“Clifford the Big Red Dog” Filmmakers: Jordan Kerner & Walt Becker
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Walt, let’s start with you. You got this super-sized dog, but you’ve worked with tiny chipmunks before. So talk to me about how Clifford was created and the physical puppet that you were able to have on set at times too.
Walt Becker: It’s interesting because in movies like this and the one that I’ve done before, you have issues of scale. So until you get into the weeds of it all, you go, oh, wow, I guess that is kind of an issue. So a chipmunk was 11 inches. So a human is basically like Attack of the 60 Foot Woman. That’s the difference. So for us, we would have to put them on things so that we could cover them like you would cover actors. And then Clifford, because he is so big, was actually the opposite. So now all of a sudden, he’s big and we’re having to get actors in positions where we can cover them. And early on, Jordan and I talked about it was probably going to be necessary to come up with some version of Clifford that would represent his size so our actors would know where to look.
We had seen this warhorse play, where two guys would puppet a horse, and it looked absolutely amazing. So we hired two puppeteers and it was incredible how close they could get to dog behavior and mannerisms. And one articulated the head and they could scratch. And it really did help sort of set the scene, wouldn’t you say Jordan?
Jordan Kerner: Absolutely. I think that having the two puppeteers who really grew and studied dogs and communication of emotions like comedy or excitement and wagging their tails and their bodies, that the puppeteers disappeared and this large dog was in front of them. And I think it was just a fantastic element to help the actors relate to something that large.
RM: Emily’s a tween, so that can potentially be a difficult time of life. So talk to me a little bit about how Clifford helps her realize kind of it’s on the inside what matters and brings out some of those great qualities that she might have hidden.
JK: I think it’s really on the most basic of levels to start with. It’s about unconditional love. And I think that any of us who share our lives with pets have that feeling. I was in my kitchen last night with my oldest daughter who surprised me and came home for the night. And we were sitting on the floor, holding our golden lab and kissing him and scratching him and playing with him. And I think that we all feel that, whether it’s dogs or cats or birds or whatever we love in our lives and open us up. I think that helping Emily in that way is really first and foremost about unconditional love. And secondly, Clifford, as you know, doesn’t speak in the movie because he didn’t speak in the books and we wanted to keep it that way. But he is sentient at a certain level that in a scene at the school, you’ll see him nudging Emily Elizabeth forward because he knows that she’s a little reticent being the new girl in school.
And he wanted to help her as a tween, as someone who’s a little insecure and reticent to move forward and to stand up for herself. And her reciprocally, seeing him as both big and red, which is something that a lot of people who come to see him in the movie with him are afraid of him. They’re not just looking at him as Clifford, oh, we all love Clifford, they’re looking at him as something that’s an aberrance and different. And I think by seeing how he was being treated, it also helped her to feel that the differences that she experiences are common to both of them. And so now she had a friend where she could share that.
RM: One of the things, Walt, that I loved and picked up on right away was that John Cleese’s character, you created this. And it was kind of a nod to the author, Norman Bridwell. So talk to me about kind of the creation of that character and how special it is for fans of the book.
WB: We thought it was a great nod to the author who just created, Norman Bridwell, this amazingly popular book and character. And so when we started breaking the story out for a movie, it occurred both to Jordan and I that we were going to need a character with a little bit of magic. So, we thought, okay, here’s a guy who runs a rescue animal thing and he’s got a hint of magic. So he kind of performed the wizard task, we’re talking kind of Joseph Campbell stuff, for us. And then Jordan had worked with John Cleese for, I think, four movies and were dear friends. And when he said, I think I can get John in the movie, I was thrilled. I mean, he is just one of my comedy legends. Would you say that, Jordan?
JK: Absolutely. John is such a big soul. He’s a tall person also. So he’s just larger than life in all possible ways, also one of the kindest people in the world and extremely funny. And for Jack, he was the reason Jack got into comedy. Jack admired Monty Python and John so tremendously. So it was a joy for all of us in that.
RM: Well, one of the things on that line too that is really neat is that it’s not just a story for children per se. Uncle Casey has a lot of growth that we see. And as adults, when we’re watching it, there are times when you just need somebody to believe in you too. Maybe Jordan, talk a little bit about that.
JK: Well, in answer to that, I would say that we make movies for adults, and then they are appropriate for kids. They don’t have violence, they don’t have sexuality, they don’t have swearing, they don’t have any of those things, but they’re written for adults and kids will find the humor in the physicality and adults find the humor in the dialogue, in the words, and in the performances. And so the whole audience gets satisfied on different levels. So if we think of the audience as 4 to 104, then that’s the audience we’re looking for. We don’t gear it to any one level. We don’t make children’s films. We make family films and families have everybody from grandparents to young kids and that’s who we make it for.
And I just wanted to make one other comment on John and the magic. It was really Walt and I looking at a bunch of the videos of Mr. Bridwell, the writer, and he’s impish and funny and sweet. And we wanted to endow that character that we created in the story with his real characteristics as a human being, because it wasn’t just to honor him, but it was really to try to bring him to life a little bit in his own story.
RM: Walt, one of the things that I think is great is you actually got to shoot on location in New York City. So talk to me about how that helps inform the scenes that we’re seeing.
WB: Well, I was such a big fan of Paddington, the films, and how they took London and made it such a great character. So early on, we said, you know what? Let’s do what Paddington did for London with New York. And let’s kind of make it a little love letter. So I feel like the city really did play a big role. It’s such a great melting pot of cultures and iconic things. We set it in Harlem, where she lives, and the neighborhood is diverse. And everything was thought out about kind of laying in that same message of acceptance and unconditional love between people. And New York is just such a cinematic city. I mean, I love living in LA. I love San Diego. My folks live down there. I’m Coronado Island, but for a city city, I don’t know if there’s any place like New York and it shoots beautiful on film too.
JK: Let me add one thing to that, which is Walt and I early on with our production designer, she had a brilliant idea. First of all, we were looking at a lot of streets and she chose 154th that Walt and I both like because of the topography and the nature of the architecture. And then she went in and she painted this front door a sort of beautiful color or this window casing a beautiful color. And all the cars were a little bit older, but they were pastel colors. So as Walt was talking about Paddington, what we wanted to do was to create something that immediately felt both relatable and nostalgic. And I think that comes through in the movie because 154th Street as a street and everything around it, as Walt said, is incredibly diverse. And so there was nothing we had to make up. It’s the world that Emily Elizabeth, after she moved from Bridwell Island, it’s what she found in the big city.
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