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Comedy Director Primed for 'Fantastic' Journey

August 01, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Raja Gosnell is a man of surprises. For starters, he's a tall, strapping, sandy-haired, blue-eyed Valley dude.

An even bigger surprise: The director of two huge comedy moneymakers for 20th Century Fox--"Big Momma's House" and last year's "Never Been Kissed"--Gosnell virtually has no profile in Hollywood.

But all that is about to change.

He now has two major studios vying to make his next movie.

Fox has to move swiftly if it wants to lock Gosnell up to make "Fantastic Four," a big special-effects movie based on another of its hot Marvel comics that the director has been developing for a year.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has put an offer on the table for him to direct its live-action "Scooby Doo."

Now that Fox has hit pay dirt with its current Marvel movie, "X-Men," which has grossed over $120 million in three weeks, Gosnell's project looks too hot to miss.

"We expect and hope to make the picture ["Fantastic Four"] pretty soon," said Tom Rothman, who was just named chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment along with international chief Jim Gianopulos.

"If 'X-Men' hadn't worked, we may have reconsidered," Rothman said, noting that expensive movies sometimes never make it to production.

In short, Gosnell is poised to be the next great thing in mass appeal. The unassuming 41-year-old editor-turned-director hits home runs to the PG and PG-13 audience, the most lucrative in the movie business. This protege of John Hughes and Chris Columbus is walking firmly in their footsteps.

Gosnell has been working closely with Columbus and his producing partner Michael Barnathan to get "Fantastic Four" off the ground. Screenwriter Sam Hamm ("Batman") is to deliver another rewrite in the next month or so.

Rothman hopes to make "Fantastic Four" for around $75 million, as he did with "X-Men." Because the film requires a lot of prep time due to its extensive special effects, he said it could be year's end before production gets underway.

Given its cost, scope and complexity, "Fantastic Four" would be Gosnell's most ambitious directing project to date. "Big Momma's House," a physical comedy starring Martin Lawrence as an FBI agent who goes undercover in grandma drag, cost $32 million, and "Never Been Kissed," a high school comedy starring Drew Barrymore, cost even less at $25 million.

Gosnell was considered one of the best comedy editors in Hollywood with such credits as "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Home Alone," "Nine Months" and "Pretty Woman," before making his directing debut on Fox's 1997 "Home Alone 3."

Once "Never Been Kissed" wrapped, Gosnell says he aggressively went after "Fantastic Four," which had been in development at Columbus and Barnathan's production company, 1492, for years.

"I worked really hard to get a meeting on it," said Gosnell, whose unusual name comes from a Saudi Arabian pal of his father's. "I really wanted to do a big action comedy thrill ride like 'Men in Black.' "

But coming off "a nice little comedy" like "Kissed," Gosnell recalled, "it took quite a while to convince [Fox executives]" that he could handle a large-scale movie.

Now, Rothman said, Gosnell is the perfect director for the material, which he described as "more comedic, not as dark and less angst-ridden than 'X-Men.' " The story follows the adventures of a dysfunctional team of superheroes.

Fox executives always have been incredibly supportive of his directing ambitions, Gosnell said. He repaid the studio on "Big Momma's House" with a $100-million-plus box office, a success story that nearly didn't happen. Two months before production was to begin last fall, Lawrence lapsed into a heat stroke-induced coma.

"He was close to death," Gosnell recalled. "We just held our breath and waited to see. But I'm an optimistic guy and I believe in God and I believed things would work out. Obviously, the movie was secondary to Martin's health."

Fox pushed back production to mid-January to assure Lawrence time to recover and moved the original June 2000 release date back to the fall. But not long after production began, Fox executives, impressed with the dailies, asked Gosnell and the film's producer, David Friendly, if they could finish the picture for an early June release.

Thanks to his editing background, Gosnell turned a scheduled 15-week post-production into seven weeks by cutting the film as he shot it.

As a producer, Friendly said, "I've never felt pressure like that. I heard this ticking all through production." Friendly, who has produced five movies at Fox, including "Doctor Dolittle," compared making "Big Momma's House" to "sprinting in a marathon."

The production came in on time and on budget. Amazingly, the film wrapped April 3 and was previewed one week later--an unheard-of feat since directors are normally allowed 10 weeks to deliver their cut to the studios.

Where most people think of editing as eliminating footage, Gosnell likes to think of it as a "constructing process, building movies shot by shot."

After working on "Mrs. Doubtfire," Gosnell said he realized "I was never going to win any Oscars editing comedies," so he decided to try something else. Fox gave him a shot at directing the second "Home Alone" sequel.

Gosnell said the most difficult transition from editor to director was going from working with a small circle of crew members and executives, "where you present your ideas with pictures and sound," to working with hundreds of people and having to "communicate visual ideas with words."

No surprise: Gosnell was fluent in his new language.

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