After helming music videos, David Dobkin made his feature debut in 1998 with the black comedy Clay Pigeons. Although boasting great performances by Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix, this tale of small-town murder was overlooked at the box office. Mainstream success came five years later with the Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Knights. For his third film, The Wedding Crashers, the diminutive director unites Wilson and Vaughn for bigger and better laughs.
Why did you become a director?
I came into the film business writing and loving telling stories but I came very, very curious about directing performance and directing actors. That's really my favourite part. When I went to film school, I loved working with actors. I loved getting a performance and watching it happen. It just seemed like the unanswerable, inexplicable magic of making something happen for real in front of a camera. So I studied acting for a few years and directing just ended up becoming my passion.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
I think I probably would have wanted to be a politician. Art is the only thing that can save me from my opinions about the world. I tend to get very worked up about what I see going on and I feel, you know, impotent to make the kind of changes and the kind of difference that I would like to make. In fact, before I went into directing professionally, I had quite a crisis of faith about becoming an artist and whether that really made a difference or not. I have to say that it's through directing comedy that I really feel like... I slowly realised that the opportunity that you present to people to go and disappear for an hour-and-a-half - and hopefully learn something in a movie if you're smart and have something to say - but also to give people that time of laughter and enjoyment is so important. Laughter is really a gift. It's the most vulnerable state you can be in.
Your life is like the script to Sullivan's Travels (1941) then?
Totally! It's important to me in that way and I never really watched comedies that much as a kid except for maybe Abbott and Costello. I loved Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce and Eddie Murphy probably later on, but it wasn't what I came into filmmaking to be. I certainly wasn't drawn to comedy as a filmmaker and somehow I fell into it and I feel very grateful for that.
What other director would you like to see at work?
I'd love to have watched Hal Ashby direct actors and write. Jim [James L] Brooks is a big inspiration as well and Steven Spielberg, because he had a lot to do with why I got drawn to Hollywood. He's able to create the emotional state on a grand level and I become more and more drawn to that as I get older. Scorsese too.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
War Of The Worlds. I actually loved it. I thought it was fantastic. That's probably why I'm in such a giddy Spielberg state right now. He has an incredible control over the tone of that movie - it was very dark and he made some very surprising choices. I also thought that movie was incredible just because I have not been scared like that in a theatre for so long. There are probably only a handful of movies that could do that; Philip Kaufman's remake of The Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, Ridley's Scott's Alien and, obviously, Jaws. Jurassic Park was probably the last time I had a ride like that.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
I generally don't walk out of films. If I start a book and I don't love it by page 100, I will stop reading because it's just too much of a time commitment. But you never know with a movie what's going to turn around.
Do you believe in God?
Yeah, I do believe in God. I don't believe in God as a person, but I believe in God as a state of energy and consciousness that we all share.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
Probably Jackie Chan. After working with Jackie [on Shanghai Knights] you can go anywhere in the world and they know him. He really is an international superstar on that level.
Is there going to be another Shanghai movie?
I don't think they're going to do another Shanghai movie. I really wish they would. Unfortunately, we made a little more than the first one at the box office, but I think they were hoping for it to be a much bigger hit. You know, it's a financial thing. But there were some really funny ideas that Owen [Wilson] had for the next one. He wanted his father to come in and we were talking about Dennis Hopper coming in to play his dad and it turns out he's crazier than he is. It was really funny. Maybe we could still do that in a different world.
What will be your next film?
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor [Sideways] are writing a screenplay for me that will hopefully be my next movie. They're actually rewriting a movie that I wanted to make. It's great. It's about two friends who are firemen in Philadelphia and that are both straight guys who charade as gay guys for insurance security - because they're fireman. Then the insurance company comes after them and they have to continue this charade of being gay in front of the world and understand that experience of being persecuted and judged. It's like Tootsie in that way. It's a lot like Tootsie. It's an important movie, or it could be an important movie, but it's certainly a really funny movie. It's called I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry. The screenplay should be done next week. I'm sure we'll do one more draft on it after that and then we'll be right on track to cast it and shoot it in January.
What's your favourite movie quote?
You know, it's funny but one of my favourite quotes - and it's out of context so maybe it won't make sense - is in the movie Unforgiven. Gene Hackman's about to die. He's on the ground and Clint Eastwood's holding a gun on him in the saloon and Gene Hackman says something like, "This isn't fair," and Clint Eastwood says, "Fair's got nothing to do with it," and then he kills him. I don't know why that's always stuck in my head, but it's probably because I've always had this huge fear of injustice. It's a fantastic moment. You know another quote I love? Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, says, "All the best people have scars". That's a great quote.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
Marc Forster. And Peter Weir. I think those are two of the most breathtaking filmmakers that we have. I think Master And Commander was fantastic and Picnic At Hanging Rock and Witness and Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show and Fearless. Each one has a deep sense of humanity. And Marc Forster is in that lineage I think, with Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland. I'm also really excited to see Stranger Than Fiction which was a script that I loved and one that, if he hadn't been on, I would have tried to make my next film.
