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CALL OF THE WILD
DIRECTOR HENRY SELICK SETS HIS OWN TONE IN 'MONKEYBONE'

The interview is over. It's time to say goodbye. On my end of the phone, I tell director Henry Selick again how wild and woolly and wonderful his film "Monkeybone" is and how much I wish more Hollywood films could be made with such volcanic creative freedom.

His farewell is short and to the point: "I don't think you're going to see them more often, but I'm really glad I made this one."

Amen.

And thereby hangs a tale that's not nearly as wild and joyously inventive as Selick's movie which, however awkward and juvenile it can be, is not quite like anything else you've seen in a long time, if ever. That's because "Monkeybone" is the newest unbuttoned, unfettered product from Hollywood's Creative Far Shore, a crucial province of American filmmaking that was in dismal doldrums all through the year 2000. This is the district that gave us David Lynch, Selick's friend and sometime colleague Tim Burton, the Coen brothers and the Wachowski brothers.

Except for "Chicken Run" and "Shadow of the Vampire," Hollywood's Far Shore was largely quiescent throughout 2000. To hear Selick tell it, it still is.

"Fear fuels Hollywood," he says. "Everyone's terribly afraid to say "yes.' If they say "yes,' they have to answer for it. So every (film made) gets safer and safer and safer because costs get higher and higher. Those forces came together last year. I'm more concerned about a bunch of films that are being cranked out right now because of an impending possible actors and writers strike. All the studios have a million films in production. They want to have a backlog in case there's a big shutdown. They'd be at a disadvantage at the bargaining table not having any product. On the other hand, they're cranking them out so fast there might be some gems they won't be able to supervise and that won't be subject to their fears."

And now here, in a year less than two months old, is a sterling specimen of cinematic lunacy to the nth degree. Selick directed Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and the magical animated version of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" before this. His writer and creative partner in "Monkeybone" was Sam Hamm, the long-ago University at Buffalo student who also wrote the script for Tim Burton's "Batman."

As briefly put as such an antic and hallucinatory plot can be, it's about a Matt Groeningish cartoonist who is literally put into a coma by Hollywood merchandising (don't ask how; too hard to explain). Somehow, he and his creation Monkeybone descend into the world of nightmares. The real creator stays behind hovering between life and death. Monkeybone, though, returns to earth in his body and creates endless havoc.

It is, unlike the graphic comic book that inspired it, a reckless and crazily inventive comedy.

The movie combines live action, ordinary animation, stop-action animation, computer-generated animation, puppets, you name it. Sometimes, several things at once are layered over each other.

Here is a movie that gets its name from an animated sequence in which a third-grade boy is hopelessly and embarrassingly aroused by the flaps under his aged teacher's arms. His excitation morphs into the character Monkeybone, a jabbering id in monkey form.

Where on earth, anyone might ask, did that come from?

It's like this: There's a cartoonist named Don Asmussen who does a local strip in San Francisco "who's got this hang-up about arm flaps. We just thought it was ludicrous to have a kid turned on by a sexy teacher. We thought it was pretty boring. This felt much more right. Sam and I were up in the San Francisco area. We'd read his strip, crack up and say "let's get this guy in here.' We'd get him in, pay him to work for a few weeks and suddenly there's arm flaps."

In other words, there isn't just method in Selick's madness, to him method and madness seem largely interchangeable.

How then, in such a drearily pusillanimous movie period did a movie like "Monkeybone" get made at all, much less made with this much freedom?

It was one of the films green-lighted, says Selick, by 20th Century Fox's Bill Mechanic, the executive "who oversaw "Titanic' and had a lot of success and was also for taking big chances. He subsequently resigned after some troubles with Rupert Murdoch. He's a visionary executive. For every success like "Titanic' and "There's Something About Mary' and "X-Men,' he'd do "Fight Club' and our film. He wants to mix it up. He wants to take chances. I can't see anyone else in Hollywood who wants to do that. He's independent and he wants to stay that way. I'm actually developing a project with him now."

If "Monkeybone," then, isn't the last film to come from Fox's mechanic era, it will certainly be one of them.

How big a financial investment did Fox make in such unbridled creativity?

"I'm not supposed to say," says Selick. "When we submitted the screenplay, they did a flash budget here at Fox and it came out a pretty high number. They said, 'If you can do it for half of that, you can go ahead.' Let's put it this way. It's more expensive than 'James and the Giant Peach' and less expensive than just about any blockbuster."

He's told about Julian Schnabel's wonderful description of making "Before Night Falls" with total independence: "It was a film about freedom made with complete freedom. There wasn't a grown-up on the set."

Of his own film he says: "After the film was already here, the adults showed up, but it was too late. These guys are smart people. They're very clever, but it's just outside their vision. They know how to make standard films in five or six areas. This is so far away from that, their first reaction was 'can we turn this into one of our movies?' And they tried. The battered corpse was then thrown back to me and I resuscitated it . . . I got pretty much what I was going after."

Translation: Fox's new management team thwacked its collective corporate head and said, "What in heaven's name did Mechanic get us into?"

Selick admits, "There were a few places where we tried to do something that was too grotesque, too frightening. It's not self-censorship, it's more about what's right for this movie. We established a certain tone."

The act of making such a wild and woolly executive head-thwacker was by no means a breezy one. All the different animation processes employed made for lengthy process. "In '99, we shot the live action. We spent almost all of last year doing the animation of 'Monkeybone,' creating all of the effects and compositing and combining all the different layers. That's a long time to combine all of the elements for a film that's not all in a fantasy world. Its only a certain percentage -- 35 or 40 percent in a fantasy world."

That the movie confirms again what a gift Brendan Fraser has for physical comedy should surprise no one.

"My experience with Brendan," said Selick, "is that 90 percent of the time, he's just right. Where I wanted to push him a few times, I was generally wrong. He knew that character better than I did. So after a few weeks, I learned to trust him. Chris Kattan, on the other hand, will do anything. He'll do a million takes. He's like a puppy that's just wiggling and jiggling and going crazy. He was the one I had to focus -- like an errant missile. It was good working with him.

"They're two totally different styles -- Brendan's more precise and planned and thoughtful. And then he explodes into action. He's always quiet between takes."

The next thing Selick is going to do after "Monkeybone" exploded Friday on a thoroughly unprepared public is take his time and write a film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's kid's book "Coraline."

We can hope that it's not too long before he "explodes into action" as a filmmaker again.

As he says about what some have seen as a current "Golden Age" of animation: "It's a tarnished Golden Age. A Golden Age would be when people took bigger chances. It's a good time for animation but it still gets squeezed into a few tight boxes. I feel I've tried to break the mold. Brad Bird in 'Iron Giant' -- while it's traditional and great storytelling -- wasn't marketed well and couldn't find its audience. So it's a good time for excellent work. But not all cylinders are quite firing."

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