SXSW Interview: Tim McCanlies on When Angels Sing and Bruce Wayne

When Angels Sing

The last time a Christmas movie played in the spring was The Ref in 1994. This is a little different though. The SXSW film festival happens in March, and if there’s an Austin Christmas movie doing the festival rounds, this is the time to show it. Tim McCanlies directed When Angels Sing, the story of a father (Harry Connick, Jr.) coming to terms with a Christmas tragedy from his past when he moves to the happiest Christmas neighborhood in Austin. McCanlies was the writer of The Iron Giant as well as many uncredited rewrites on major studio films, and writer/director of Secondhand Lions, and was developing a Bruce Wayne TV series in the early ‘00s. We caught up with McCanlies in Austin after his latest film premiered.

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CraveOnline: Is this what Christmas is really like in Austin?

Tim McCanlies: Oh, you bet. This is what everyday life is like in Austin. Musicians everywhere you turn. You’re not from Austin I’m guessing.

No but I come twice a year for the film festivals. I fell in love with Austin but I’ve never been here for Christmas. Is Live Oak Lane a real Christmas street?

There is a street here that’s very famous for that. I don’t think it’s called Live Oak Lane though. 38th Street is pretty much famous for that, and also Zucker Park I think is well known for that sort of thing.

So Live Oak Lane was your invention?

Yeah, you bet. We did actually shoot in Austin. We [also] shot in Bastrop which is just outside of Austin, a little easier to own a big street like that in Bastrop than it is Austin.

Was this a very personal story?

Well, it started from a novel that Turk Pipkin wrote, a famous Austinite. I’ve known Turk for many years. He was in Hard Promises which was a movie I did a rewrite on 20 years  ago I think that shot here, a Columbia film. So I’ve just known Turk forever and Turk wrote this book. I think it started as a gift to his daughters I believe. Me and other friends sort of hand published a little pamphlet of it. Then it got published and became a well known book and Fred [Miller, producer] optioned it and got a screenplay written. Then they brought me along, so it was a very personal story I’m sure for Turk.

I don’t think he actually lost a brother, but when we got involved, pretty quickly Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett all became involved. We’re so music heavy anyway, then we put Harry Connick, Jr. in it so I told my casting director at that point, “Let’s just put every musician in Austin in this movie.” So pretty much every role in Austin is a musician whether they’re playing or not. So it became a very Austin valentine to Christmas. I hope it’ll be a Christmas perennial, not only in Austin but everywhere.

You’re a writer/director so is directing someone else’s script a different experience?

Well, I sort of came in and made it my own. Lou Berney had done the original script and he did a great job but there are some things, with my experience, I knew that we would have to do. For instance, the first draft that I saw, one of the biggest problems to me was Harry Connick Jr. didn’t appear until page 45 of the script. The first 45 pages were all backstory of what happened to his brother, so it was 45 pages of other actors. As a director I’m sitting there thinking, “Okay, I’m putting Kris Kristofferson in a brown wig to play 30? Is this going to work?” And also realized that no actor was going to take a role in which they show up on page 45 of a screenplay.

So through several iterations, I told Lou, “Listen, the movie starts on page 45 of your script.” So we sort of went around and around. It was just hard for him to break because the novel did that. The novel was a back and forth shifting in time. Finally, fairly late in the process, I said, “Okay, this is what you do.” You try to direct writers like you do actors sometimes. You give them motivation. Finally I said, “Okay, take this down. This is what you do.” And I spelled out exactly what we’ve done in the film now is that we know Harry has a problem with Christmas. We don’t know why until he basically breaks his son’s heart by telling him they’re not going to their grandparents’ house for Christmas and now he’s got to tell him why.

So it becomes a mystery that we then solve and it became one of the best scenes in the movie, where he basically tells him the story of what happened with his older brother when he was his age. Harry and Chandler [Canterbury] together, when we shot that scene with the two of them, it was such a great father/son [relationship]. It was one of the earlier days we did but he did such a great job with that.

Are those script mechanics just something you learn from decades in the business? This is how it works.

Well, this is how it works and the realities of an actor, when he picks up the script, Harry Connick, Jr.’s going to want to see his name on page one. Not on page 45 when he’s reading to say yes to a role or not, and that’s how movies get made is actors say yes. You sort of learn things that are not just writing but are how actors think. Again, the story was Harry’s story so 45 minutes with other actors who then disappear from the film, it’s a hard thing to work.

