Daniel Petrie Jr interview: Toy Soldiers, Dawn Patrol, Turner & Hooch

From writing Beverly Hills Cop to directing Toy Soldiers and Dawn Patrol, we have a chat with writer/producer/director Daniel Petrie Jr.

Daniel Petrie Jr comes from a family with movies in its blood.

His father, Daniel Petrie Sr, directed films such as Resurrection, Cocoon: The Return and A Raisin In The Sun. His mother, Dorothea, produced movies, wrote novels and acted. And then his brother, Donald Petrie, directed Cocoon: The Return, Miss Congeniality and Grumpy Old Men.

Yet Daniel Petrie Jr is just as busy. His screenplays include Turner & Hooch and Beverly Hills Cop (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination), whilst his directorial debut was the much-loved (by us especially) Toy Soldiers.

As his new film as director, Dawn Patrol (starring Scott Eastwood) lands on DVD, he spared us some time for a chat about his career. Starting with what he’s up to right now…

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So you’re in Serbia at the moment.

I am!

Well, let’s start there. What are you doing in Serbia?

Our company, Enderby Entertainment, is about to start filming An Ordinary Man, starring Sir Ben Kingsley.

The Brad Silberling film?

That’s right.

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I always had a soft spot for his Casper movie! It struck me when I was told you were out in Serbia that mid-budget filmmaking seems to have reappeared, but in Europe. Hollywood will only do blockbusters or ultra-cheap movies, but you have the likes of EuropaCorp that have rediscovered mid-budget movies.

Are you reflective of that, and is that why you started your company?

Well, that’s part of it. Our film’s story happens to be set here, or an unnamed country that we’re meant to believe is part of the former Yugoslavia, but we never specify. The story led us to this location.

But you’re right. The studios that used to make mid-level films have abandoned that market, and indeed any market that isn’t either a $60m comedy or a $120m tentpole, that has people wearing capes! If you do a non-cape movie, it can be done, and ought to be done at a much lower pricepoint than the studios could ever do with their massive overhead and infrastructure.

So I think that’s a trend that’s worldwide. Everybody is able to take more chances, because the cost of entry is lower. Although there’s much more competition in the marketplace, there are so many more avenues to reach an audience.

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Presumably you set up a company too because you want to control your own material more?

Yes, partly control, but also we saw a kind of disturbing trend where some of the worst elements of the studio system were kind of being carried over into the independent world.

Part of the promise of independent film is while the films need to be made for much less money, therefore you can actually make money. But so many of the films still, the producer seems to be interested in paying themselves up front, and they’re not interested in the film so much, or invested their sweat equity in the film, and participating, as getting their fees up front and creating a situation where it’s less likely that anyone would make money in the future.

With the old studio model, famously movies don’t make money, at least as far as people who have profit participations are concerned.

The studio model is cyclical, though. Now we’re back to locking down stars for 12 pictures at a time!

With your new film, Dawn Patrol, this one’s very outdoors, and very away from Hollywood. Is there freedom in your filmmaking there, that you could be geographically far enough removed from the system to make the story you wanted?

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Absolutely. This is the kind of film that frankly only gets made if everybody involved in the making of the film is really willing to commit to take a chance. It’s not a conventionally commercial film. The characters are in many respects unlikeable, and in some cases irredeemable. But you can get a level of reality, and explore a real drama, and take chances.

Scott Eastwood, your star, seemed the lynchpin here.

He’s fantastic. He was one of the first actors we saw. As is the case often, with independent film you think you have the money, and then you don’t get to make your film for a couple of years.

Among the first group of actors that we saw on the very first day of auditions in that earlier period was Scott. I was blown away. I knew he had to be the guy. Then when I found out that he was a semi-professional surfer, well, it was icing on the cake!

You don’t necessarily catch everybody’s name at auditions, so it was after he left that I turned to my producing partner, Rick Dugdale, and said ‘that young man reminds me so much of somebody’. Then I looked at his last name!

You got Rita Wilson putting herself on the line in this film, too. How did she come to this one?

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I’ve wanted to work with her for years. She almost turned down the part, without reading it. Because she gets offered, as an actress so deft with light comedy and warm, tons of warm, witty, nurturing mothers. And she is sick of playing that role. She told her agents – no more parts where I play a mother!

She was attracted to this role because it was different. And I liked her playing against type. I thought it was fantastic, and she did a great job.

