Movie Premiere Takes Her on a Real-life Fantasy Trip

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18 September 2000

TORONTO -- Young Suzi Hofrichter from Cecil had a ball Saturday, and Toronto loved her back. It was like an endless coming out party for the 11-year-old, until, at 1 a.m., the excitement and bright lights finally took their toll, depositing her small frame exhausted in the limo back to her hotel, full of the highs of a day to remember.

The real coming out was of Suzi's movie, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," which had its premiere as the final night gala of the 25th Toronto Film Festival. It was shown in Roy Thomson Hall, transformed for the occasion into a movie palace for 2,000-plus, with the full treatment of kleig lights, banks of cameras and red-carpet star arrivals. Amid all that, the movie itself could have been an anticlimax, but judging by the volleys of laughter and murmur of sniffles, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is just the smart comedy with heart that writer/director Michael Kalesniko intended.

The crowds came to see stars Kenneth Branagh, Robin Wright Penn and Lynn Redgrave, but they discovered Suzi. At the post-gala closing night party, filling the SkyDome floor with more than 4,000 revelers, eyes followed her everywhere -- a 4-foot, 5-inch bright-eyed waif in a shimmering white sheath, gliding happily wide-eyed through the forest of martini-toting adults.

And that was just the noisiest and final event in a very long day.

Pre-show

Suzi and her parents, Bill and Mary Hofrichter, arrived Thursday and ensconced themselves in the Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of the pricey, lively Yorkville area, where most of the hundreds of festival screenings and affiliated events take place. For the Hofrichters, the sightseeing peak was a trip up the soaring CN Tower, where daring Suzi bungee-jumped into the void -- and she has the picture to prove it.

No, actually that picture is a trick, but when she showed it gleefully Saturday afternoon back at the hotel to her grandparents (Mom's side), Don and Eileen, you could see that they were almost taken in by it -- for a moment or so, maybe. Suzi's other grandparents, John and Irmgard, were also in town to share in the excitement.

The biggest preparatory event was Friday night, meeting for dinner with the movie-making team, including Kalesniko and his wife, Nancy Ruff, one of the movie's producers, and a number of the actors. Five were in Toronto for the premiere -- Penn, Redgrave, Jared Harris (Richard Harris' son), Kaitlin Hopkins (Shirley Knight's daughter) and, chief among them, Branagh. Seeing him was chief for Suzi, too, since it is their relationship on screen that sets the tone of the movie. And it was their affectionate, joking relationship on the set that best epitomized the movie-making experience for Suzi.

It was quite a reunion, given that Suzi and Kenneth (as she calls him) have kept in occasional touch since they filmed in Vancouver. Suzi noted with wonder that the reunion dinner was exactly one year to the day since they all first met.

Seeing Branagh was a high point, but there were also two gustatory firsts. "I had my first Shirley Temple," Suzi reported happily. And although they were in a fancy French restaurant, which really doesn't stock Suzi's favorite food, she found something she liked and immediately dubbed it, giggling, "les noodles de butter."

Suzi and family still hadn't seen the movie -- they'd get their first look at it with 2,000 others Saturday night on the giant screen. But for the press, including a visiting drama critic from Pittsburgh, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" became reality at a Saturday morning screening, in order to prep them for the 1:30 p.m. press conference.

Branagh plays Peter, a dyspeptic playwright who resists his wife's (Penn) desire for kids. Then Amy (Suzi) and her mother move in next door. The wife's aging mother (Redgrave), a fan who imagines himself the playwright's alter ego (Harris), and rehearsals for the play Peter is struggling with (Hopkins is featured) add sub-plots and texture. Kalesniko's writing is strong on literate comedy; both the play within the movie and the main plot of Peter and wife recall relationships in the plays of Tom Stoppard.

To an expectant Suzi fan, it's noteworthy that she gets a laugh on her very first appearance. For a while, her appearances are few, but her character gradually grows. It turns out to be Amy who proves catalytic for Peter, and a couple of her emotional scenes provide much of the movie's heart.

"Here we go . . . "

The smallish room at the Park Hyatt Hotel, festival press headquarters, was packed with print, radio and TV journalists. Then came a bustle in the hallway. Heads turned, someone said, "Here we go," and in they came -- Kalesniko, Penn, Branagh, Suzi, Redgrave and Harris. For a few minutes you couldn't see them for the crush of photographers; then they settled into a row behind their microphones, Suzi almost hidden behind hers.

Branagh and Kalesniko got most of the initial questions. They set a light tone; the movie is a comedy, after all. But as soon as the press discovered that Suzi is as natural and bright in person as she had been on screen, she started to get more than her share.

Her bright, blond smile was set off by a light blue top, sparkling necklace and bracelet, light gloss nail polish and a touch of facial glitter. (Asked about it later, Mary said, "She did that -- after all, she's 11.") Asked questions, she thought about her answers. And she scored her laughs. At one point, asked about a scene in which Amy jumps into a pool on top of Peter, she declared with humorous pride, "I do my own stunts." Asked how she'd gotten the part, she mentioned "The Christmas Tree," her 1996 movie with Julie Harris -- having seen that, the producers "looked for me and found me -- Good for me!"

