Interview with Michael Kalesniko
IGN FilmForce sits down for an exclusive one-on-one chat with the writer/director of 'How to Kill Your Neighbors Dog'
Film Force, 25 February 2002
"Every movie is one decision away from being a bad movie," says writer/director Michael Kalesniko, speaking with IGN FilmForce at his home office about the current release of his directorial debut, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog. In Kalesniko's case, that statement doesn't just reflect first-timer jitters it also derives from a baroque chain of sabotage and absurdity that very nearly kept his film from getting any theatrical release at all.
Kalesniko's film, which stars Kenneth Branagh as a misanthropic British playwright in Los Angeles who's not only struggling with a new play but also with his wife's (Robin Wright Penn) desire to have a child, is incredibly funny, and even the title started out as a joke. "Executives would say 'What are you going to write next?' and I'd say, 'I'm going to write something called How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog,'" the director explains. "I'd say that for shock value, but the truth is that I was being kept awake at night by a dog. I had this terrible insomnia, and I couldn't get the dog to stop barking, and I couldn't get the neighbors to stop the dog. So I set out to kill it."
Although Kalesniko recounts this with a laugh, at the time his tongue was planted only partially in cheek. "I figured there must be a better way to do it than just poisoning hamburger I didn't want the dog to die a gruesome death! So I did all this research, but couldn't find anything on how to cap a dog. I thought that I could write a book and call it How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog." Kalesniko even went so far as to consider possible markets for such a specialized topic, like the off-beat book publisher Loompanics.
Happily, at least for the barking dog in question, Kalesniko found the idea "starting to turn into a screenplay. I got such a kick out of the idea of this misanthropic guy hiding in his backyard who was once a lauded playwright." That playwright, like his creator, finds himself being kept up all night by you guessed it his neighbor's dog; the resulting insomnia causes him to retreat further and, as Kalesniko points out, "no artist benefits by hiding out from the world."
Initially, Kalesniko conceived doing the film through "the Robert Rodriguez method I was going to finance it myself and shoot it right in this backyard. But the screenplay started getting so much attention that my agency said 'There are starring roles here, so why don't we give it a try and go out with it?' And that's why we got Robert Redford on board as Executive Producer, which is sort of a stamp of approval."
Despite Kalesniko's established success as a writer (most famously on the Howard Stern film Private Parts), he did find himself facing an obstacle as the film began coming together. "There were several big-name people who were interested in it, but [they] were also very nervous about working with a first-time director," he admits. "Which I can understand. Actors are perhaps insecure by nature, and I certainly don't come across as the Resident Genius; I think I come across more as the Budweiser distributor."
Ultimately, Kalesniko's status as a first-timer didn't stand in the way of assembling a first-rate cast, beginning with Branagh and Wright Penn. "So many people read the material, liked it, and were excited about the idea of working with Ken and Robin, so that's how we built the cast. Then we were off and running."
One of the most fascinating aspects of the two major works in Kalisniko's filmography, the Private Parts script and now How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, is his ability to take prickly characters and make them likable. "You get that note [from the studios] every time you write something: 'He's not likable.' I'd say they're confusing likeability with intriguing and fascinating." In the case of Dog's Peter McGowan, Kalesniko recounts, "I kept saying to them: 'I made Howard Stern likable, so you've got to go with me on this. If people enjoyed him, I think they'll enjoy Peter McGowan. And, pray God, but I think it works."
And work it does, both as characterization and as a film and that's where strange things started to happen to Kalesniko and How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog. "We finally got a cut," he recalls, "and it was taken to Cannes in 2000. The response was so great that we got offers in the seven figures from absolutely every major distributor." Great news, right? Not in this case, in which to use Kalesniko's carefully-chosen words "certain people associated with the financiers" rejected every single offer. "Only to have them turn around," he adds, "and say to me 'How are we going to sell this movie? No one wants it.' And I said, 'This is not the case. I don't know what you're talking about.'"
The saga only gets weirder from there, as Kalesniko explains that "I started to think that maybe we could save it through the festival route." The movie toured various film festivals, even ending up in the prestigious closing night slot at the Toronto Film Festival, North America's most important film fest. Still, "there was no celebration about this," on the part of Kalesniko's adversaries on the picture. "When we finally called Toronto to thank them for this, they said, 'Are you kidding? We've been asking for this movie for months and were just ignored!' But thankfully, we were the closing night film, got great responses and great reviews. And, once again, the movie stopped dead."
Although Kalesniko admits that he put up with a lot of this odd behavior because "I was new to this [and] I thought it was just part of the experience," he finally started to do "some Agatha Christie work" to figure out what was going on. This is also the part of the story where certain facts, at Kalesniko's request, must stay off-the-record. But he did discover, and will go on the record, about the following:
"Finally, we find out that they'd dumped it to Starz!, arguably a third-rate cable company, and got less than a third of any offer [that had been previously received from major distributors]," he reveals. "Why? To make it go away?" The ultimate explanation is, at this point, off-the-record, so Kalesniko says "we just have to leave it a mystery, because it sounds so absurd. It's almost beyond an article and more a book. It's just the oddest experience to get involved in."
The film was also rather unceremoniously dumped onto video. "It's going to be an awful DVD, I don't mind saying," explains Kalesniko. "We sat down with them and said 'What are you doing?' And they said, 'If we did it wide-frame [letterboxed], people see the black parts on the bottom and top of the screen and think their TVs are broken.' Is that a 1980s attitude?! These are people with DVD players they're very sophisticated and want to have a closer relationship to the movie!" Also, no director's commentary: They said, 'Well, we find that directors don't have anything to say.' So this awful experience just continues."
Given the rather horrific nature of these events, why, then, do I find myself interviewing not a sarcastic and bitter Peter McGowan, but rather a cheerful and excited Michael Kalesniko? The answer comes in the form of a completely unusual happy ending for a situation that usually doesn't have one. "After all of that, feeling I guess that the movie now has no monetary worth, they gave it to my company for free. Essentially dumped it to us, thinking it was dead. But we still had a distributor step up to the bat, and we had the financiers to help pay for some of the distribution, and thank goodness we're off again. It came back to life. Unfortunately, the impression is that if you shoot a movie for a theatrical and it premieres on cable, it looks like you failed. And that's absolutely not the case in ours. Which makes me rather defensive. To a certain degree we've been able to beat that, but there's nothing you can do to completely change that perception."
And then there's the ultimate irony to top off this mountain of ironies. Kalesniko actually approached Starz! "to ask them to delay their showing until we had a theatrical run. And we were told flat-out 'No.' They said, 'This movie's too good and it will help us get subscribers.'"
Although Kalesniko is visibily pleased to have How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog finally being released, and greeted with great reviews, he does admit that "it's been such a long trip that you feel like you've had this massive cross on your back."
And with that "cross" off his back, what are his plans? As a studio writer, next up is "a script that I think is just terribly funny called Kent McBannon; it's for Will Farrell, and he's playing the son of Dirty Harry." And, as a director, Kalesniko is just starting to put together "Cock & Bull, which is about a bunch of young Brits living and working illegally in Santa Monica, California, and they all hang around a bar called the Cock & Bull. There really is a bar called that down there, but it's not based on that.
"To be honest with you," Kalesniko concludes, "I thought that Cock & Bull would be the first movie I'd direct, but Neighbor's Dog came together much faster. You never know which one's going to go first, so now I'm back to Cock & Bull."