Love him or hate him, he’s successful and has been the man in the chair for some of the biggest and most famous comedies of the past 20 years. Dennis Dugan was the man behind such classics as Happy Gilmore, Beverly Hills Ninja and Big Daddy in the ’90s and even the smaller successes like National Security starring Martin Lawrence alongside Steve Zahn. Let’s face it, he’s done a lot and clearly he’s done it well since audiences return time and time again for his brand of comedy which usually involves the marmite man himself, Adam Sandler. Personally, I love Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy and I grew up with those films as my dad was such a huge fan. He put them on play to exhaustion point and I can probably quote you them entirely. Recently, the comments keep getting nastier about his work from critics but Dugan doesn’t care and you’ll find out why below.
Whatever your personal thoughts on Dugan, below is an insightful interview with a huge success who thankfully took his time out to chat with us. You may think he’s a man who makes films to just wipe his ass with $100 bills because he doesn’t care nor respect filmmaking but you’d be so wrong. He loves filmmaking, he loves making people laugh, he loves his work and, more importantly, the audience loves his work. He was lovely to chat to, very open to giving detailed answers and enjoyed different questions. We spoke for a good thirty minutes – accidentally cutting into his next interview – apologies to the person that went next – and would’ve been for longer as there was plenty more to ask and plenty more he’d love to have talked about. Below the director reveals his working partnership with Sandler, the dream of working with Pacino and his views on critics, which is pretty brutal. If you’re likely to get offended, I’d skip the last couple of questions!
Many actors tend to agree that working with a director who is, or has been an actor, is always a winning combination. Would you say your experience as an actor helps you to see things from the actors’ side of the camera?
Yeah, definitely. One, there’s a common language we have and we all understand which helps me shortcut a lot of the direction. Two, I understand the anxiety and the ego portion of having to stand an entire crew and a camera. Three, it definitely helps me in casting.
Because you know what you’re looking for?
Yeah, I know what I’m looking for and I feel like it’s a language thing having been an actor and having an understanding. Maybe if I go up to an actor and say ‘Hey, let’s pick this up a little bit, do it a little faster’ it might be different from somebody else who wasn’t necessarily an actor and would just walk up and say ‘Come on, do it faster!’ [laughs] I just feel there’s a way to say “Do it faster” when you’ve been an actor as opposed to when you haven’t.
More often than not when it comes to comedy movies, there tends to be a lot more freedom to let actors run away with improvisation. Obviously with Adam you have built up a great rapport and you will know how each other work but when working with new cast member do you find yourself drawing a lot more limits? Not letting them improvise as much maybe?
No, no, I don’t. I feel that we hire actors and we hire them because we like them for whatever part it is and they bring a lot to the table. The way that we work, there’s a lot of time spent by the writer and by Adam – unless Adam is the primary writer – and Adam rewrites, rewrites, and I give notes. By the time we’re ready to shoot, we have a script we really like. So we will do the script word for word, whatever scene it is until we get that right. Then we usually have a writer on stage and the writer would be writing jokes as we go and Adam would be throwing stuff in and then other people would be throwing stuff in. We work from structure to chaos. Then we’ll just let them go. Again, we hire talented people – I don’t want to put any limits on anybody. What I want them to do is to be able to just be free and do whatever they please. Like when we did Jack & Jill we had Al Pacino and he obviously has done funny movies in his time. This was a little different for him but once Al, who is a classically trained Shakespearian actor, commits to it he just goes. I remember the first time we did a scene with him we got to the end and I had everything I wanted, Adam had everything he wanted and Al Pacino said ‘One more for free!’… and we did one more. [Laughing] He did that on every scene! We’d also get to the end and Al would go ‘One more for free!’ Just let it go one more time. Who knows, we might get something cool.
It’s good to see that you have such an inherent trust in your actors because I think in some films – without being too critical – you can sort of sense that they aren’t having fun on set sometimes. Do you get what I mean?
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I work very hard to make people comfortable – especially because I deal with classical actors but I also deal with a lot of comedian actors. Doing stand-up comedy is a frightening thing. I do everything I can to make it feel like everybody is in my living room and we’re just fucking around.
Out of all the cast members of Grown Ups 2, would you say, when it came to improvisation, anyone went too far?
In our world there’s no such thing! [laughs] There are times when Sandler will just go! They will just go off on tangents and I just sit there saying ‘OK, go ahead.’ [laughs] Sandler is the king of going too far and Nick Swardson will go to dark and weird places that have not been mapped yet.
I could see David Spade taking it to all new levels of self-deprecation.
