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Talkin' Sweet Home Hollywood with Andy Tennant

by Joel Cunningham

Director Andy Tennant has had a long and varied career. He started as an actor in movies like Grease and Midnight Madness. He directed first for television, then for the silver screen. He found success (Ever After), disappointment (Anna and the King), and finally, he found Reese. Sweet Home Alabama was a surprise hit in the fall of 2002, posting the biggest box-office take of any movie to open in October.

Now, the movie that made Reese a megastar is coming to DVD. Tennant chats with digitallyOBSESSED about his propensity for working with blondes, the importance of having a sense of humor, and 16th-century philosophy. No, really.

dOc: You grew up in a small town outside of Chicago. How exactly does one go from there to the world of Hollywood, directing and writing movies?

Andy Tennant: I don't know, I think I'm probably the poster child for not having I plan. I went to college to study theater and thought I wanted to be an actor, started writing because I was bored, and suddenly found myself directing a short film that was seen by the right people and I started directing for The Wonder Years. I did a bunch of episodes, and then got my first break to do this Olsen twin movie [It Takes Two], and eventually did five movies in five years.

dOc: What was your short film about?

AT: Oddly enough, it was called The Cat Story, which made it into Sweet Home Alabama. It took place in my family and when I did a rewrite of the Alabama script, we put that in. I used a lot of my own experiences and threw them in there.

dOc: I wanted to touch on this a bit later, but since you mentioned it, how much rewriting do you do on your average script? I know some directors like to rewrite more than others.

AT: I do a ton. Pretty much page one. You take over and, for example, on Sweet Home we did a rewrite of the characters, of the beginning and end of the film, of Candice Bergen's character... this was a pretty substantial rewrite. My writing partner and I did a lot with Anna and the King, and we were credited on Ever After. And we did a lot on Fools Rush In too, though so did Matthew Perry.

dOc: Since we're talking about your history, I noticed you were credited for working on both Parker Lewis Can't Lose and the TV version of Ferris Bueller. I always had the sneaking suspicion that they were the same show.

AT: It's funny, I did one Ferris Bueller, and the best thing about that show was that I met Jennifer Aniston, and we're still friendly. On Parker Lewis I did the first four episodes.

dOc: I never understood why that show didn't take off. It seemed like the precursor to shows like Saved By the Bell, and it had the intelligence of something like Malcolm in the Middle.

AT: It was an irreverent show, and it was the camera work that got it noticed. It didn't look like any other filmed show at the time. So I rode that wave a little bit and eventually moved into features.

dOc: So you directed It Takes Two with the Olsen twins, and Ever After with Drew Barrymore, Sweet Home with Reese. I had this theory that you make all these movies with blonde starlets who go on to become huge successes. Even Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, already a success, but still blonde.

AT: (laughs) Well, I don't know about that, but I am very proud of the women I've been able to work with. Even so far as working with Salma Hayek...

dOc: Not blonde, but...

AT: No, not blonde, but still talented, sexy women. I think to have worked with Jodie and then Reese, I feel very fortunate. I like working with women, and hopefully there are many I'll get to work with in the future.

dOc: So Ever After, along with Wedding Singer, was sort of Drew's comeback movie, and Sweet Home, along with Legally Blonde, was Reese's breakout movie. Could you tell when you were directing them that Drew was revitalizing her career, and that Reese was going to be a huge star?

AT: No, I think what you do pick up is a sense of purpose from the actor. I mean, Drew was incredibly committed to working very hard on Ever After. She was focused and she knew it was a good role for her, and she stayed focused the entire time. You could sense, not that tension, but that little extra effort. And the same thing with Reese. Reese knew that the follow-up to Legally Blonde was going to be even more important than having a big hit like Legally Blonde, and so I knew from the get go that this was not a woman who took her career lightly. Once she committed to the picture, she was committed 110 percent, and that's something that you pick up on.

dOc: According to the sometimes unreliable Internet Movie Database, Reese signed on to the movie the day that Legally Blonde opened. Any truth to that story?

AT: It's close. We turned in our rewrite the week before it opened and went to her the weekend after it opened. We'd had discussions about who to go with, and by Monday, it was a no-brainer.

dOc: I don't know how much you hear about it, but I've noticed that Ever After has a huge following. It's incredibly popular with my friends, who were 17, 16 when it came out. I was wondering if you feel a particular attraction to that audience and to those themes, of strong women who stand up for themselves. And there's also the element of romance, with Anna and certainly with your romantic comedies. Do you just fall into these opportunities, or do you seek them out?

AT: I think I'm drawn to women protagonists in general. Because women protagonists tend to feel more than their male counterparts, so the emotional journey is often times, for me, much more interesting. There's a lot more potential for dramatic scenes with a woman in the lead. As for the romance, I think having done a historical drama like Anna, and to be able to do a 16th-century Renaissance fairytale is one thing; to do a contemporary romantic comedy like Sweet Home, or a kid's movie... For me, it doesn't really matter. It's about trying to refine things, and the ones that seem to come to me normally have to do with things like that, interpersonal relationships.

dOc: Can you discuss the different challenges in working on a period piece like Ever After or Anna versus a modern movie like Sweet Home?

AT: The rhythms are different, obviously. When you're doing a contemporary piece, it's much quicker, the cutting is quicker, it's all quicker. I do love period pieces. I get to go back to school. I mean, I didn't know anything about 19th-century Thailand, and the same thing with 16th-century France. We did an awful lot of research into that. For me that's part of the fun. The costuming, the swordplay, whatever it is, for me it's just, "Wow, that's the magic of the movies." When you step behind the camera and everything in front of you is from the 1600s, it's fun.

dOc: Speaking again of Anna and the King, it was a bit of a box-office disappointment domestically. How does that influence you as a creative person?

