Michael Landon Jr. ('Velveteen Rabbit')
'The Year of The Rabbit'
'The Velveteen Rabbit,' based upon the Margery Williams 1922 children’s classic, is one of the most loved children’s books of all time. In Michael Landon Jr’s brand new feature film, the book comes to life in an impressive combination of live-action drama and animated adventure.
It is the story of a young boy named Toby who is sent by his busy father to spend the holiday season in the home of his stern and emotionally cold grandmother. Toby's world instantly changes when he discovers the house's 'magic attic' where three forgotten toys - including a special stuffed rabbit - unlock a world of imagination that will change the family’s lives forever. Featuring the voice talents of Golden Globe® winner Jane Seymour (“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” Somewhere in Time) as Mom, with Emmy Award® winner Tom Skerritt (Top Gun, “Picket Fences”) as Horse, and Oscar® winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore).
Director Michael Landon, Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 20 years, he has worked in just about every capacity of the moviemaking process: from film loader to director of photography. Best known for the ‘Love…’ series of family films, he resides in Austin, Texas with his young family.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael and I asked what had attracted him to making a film about a children’s book that was published 85 years ago? "Well the classic was read to me as a child. The theme ‘love makes us real’ just resonated with me. I can’t remember what it was exactly at the time, or how I processed it, but it was very visceral and it stuck with me."
"Then, several years back, I revisited the material when I realised no one had adapted it, or had successfully adapted it, into a feature length film. There were a couple of adaptations out there that were short animated films, but no feature-length films. So that is where the process started. I had two thoughts. I didn’t want to make just an animated film I wanted to make a live action film as well. I didn’t want to make a based-upon adaptation because I knew for sure I would ruin the classic."
"Also, I wanted to tell it from the little boy’s point of view. In the original Margery Williams story he didn’t have a name, so we gave the little boy a name, Toby, and a back story and went from there. I just really wanted to tell a story that, as a small child, inspired me."
The voice cast of Jane Seymour, Ellen Burstyn and Tom Skerritt is very impressive; how did you get them interested in the project? "Well, they saw the film and were touched by it and really there was no convincing to do. I did not know them before the project, but, they signed on and brought their talent, their experience and their professionalism to the film. Ellen Burstyn was especially moved by the film."
The young man who plays the lead, Toby (Mathew Harbour), is very good, where did you find him? "The cast, except for the father, John, played by Kevin Jubinville, are all Montreal-based actors. We shot in Montreal, and cast there. We were very fortunate to find Mathew. Once he walked through the door and said a few lines I knew we had our Toby and I knew that the whole movie hinged on this little boy. There was no second choice considered, he was Toby. He was probably in 97% of the live action. Getting the correct actor was really important, and Toby did an outstanding job."
Combining animation with real-life action looks like it might be a really difficult technical process; how hard was it to do? "Not difficult at all. Just for the very reason that the two worlds live separately, so except for a couple of transition scenes that needed to be storyboarded there was no technical issues whatsoever. If you take another rabbit film, like Roger Rabbit, where you have both live action and animation living in the same frame constantly, now you have a very difficult film to make, but Velveteen was no issue. The process was new for me, as I’d never done any animation so my writing partner Cindy Kelley wrote the parts for the animated world and then the animation director takes over and uses it as a launching pad in creating the animated world."
"What I told the animation directors what I was looking for was a ‘Winnie the Pooh-esque’ style animation. They didn’t do that, but I think what they have created is a really wonderful alternative, because it is a combination of 2D and 3D animation. The characters are in 2D and the backgrounds are in 3D, so it does give the film a vintage retro look that works very nicely."
Do you feel that your experience as an actor helps your work as a director? [Laughs] "I’ve never considered myself an actor. I had a few parts that were handed to me that I took advantage of for directing purposes. I’ve never been passionate about being an actor and you have to be passionate. So, I studied acting and I took a few roles for directing purposes to see what it would be like and to have that experience of being in front of the camera: and it was helpful, but my intention and ambition was always to be behind the camera."
Are there any messages in the film that the public might still find relevant in today’s society? "I normally don’t like to tell the audience what the message is, I like them to discover it on their own. Most films geared towards children go after the funny bone, and I love films like that, my kids like films like that, and we have a great time watching them. But my film feels different in that I think what makes the story telling unique in today’s world is that it really goes after the heart of the child."
Your father was a much-loved actor who is greatly missed; what is the most important thing you learnt from him? "Hmmm, I’m not sure I can answer with one specific thing. I started off working for my father as a film loader and first and second assistant cameraman and the one thing I learnt from him, as a filmmaker, is respect for all."
"He was wonderful in terms of that it didn’t matter if you were the grip or the star of the show, he treated everyone with respect, and as long as you were working hard at doing your job, he was a wonderful man to work for and was always concerned for everyone on the crew, and there was loyalty in that."
"From a practical and human standpoint I took that away from him.
As a director I must say that I also learnt that you can only impact your audience if your characters are being truly impacted, that has always stayed with me."
As a committed Christian, how does your faith inform your film making? "I think that art, because of the culture we find ourselves in, can have a negative impact or positive impact on people. I believe that there is a responsibility in art. I don’t feel that you can tell any story that you feel like telling without any consequences. So, my faith, my world view, comes with parameters with which I am willing to tell stories."
"That doesn’t mean I won’t tell stories that won’t have language in it, I don’t object to that. If I’m going to tell a story about inner-city gang members I don’t want them saying ‘gosh’ or ‘darn’ because there’s no point in telling the story. My faith, my world view, affects the story I’ll tell, but in terms of how you look at someone else’s art it is very important to understand the intent of the artist before you can judge the content of their art."
What do you plan to do next now that The Velveteen Rabbit is finished and in theatres? "I’m finishing up my second novel; it’s called ‘The Silent Gift’. It’s a post-depression story about a small boy who is deaf and mute and everyone thinks he has the gift of prophecy; it will be on bookshelves this Fall. I have a couple of other projects that I’m working on."
"There’s one with Hallmark called ‘The Shunning’, which is based on a Beverly Lewis novel, it is the second that I’ve adapted and it revolves around the Amish. There’s another film called ‘Deep in the Heart’ which is a true story of race and reconciliation set in Texas. I try to keep busy. It is a very competitive business and I feel very blessed and very thankful anytime I’m able to work."
You have stated that you are interested in to shooting upcoming films in Michigan, any special reason for that? "Yes, there was a project that I was being considered for which was set in Michigan. But the practical side of shooting there is that the tax incentives are very strong. I’m not sure what the recent status might be with the downturn of the economy, but the state of Michigan has been very aggressive in helping filmmakers out with their tax incentives."
Lastly, during the film, I thought I detected a little of the theme music from Bonanza, was I right or wrong?! "Ha ha ha, you know what, if it’s in there, it was completely unintentional. That’s great. Now I’ll have to go back and listen to it. I wouldn’t put it past my musical director to sneak that past me…that’s very funny."
Interviewed by: Peter 'taB' Walker
'The Velveteen Rabbit', is in selected theaters nationwide and on DVD from March 17.
If you would like to win a copy of this brand new 'The Velveteen Rabbit' DVD and you think you know all there is to know about Michael Landon Jr, just answer this easy question: Michael starred in 3 made-for-TV 'Bonanza' shows, but as which recurring character?!
Send me your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these great new DVDs! Just send us an e:mail here before June 1st with your answer and the subject title VELVETEEN RABBIT DVDs to: email@example.com
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