At the very end of the credits, you and Rick Dugdale dedicated the movie to your fathers. Your own upbringing is a very unusual one, in that – given your mother is a movie producer and your father was a director – you must have been surrounded by movies. Your credit to your father salutes the love and inspiration that he gave you – can you tell us a little about that?

Well, growing up, I was in fact surrounded by movies all the time. But I didn’t fully realise it. It just seemed like this is my dad’s job. You know how kids are. Unless your father is a fireman or a cop, their work doesn’t seem especially glamorous to you.

Now, I look back and I realise they had dinner parties with Richard Burton, Mike Nichols, Elaine May… I played with Sidney Poitier’s kids when he and my dad were making a film together. We were always insulated from it being any kind of glamorous industry. We were steered against that. It just was regular work.

A lot of people are surprised when they realise that there’s no glamour to movies. Anybody who spends two days on a movie set knows that. But I knew that from being a little boy.

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How does that affect you then when you do decide to break into movies? If it’s not all glitzy in front of your eyes, your choices must have been more direct and informed from day one?

Well they were. I wasn’t going in star-struck or any of that. I knew it was just going to be a hard slog. On the other hand, I started as a writer with the original intention of becoming a novelist. I didn’t want to go into a field where my dad was pretty prominent. But I wound up believing that if I stuck to writing novels, I’d starve to death! I was actually naive enough to think that screenplays would be easier, because they’re shorter! [Laughs] That didn’t last long!

I did the whole traditional thing of starting in the mailroom at a talent agency, and I learned a lot from that experience. To becoming a junior agent in the literary department.

So that really gives you a circumspect view of the industry? There are no shiny edges?

Nothing! It gives you confidence, reading tons of bad scripts. It’s unbelievable. Even stuff that is produced and sells!

Prior to that, I was very intimidated. The only scripts I would read were the ones by the writers I admire. Robert Towne, William Goldman, people like that. How do you live up to that?

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When you got to your first produced screenplay though, what happened to you doesn’t happen to people! You penned Beverly Hills Cop, which in turn kickstarts a huge franchise that’s still going today, and gets you an Oscar nomination.

The president of production of the studio called me. He said, when he told me that Paramount was greenlighting my second draft, ‘Dan, I want you to remember this. This never happens’. Don’t get used to it!

For a man who almost gets immunised to glitz and glamour going in, with your first produced project, it gets poured on!

I am so grateful that I had learned from my parents that you can’t take criticism to heart too much, or praise. You have to seek your own balance, and not let things go to your head.

It seems an odd question, then, but were you happy with how Beverly Hills Cop turned out? Were you happy that what ended up on screen was close enough to what your second draft was?

Yes. It nearly went off the rails entirely. As you probably heard the story, the first actor who was cast was Sylvester Stallone. He had done a substantial rewrite on my script, and would’ve gotten credit. But at literally the last minute, 30 days away from going to camera, Paramount decided to offer him the chance to make a change. And revert back to that second draft that they greenlit, and start from there with Eddie Murphy.

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So was it the definition of powerless to you, seeing Sylvester Stallone almost running roughshod over your work?

Sure. It was. But it’s still considered a coup to have written a script to attract a movie star of that calibre. At that point he was considered a much bigger star than Eddie Murphy. But still: it was a daunting experience.

When it hit big, was there a reason you didn’t get involved beyond that? Because you don’t seem to have had any involvement with the sequels?

I wasn’t involved. That’s more because every so often, suddenly you have one of those upheavals where all of the executives at the top seem to change jobs overnight. The business went through one right at that point.

The people who made Beverly Hills Cop at Paramount, the executives… Barry Diller went to Fox, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg – who had put it into the works – went to Disney. They made a deal with me to go to Disney, so I was not available to Paramount to work on the sequel. And, you know, I think it was just as well. Sequels aren’t, you know…

I have to ask you about Turner And Hooch. And my question is this: was it you who killed the dog?

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[Laughs] Well, we all did.

Did you have a vote?

Yeah.

Really?

Yeah, yeah. It’s certainly controversial now, and was at the time. Here we are doing a comedy, after all!

But we did a test. Although we felt that the ending that’s there is the more emotionally satisfying one, we’re not completely irresponsible. We had a version where that didn’t happen, and there was a miraculous recovery. We tested the films back to back. Two houses of identical size, in a multiplex, starting half an hour apart. So we could go in, see one ending, listen to one focus group, go in, see the other ending, see that focus group. It was fascinating.

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The difference between the two scorings? There was no statistical difference in the scores. There wasn’t much different in the focus groups. The group with the ending that we had was more passionate. Some were saying ‘I hated that, that was terrible’, whereas others were ‘but there were puppies at the end!’

