Robert Shaye is known for a lot of things in Hollywood that don’t have much to do with directing movies (heading New Line Cinema, producing the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, sparring with Peter Jackson). Now the uber-exec’s going back to semi-uncharted territory with the family fantasy "The Last Mimzy," marking what is only his second directorial effort to date.

We met Shaye a few months back at the Sundance Film Festival, where New Line held a special screening of "Mimzy" to commemorate Shaye’s thirty years in the movie biz. Contrary to many a "LOTR" fan’s worst dreams, he’s a genial guy with an obvious affection for the movies whose passion for this project spanned more than a decade. With "Mimzy," Shaye steps out of the deal-making/producing arena to take on his first directing gig in seventeen years (Shaye’s first and, until now, last film was 1990’s "Book of Love").

RT spoke with Shaye about the making of "Mimzy" (based on Lewis Padgett’s 1943 short story "Mimsy Were The Borogroves"), the film’s core sci-fi logic that could be real, and Shaye’s own take on sitting in the director’s chair. [During the festival, New Line bought remake rights to Slamdance film "King of Kong," a documentary to be released later this year by Picturehouse about obsessively competitive video game rivals — look for Shaye’s businessman take on that as well.]

Bob Shaye tenderly cradles his Rotten Tomatoes t-shirt

Rotten Tomatoes: "The Last Mimzy" is said to have been at least 12 years in the making. Why did it take so long?

Bob Shaye: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, because I wasn’t exclusively focused on it, and neither was Michael Phillips, who was the producer. Second of all, it came from a really great science fiction short story, but it was a short story that had for me a fascinating premise, but a totally incomplete story arc.

It’s the story about two kids who find a box of objects, and they don’t know what they are but they look like toys and they start playing with them; what they are in fact are teaching machines from the future. And it’s a true scientific fact that kids’ brains don’t get hardwired until they’re about six or seven years old, when they start throwing off all these synapses that are in there and their whole brain system starts to focus and reduce.

So if there was a way, theoretically, to communicate with kids whose brains are not hardwired yet, by somehow…getting a five year old girl to figure out what non-Euclidean geometry is, as an example, of something I haven’t a clue about, and other sorts of scientific stuff, those kids could theoretically become beyond what we consider genius now. And I thought that was a really fascinating idea.

Emma Wilder (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) hugs Mimzy

["The Last Mimzy"’s press notes cite current research in physics and neuroscience alluding to theoretical possibilities of both time travel and the genetic loss of traits like innocence, both of which ground the film’s fictional logic.]

But it took a long time to put together, and we didn’t really know how to end the film; at least when we started the development process, we had the story…[it] actually ends with the kids getting their brains changed, and they become super geniuses and they disappear, and that’s the end of the story. I didn’t think that was going to be such a hot storyline for a movie! So we had to figure out a bunch of stuff — what the toys were, where they came from, what they were doing here, what is the effect on the family altogether, and eventually what the kids would do with them and what would make it into an exiting adventure that also was touching.

RT: The themes are a bit reminiscent of "E.T."…

BS: Well, obviously any reference to that is a great compliment, as long as people don’t think I was knocking off Steven Spielberg, ’cause I definitely wasn’t. But what we were hoping, and what initial screenings indicated, is that it’s a film that parents like to bring their kids to. There’s enough with Rainn Wilson and Kathryn Hahn, who play a kind of comedic sidebar, there’s a lot for parents to like; the extra pleasure for them is to have kids with them that they can see enjoying the film as much as they do, without being bored. It’s definitely not a pink pony movie. Actually, it was written too by the guy who wrote and won an Academy Award for "Ghost," Joel Rubin. I thought he was so clever in putting the Whoopi Goldberg character in the middle of that great dramatic story, so I asked him to write Rainn Wilson’s role, and Kathryn’s, so there was some comedy, there was some grown up stuff in it. But it’s still a PG movie, and we wanted to make sure that parents felt comfortable bringing their kids to it, as well as enjoying the movie themselves.

RT: It’s great that the concept of the kids doesn’t pander to children, like many children’s movies.

BS: And then there’s the last theme, that — I’ll say to you, as I’ve said to others — I’m definitely not a message filmmaker, I often quote Samuel Goldwyn, "If I want to send a message I use Western Union," and being pedantic or pointing a finger is absolutely not one thing I want to do. But in the context of this story, and what the toys are doing and what was happening, it did begin to dawn on me that there was a comment — not an instruction, but a comment — that we do seem to be losing our innocence a little bit, and that’s kind of the subtext of the movie.

Youngsters Noah and Emma find a trove of strange toys in "The Last Mimzy"

RT: It occurred to me that maybe this film couldn’t resonate so well ten years ago, if you had made it right away, because we’re so technologically-obsessed right now.