How have you seen your progress from a writer for hire to writer/director to a director in your own right?

As far as the mechanics, it’s pretty similar in some ways. Just something comes along I want to do, whether I’m a writer or a director. So in some ways it was a fairly easy transition. I realized early on, the story of how I did this initially is sort of interesting in that I was living here in Austin and I was the studio writer for hire guy. Immediately Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez both made movies, these two local guys. They just made movies and I was in the studio system, I was writing with this sort of long 20 year apprenticeship to become a director in the studio system, which was sort of what I thought the rules were. Then suddenly Rick and Robert just made movies and they sort of skipped to the head of the line. I went, “Wait a minute, you can do that?”

That’s when I decided well, okay, I’ll do that too. So I got my first film made called Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 which I was making with my own money. At the end of the day, Sony Pictures ended up buying it even though it was a one million dollar movie, so that really helped me make that transition. Then I had another script, Secondhand Lions, something Warners had optioned and different people had been attached to, but then I pulled it back after I did Dancer, Texas because then I had a film I could show to get Secondhand Lions.

Weren’t you working on a Bruce Wayne pilot about 10 years ago?

I was, yeah.

That would’ve been before the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy then?

Yeah, it was. In fact, there’s a lot of similarities. We were sort of drawing on some of the same subject matter but the comics usually were panel three, Bruce as a kid is over his dead parents. Then there’s a shot of him mixing test tubes in college, and then he’s in the costume. So I wanted to explore that whole five or six year thing and it became a big deal at Warner Brothers because they kept wanting to get movies mounted at the time. Darren Aronofsky was going to try to do Batman: Year One.

That was a struggle so there was a big pissing match between Warners TV and Warners features. All the networks wanted it. It was, I like to think, a well written pilot. Suddenly it came down to Alan Horn. Lorenzo DiBonaventura was the vice president of Warners and I had done five things with him including Iron Giant. He was sort of my guy over there and yet he really screwed up my TV thing saying, “No, it’s a features thing.” I still give him sh*t over that.

They were already doing “Smallville” at that time, weren’t they?

No, “Smallville” sort of came as a result of my thing. “Smallville” was sort of a long story and I’m under a little bit of a nondisclosure agreement with Warner Brothers because of various things. “Smallville” started out as a backdoor pilot in the Bruce Wayne bible. It was actually doing an episode called “Smallville” where a young Clark Kent comes to Gotham City. It’s like a newspaper convention and Bruce tries to get rid of him and lose him and he can’t. Everywhere he turns, Clark’s right there. The idea was always to do a “Smallville” pilot.

Warner Brothers and I disagreed on what direction it should go and so they paid me off, handsomely, and went off and did their own. I guess I can say this much. I told them what “Smallville” should not be is a “Dawson’s Creek” esque 23-year-old underwear models preening and pretending to be high school sophomores and who’s sleeping with whom. And they said, “That’s exactly what we want to do.”

But I wonder why Superman can have a series and features, but not Batman.

Yeah, I don’t know. I kept trying to tell them. They kept saying, “No, you can’t have Batman.” I kept saying, “Well, I’m not doing Batman. I’m doing Bruce Wayne. You don’t see the costume until the last show of the seventh season.”

Do you know what film you want to do next?

I think there are a couple things out there that are floating around and are interesting. One thing I’ve been involved with that’s finally happening after about 10 years is that my producer at New Line, Mark Kaufman, is also a big theater guy. He developed Hairspray, Wedding Singer, Elf, a bunch of other shows as musicals. So he’s been trying to get Secondhand Lions going as a musical on Broadway so that’s finally going in September now. It’s opening in Seattle first, the 5th Avenue in Seattle so a Secondhand Lions musical is happening. I’ve been involved in that somewhat. It’s a very strange experience to see one’s character suddenly breaking into song.

Would you imagine two sets of actors for the young and old characters, or since it’s theater could the same actor play both?

They’re casting younger versions of. It’s done like Kiss of the Spider Woman where theytell the stories and it’s happening over here. They’ll both be on the stage at the same time. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.