Written by a native of Scottsdale, Arizona and produced with the help of 85 students from Arizona State University, Car Dogs hopes to be the first of many feature film projects to be produced in the city of Phoenix, while also giving college students the opportunity to learn the filmmaking business from a group of seasoned professionals.
One of those veterans is the man behind the camera, director Adam Collis, who spearheaded the program after being hired as a visiting professor at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre. We caught up with Adam last week to talk about the genesis of Car Dogs, the diversity of his cast, and the excitement surrounding this week’s world premiere.
It’s interesting to watch a movie that’s set in Phoenix and was actually shot here, because there are so many shots in this film where I immediately recognize the area and the surroundings. As the director, why was it important for you to shoot here?
Adam Collis: Well, the movie was always set in Phoenix, and it was written by a Scottsdale native, so it almost felt serendipitously destined to be shot here. The film started coming together when, as a professor at Arizona State University, my boss came to me and said that we needed to give internship opportunities to our students, so they could get some real-world experience. And I kind of jokingly said “well, we could make a feature film, and that would give them all great internship experiences,” and he took me seriously and said “is there a script that you could do?”
I had been here about a year and a half, and I kept thinking about this script by a former student, who I had taught in my very first class in Los Angeles. It was this script called Car Dogs, written by Mark King, a Scottsdale native, and it was set in this car dealership in Scottsdale. And I was thinking “this could be done relatively inexpensively.” We had just had the financial collapse, so I knew there would be a lot of empty dealerships in the valley and we could get our location.
So I called Mark to find out if he had every done anything with it, because that was a hot script in Hollywood for awhile. There were names attached to it, and it had a big agency representing it, but like so many projects it came together and then fell apart, so when I called it was available. And I asked if he wanted to come back to his hometown, and make a movie drawn from his own life experiences, with students from his alma mater, and Mark said “of course.”
And then we just started putting it together with all of these wonderful ASU connections. Like our casting director, John Jackson – he’s an ASU alum – and he’s really what led to the sort of outside-the-box casting of George Lopez. That part was originally written for like a young Ben Affleck type, but John really gets you to think about things in a different way, to think about casting roles in a way that feels real, but unexpected. Nobody was expecting me to cast a 50-year-old Mexican-American comedian in that role.
Yeah, he’s fantastic. You almost kind of forget that it’s George Lopez, because the role is so different from the stuff he’s typically recognized for.
Adam Collis: He was just so incredibly directable. He’s such a talented and charismatic guy, he’s the sort of guy you can just train the camera on and let it go. I’m just so delighted, and it was very, very gratifying to be able to work with him.
You also have Octavia Spencer in this film for a brief role, and coming off this past year’s award season, that’s a pretty high-profile name. How did she get involved?
Adam Collis: This is one of those stories where it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Josh Hopkins, who plays Reynolds, is someone that I grew up with in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s also an executive producer on the film, and he had known Octavia Spencer for a very long time. There’s a really important, pivotal scene near the end of the film, and it called for someone with Octavia’s gravitas, so I pitched the idea to Josh.
He reached out to Octavia, and then I had a call with her. We talked for about ten minutes, and she was in, so I thanked her and told her we would see her during production. Well, some time passed and things changed in her schedule, and she told Josh she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to do it. So Josh came and told me that, and I said “well, did she tell you definitively that she couldn’t be in the movie?” And he said no, so I begged him to go back to her and explore it again.
He came back and told me that she wasn’t sure it would fit into her schedule, and once again I said “did she tell you definitively that she couldn’t be in the movie?” And he said no, so I begged him to go back to her and see what they could work out. Then he comes back a third time and says “Octavia wants to talk to you.” I’ve never shared the contents of that conversation with anyone, but by the end of that twenty minutes, she said “I’ll see you in Phoenix,” so it all worked out for everyone.
Another great performance in this film comes from Chris Mulkey as the main character’s father.
Adam Collis: He’s the best! Chris Mulkey is the bull, El Toro. You just let him in the ring, and you try your best the guide the bull with your red cape, but the bull probably has better ideas than you have.
There have been plenty of movies with this sort of villainous businessman archetype, but this guy is the upper echelon. He is such an asshole, and he’s so despicable, but he’s so charismatic that you can’t take your eyes off him.
Adam Collis: You know, when I saw Mulkey’s reel, it wasn’t what I was expecting initially. I think what the writer had in mind was someone much more stoic and stern and manipulative, But I think what Chris brought to it was so much smarter, this guy who’s just such an overwhelming asshole that you’re fascinated to see what he’ll say or do next. Individual politics aside, does that remind us of anyone?
I think there’s something about the spirit of his performance that really speaks to our times. There’s someone who’s so strong in their point of view and so viciously committed to what he believes, regardless of whether or not it screws people over. He’s justified it in his mind, and everything that character does, he believes is okay, because he’s got his own justification and that’s what fuels his intensity. The best bad guys always think they’re the good guys.
How excited are you for Car Dogs to have its world premiere here in Phoenix?
Adam Collis: Well, the thing I’m most excited about is the thing I’m the most nervous about, and that’s the fact that we’re launching this movie in a completely unique way that depends on the good people of Phoenix to rally around this movie. Movies don’t launch a national release out of Phoenix – in fact, they don’t launch national releases very often out of anywhere that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. We’re saturating theaters across the valley so we can truly test the market, and so we can truly give the people of Phoenix the chance to decide whether or not this movie goes national.
This project was born out of the culture of innovation that is Arizona State University. There’s no question about that, and president Michael Crow has created this entrepreneurial, innovative environment, and out of that environment we created a new business model for financing an independent film, and a new professional immersion program. But the biggest innovation is this new way to launch a movie out of the Phoenix market, so that’s why it’s so important for the people of Phoenix to come out and support the movie. If it goes national, everything points back here.
The world premiere of Car Dogs takes place on Monday, March 20th. The film opens in Harkins Theaters throughout the Phoenix area on Friday, March 24.