Among the photographers were Bill and Mary, busy with still camera and video. Some photo shop near Cecil is going to have an upsurge in profits this week.

Afterwards, Suzi declared she'd been nervous: "You should have seen my legs going under that table." But an actor is someone who uses that nervous energy.

It's Time For Your Closeup

After the press conference, the "Neighbor's Dog" team with its attendant flotilla of press reps, producers, security and family and friends (Redgrave's daughter, Suzi's parents, the tagalong Pittsburgh drama critic, etc.) withdrew to a palatial suite higher up in the hotel.

"The bathroom was bigger than this hotel room," Suzi reported to her grandparents later; "It even had a TV!" Even the entrance hall was big enough to reckon as a living room in addition to at least two more.

The main immediate business was photos. First, Kalesniko and cast posed in a family group, joking as they did. "What are we giving?" asked Branagh. "Intelligent? Happy? I can't do both at once." Director and actors can create a kind of a family for the duration of a movie shoot (or a stage play), and this group, perhaps because of its personalities and the movie's subject matter, certainly jelled.

Throughout the suite, cell phones hummed and schedules readjusted as the entourage made itself busy. Mary and Bill filmed on. Various actors were moved here and there for solo shots and small interviews.

Over a big window, Suzi sat on a high, backed stool, attended by photographer, lighting man and assistant. "Take your left arm and lean it back," one directed, and it looked like it might be impossible, but Suzi made it look natural.

Then came a brief respite before the lengthy prep for the premiere and party. "That'll take two hours," predicted Suzi; "I'm poky."

But first it was a short walk to Pizza Hut to lay a base for the marathon ahead. Riding elevators, Suzi holds the door and pushes buttons; given a children's menu at Pizza Hut, she colors. "I can't wait for tonight," she announced, bouncing up and down with anticipation.

Show Time!

Suzi looked like a small princess in her white sheath. Her limo had a friendly, orotund driver -- he was Egyptian, he said in clipped tones. "Do you like Backstreet Boys?" he asked Suzi. "Would you like to know they have sit in this car?" Will Smith, John Travolta -- he had other celeb sittings to claim, as well.

As loyal as any father, Bill said, "Now you'll be able to tell the Backstreet Boys that Suzi sat in this car." To fill time, the limo circled through Chinatown, since cell phone directives wanted Suzi's arrival held back to the proper moment.

Then she was there, stepping out onto the carpet at Roy Thomson Hall, taken by a press rep to one knot of press (writers and photogs) after another.

"Don't talk to strangers!" commented a young man by bullhorn from across the road -- a comic who was making a show about the festival. And then, as one knot of press after another sank to their knees or bent far over to talk to Suzi, he yelled, "How to the bring the press to its knees!"

It was indeed funny to see the black-clad press folding themselves in half to address the serious, willing girl. On she moved. The gauntlet wasn't the roaring mob that it can be at the Oscars or Tonys, but it felt like an achievement when Suzi left her handler behind and moved on easily up the carpet, running it alone.

The management of such occasions is all about holding rooms. Temporary small "green rooms" are secured and stocked with the de rigeur drinks, then used to keep the celebs and their protective penumbra from wandering off, so they can make an entrance as planned.

That came next. With the hall full and abuzz, Kalesniko was introduced on stage. After a few words, he introduced his actors, saving Suzi for last. Then, freshly bathed in applause, they circled back and up, arriving in their box at the front of the mezzanine just as "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" began to roll.

At the end, spotlights came up on the movie team's box and the applause swelled as heads craned. Suzi liked the movie a lot, especially, she said, the cutting, but even this first viewing didn't much surprise her -- she'd heard about most of the scenes she wasn't in. As careful parents, Mary and Bill had read the script before, but Bill enthused about how beautifully it was all fitted together into such a complete and memorable world.

Like the rest of the audience, Suzi loved the funny outtake inserted within the final credits, which resolves one lingering regret.

Lights, Cameras, Martinis

Then back to the limo and on to the SkyDome, driven deep into its bowels, disembarking somewhere in left field. Suzi and a few hundred festival insiders had a raised area with its own bars and buffets, from which you looked out on an astonishing scene -- the cavernous SkyDome filled with partyers swarming around bars and buffets as far as you could see. Across the infield area hung a huge divider, backdrop to the band that also loomed on the electronic scoreboard. Rock show lighting completed the gigantic set.

Many of the bars served martinis alone, and it must be a universal truth that a crowd looks especially festive when wielding giant martini glasses -- the glasses even enforce a more graceful posture and walk.

Suzi was swarmed. To find her, you looked for a knot of people bending down. Several times she set out from the reserved area with family or friends for a dome-circling walkabout, taking it all in -- dancing, shmoozing, gawking. In a generally young crowd, Suzi always stood out.

Past midnight, there was an intimate and tearful farewell when Branagh left. Suzi walked off to one side to wipe away her tears. When might they meet again?

Bill marveled again at what a nice, funny, normal guy Branagh is. As the tired family walked toward the waiting limo, he said, "Something like this doesn't happen to a couple of Pittsburghers very often."

Suzi sank back into the limo cushions, face glowing softly.

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 PG Publishing. All rights reserved.


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