For sure, for sure! They all have their own weird caves that they’ll occasionally go to. [laughs]
That’s such a nicer description for it. Obviously you work with Adam Sandler a lot. I know it started in Happy Gilmore but where did the partnership begin and what makes you go back to working with him over and over?
Originally, I tried to get him on before, 3 years or 4 years before Happy Gilmore. I tried to get him in a movie that I was directing and the producers wouldn’t hire him. He wasn’t Adam Sandler yet. Not only that, they also wouldn’t hire Jim Carrey. That was too bad because we could’ve had both of them for $18.43. [laughs]
Really? I bet that studio really laments themselves for that.
Yeah! I brought Adam in four times. I didn’t even know he was associated with Happy Gilmore because I got the call really late and they said ‘Oh we’ve got this golf movie, you should go in’ and I went in and Sandler was there and he said ‘Hey! This was that guy that tried to get me into that movie! He brought me in four times and I always thought I had the job and I didn’t and you stuck by me so you’re directing this one!’ I didn’t even pitch myself, I got my job from trying to hire him before. [laughs] I got the job for being his advocate.
Was there always an intention for a second Grown Ups and was it written before or after the original movie? What drew you to a continuation?
There was no such thing because people have always said ‘You should do Happy Gilmore 2! You should do this 2! And this 2!’ And Zohan, there were a lot of people saying you should do Zohan 2. We could do Zohan 2. I don’t know what we’d do but we could. None of them really ever felt that rich and one of the things that Adam insists on is everything be as new as possible. If we’ve done it before, let’s not do it again. Let’s not repeat ourselves. Let’s try to push ourselves to be new and funny in new and funny ways. Then this one came out and was a hit and people were gonna be like ‘You should do Grown Ups 2!’ This one actually didn’t feel like it was cheating. It didn’t seem like we had to squeeze this thin little thing out and call it 2 and make some money. It felt like with all of the different characters and all of the families and all of the kids and stuff, that there was still a whole lot of stories that could be fun, that could be fresh and could be new.
Who are the new additions to the cast this time around and how are they?
We have Taylor Lautner from the Twilight series and he’s just great. He fit right into the family immediately. He’s funny, he’s fun, he’s an all round terrific guy. He does all his own stunts in the movies! He’s nuts! He’s the Brazilian world champion at kickboxing guy whatever. Then we have Shaquille O’Neal. [Sincere] Shaquille O’Neal is a really, really funny guy. I didn’t know he was that funny. He’s genuinely funny, he’s a comic. He’s good in the picture. We also have Alexander Ludwig, the bad guy from The Hunger Games.
Is he as funny as the rest of the cast?
He’s funny in his own deep, dark, threatening, scare-the-shit-out-of-you way. [laughs]
When you reunited on the set, was it pretty much a giant party going on?
Well we all see each other a lot – back and forth through the years – but it’s very good. We had a really fun time. Everyone had their families and their girlfriends or whatever and dogs on the set for the first one. We recreated that so while we are making a summer movie we are living a summer movie.
What do you think are the differences between your ’90s work – Happy Gilmore, Beverly Hills Ninja, Big Daddy – and your recent years with the shift in Grown Ups and so on?
I think just naturally, you know? He’s [Adam Sandler] growing up. When I first met him he had no wife, no kids, no dogs; now he has a wife, kids and dogs – same with all of them! They were who they were, at that time, 20 some years ago: young, hot, rebellious comedian actors. Slowly but surely they got picked off and married and had kids. As a comic and the material that you gather from your life and with their lives starting to change a little bit, they start mining the comedy out of their life which consists of kids and dogs and wives and houses.
As well as Adam, you have this thing for bringing some great cameos into pretty much everything you have done since Happy Gilmore. Are there any actors you have tried to get involved in your films that have turned you down because they weren’t interested in ridiculing themselves?
I’m trying to think of somebody that I’ve always wanted to have in and haven’t been able to… I’ve been very lucky because I’ve worked with almost everyone who has come out of Saturday Night Live except for three girls that I would love to work which are Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wigg.
Have you ever approached them?
No, I haven’t. I tried but the security pulled me away. [laughs] In answer to your question too, I think the other two I am still missing from my dream list are Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock.
Oh those two are interesting choices.
And Will Ferrell! Sorry! That’s the sort of squad of six people that if I can check off my list before I die then I’ll be a happy man. Then also there’s Melissa McCarthy! She’s crazy funny!
As a director, you must get a lot of scripts through the post. What’s the worst script you’ve ever received?
