If Brian Levant sounds overjoyed, he has solid reason to. The director of such hit family films as “Beethoven,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Snow Dogs” has put the wraps on the third Scooby Doo live action film and, quite honestly, it’s the pick of the litter.
Some might say the third time is the charm, but “Scooby Doo: The Mystery Begins” has more right going for it than wrong, something the first two films could never say. Maybe it’s because Levant went with a younger and admittedly much cheaper cast. Maybe it’s that this script doesn’t attempt to shovel on the sarcasm to the point of losing the spirit of the Scoob. Whatever the reason, the movie works.
It’s overall a lighthearted affair with one or two light poignant moments. Yes, it does forsake one important tenant of the Mystery, Inc. credo (it has “real” ghosts, not some perps running around in bed sheets), but it also comes up with a credible reason for the formation of Mystery, Inc. It even comes up with a good origins story for the Mystery Machine.
See for yourself when the movie takes its bow on Cartoon Network on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 p.m. Here’s what Levant had to say:
Newsarama: I was told something interesting, Brian. You actually worked with the legends themselves, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
Brian Levant: Yes! I directed both Flinstones (live action) movies over at Universal for Steven Spielberg. They were active participants in the production. They appeared in both movies.
The first time I met them, they came, gave notes on scripts and were consulted on casting. Then they came over to Universal one day and we picked them up in Barney Rubble’s car. We drove them around to the different sound stages where we were working. They saw that we were literally manufacturing Bedrock and they were just so joyous and grateful. That memory never wanes.
To me it’s now especially poignant because we just lost Joe. I’ve told the kids just how grateful he would have been to see them in uniform and continuing his work.
Nrama: Were you around when Scooby debuted in 1969?
Levant: Yes! I was a junior in high school. As much as I would say I was in the library reading the classics when I was that age, I grew up in Chicago and the winters get pretty cold over there. You didn’t go out on Saturday mornings. You just turned on the TV and soaked it in.
So I remember the early episodes. I admit I wasn’t the biggest enthusiast. To me it was an awkward pairing. Then Joe Barbera told me the whole story of the show’s creation and it made sense.
When he went to New York to originally pitch the show, it wasn’t going to feature a talking dog. It was the legendary Fred Silverman, who was then programming CBS’ Saturday morning block, who said that he wanted to do the Hardy Boys. He also wanted a dog. So Joe put the two concepts together and came out with this hybrid that still defies categorization.
People forget, at that time no one was doing full-length stories each episode on Saturday morning; full half-hour stories. It was so successful it changed the game. After that, producers had to sell stories differently from what they had [previously]. It certainly was different from “Superman” or other such shows.
Anyway, after I did the Flintstones movies, Chuck Logan, who now produces the Batman movies, came to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing a Scooby Doo movie. Then they presented me with a script that Mike Myers had written originally. I didn’t much like the tone of it.
I’m a strict believer that fans don’t mind seeing shows being reinvented. I grew up reading comic books and they constantly reinvent their heroes every three or so years, a new secret origin or something like that.
Yet I thought the tone of Myers’ script was so making fun of the show instead of accepting Scooby for what it is. It was something like Fred, Daphne and Velma all meet in college and then go to a camp where they meet this crazy guy and his smelly dog in his van. Then they have an adventure and become a team.
Anyway, they asked me if I could wrap my head around it. I said I couldn’t. So we parted ways.
Then, just before the writers strike, I heard Warner Brothers was trying to sell the story of their origins again. It was all part of an effort to reboot the franchise. That’s when I said I’d be interested in getting on board. We had a couple of meetings, and I think they were happy to know that I had spent years making decisions between what is real and what’s too cartoony.
Nrama: One thing I have to tell you, many animation-to-live action conversions have been disasters.
Levant: It’s not easy taking something two dimensional and turn them into live action characters. That’s where we’ve been the most successful in “The Mystery Begins.” We did our best to flesh the characters out and making them more realistic looking people.
Nrama: The actors themselves did look like they were based on the real cartoons.
Levant: Yes, but at the same time Fred isn’t running around with blonde hair and an ascot. Yes, our characters say “zoinks” and “jinkies,” but at the same time we showed Shaggy to be kind of a lonely outsider who craves friends and wanting to be part of something. We show the rest of them to be kind of lost in their own little worlds until circumstances force them to work together. If anything, one of the points of the movie is that it made the gang move beyond certain things and forces them to work with people they otherwise would never associate [with].
I think it’s that kind of humanity and warmth that makes the film different.
Nrama: Now one actor who I think deserves special notice is Nick Palatas. He nailed Shaggy, right down to the voice.
Levant: He was a real find. When he first walked in the room, he was the physical embodiment of the way I saw Shaggy. The great thing is he can grow the goatee within a week. Once he had the goatee, everything else just followed.
It did take him a lot of work to get the voice. He came back about five times, working and working at it, until the day it was the day we brought in all the finalists for one last audition. There he was, in front of Warner Brothers and Cartoon Network, and he just nailed it.
Also, three of the four kids, basically the bulk of their past experience consisted of school plays.
Nrama: What was it like working with Frank Welker?
Levant: I was in New Mexico shooting my next movie with Jackie Chan while Frank did his recordings. I have worked with Frank in two movies before this and I’ve still never met him. He’s always working from somewhere else.
What’s funny, from what I understand is he hadn’t done Scooby in a while. The voice director had to remind him how to do some of his lines.
The other thing is some people wanted to save money, and they wanted to hire someone else to “rooby” it up. But I insisted that we had to have the original. It’s because he’s just great. He really is an amazing talent, really.
Nrama: So you’re feeling really good about this movie, aren’t you?
Levant: I’ve felt really good about is from the first shoot. Everything worked.
Don’t get me wrong. It was hard, hard work. Trying to do this complicated movie with the schedule we had was something.
We also did this for under $7 million. This includes 458 visual effects, over 250 different Scooby Doo CGI shots and then there was all the wire work and everything else. It was a big undertaking. You know though, I was just lucky. I just had to put the cameras on these people and watched them go.
Nrama: Now you mentioned you’re working on a film with Jackie Chan?
Levant: Yes! We just locked that one up and it comes out in January. It’s called “The Spy Next Door.”
Jackie is a Chinese secret agent on loan to the CIA, living undercover in New Mexico. He builds a relationship with a divorcee next door so he decides to retire and become a parent. Then his cover is blown and all hell breaks loose.
Nrama: Any other Scooby Doo projects in the works?
Levant: Yes! We are developing two more Scooby Doos. The budgets are being worked out. We’re designing monsters with Legacy Studios. We’re hoping “The Mystery Begins” is just the first installment. I set up the movie to be the beginning of a series. I’m hoping I’ll be able to start recreating many of the iconic moments from the cartoon.