AT: It kills you. It's devastating. You don't want to work a year and a half of your life and survive a very difficult time to have it crash and burn the opening weekend. And we really saw it coming. But the people who actually went to the movie liked it. During our testing, all we got was that people really loved it. So it was a huge disappointment, and I'd say it took me a couple of years to recover. It was like a death in the family. But now I can look back on it, and of course, everything you do is flawed and could be better, but I can look back on it now without the pain of its rejection in the marketplace. I'm very grateful that I had the experience and very proud of the movie, as proud if not more so than I am of Sweet Home Alabama, because I know the effort that went into it.

dOc: There's a running theme in Sweet Home Alabama, and you mention it on the commentary, of accepting yourself, and not living through the eyes and expectations of others. There's even the deleted scene where Melanie is bothered by the bad reviews from her fashion show. Did that come out of your experiences with Anna?

AT: Absolutely. If your self worth is based on external forces, then you're a mess, you're at the beck and call of people and critics. It's an awful place to be. And I think thematically the whole idea of self worth and self love and acceptance are profoundly personal. Everybody goes through it, whether you're in the movie business or not. It's not so much reviews as it is about... You can be in high school, and if the cool group doesn't like you, there must be something wrong with you.

dOc: Sadly, I know more about that than I'd like to.

AT: Yeah, and that happens for men and women. But that's not what it should be about. So it was certainly by design.

dOc: There's certainly a formula to the romantic comedy. How do you keep it fresh when working within a familiar genre? I mean, no one watching the previews for Sweet Home Alabama thought, "Oh, she stays with the city guy!"

AT: I am one of those people who doesn't believe that the ending has to be so original and new, because, frankly, we've seen it all before. In a romance, it's really about the journey, so you wind up in a place to make the journey as interesting as possible and enjoy as many themes as possible. I never set out on a romantic comedy to reinvent the wheel. What I did want to do is make sure that, on a Friday night, people had a good time.

dOc: One thing that I think is unique about it is that the "other guy," Patrick Dempsey... he's a good guy all the way through. I kept expecting the scene where you find out that it was all a big ruse and he's going to start badmouthing her, and it never came.

AT: We made a conscious choice at the beginning of the rewrite that it would be a photo finish. We wanted it to be the choice between the great guy and the right guy. Because that, to me, is interesting. That is a dilemma. I mean, what if he doesn't do anything wrong? With most of these movies, there's the obligatory scene towards the end of act two that says, "Oh, I don't have to like that guy anymore." Either he's a buffoon, or he's sleeping with somebody he shouldn't, something that makes it OK for her to not marry him. In this regard, we chose deliberately not to have that scene. And we did that all the way through, to the very end.

dOc: Sweet Home has a particularly strong ensemble, with Candice Bergen, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Fred Ward, who was the best part of Best in Show. How were they all assembled, and what was the on-set atmosphere like?

AT: Credit goes to our brilliant casting director, who has cast a bunch of my movies. It's all about fitting the actor to the role and the budget, and who we can get and who is available. It's an awful lot of cajoling and jockeying. But they were just a great group of people. When we got down South, it was just fun, one of the more fun experiences I've had. Everybody was enthusiastic and grateful to be working. There was no nonsense, we hung out, had dinner, played pool. It was a good time.

dOc: Often the supporting players in these movies will be more caricatures than characters, but you have these great actors that are able to give them some layers. What kind of work did you do with them to really bring them to life as more than just the butt of the jokes?

AT: We certainly were trying to find a balance between colorful and over-the-top. Those people do exist, and not just in the South. They are part my mom, and part everybody else's. Even that stuff like the Civil War re-creationists, it's all real, though it seems like an invention, and we wanted to keep the reality. We felt we didn't short shrift the comedy, but we didn't overstate it at the expense of the characters.

dOc: There was some criticism I read, with people saying it was making fun of the South...

AT: But not from the South. The people from the South loved it.

dOc: I was going to say that I can easily see making the same comment about people in the city, the superficial city characters. So it's interesting that the Southerners weren't bothered by it.

AT: No, they weren't bothered at all. And I'm sensitive to that, because every movie I've done has at least something to do with the clash of cultures. What I don't want to do, though, is treat the culture with kid gloves. If you poke fun at somebody, you need to poke fun at everybody. And you've got to have a sense of humor. I had somebody from Montreal say I had directed an "anti-city" movie, and I was like, "Shut the hell up, have a sense of humor about it." It's a comedy!

dOc: The DVDs for Anna and Sweet Home have some nice bonus features. Any chance of revisiting your past movies? I'd appreciate a special edition of Ever After.

AT: I wish they would have done more for Ever After, and I don't understand why they didn't, because it was a very successful movie, and continues to be a real favorite. And there are so many fun stories and some great, hilarious cut moments. But I think that has to come from another source, other than the director.

dOc: Are you a fan of the format in general?

AT: Oh, yeah, I buy them myself, because I love the commentaries and the added features. Any film buff loves that stuff.

dOc: So I have one last question for you, and it's something I've been wondering about for a couple of years, something I've actually gotten into an argument about. There's a line in Ever After where Drew says, "A bird could love a fish, but where would they live?" And I honestly always thought it was the weirdest line, almost a non sequitur. And sort of a confusing metaphor. Where did that line come from?

AT: I believe it's a quote from Benjamin Franklin. Metaphorically, it was that they were from two different worlds. But, yeah, it's a Ben Franklin quote.

dOc: Well, good to know. I guess I lost that argument.

AT: Well, we were trying to be deep. I guess we were just confusing. But hey, she's also talking with Leonardo da Vinci about Thomas More.

dOc: You will be happy to know that I have a friend who read Utopia because of your movie. So you've opened up the world of Thomas More to at least one person.

AT: [laughs] To a new generation! Of one.