UltimateDisney.com Presents An Interview with Angela Robinson


For many years, the Walt Disney Company had expressed interest in expanding its most voluminous film series to date, the live action comedies centering on a Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie with a personality and mind all his own. Since Herbie Goes Bananas came to theaters in the summer of 1980, the Love Bug had not been heard from in a new big screen adventure. Sure, there was 1982's short-lived television series and 1997's Wonderful World of Disney made-for-TV movie, but the studio had intentions to reintroduce Herbie to the public in grand fashion, in a potential summer blockbuster. Last June, the automobile at the center of 1969's top-grossing film, was back at multiplexes and surrounded by a noteworthy cast headed by 7-year Disney veteran and current media favorite Lindsay Lohan.

With Herbie: Fully Loaded, the car's fifth cinematic outing, the studio hoped to remain true to the original 's spirit, but was eager for a filmmaker who could provide a fresh take on the subject matter. For the position of director, they decided on Angela Robinson, a woman in her early 30s whose only previous feature-length credit was an independent film about crime-fighting lesbian schoolgirls. A fateful Sundance Film Festival screening of D.E.B.S. -- the action/comedy that Robinson wrote, directed, and edited -- reportedly caught the eye of a Disney executive and before her debut picture made it to theaters, Robinson was already in the helm of Fully Loaded, the $70 million production with which Disney placed its summer box office hopes.

On Friday morning, Robinson talked with UltimateDisney.com about a number of topics, mostly pertaining to Herbie: Fully Loaded, which lands on DVD this Tuesday. She spoke of making the jump from indie films to a major studio, cleared up separate rumors about Lindsay Lohan and Dean Jones, and elaborated on her intentions for dusting Herbie off for the NASCAR circuit and a new generation of moviegoers.


UltimateDisney.com: What attracted you to Herbie: Fully Loaded?

Angela Robinson: Actually, Disney brought me the script. I had my first feature was called D.E.B.S. and we were at Sundance and I guess somebody from Disney saw D.E.B.S. at the festival and then they sent me the script to Herbie. They were looking for a young, fresh filmmaker to dust off the whole franchise they had for the Herbie movies. It was really important to Disney to have a fresh take on it. So, they sent me the script which I loved and I went in and gave them my take of how I thought the movie should be done. And then they gave me the job.

Were you a fan of the Herbie movies growing up?

I was. I really was growing up. Especially the original Love Bug. I remember really wanting my parents' car to be alive. They had an MG and I thought "Well, that's kind of like a Volkswagen." But he never really came to life. (laughs) I remember that kind of simplicity of really wanting to be friends with your car.

Director Angela Robinson (in ski cap) and Lindsay Lohan watch a scene on the set's monitors. Angela Robinson provides direction to Lindsay Lohan and Jimmi Simpson during filming of "Herbie: Fully Loaded"'s demolition derby scene.

In preparing for this film, how did you go about treating the four previous Herbie movies? Did you watch them and try to emulate them or differ from them in some ways?

The idea was to take the original Herbie, that character, and then apply him into a whole new world. So I did go back and I watched all the original Herbie movies. I was trying to emphasize what the charm was with the original movies. Herbie has so many fans and is so dear to so many people. So I was trying to figure out why, even with 1969 visual effects, you really understood everything Herbie wanted. He doesn't talk. People always think the car talks. But he actually doesn't, he just kind of communicates non-verbally, with actions and stuff like that. But you always understood exactly what he wanted. So I went back and tried to analyze why you knew how he felt. And one of my original things was that I really didn't want him to be a CG car. I didn't want him to be super-morphy or really cartoony or obvious. I wanted to stick with the language of the original Herbie movies and apply a whole new context. Now he's got a girl owner, and there's a whole different story, and he's thrust into the world of NASCAR. So all the circumstances were changed, but Herbie the character has stayed the same.

So you thought the innocence of the old movies could still appeal today? You didn't feel you had to recreate him for a new generation?

Well, I thought I needed to amp up the stunts and recreate all the circumstances and the characters. What's at stake in the movie is very different. The original Love Bug is a sweet little story about basically a matchmaker trying to get these two people who won't admit that they like each other to fall in love. This was a father/daughter story about a young girl who really wants to compete in the world of NASCAR and she's got a father who loves her but is very overprotective and has different ideas for what he wants for her future. And we're kind of negotiating her dreams versus fighting in a male-dominated world of NASCAR and what her father wants for her. So it's a totally different sense and I felt like the underdog themes of Herbie and the girl and NASCAR, because Herbie had a lot to prove too, in his comeback. So I felt that it was a really fun way. I was more attracted by the contemporary story involving Herbie and that. I thought that that was a fun way to re-introduce him.

The movie operates on a number of different planes. There's a girl following her dreams, a love story, a family dynamic, the car's redemption. Which of these aspects, if any, do you feel is the most important or the one you tried hardest to deliver on?

   
I think at the core it's a friendship story between Herbie and Maggie. A coming-of-age story about how she is learning to be an adult, learning how to be a good friend, learning how to follow her dreams without selling out her friendship with Herbie. I think their relationship is really at the core, with a close second being her relationship with her father. We wanted to not just be like "You can't race!", "Yes, I can!" It's still a cute movie, but the complexities of her loving her dad and wanting his support and not wanting to disappoint him and also wanting to follow her dreams, so she decides to do this other thing, which is dress up like Maxx, so she can avoid the situation and still do what she wants to do.

In a New York Times article last March, it was stated that Dean Jones (the star of the first and third Herbie movies) had a cameo in the film that got deleted. What's the story with that?

That was just misinformation. We tried to work out a cameo with Dean Jones and approached him about it. I'm not sure why it didn't work out. I think it was scheduling and he wasn't available. But that never ended up going anywhere. We didn't shoot anything that got deleted.

That explains why it's not on the DVD, I guess. Is there a deleted scene that is on the DVD that you most wish you didn't have to cut from the film?

I really like the scene where Maggie and Kevin are at the restaurant and they find out that Ray, her brother, is in a band and actually that he doesn't even really want to be a race car driver. That he too is just trying to live up to his father's expectations of him. And you get to find out a little bit more about the romance between Maggie and Kevin, and more about her relationship with her brother and what he's going through too. But it was slowing down the middle of the second act when we played it. It was really the last to go. I kept it in there forever, but then finally, we previewed the movie a couple of times and the audience was really most engaged in the conflict between Herbie and Maggie and Trip. So, that had to go sadly by the wayside. I was bummed about that, but I feel it was the right decision for the movie. But I love DVDs now because you can see the scenes and how they were working in the script and different things that you can learn about the characters that often why it slowed down the pace of the movie too much.

Herbie: Fully Loaded had some obstacles to face upon release. What's your response to the persistent rumors that a certain cast member's wardrobe and body were digitally altered to make the movie more "family-friendly"? Can you set the record straight?

(Laughs) You know, it's really nutty. I never experienced anything like it. It was very strange because there's so much paparazzi and celebrity interest in Lindsay and all the stuff that's going on. I personally would read about something online and I'd be like "Oh my God, I like didn't do that." You'd read it in print and it'd say "Angela Robinson said..." That's weird. I don't know where the Internet rumors came about digitally reducing her boobs or like other things that didn't happen. I don't know what to say.

How do you feel about diehard Herbie fans who complained about physical changes made to the car, details and various things like that?

Um, you know...I feel like I went a long way to be very respectful of the originals. I haven't actually heard many complaints, but maybe there are some diehard fans who find things. At some point, some stuff's gotta change or give for technical reasons or this thing or that thing. We watched all this stuff to try to get the stripes exactly right and the colors exactly right. Some stuff just changes. If you watch the Herbie movies from Goes Bananas to Monte Carlo or whatever, you're like "Oh, that's different. You know, they have a weird gas thing somewhere that you never did so that you can put the diamonds in there." Sometimes I'm just like "What'cha gonna' do?"

   
300x250_Cinderella With the increasing amount of focus and news coverage given to the box office slump and performances in general, how much stock do you put into box office returns as a measure of a film's success?

As a director, I don't put -- of course, I want the movie to perform as well as possible, and for it to make gazillions and gazillions of dollars. I think the movie performed really well. As a director, you can control making the best movie that you can make and then multi forces are a whole other thing that is totally out of your control. So I really just focus on making the best movie I can. And then it's like a kid you send out into the world and you hope it does well.

What do you look at as better tests of a movie's success - awards, reviews...?

I listen to audiences. I watch the movie with people. And I listen to them. And if they are enjoying and laughing at the movie. I turn around and watch their faces: if they are engaged, and not getting up to go to the bathroom. That is the only measure I think you can find. I'm happy because Herbie got a lot of good reviews, but I don't put a lot of stock, because I feel like it's super-relative why one person likes the movie and one person doesn't. But I feel like the collective experience of watching the movie is really powerful. So the only measure I can find is to physically be there and watch people and see if they laugh or see if they cry or see if they're bored or shifting in their seats.

Having just made one smaller feature and independent shorts prior, how different of an experience was it for you to make your first big budget studio film?

Oh, it was a totally different experience. When you're doing an independent movie, you're trying to do a lot with a little. When you're doing a big movie, you're trying to do a lot with a lot. On D.E.B.S., it was like "Alright, we've got five extras, so let's send them through the background three times and change their shirts off-camera." And this, you'd have like 300 people and stunts and green screen and all sorts of stuff. It was neat, though, as a filmmaker to finally really be able to do it like you meant it. That was neat, but you also have a lot of -- it's a different kind of control. On D.E.B.S., I was really able to do everything myself. I was able to sit and edit the movie and work on the visual effects and have everything in your hands and right there. But a movie of this size, you really have to be a general, commanding a lot of different stuff because there's such a volume of work that you can't do everything.

Did you find it more difficult to have your vision of the film come through, with a larger crew, you being somewhat of a newcomer, and the studio having big expectations?

Not at all, actually. I feel like it's exactly my vision of the movie for the most part. Disney was incredibly hands-off in the physical production. They were barely giving notes on the cut and were rarely involved with different aspects. I found it incredible. I was so scared because everybody was like "Oh it's so hard to work with a studio after you come off making a small movie" and "There's so many choices being dictated for you" and stuff like that, but I really didn't encounter that at all. We worked very closely together on the script and they were very, very involved with that. But once it got to production, they really left me alone for the most part.

From left to right: Jeff Gordon, Angela Robinson, Justin Long, and Breckin Meyer collaborate during filming of the climactic NASCAR scenes. Angela Robinson in one of three featurettes on the "Herbie: Fully Loaded" DVD.

How much credit do you give NYU Film School for preparing you for your film career?

What's good about NYU is that they teach you how to make a movie and it's away from Hollywood. You're really there, dealing with your crew and the nuts and bolts and whether your film is getting exposed, as opposed to trying to attach actors to your script or really getting caught up in pitches and the selling aspect of it. So I give them some credit, not all the credit (laughs). Sometimes, I think you have to come out here and do it all yourself. They definitely have a very well respected name and are a really good school. I think when you're getting started, people take you a little more seriously when they hear that you've been to that program. I think that helps somewhat, not exclusively.

Lindsay Lohan has made three remakes or sequels for Disney. Is this a one-time thing to you or would you be interested if Disney said "Let's revitalize the Apple Dumpling Gang movies or the Witch Mountain films"?

Well, I love the Witch Mountain movies. (Laughs) It really for me depends on the script. It wasn't so much about doing a remake, even though I love the Herbie movies, but I was really attracted to the story of this girl who wants to race NASCAR and ends up with a magical car. I thought that was really a fun story. It's not so much the remake, it's what the movie is behind the initial premise. A Herbie movie in NASCAR. I really actually got caught up in the friendship story and the father/daughter story and the fun action sequences and the underdog nature of the movie. I'd consider any and all of those movies. You know, if they have a genius Apple Dumpling plot (laughs), I'd be like "Well, yeah." But if it was just kind of an excuse to redo a title, that's not necessarily what I'm interested in.

Would you be up for making more Herbie movies?

Again, if there was a great sequel that was really fun or had a great new take on it. I thought Herbie goes NASCAR was hilarious, because there has been a huge surge in car movies like The Fast and the Furious. And there was a lot of stuff and a whole new context that was really huge right now. So I thought that was a good thing, as opposed to Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo Again or something. It'd have to have elements that were new and exciting.

   

Were there certain things you felt you had to include in a Herbie film? You got the theme song in there, but were there any other hallmarks you thought needed to be there?

We wanted to a lot of the classic stuff -- the door in the butt, the oil in the face, old school. We tried to put in all the stuff and then expand on Herbie's repertoire a little more, but stay true to that style of comedy. Something Disney's movies never do is go to a mean place or a scatological place or somewhere that a lot of other movies do. They don't go there. It was really interesting trying to find a style of comedy that wasn't mean-spirited and also didn't make fun of people or things and also didn't get gross-out. It was trying to find something that was in the simplest form funny.

The four previous Herbie films are clearly products of their eras. Do you think thirty years from now that Herbie: Fully Loaded will be similarly dated, where people can wholly identify it as a mid-2000s film, or is there more of a timelessness you hoped to achieve to overshadow the contemporary setting?

I hope for timelessness. I think the fundamental story is very strong and will stand up to and with. I think the same is true for the original Love Bug, I think that story is really good. I think that the story for Herbie Goes Bananas is less dear to me. I really feel that it's a great addition to the Herbie canon, if you will. I do think it is a movie that will stand up and be great for kids to watch from now 'til it's in some other format, like some weird Virtual Herbie: Fully Loaded that they'll be watching.

Herbie was your second audio commentary. How do you feel about recording those?

I really like doing the audio commentaries. After you're all finished with this movie, it's a neat button on the end of your experience where you get to review everything that you've done and watch the movie and record for posterity your thoughts on what you did and how you did it. So I really enjoy doing that. And I really like really film-geeky audio commentaries where you find out what the director was thinking, trying to do, or technically with the actors and mechanical things or the script. So I tried to do that in my commentary, make it full of information and not be one of those "Oh, this was a funny day where they wore blue" like some DVD commentaries do.

Is there a sequence in the actual movie that you're proudest of?

Probably the final NASCAR sequence. That was really the hardest one to pull out. But when I went in to my first meeting with Disney, I pitched the sequence where Herbie and Maggie walk out of the tunnel together onto the track with the lone trumpet and the slow motion (laughs). Kind of like the Chariots of Fire idea or Herbie and Maggie finally landing onto the track and it being this kind of triumphant, emotional moment. So I get really excited when I see that part because it was exactly how I saw it in my head.

Do you have a favorite Disney movie?

Wow...favorite Disney movie. Goodness...you know what? I love The Little Mermaid. And I love Escape From Witch Mountain. And I love The Love Bug.

Final question. What's next for Angela Robinson?

Two things. Disney gave me a production deal to write and produce and direct. I'm working on a couple of projects with them. I'm starting my own production company, called Pink Thunder after my Huffy when I was a child. And I just sold a pitch with a writing partner of mine named Alex Kondracke to New Line called Jenbot to write and direct. So I'm working on a bunch of projects.

Related Links:
Read UD's DVD Review of Herbie: Fully Loaded
Order the Herbie: Fully Loaded DVD from Amazon.com

Herbie: Fully Loaded comes to DVD this week.

Past Interviews:
September 28, 2005: Jim Brickman, pianist/writer of The Disney Songbook
September 27, 2005: Ilene Woods, voice of Cinderella, and producer Don Hahn
September 22, 2005: Taylor Lautner, Sharkboy in The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl
May 10, 2005: Irene Bedard, voice of Pocahontas
February 23, 2005: Don Dunagan, voice of Bambi

Interview conducted October 21, 2005. All images copyright Disney.

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