Screen Notes: Promising Film Shows in KC - But Maybe Not Elsewhere

The Kansas City Star, 2 December 2000
By Robert W. Butler

First, take a terrific title -- "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" -- and then add a terrific cast: Kenneth Branagh, Robin Wright Penn, Lynn Redgrave, Peter Riegert, Peri Gilpin, Jared Harris. Sign on Robert Redford as executive producer. Stir in some rave reviews: "A wonderful ride ... smart and insightful." "An unusually high ratio of laughs per minute." "A movie at once deeply cynical and often mocking ... yet genuinely fond of its flawed yet fundamentally decent people." Top it all off with a prestigious booking at the closing-night gala of this fall's Toronto International Film Festival.

It's a Cinderella story for writer/director Michael Kalesniko and his producer/wife, Nancy M. Ruff. Right?

Well ... not quite. With all of the above going for it, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" still doesn't have a distributor. Relations between Kalesniko and the company that financed the movie (and which is, ostensibly, trying to get it into theaters) are so acrimonious that they no longer talk to each other.

"We've got a movie with all sorts of marquee value," lamented Kalesniko, 39, in a recent telephone conversation from the couple's Los Angeles home, "but we may never get a marquee."

Which is why the star-heavy comedy is being shown in Kansas City this week as part of the Indy Film Showcase. Sponsored by the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, the series each month features an independent film still searching for distribution.

One of the purposes of the showcase is to allow local independent moviemakers to learn from the experiences of their peers elsewhere. They'll no doubt get an earful from Kalesniko and Ruff, who will be on hand to present their celluloid orphan and answer audience questions when "Neighbor's Dog" screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Tivoli Manor Square Theatre. Admission is $6.

Best known as the writer of "Howard Stern's Private Parts" and as one of Hollywood's more in-demand script doctors (he's paid a lot to anonymously spiff up other people's work), Kalesniko said he wrote "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" as a purely personal -- though not necessarily autobiographical -- project.

Branagh plays Peter McGowan, a British playwright and former boy wonder who now is struggling with a bad case of writer's block. A glib but crusty curmudgeon, Peter isn't at all thrilled by the desperate efforts of his wife (Robin Wright Penn) to conceive a child. He's also dealing with a stalker (Jared Harris) who wanders their suburban neighborhood at night. And then there's the next-door neighbor's dog, a beast whose barking has given Peter a killer case of insomnia.

When Peter's theater colleagues complain that a child character he has written isn't believable, the playwright reluctantly starts hanging out with a young neighbor (Suzi Hofrichter), hoping to glean insights into the child mind. Instead, the brooding misanthrope discovers paternal feelings he never knew he possessed.

"Children tend to either look at people with a little more clarity, or conversely, they're all-accepting," Kalesniko observed. "This little girl simply loves Peter completely, which utterly breaks down his cynical defenses. But he's still a pretty crusty guy."

While acknowledging that "every character is an aspect of yourself," Kalesniko claims that "About the only thing in the film that is truly autobiographical is the barking dog. That was right out of my life. We were living on a terraced hillside in L.A., and the neighbor's dog could literally bark into our windows. And every time you call a dog owner and tell them their dog is barking, they go, `My dog?' I mean, how could they not notice? It should be twice as loud in their house, right?

"So basically to keep my sanity I started gathering all this great information on how to kill you neighbor's dog and not get caught. It was going to be a book, but somehow it became a screenplay. But I must stress that the title is meant ironically. This isn't a David Spade movie. If someone is coming to my film in the hopes of actually learning how to kill their neighbor's dog, they'll be very disappointed."

In real life, Kalesniko and Ruff got away from the barking only by moving, although Kalesniko did buy a "sonic disrupter" designed to fight back by sending out an irritating super-high-pitched signal that only dogs can hear. "But all I think I did was confuse it. It just gave him momentary pause."

The "Neighbor's Dog" screenplay received several readings and developed a positive buzz in Hollywood, though Kalesniko found himself cutting lines when actors complained that the script was too wordy. Getting it on film, though, was a long shot because of Kalesniko's demand that he direct it. To do that he needed some star power in his corner.

Enter Robert Redford, a client at the same talent agency that handled Kalesniko. The actor/director got a look at the script and agreed to serve as executive producer. The money to make the film came from a Hollywood-based company that up to that time had specialized in straight-to-video releases. But, said Kalesniko, "They were looking for some classier projects -- and this had Robert Redford's name on it. Also, they weren't worried about my being a first-time director, and they offered no development notes. They were willing to let me make my movie with no second-guessing. So all of that was appealing." (The company will go unnamed in this story; as of press time the company representatives had not returned The Star's phone calls.)

One thing was a bit odd, though. "They never told us exactly what our budget was," Kalesniko said. "It's just their way of working. They've said $10 million or $7 million. But it might have been no more than $4 million. I just don't know."

With Redford and the money on board, the next step was casting. "Branagh was always my first choice," Kalesniko said of the Irish actor who gained international fame for his film versions of Shakespeare plays. "I finally got the script to him, and the moment he said he was interested I threw all the deleted dialogue back in. I mean, here's a guy who can make Hamlet's soliloquy sound like he's just made it up. "Besides which, he turned out to be one of funniest guys I've ever met, a natural comedy genius. And once Ken came on board it was easy to build a cast around him. All of these great actors were working cheap because they liked the script. I ended up with a small film with big stars."

Principal photography took place over five weeks in the fall of 1999 in Kalesniko's hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. The first hint of "problems" came when the film was tested with audiences. "It was incredibly uncomfortable, very jumpy," the director said. "But at the first screening we got a great score. And at the second testing the scores were ridiculously high. The woman conducting the testing told us that audiences loved this movie."

Good news, but the film's financial backers seemed curiously slow to capitalize on the movie's possibilities. "Michael and I had to fight to get it submitted to Toronto," Ruff said. "And when we showed the film in the (noncompetitive) market at Cannes we actually had people who wanted to distribute it. But (the financing company) and the distributors could never come to terms. It was very frustrating."

Another problem: The company representative who served as one of the project's producers -- and who had maintained a good relationship with the filmmakers -- left to work with a different outfit. Kalesniko and Ruff thought they had lost their strongest link to the film's owners. So, for the time being, at least, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is in limbo. Kalesniko and Ruff don't know whether their movie will ever be seen by the public in theaters. For all they know, it could pop up any day on the video shelves.

What went wrong? The couple now speculate that their financial backers always had hoped to rush "Neighbor's Dog" straight to video, capitalizing on the names in the cast for a quick payback of their investment. But the positive reviews and enthusiastic audiences derailed that scenario, forcing them into the unfamiliar waters of theatrical distribution. "I think they blame me for making a better movie than they expected," Kalesniko said. Ruff, playing the conciliatory half of the partnership, said that while "we're very grateful that they came up with the money," she and her husband wouldn't have signed on if they'd thought their film would go straight to video.

"Michael and I were a little naive going into this," she acknowledged. "All along we were reassured that this wouldn't happen to us. We were willing to shoot it in our back yard with no stars for a quarter million, as long as it got to play in the theaters. "I mean, we're not looking for 2,000 screens. But we made a movie, and we'd like it to be seen in movie theaters." The Kansas City Star

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