I read one a little while ago. You know when they’re that bad – the last one that I hated was actually so bad that I continued on because I couldn’t believe it!
Is it so bad that it’s good?
It’s so bad that it’s just terrible! It was so terrible that I couldn’t believe that someone and their loved ones hadn’t said ‘You know what, don’t continue this, and if you do don’t put it out in public! Don’t let people see that you’ve done this!’ I wish I could find it, we could both get a laugh or I might get sick again! My big thing is that somebody sits there and thinks it up, then they outline it, then they tell their wife or boyfriend or husband or girlfriend or whatever, that person encourages them to move forward with it, then some agent gets it and goes ‘Let’s print this! Let’s print this and put one of our agency covers on it!’ and nowhere along the line no one said ‘This is shit! Stop it! Don’t do this anymore!’ One of the things you’ll see is that they get established and they’ll pull something out from 10 years ago that’s their passion project. They say ‘This never was anything but it could be!’ and you’re just like ‘There’s a reason this wasn’t anything, this is shit.’
Have you ever been tempted to do a film that wasn’t a comedy? Sandler moved away in Reign Over Me, Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People in a way.
I would maybe if it was something that I really felt something about. I’m good at comedy and I really enjoy it. I enjoy the process, the science of it. I enjoy the people who do it and I don’t need to go and do my thought piece or my soul piece. I’m happy doing comedy. I like to make people laugh and I like figuring out how to do that.
I feel that comedy doesn’t get enough recognition as a genre. In the Oscars, obviously, with the exception of the Bridesmaids nomination, how often do they get rewarded?
Yeah, exactly. We got rewarded like last night; starting at 7 o’clock last night we made $2.5m. To me that’s the good review: when the people who like comedy pay for tickets. That’s what I consider a review.
What do you try and do to gain your audience back? They keep coming back for more but what do you think they keep coming back for?
We try to think of a clever story or clever premise. We try to make it a good story and then we try to make it as funny as possible and we try and get as many funny people in it as we can. Again, we’re always trying to be fresh, we’re always trying to come up with something new if we can.
Sandler’s been on the screen for over 20 years now so there’s that comfort of having him on screen as well which keeps bringing your audience back too.
Yeah, that too. That can work for you if you’re doing your job but it can work against you if you get lazy.
You’re also confirmed with Mother’s Day. You’re shooting that right now, aren’t you?
No we’re still writing and casting.
When’s that scheduled for release, Mother’s Day next year or the year after?
No I think we missed the window on next year’s so it’ll probably be the year after.
Is there much you can tell us about that, like the cast you’ve got involved?
No, I don’t want to talk about the cast yet but it’s in the same vein as Love Actually, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. It’s that thing of six or seven interwoven stories with stars.
Do you ever get lines quoted in the street to you? Is that something that happens often?
When Zohan came out they’d say ‘Smell it, smell it, smell it! Now take it!’ [laughs] You know, there’s classic stuff in all these movies so yeah I get that. I’m just happy that people see the movies once and they take them home and they see them enough times that they start quoting them.
You never read reviews, obviously, you’ve said that often.
Why is it that you think the critics give you such a hard time when the audience clearly loves you so much?
I don’t know. I feel like the newspapers are partly responsible because they have one critic who will do Mud and then it’ll do Django Unchained and then it’ll do Grown Ups 2. Rolling Stone would never have their rock and roll reviewer do the new Plácido Domingo opera album. They would never have their classical guy review a hip-hop album. They wouldn’t because they don’t know what they’re talking about! What they know is a certain genre and so if you had a person that understood comedy and was sympathetic to comedy and just didn’t dismiss all comedy as nothing then maybe you could have a reviewer coming and saying ‘In this context, up against Charlie Chaplin, up against W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers, this is how we feel where this movie falls in this genre that these people have chosen to do.’ Then you might have some sort of logical discourse. Right now it’s just crap.
Wow. You feel pretty strongly against critics then.
Yeah, I just don’t care. If we didn’t make movies they wouldn’t have a job. We do the creating and they leech off it and attack it. So I don’t care. They can do whatever they want. I’m happy that they have a job. In the end I’m hoping that everyone in the UK goes and sees the movie! [laughs]
I’m sure you will after topping the US box office, Grown Ups 2 will now move on to other countries and dominate theirs.
The film is released in the UK on the 9th of August where it will play to packed screens. Also look out for Mother’s Day which will be hitting the big screen in 2015, hopefully. We wish him luck and thank him for his time although, for the record, I liked Mud, Django Unchained and Big Daddy.