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CineVegas '07 Interview: "The Grand" Director Zak Penn

by Erik Childress

“The Grand" Pitch: An ambitious ad executive with no time for his family learns a few life lessons when he is mysteriously transformed into a circus monkey. He runs for office and is elected District Attorney, then later starts wearing an enormous fat suit.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

ZAK: The Earth cooled, and so the smallest microbes emerged into the atmosphere. With sunlight came the beginning of photosynthesis, and then many years later, my friend Matt Bierman pitched me the idea at a poker game. The idea was to do another improv movie set against the world of professional poker. Later, after finishing the film, I wrote the previous sentence. Obviously, I've left some stuff out, but you should be able to fill in the blanks.

There has been The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders and the recent Lucky You. Aside from The Grand, of course, has the great poker movie been made yet?

ZAK: I think House of Games is a great poker movie, although it is not specifically about Poker.

What do you think it is about poker that has struck such a chord with television viewers?

ZAK: I think the mind control aspects instituted by the WPT have been very successfull. The subliminal messages inserted into every fifth frame that literally force viewers to watch is a tactic I think we will see more and more from TV producers.

What are you looking forward to during your CineVegas experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

ZAK: The best part is definitely the full body massage, usually courtesy of the festival programmer. The worst part is when you have to give the full body massage to the festival programmer.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?

ZAK: I had so many dreams as a child – corporate lawyer, systems analyst, sex worker. But like all dreams, they fade and we are left with the cold hard glare of truth. For me, that truth is that the only thing I know how to do is make movies. Such is my burden.

Not including your backyard and your family Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?

ZAK: The first screenplay I wrote was LAST ACTION HERO. Although I was fired from it and lost credit, I remain deeply proud of its lasting contribution to Western Civilization. Did you know that there are some primitive cultures that use LAH as their moral code, their own filmic “bible” if you will? That makes me proud.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”

ZAK: I know that it has an indie and film fan seal of approval, and that makes me just a little bit cooler and more sophisticated. It also helps the movie because it means that it has a very good chance of attaining cult status and appearing in obscure British film encyclopedias.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

ZAK: Probably Trotsky. Despite his obvious shortcomings – his brutality, his political deviousness – he was the most interesting writer, and his life held the most tragic irony. Wait, did you say muppets?

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

ZAK: Often, particularly in the middle of important scenes, my mind would drift and I would imagine the screenings, the positive reviews, the crowds straining against velvet ropes to get in. My advice to other directors is to pay attention while you are shooting.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

ZAK: Don’t look at your cards until its your turn to act. That’s a poker thing, but it applies to real life as well. Particularly if you’re playing poker in real life.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

ZAK: I had never seen or heard of Christopher Guest before I started this film, but his work was pointed out to me by one of my cast members, Michael McKean. I must say, the guy is doing stuff that’s similar to my work, but you know what? There’s room enough for both of us.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?

ZAK: That was something I yelled often, all the way through production, often while waving my arms randomly in the air or pointing at a blank spot on a wall. I’ve found that acting “crazy” is a great way to insulate yourself from the rigors of production. Yell this enough and people stop asking you questions.

If you were to make a live-action version of your favorite cartoon, whom would you cast?

ZAK: I would cast my daughter’s goldfish “Smally” in the role of Nemo. (Tragically, Smally died just weeks before this interview went to press.)

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What project would you tackle?

ZAK: Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Both of those movies, while pretty good for the time they were released, could be ten times as awesome if we cg-ed the shit out of em. How awesome would the rosebud scene be if it was in 3D and rosebud was a huge, jet powered rocket sled? Nic Cage would be great in either role, as the Godfather or as Citizen Kane.

Who’s an actor you’d kill to work with?

ZAK: Daniel Day Lewis.

What can you tell us about your work on the forthcoming Incredible Hulk sequel/redux...what exactly is it?

ZAK: It is a shot for shot remake of the first Hulk film, but with dialogue dubbed in by foreign actors.

As someone who considers the 2003 film one of the most unfairly scorned films of the past decade, why do you think Ang Lee's adaptation is such a whipping child of the comic community while films like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man 3 get a pass on their unfaithfulness to the text?

ZAK: The thing you have to remember about the comics community is that there are two things they don’t like: close ups of moss and poodles. If Ang had just steered clear of those two things, people would be okay with the movie. But he had to have that moss, and now he’s paying the price. The guy can’t get a job in Hollywood anymore, except for any directing job he wants on any movie. Other than that, he’s blacklisted.

Say you win an Oscar for this film. How do you fill your 45-second speech? And what do you say to the orchestra to get some extra time?

ZAK: WHEN I win the oscar for the Grand, my first response will be, why were we nominated as best foreign film? Then I will thank the same person fifty times in a row, and if the the orchestra tries to play me off, I will bring on my own Orchestra to play me back on.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

ZAK: Everyone is important to someone, always remember that before you hurt their feelings.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

ZAK: I would happily do a movie that’s funded by Bechtel or Halliburton or one of those companies, because I think they get a bad rap and how else are they going to advertise? I’m trying to think up a romantic comedy set at a defense contractor, but so far, nothing.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?

ZAK: Fold like an envelope, baby! Works every time.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

ZAK: It depends on whether I wrote the film. If I wrote the film, I think its very unfair. If I directed the film, I think its totally acceptable.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

ZAK: Your choice is simple; see this film or suffer the consequences. I’m not threatening anyone, I’m just pointing out the truth. Not seeing the Grand is just a mistake, for a lot of reasons. Like smoking crack. You don’t need someone to tell you that crack is whack. So why should you need me to tell you that not seeing this movie is as bad as smoking a highly addictive rock form of cocaine? You don’t, so I won’t. Just see it and we can all get on with our lives.


Zak Penn’s The Grand will screen at the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival on Thursday, June 7 at 7:00 pm (at the Golden Nugget) and screen again on Friday, June 8 at 3:00 pm (at the Palms’ Brendan Theatres.)

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2199
originally posted: 06/01/07 22:20:06
last updated: 06/01/07 22:21:43
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