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Summer Sneaks | BACKSTORY

Rediscovering Rock and Doris for the first time

May 04, 2003|Peyton Reed | Special to The Times

Growing up as a kid in North Carolina in the '70s, I was never into Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. If I had come across one on TV, I'd have quickly turned the channel to look for something cool, like an ape riding a horse or a "Twilight Zone" episode.

When I was 13, I got my first Super 8 movie camera. I made short films like "The $10,000,000 Boy," "Attack on Pearl Harbor" and "Here's My Dog." I didn't make any sophisticated bedroom comedies. (I did tie a steak knife to a cat's paw and make a short film about a psychotic feline killer, but I don't think that counts.)

In college, as an aspiring cineaste, I immersed myself in Hitchcock, Truffaut, Bergman -- all the auteurs. I used words like "mise-en-scene," "oeuvre" and "semiotics." I watched movies constantly -- anything and everything I could get my hands on. And not once did I check out a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie. In fact, I don't think I saw "Pillow Talk" until about five or six years ago on AMC.

So how did I find myself on the set of "Down With Love" directing Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in a homage to those Day-Hudson sex comedies? Well, I almost didn't.

I accidentally passed on the movie. I had a pile of scripts to read, my agent asked me if I'd read "Down With Love," I got it confused with another three-word-titled romantic comedy, and I answered, "Yeah, I read it. Pass." I hadn't read it. A week or two later, my wife and I were traveling back East, and she grabbed several scripts to read on the plane. During the flight, she kept laughing hysterically. "This is great!" she said. "What's great?" I asked. "This script. 'Down With Love.' " "Down With Love"?!? Uh oh.

As soon as we landed, I read it. I loved it. I placed a panicked call and set up a meeting with the producers, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. We hit it off, and that was that. Dan and Bruce had responded to the same things about the script that I had. It was funny, it was smart, and it was well-paced. But its most distinguishing feature was how crazily specific it was. The writers, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, were very clear about the world they were creating and the rules of it.

It's a very precise, choreographed kind of comedy. There's a definite cadence to the dialogue and to the flow of the movie as a whole. It's almost like a musical without the singing. The movie takes place in New York City in the early '60s, but not the real New York City. It's an idealized, Hollywood version of New York -- as seen through a '60s CinemaScope camera. Poppy, colorful and fun.

My first task was to educate myself on the genre known as the "sex comedy" or "bedroom comedy." It's not one they teach in film classes. Eve and Dennis provided an entire syllabus for me -- a list of the crucial (and some not-so-crucial) sex comedies. I started with the obvious, re-watching "Pillow Talk," "Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers," the three Day-Hudson vehicles.

From there, I branched out to "Sex and the Single Girl," "That Touch of Mink" and "Man's Favorite Sport." I discovered "Boys' Night Out," "A New Kind of Love" and "Come September." The list goes on and on. The common denominator is an inherent lightness. They're playful, unabashedly romantic and not afraid to be downright silly. They're rife with innuendo, but by today's standards they're pretty chaste. The characters wear great clothes, live in unbelievable apartments and always know the right thing to say.

I couldn't wait to create a world like that in "Down With Love." JFK was in office. The nation was looking to the future. We were on our way to the moon and on the cusp of the sexual revolution. And in New York, art and culture were blooming -- from Broadway to the jazz scene to stand-up comedy to art. I wanted to capture the feel of that time, or rather an exaggerated take on a collective memory of a Hollywood movie version of that time. A vivid world that made you want to leap into it. A world that allowed you to see all the things that have changed in 40 years -- and all the things that haven't. I liked the idea of having a comedy about sexual politics play out in a stylish, hyper-real world.

I wanted to devise a tone for the movie where a character looks out the window at a painted canvas Manhattan skyline and the audience accepts that as their reality. They know it looks fake, but intentionally so. It's a movie in which a character enters swinging from beneath a helicopter, a book becomes an international hit in two weeks, and a playboy puts on horn-rimmed glasses and a fake Southern accent and convinces a woman he's an astronaut. Who wouldn't want to hang out in that world for a while?

As a kid, I loved movies that were so specifically drawn that I wanted to be in them. And not just the fantasies or science-fiction movies. Sure, I wanted to cruise around Tatooine in a landspeeder, but I also wanted to eat at the Fells Point diner in 1959 Baltimore, race bikes on the Cutter team in Bloomington and cut school with Antoine Doinel in downtown Paris. It turns out I also wanted to live in a swingin' bachelor pad in early '60s New York City. Who knew?

Peyton Reed is the director of "Down With Love," which opens May 16.

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