BS: Yeah, that’s just great synchronicity. The movie’s about synchronicity, and Jung and all that stuff, in some very, very subtle way. But yeah, I don’t think this film would have worked ten years ago. There hasn’t been a movie like this, I don’t believe, for a very long time — since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," perhaps. The producer, Michael Phillips, produced "Close Encounters" before this. It’s about that we are very mortal, and sometimes some of us forget what being mortal really means.

RT: How would you characterize your directorial style, since we haven’t seen a lot from you?

BS: Well, my style is…first of all, I had a lot of baggage when I signed on to this thing — I was head of a company, started a company, I’d only directed one movie before, I directed some shorts and stuff, but still…it’s hard to ask professionals to put themselves on the line, you know, because I am the director and they can’t go off and make the movie without the director, like a symphony without a conductor.

So first of all I got to be great friends with all of the actors, including the kids. But my style is basically, let’s talk about the scene, let me tell you what I think about it, why don’t you give me some idea, show me what you want to do! And the most important thing for this movie, because it is so full of fantasy, is that they play it so straight, and real, and honest. So everybody did that, and I think they pulled it off very well.

RT: How’s the experience (at Sundance) different as a director rather than an exec?

BS: Well, they once asked Stanley Kubrick ‘have you ever taken a vacation,’ and he said ‘A vacation from what?’ So it’s fun to be treated a little bit like talent and not like some crummy distributor or evil producer, which has also been the case. It’s nice to be part of the product in this way as opposed to being a bystander.

RT: Not to stray off the bat, but a purchase was just made recently here at the festival, "King of Kong." Did you have input into that?

BS: Oh yes. It was brought to my attention, and we’re hoping eventually that the film could have a remake as a dramatic film, and we saw the documentary and liked it a lot. It started to resonate with me, it took a little bit of time to "get it," — but not too long, I thought about it overnight — and Toby Emmerich, who’s president of our production company was very enthusiastic, as was Richard Brenner, who’s his Number Two guy. I supported it, I’m very proud that they selected us; I know there was a lot of competition for it. Picturehouse, first and foremost, is going to be distributing the documentary, which is a perfect platform. If we get inspired, and come up with a good script and a good cast, it’ll really be a fun feature film.

It’s gonna be comedic, and we’ve got several outstanding comedians in mind to play the two guys.

RT: Anyone in particular?

BS: I can’t tell you. Stay tuned!

"The Last Mimzy" opens Friday in wide release.

Comedy superstar Will Ferrell scored his first-ever number one opening in a lead role with the stronger-than-expected debut of his latest hit Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby which left all competitors in the dust at the North American box office.

Solid opening weekend results came from the animated comedy Barnyard: The Original Party Animals in second place and the horror film The Descent in fifth, but the Robin Williams thriller The Night Listener failed to find much of an audience in its debut. Overall, the marketplace was healthy and showed substantial improvement over the first weekend of August from the last two summers.

Sony crossed the finish line in first place for the industry-leading eighth time this year with the turbo-charged opening of Talladega Nights which grossed an estimated $47M over the Friday-to-Sunday period. Playing in a massive 3,803 theaters, the PG-13 film about a legendary NASCAR driver averaged a fantastic $12,359 per location. Will Ferrell has collected more than his share of second place trophies. The former Saturday Night Live star has opened at number two numerous times in recent years with films such as Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched, Anchorman, Elf, and Old School. Elf climbed into first place in its second weekend, and Ferrell has had supporting roles and cameos in number one openers from other stars. But Talladega Nights marks the first time he has anchored a top spot debut, and he did it decisively.

Reviews were generally positive for the racing comedy, which co-starred John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Michael Clarke Duncan, and the weekend gross was roughly three times the take of its closest competition. Sony backed the $73M film with a lavish marketing campaign which involved promotional support from numerous corporate sponsors. Even veteran talk show host Larry King turned his daily chat session on opening night into a one-hour commercial for the film by interviewing Ferrell and Reilly in character as Ricky Bobby and his racing pal Cal Naughton Jr.

Talladega reached a broad audience with young males standing out slightly, as expected. Studio research indicated that 53% of the audience was male and that 52% was under 25. Aside from being Ferrell’s biggest opening weekend ever, the film also generated the third best bow ever in the month of August. Only 2001’s Rush Hour 2 and the following year’s Signs did better with debuts of $67.4M and $60.1M, respectively. Those two pics also launched on the first frame of the month which studios still look at as a good weekend for programming a high-profile summer film on. By this point, most of the season’s tentpole films have played out, but there is still enough summer playing time ahead to have long-term success.

