good as the book. Granted, I was too old to appreciate the original film when it came out, but I just loved the original book so much. I love his language and his point-of-view so much that I just wanted to set out and make a pure and clean version of his book. I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Now, Kerner is working on a feature film adaptation of the beloved 80s cartoon series, “The Smurfs”.
“Having seen all 234 episodes of the show, we’ve been working really hard at looking where all the holes were in the episodes”, says Kerner, who is also working on a live-action version of E.B White’s book “Trumpet of the Swan”. “What we’ve done is we’ve plugged all those holes in a trilogy of three movies, and we reveal things as we go along.”
Like “Charlotte’s Web”, Kerner admits securing the rights to “The Smurfs” was tough because the characters’ creators weren’t sure they wanted a Hollywood producer to meddle with their legacy. He adds, “They’re all so very protective of The Smurfs, so it took me five years of negotiation to get the rights. And then, they were very uncertain about what story we wanted to tell. Then we got the rights on everyone’s faith that they also had an ability to veto, and presented them with the treatment. They just loved it.”
– CLINT MORRIS
CHARLOTTE’S WEB opens Thursday Across Australia