Actors Robin Wright-Penn, Suzi Hofrichter, and Kenneth Branagh smile for the camera prior to the press conference for their movie How to Kill Your Neighbour's Dog at the Toronto Film Festival in (CP)

Toronto Film Festival Ends on Warm Note Despite Nasty Title of Final Gala

Canadian Press via Excite.com, 17 September 2000

And despite its title, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, from Canadian-born screenwriter and first-time director Michael Kalesniko, filled the bill Saturday. Kenneth Branagh plays a curmudgeonly Los Angeles-based playwright suffering from writer's block. And no wonder.

His wife (Robin Wright Penn) keeps demanding that he deal with her ticking biological clock, desperately wanting a baby. In addition, despite three failed plays in a row, he seems famous enough to warrant his own stalker. And to top it all off, there's that neighbour's pooch who barks incessantly late at night, mucking up the creative process.

Kalesniko told a festival news conference that the insufferable dog of his script was based on a real-life experience in Glendale, Calif.

"We had a dog next door that was so horrible, I became obsessed with euthanizing it!" he revealed. "I actually bought a sonic disruptor to screw up his ears. I did everything I could and it wouldn't stop."

The University of Victoria graduate said he then planned instead to write a book called How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog and Other Acts of Suburban Terrorism, but ended up with the screenplay. And as for the solution to the annoying mutt?

"We moved."

Despite its debut at the festival, the producers say there's no distribution deal yet, even though the buzz has been very favourable.

Kalesniko sees a certain irony in the fact that he left British Columbia for Hollywood, only to make a film that was shot in Vancouver and then premiered in Toronto.

His transition from teaching to journalism to screenwriting, and now directing, was a case of sheer economics, he said. Unable to find work in Canada in the 1980s, he ended up in the Northwest Territories where he taught for a while until one of his students beat him up.

"It was just to pay student loans. Believe me, I was not a good teacher. It wasn't To Sir With Love."

Then one summer he and a friend were sleeping in their car until they got jobs emptying the holds on fish boats.

"If you've seen the hold of a fish boat full of fish and you get $20 to do that, you get an idea of how poor we were."

That was the breaking point. He decided to go to Los Angeles and be a filmmaker and where at least it was warm.

Now Kalesniko counts his blessings that he has a film partly financed by Robert Redford's production company and with a cast that includes Branagh, Penn, Lynn Redgrave and Jared Harris, son of actor Richard Harris.

Branagh, who has enjoyed screen success with everything from Shakespearean tragedy to Woody Allen humour, said there's truth to the cliche that performing comedy is serious business and even more brutal than drama.

"If they don't laugh, you're dead, you're dying," he said. "Sometimes it is easy to pull on a pair of tights and be giving a lot of tragic acting, and people then say 'Oh, that's very impressive! Real tears, it's marvellous!' "

But Branagh credited the success of the film's humour to the originality in Kalesniko's script.

"A lot of times, it's just people talking, which in itself can be pretty interesting because that's mostly our experience in life," he said. "In the wake of MTV, it becomes rather original to have a story where people talk to each other."


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