Finishing far back in second place, but still enjoying an impressive debut, was Paramount’s animated comedy Barnyard with an estimated $16M. The PG-rated toon bowed in 3,311 locations and averaged a solid $4,844 per theater. The opening was better than The Ant Bully‘s $8.4M from last weekend, but did not reach the $22.2M debut of Monster House from two weeks ago. Barnyard was produced by Nickelodeon Movies for just over $50M and played mostly to kids and parents. Audience research showed that 75% of the crowd was made up of families with males and females represented evenly. With two other cartoons in the top ten, and with Pirates still pulling in every age group, the opening performance of Barnyard was commendable.

The year’s biggest blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest dropped 47% to an estimated $11M boosting its domestic treasure to a stunning $379.7M. That puts the Johnny Depp adventure sequel at number eight among all-time domestic blockbusters surpassing the $377M of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Pirates also managed to bump Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ off the all-time top ten list. Overseas, Disney scored another colossal gross taking in $57M from 47 markets to rule the international box office for the fifth straight frame. That sent the offshore cume soaring to $392M and the worldwide haul to $771.7M making it the top-grossing global hit of 2006 after just one month of release. Pirates could certainly be on its way to the one billion dollar mark with another installment in the franchise on deck for a May 2007 release.

Audiences rejected Miami Vice which tumbled a horrendous 62% in its second weekend to an estimated $9.7M. With $45.7M in ten days, the Universal action thriller is on course to end with $65-70M. That would give Vice a domestic gross of about half of its $135M production budget. Good news did, however, come from the U.K. where the cop pic debuted at number one this weekend.

Opening in fifth place was the new horror entry The Descent with an estimated $8.8M from 2,095 locations. The R-rated fright flick about a six-pack of young ladies trapped in an underground cave full of flesh-eating creatures averaged a solid $4,200 per venue. Reviews were unusually positive for the genre and distributor Lionsgate pitched The Descent in its advertising as being from the studio that brought audiences Saw and Hostel. But the opening was far short of the $18.3M and $19.6M that those low-budget hits opened to. Still, with a modest pricetag of its own, the cave exploration flick looks to make a few bucks theatrically and dig up a bigger audience when released on DVD.

Fox’s teen comedy John Tucker Must Die dropped 58% in its second weekend to an estimated $6.1M. With $28.6M in ten days, the revenge flick should find its way to the neighborhood of $40M. Sony’s animated scarefest Monster House followed close behind with an estimated $6M, off 49%, for a $57M cume. Competing toon The Ant Bully fell 54% in its sophomore session to an estimated $3.9M. Warner Bros. has collected just $18.2M in ten days and should conclude with an underwhelming $25-27M.

A pair of films tied for ninth place with an estimated $3.6M each. Universal’s comedy You, Me and Dupree declined 49% and upped its sum to $66.8M. Miramax’s new Robin Williams thriller The Night Listener bowed in 1,367 locations and averaged a weak $2,634 per site.

Opening with healthy but not spectacular results in platform release was the teen drama Quinceanera which grossed an estimated $97,000 from only eight sites for a $12,125 average. The R-rated tale of a Mexican-American girl’s impending coming-of-age party won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was snapped up by Sony Classics. Quinceanera will expand beyond New York and Los Angeles in the weeks ahead.

Three comedies and a bedtime story dropped out of the top ten over the weekend. Fox’s hit fashion industry pic The Devil Wears Prada held up well once again in its sixth frame with an estimated $3.1M, off 35%, lifitng the cume to a stellar $112.7M. It was the Meryl Streep film’s fourth consecutive weekend with a drop of less than 40%. Produced for just $35M, Devil should find its way to a fabulous $120-125M making it one of the more profitable hits of the summer.

On the other hand, the Warner Bros. suspense thriller Lady in the Water has been falling by more than 60% each frame and took in an estimated $2.7M in its third scare. Down a steep 62%, the M. Night Shyamalan pic has grossed only $38.7M in 17 days and looks to drown with a mere $42-44M overall. The production budget was reportedly in the $75M range.

Sony’s Little Man fell 51% to an estimated $2.5M in its fourth outing and pushed its cume to $55.1M. The Wayans brothers pic cost $64M to produce and should end its domestic run with a respectable $58-60M. Fox’s super hero comedy flop My Super Ex-Girlfriend stumbled 73% in its third flight and grossed an estimated $1.1M. With $20.2M in the bank, look for a disappointing $22M finish.

In limited release, Fox Searchlight expanded its hit indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine from seven to 58 theaters in the top dozen markets and grossed an estimated $1.5M. That resulted in a muscular $25,169 average and a $2.2M total. The distributor will add 17 more cities on Friday and widen nationally the following weekend on the heels of strong word-of-mouth momentum.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $115.7M which was up 18% from last year when The Dukes of Hazzard debuted at number one with $30.7M; and up 23% from 2004 when Collateral opened in the top spot with $24.7M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya,

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