And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
Oh boy. Who's overrated? You know I wouldn't call Quentin Tarantino overrated exactly because I think he's fantastic. I think he's a genius, but I do think that he has under-performed on his potential. I know Kill Bill was very fascinating and particularly the second one was really, really good, but there's something that tells me this guy has a bigger potential and he just has not shown it yet. I don't know. Something falls short for me with Quentin in his work.
Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?
Wow! My God. Filmmaking is such a pain in the ass in the first place that I can't imagine blaming it on any one individual person.
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
It happened very recently and I won't name who asked me, but they said, "Who sleeps with more women - Vince [Vaughn] or Owen [Wilson]?" Dumb question! How would I know, and why would I know, and why would I say if I knew? What an incredible, insane presumption to make.
Do you believe in test screenings?
Oh my God, I completely believe in test screenings. I don't believe in the scoring process and I believe studios often use these test screenings to weigh numbers and manipulate the agenda of what they believe the movie should be. I don't like that part but there's nothing like the honesty of sitting with an audience in front of your movie and seeing what worked, what didn't work, what made sense and what didn't make sense. The beauty of comedy is that it's binary - zero or one - either they laughed or they didn't laugh. That information is priceless.
How seriously do you take reviews?
I love reviews. I love good reviews and I love bad reviews. Hopefully people read critics on a continual basis to find critics who are in line with their own views so that when they're reading something, in general, they are close to those people. The unfortunate thing in this world is that you can say anything about anyone and people will automatically believe that it's true. The thing is that good reviews are no more true than bad reviews - they're just different opinions. I think it's a lot of fun quite frankly, although I don't read reviews before seeing a film because that can sometimes ruin the experience if it's over-hyped. After I see a movie though, I'll read everything.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
It was from my grandmother who said, "Don't worry about anything twice."
And the worst?
"Just say everything that's on your mind."
What's your biggest regret?
You know I don't really have many regrets. I think it's sad to live with that. There are times I've regretted things I've done but I don't live with them. We don't forgive ourselves enough. We can be hard on ourselves and I know I can be hard on myself, but forgiveness is something I work on.
There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?
Call everybody that I love and find my fiancée and hug her.
Which performer would you love to work with?
I would love to work with Vince and Owen again. We're all trying to do that. I believe in acting troupe-type relationships where the better you know each other the better your work is. You know, you don't put together a championship team and then build the team from zero the next time. Of course there are other people I'd love to work with: Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp - I got a lot of them...
What film makes you want to spit?
Oh that's great. I love that question. Um... Independence Day. It was fun for people but it was so poorly made, so poorly done. It treated the audience like... It abused the audience because it was so stupid. I hated Godzilla and I'm a fan of the old Godzilla movies and I thought that was just a catastrophe. Same filmmakers [Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin] - what can I say? Still I really got into The Patriot however weird that is. So how do you like that!? Well, only parts of it actually... Maybe I should revoke that.
What are your three favourite films and why?
Dog Day Afternoon, Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. Actually I think I'd put Close Encounters Of The Third Kind ahead of The Godfather. Dog Day Afternoon because it's just the most brilliant performance by Al Pacino and it's heartbreaking and it surprises you consistently and the writing... There isn't a single piece of music from the opening credits, with the Elton John song [Amoreena], until the end of the movie. It's just pure performance. And the tension is fantastic, it's sweaty and real and I just love 70s movies like that.
Apocalypse Now is the first movie that frame-by-frame, line-by-line, edit-by-edit made me realise that a movie can be opera and symphony and poetry all at the same time. I had a huge emotional and deep spiritual reaction to that movie. It was so mature. It wasn't afraid to put sex out there and drugs out there and the music... It was just so visionary and psychedelic. I saw it at a very young age. I think was 11 and it blew my mind.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind because that movie creates the experience of childlike wonder, as you're sitting in your seat, of experiencing and meeting another form of life. There has never been another movie that has ever come close to creating that kind of an experience. Somehow deep in your heart when you're watching that movie, when you get to the end of and when they come out of the ship, you know it's right. It may be wrong, I don't know, but it feels completely accurate.
What do you think of Norman Wisdom?
Who's Norman Wisdom? I know nothing of Norman Wisdom, but I feel like there's a whole new area of cinema that I should learn.