To Wow-Wow the Audience
'How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog' Finally Goes for a Walk in Theaters.

The Los Angeles Times, 21 February 2002
By Susan King

Probably some dog owners will think that it's poetic justice that Michael Kalesniko, the writer and director of the feature comedy "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," lives in a Glendale neighborhood that is definitely dog-friendly. In fact, a chorus of barks, howls and yowls emanate from his neighbors' homes whenever anybody walks down the street where he lives.

Kalesniko and his wife, Nancy M. Ruff (who is the film's producer), don't really seem to have anything against dogs. But they are cat people, sharing their home with three felines including a very chatty female tabby named Nora who, Kalesniko boasts, acts like a dog.

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," which opens in limited release Friday , stars Kenneth Branagh as Peter McGowan, L.A.'s most successful playwright. The acerbic British-born Peter, though, is in the midst of a dry spell. He's not having much luck writing his latest play because the Armenian neighbors next door have a new dog, Baby, who barks constantly.

Robin Wright Penn plays his wife, Melanie, a children's dance instructor who is obsessed with starting a family. Peter, though, is uncomfortable around children and isn't keen on becoming a father. Peter and Melanie's life changes when a recently separated woman and her young, disabled daughter, Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), move in next door. Lynn Redgrave plays Peter's Alzheimer's-stricken mother-in-law; Jared Harris is an obsessed fan masquerading as Peter.

Kalesniko, who wrote the screenplay to Howard Stern's 1997 comedy, "Private Parts," and has worked extensively as a script doctor, actually made "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" three years ago. It has been an uphill battle for Kalesniko and Ruff to get their independent production a theatrical release.

The couple had a setback last fall when the film, made for approximately $7 million, actually premiered on the Starz cable network; the video and DVD of the film arrives in stores late next month.

"It's a complicated story," Kalesniko says. "What I am caught up in ... this is like "The Producers," but I am living it for real. For whatever reason [the financiers] can't risk this movie being a hit." (Reviews so far for the film have been mixed.)

Initially, the film was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. "We got offers from all the major distributors and offers in the seven figures. The financiers rejected them all, only for them to sell it to Starz cable, which I would say is a third position cable company for a third of the price. That was their preference."

Kalesniko, 41, and Ruff, 44, eventually got back the theatrical rights to their film and found a boutique distributor, Artistic License. "The big guys had walked away," Kalesniko says. "Artistic License has a great reputation. It's [opening] in three theaters here and three in New York and one in Dallas, and then we'll go wider."

"I think in the end it may work out for the best," Ruff says. "Not too many people saw it on Starz. The film belongs on the big screen--that has always been my position on it. It was made for the big screen, and we were told it would be on the big screen. We have come to find out that they are mostly financial reasons that they went ahead [and sold it to cable]. It was really difficult [for us] because it was a defeat."

But Ruff and Kalesniko didn't surrender. "I became pretty obnoxious with everybody," Ruff says. "I did get on people's nerves. We would never have been opening on Friday if I hadn't spent every moment of every day trying to get it where it is."

Kalesniko says going the independent route is not for the faint of heart. "It's a tough haul. There are times when it is disheartening, but to tell you the truth, it's thrilling now because it is an enormous victory. We have won a lot of festivals. We did the festival route for about a year. We have won about half a dozen awards--always the audience awards, though we won the Jury award at Avignon. Because audiences always responded well to this film that is why we want it in theaters--not on a station like Starz that no one sees."

He and Ruff decided to make the film independently because, says Kalesniko, "Hollywood is not exactly lining up at the studios to give first-time directors a shot at really expensive films. I wrote a few spec [scripts] that I have sold that didn't get made but that I wanted to direct myself. When it came to this, I knew how bad I wanted to direct it when I wrote it."

His agent read the script and thought it would be a "star vehicle" and began to send it out. It caught the eye of Robert Redford's South Fork Pictures, and Redford signed on as executive producer. With his name attached to the project, Kalesniko began to round up his cast. "I always wanted Kenneth Branagh. It just fit him like a glove.... Once we had him and Robin, it was easy to build a cast around them. We had our choice. We had great actors coming to us."

As the neighborhood dogs start barking again, Kalesniko acknowledges that at one point he did contemplate killing a neighbor's pooch. "The house before this one was a rental," he says. "It was in Glendale on a hill so the houses were terraced. Our neighbors got a dog named Baby and the dog would bark into our house. It barked all the time." The neighbors turned a deaf ear to his complaints, he says. "I am always amazed that dog owners can never hear their own dog barking," he sighs. Soon Kalesniko became obsessed with doing away with Baby. "When you are lying awake at night, and the dog is keeping you awake, and you are wondering what to write next, it sort of becomes forced inspiration-- you start daydreaming about killing the dog. There is no information on how to do this and get away with it. Sleep deprivation can make you do some pretty desperate things, but I never did it, of course. It became a script, thank goodness. And we moved."

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