December 2nd, 2004
in issue 0348 of the Hook - BY HAWES SPENCER
Dave Matthews will soon launch his film career with a supporting role in an earnest puppy-dog tale set in a small town. But the musical superstar's big-screen debut isn't in the production-troubled remake of Where the Red Fern Goes. That film is going straight to DVD.
Instead, Matthews' theatrical debut arrives-- complete with a new Dave song-- in Because of Winn-Dixie, slated for release in February.
Based on the best seller by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is about a lonely girl who adopts an orphaned dog and names him for a nearby grocery store. In the family drama to be released by Twentieth Century Fox Matthews plays Otis, a shy ex-con.
While Fox officials have been closely guarding production details, in a year-ago interview in Rolling Stone, Matthews, who lives in Seattle and Albemarle, called the picture a "small spectacle."
"I always said that if I ever did a part in a movie, I would refuse to play music, but I realized that this is the perfect part for me," the bi-coastal Matthews told the magazine. "I got to write some songs and, in a way, try not to be myself."
Meanwhile, at least one producer is beside himself over the handling of the other Matthews vehicle, Where the Red Fern Grows, which is bypassing theaters on its way straight to video.
"I feel terrible about it," says Wayne Mooneyhan, a Red Fern executive producer. "I think it's a big mistake."
Mooneyhan helped rescue the picture from bankruptcy after filming abruptly ceased on location in Oklahoma in 1999. When the Walt Disney Company bought the distribution rights to Red Fern earlier this year, Mooneyhan tried to persuade the company that the picture deserved a big-screen release.
"Any film based on a book that's sold as many millions of copies as this one has and stars Dave Matthews," says Mooneyhan, "would be great box office hit."
A tear-jerker about an Oklahoma boy and his two coon dogs, Fern prompted moist eyes and standing ovations at several film festival screenings-- including the Heartland Festival in Indianapolis, where it won a Crystal Heart award for its emphasis on "positive values of life." Mooneyhan figures Fern-- which also stars Dabney Coleman, Ned Beatty, and Kris Kristofferson-- could have topped $100 million at the box office.
As a columnist at Northwestern University recently noted: "If you cry over a painting, you're lying. If you cry over a poem, you're pretentious. If you cry reading a book, it better be Where the Red Fern Grows."
The book, by the late Wilson Rawls, holds the #5 spot on Publisher's Weekly's all-time list of kids' paperbacks with 6.8 million copies sold.
But even one of the film's two directors, Sam Pillsbury, acknowledges the uphill battle Disney faced luring audiences to a moralistic tale about coon hunting.
"The movie turned out better than I thought it would," says Pillsbury, "but it's still a quaint film-- it hasn't got any cutting edge to it."
Pillsbury says Disney probably made its DVD decision by adding the production cost of $5 million to the $25 million it might take to market the picture for theaters-- and decided to play it safe. "Disney's confident it can sell a million units," says Pillsbury.
The Director's Guild recognized Pillsbury by awarding him a joint directing credit along with Lyman Dayton, who produced the 1974 film version but lost control of the remake when a key financier backed out during production.
The Guild may have been impressed with Pillsbury's talent in meshing the 1999 footage from the Ozark Mountain foothills with new Fern film shot two years ago on the sun-baked Disney Ranch near L.A.
Crossing the Continental Divide was just part of the problem. In the intervening years, the film's lead, Joseph Ashton, playing "Billy Coleman," grew from boyhood to adolescence.
"It's hilarious," says Pillsbury. "There's a scene where Billy's chopping a tree, and there's five different trees, a boy with three and a half years age difference, and six different dogs. It's a real film school exercise."
Ironically, Pillsbury, 58, skipped film school. Growing up in New Zealand, the self-taught filmmaker spent much of his childhood like Billy Coleman, exploring the wilderness, he says.
"We had a deep desire," says Fern producer David Alexanian, "to make the film look as authentic as possible, and Sam's knowledge of the time period as well as raccoon hunting helped us achieve that."
Alexanian says the new Fern is "much closer" to the Rawls book than the 1974 film, and Alexanian lauds Pillsbury's ability to create "magic realism."
Pillsbury must have been working that magic realism when he directed Free Willy 3: The Rescue, which noted critic Roger Ebert gave three stars and recommended for "smart kids."
Aside from a short stint in theaters, however, Free Willy 3 achieved its biggest success in the home video market as what Pillsbury ruefully describes as a "babysitter film."
Pillsbury says he's disappointed when a critically acclaimed film goes straight to video-- but not surprised.
"We grossly underestimate the mental age of children," he says. "American kids want to see a film that's more racy than Where the Red Fern Grows. Kids aged 11 and 12 won't pay money to go see it-- but parents will take their five-year-olds."***
One hope dashed by the Red Fern bankruptcy was the dream that Matthews might write some soundtrack music. The producers of Winn-Dixie went one better. They were able to get the Grammy Award-winning performer to perform an original song in the film.
It comes in a scene at Gertrude's Pets, the shop that "Otis" runs. Otis/Matthews plays the new song, "Butterfly," and calms all the pets.
"It's a tear-jerking moment," says Bruce Flohr, a recording executive with Matthews' record label. "Lullaby's not the right word-- it sounds to me like a gorgeous prayer."
Flohr says Matthews' other musical performance in Winn-Dixie is an ensemble rendition of "Glory Glory," a traditional gospel song.
"Dave is by no means a major part of the story, but when he's on camera, he really fills the screen," says Flohr. "What's impressive is that Dave is so comfortable in the role that even though he's playing a pet-shop owner who's also a musician, you don't make the connection that he's Dave Matthews."
Charlottesville audiences might. Folks who were here in 1990 will remember that Matthews was a frequent lead in short productions at Live Arts and Offstage Theater.
Flohr says Matthews isn't giving any interviews on his budding film career and calls claims about which film is Dave's "debut" part of each studio's "agenda."
"Hollywood is a machine," he says. "The studios try to turn someone's art into commerce."
Flohr says Matthews wants to keep his acting low-key: "It's just something he wants to dabble in. He's not getting into acting to win an Academy Award."
"He receives script after script," Flohr adds. "The parts are enormous because everyone wants to put Dave Matthews on a marquee."
Still, Flohr sees good things for this picture directed by Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan; The Joy Luck Club), and also starring Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Eva Marie Saint, and newcomer Annasophia Robb.
"This film has a very good chance of being successful," says Flohr, "because it fills a niche-- a family film that's not animated. It's not about fish or dinosaurs. It reminds me of one of those classic Walt Disney movies, the kind you see over and over because it touches your heart."
As for Where the Red Fern Grows, Matthews told The Hook two years ago that the release was "a long ways away."
"It was a long ways away," says Patrick Jordan, marketing director at the company that manages Matthews. "We're certainly happy that it's finally making it out."
DVDs of Where the Red Fern Grows are due in stores December 21., After a series of special previews for teachers in January, the not-yet-rated Because of Winn-Dixie is set for release in theaters February 18.
Dave Matthews as "Otis" plays a new song, "Butterfly," to calm the animals in Because of Winn-Dixie. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX