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Faces of the Festival: Robert Kirbyson

Meet Robert Kirbyson, director of the family film Snowmen, which won the Audience Award: Second Place! Bring the kids (8 and up).

 

Robert Kirbyson: Director of Snowmen
Director Robert Kirbyson

 

TribecaFilm.com: Tell us a little bit about Snowmen.

Robert Kirbyson: Snowmen is a heart-warming family film about three best friends, 10-year-olds, who go on this crazy adventure trying to make their lives matter (they figure), by setting a world record. They just have no idea what, so they go on all these crazy adventures trying to figure out that one thing they can do better than anyone else in the world. And that becomes setting the world record for [building the] most snowmen in one day.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What inspired you to tell this story?

 

RK: I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, in the snow, and I had all these great adventures that I’d never seen in a movie. I remember these things being the greatest adventures anyone’s ever had. [Also, I remember] asking some pretty profound questions when I was the age of the main character…

 

TribecaFilm.com: “Profound” is a key word in the film!

 

RK: Originally, Snowmen was written as a period film, matching my growing up in the ‘80s, but [financially], we couldn’t do it. So we had to make it more contemporary, and then one of the characters is trying to come up with the next cool word at school and he decides it’s “profound.” And I’m actually afraid the word’s going to catch on before the movie releases! Everyone on set started saying it, and what happens if it’s actually just an average word by the time the movie comes out?

 

Snowmen

 

TribecaFilm.com: Is the film based on real-life events?

 

RK: In the movie, there’s a character who moves from Jamaica to this fictional town of Silverlake, Colorado, who’s never seen snow before. He’s based on my best friend growing up—his name is Marlon—and his older brother who passed away when we were kids was named Howard, so I named the character Howard. [Howard’s death had] a profound effect on the whole community: I remember a funeral [with] everyone, everyone coming, and that church was so packed, including kids that I thought didn’t even like Howard. You know, like the local bully, who was bawling, singing and praying.

 

It made me realize that he wasn’t such a bad guy, and that maybe everyone in the school—we would divide into groups, but when it came down to it, we were a community and we would help each other. And I wanted the movie to reflect that, to show how when scary things really happen, you can count on everyone else in a community. So I hope that comes through.

 

TribecaFilm.com: It does.

 

RK: When I was that age, I had a father who was battling a life-threatening illness, and I started asking some very profound questions [like], “Is my life going to matter?” And I remember as I got older, seeing other kids struggling with the same issues. When I wrote the script, I really felt that that’s something that I don’t see in movies—[that] kids really do ask very profound questions, and we kind of skirt around them or don’t believe that they [have that capacity].

 

So I wanted this movie to not shy away from some of those issues. And to say, to all kids who watch the movie, “You do matter.” I really hope kids walk away feeling like, “My life matters, and I don’t have to achieve some kind of fame for that to be true.”

 

TribecaFilm.com: What’s the craziest thing that happened when you were making this film?

 

RK: We shot in Park City, Utah, and the biggest problem we had was that we shot later in the season, and it was a record year for the least amount of snow.

 

There’s a scene on the street that we needed there to be lots of snow for. Well, there was no snow; it was all gone. And so [what you see is the work] of an amazing line producer who trucked in dirty snow and dirt and whatever it would take to pile up in the front yards. And then we found a few good deposits of decent snow in the shade, so we put a thin coating of clean snow on top of that. And then we CG’d snow all over the street, so it’s all computer graphics of snow on the road. And then we sprayed white foam, the same foam they spray on runways when planes are going to have a crash landing—we sprayed it on the trees and all the roots. But within a few hours in that heat—[it was so warm] we had crew members in T-shirts—it was all dripping off. Everything was melting, and all the dirty snow was coming through, so we really had to shoot all the wide shots in the morning, and just throughout the day hope our clean snow would last.

 

So it was a battle every day, but we had a crew that just knew that we were going to get the movie done. It was kind of exhilarating, like, “How are we going to survive this day?”

 

Snowmen

 

TribecaFilm.com: How did you build all those snowmen?

 

RK: [Figuring out] the snowmen was fun; [most of] the snowmen were fake... We had about 300 snowmen [where] you could only see the front. They were half-snowmen, but from the front they looked three-dimensional. And then we had some cut-outs way at the back, and in the foreground, we would have real snowmen, if the snow would allow, but...

 

TribecaFilm.com: I like the way you changed the words to the Modern English hit “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You.” Instead of [a classic line], you use “being friends with you…”

 

RK: You know who did that for us? Randy Jackson from American Idol. He got the rights to the song, and recorded it himself. He’s not singing it or anything, but he’s the one who made it happen, in [a] very short time. It was the last second—he saved us.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What was it like working with kid actors? The actress who plays Gwen is striking.

 

RK: Demi [Petersen]? She is so beautiful. She’d done some junior modeling, but she hadn’t really acted, [but she] had a very distinctive look and I said, “Well, [let’s] have her come in and see if she can act at all.” She came in and she was fantastic! She was really good. And you know there’s a scene where it’s her and Ray Liotta and Doug E. Doug in a truck, and she totally held her own with really veteran actors. I’m very proud of her.

 

TribecaFilm.com: And that kid from Role Models!

 

RK: Bobb’e J. [Thompson]. He’s so talented. He’s amazing.

 

TribecaFilm.com: How did you find working with the kids in general?

 

RK: I love working with kids. I actually started in Canada working for Sesame Street when I was just a teenager. I worked on that show for seven years with really little kids, so dealing with kids who are 10, 11, 12 years old, they were awesome, because I’m used to trying to get performances by bribery with donuts. But these kids were really mature and you could really help them get into it—they were living that moment out.

 

Kids are so imaginative; they’re great at make-believe. In their minds, they are living that moment of the movie, so in some ways they’re what adults aspire to be, to get lost in the moment. But they’re also always looking for fun and adventure, so between takes they’re sliding on their bellies down an icy hill in the background. Josh Flitter cut his nose open between takes, and we had to work that into the script. It looked kinda cool, actually.

 

There are challenges working with kids—legally, you’re only allowed to work with them eight hours a day, and three of those hours they have to be in school, so you actually only get to have them on set for five hours a day. It’s very difficult to block the scene and get the performance you need. And these kids are in literally every scene of the movie, so sometimes they have to deliver their lines to a double off-camera or with me reading off-camera, and it really shows—they have to be better actors in some ways, because they don’t have each other always there.

 

Snowmen

 

TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker alive or dead, who would it be?

 

RK: I would like to have dinner with Frank Capra. Every project that I’m developing right now, someone describes them as Capra-esque. And one of my favorite movies from childhood was Mr. Deeds. I love those movies, and I cry watching It’s a Wonderful Life at least once a year. So I’d love to talk to him and see what other similarities we have. It’s a different world, filmmaking now, but to me, I kind of feel we’re kindred spirits, even though we’ve never met.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What would your biopic be called?

 

RK: A movie of me? Oh, no. Boring. It would be called Boring. It would be called Snowmen, because even though nothing in Snowmen is how it happened, when I watch that movie, it feels like my childhood.

 

But I’m hoping the little boy whose family moved from Jamaica, my real best friend Marlon, is coming from Florida. I haven’t seen him in at least 15, maybe 20 years… but I know he remembers those years very fondly. He was the star of my very first movie when I was seven, and we’ve been talking, emailing back and forth, and he wants to come to the screening. And I’ll bet you he will remember every single event that inspired every single scene in that movie and who inspired every character.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What makes Snowmen a Tribeca must-see?

 

RK: The thing that I’m really proud of is that Snowmen is one of only a few family movies—if you sort it by genre, you get Snowmen and a little movie called Shrek Forever After*… I think that’s something that I’d love for people to support, seeing family films at festivals. Typically, you don’t see that.

 



*Editor’s Note: In its 20th anniversary year, the classic Tom Hanks movie Big is also screening for free at the Tribeca Drive-In on Friday, April 23. It’s rated PG. Join us!

 

Read more about Snowmen, and find screening times.
Snowmen will have a free (ticketed) screening after the Family Festival Street Fair at 7:00 pm on Saturday, May 1. More info to come!

 

Find out where and when all films are playing in the 2010 Film Guide.

 

Meet more Faces of the Festival!

 

Become a fan of Tribeca on Facebook!

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