It provoked this passionate response. The other screening? None of that. It was all positive, but muted.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, who I consider to be a great executive, had to make that call. He said, well, we have basically an identical result. If I can quote him: “in the absence of evidence that I would be doing a disservice to our shareholders, I’ll side with the filmmakers”.

Were you, as the filmmakers, unanimous, or was this a split vote?

It was unanimous.

Nobody really talks about the ending of K-9, which of course came out a few months beforehand. But you can’t bring up Turner And Hooch, even today, without talking about the ending. Which I guess proves your point!

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Yeah!

Can we talk Toy Soldiers then, your directorial debut.

I went to see it pretty much blind in the early 1990s. It got a good release in the UK, and it was a time when it was much easier to go in and see a film whilst knowing little about it.

Wow!

Halcyon days, right? But why was Toy Soldiers the project that convinced you to direct? I love the film, so I’m trying to be all calm and professional about it. But what was it that locked you in?

Well, a couple of things.

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I wanted to direct. I was looking for an opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to go into the directing process prepared. I’ve seen too many writers who had one hit movie as a writer, who were then given opportunities to direct, but didn’t have the experience. They walk on set without knowing the difference between the cinematographer and the caterer.

So I produced some movies, including Turner And Hooch, and a movie called Shoot To Kill that was also directed by Roger Spottiswoode. So that was my film school – I felt ready.

Toy Soldiers came along. It was also my only opportunity to do a picture that wasn’t at Disney during those years. If an outside picture gave me an opportunity to direct sooner than Disney. There were those reasons that that particular project also spoke to me. I was a prep school kid in the American sense, a boarding school. A boarding school for high school boys where one of the things that you learned at the school that turned out to be the most useful later in life is trying to circumvent the rules without getting caught!

So this is your way of confessing that the mouthwash was down to you?

Oh sure! Absolutely!

Nothing so dramatic ever happened to me at boarding school, but it’s the kind of thing I’d wished would happen while I was bored out of my mind in geometry class, looking out of the window. I don’t know if I ever fantasised about the school getting taken over by Columbian narcos! [Laughs] It would have relieved the boredom!

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But because of that plot, of terrorists taking over the school, it allowed you to go against the convention of school movies. Thus, the teachers weren’t the villains.

That’s right, that’s right.

That’s the usual cliche. Louis Gossett Jr, in Toy Soldiers, always struck me as the kind of teacher who enforces the rules, but doesn’t really want to. That he has a grudging respect for the pranks the students get up to.

Yes. Absolutely.

It was you and David Koepp that penned the screenplay to the film, in turn based on a novel. But where did the individual parts come from? Who brought what?

David, I think, would be the first to acknowledge that his draft was quite a bit different. It was done for another director, John Schlesinger. Who you’d never think as anyone who would have been interested in the material.

If I’ve got my timelines right, Schlesinger must have done Pacific Heights instead then.

Yeah. But the novel itself was set, and David’s script was set, in either a Swiss or an Italian boarding school, where the instruction was in English. It was for patriot kids. The character was very much a loner. The terrorists were Palestinian. I think they ran into a great deal of difficulty getting the movie made. At the time, there had been so many movies featuring Palestinian terrorists.

When they brought the book to me, they said we’d like to have a reason that it could be set in the United States, and with another villain. I was like, ‘oh, thank God’. Even though I thought the book was very effective, we had hit trouble with the plot.

I look at the film now, and it got a 15 certificate in the UK and an R rating in the US: it’s a harsh film in places, isn’t it? There are moments where you really don’t hold back. Particularly the opening, that sets an incredibly dark tone.

There’s so much of Toy Soldiers I look at now and think there’s no way you’d get that through today. But how easy was it to get the film through back in the early 1990s?

The company that released it was Tri-Star, and it was made independently. Island World financed the film. They weren’t beholden to a particular studio, but they got Tri-Star to release it. Tri-Star become involved, but its then-head, Mike Medavoy, is famous for supporting filmmakers. He had a more hands-off approach. In retrospect, I know the movie would have done a lot better at the box office… many young people discovered the movie when it subsequently appeared on cable, or video. That might have been a mistake.

Do you regret the choices you made, though? If you’d have gone for a softer rating, it would have substantively changed your film?

It would. I knew how boys of that age talked. They swear. And I also wanted the violence to be real. Not fake cartoony violence. Because it seems to me it is a Boy’s Own adventure story, with improbable events. But if there are no real stakes, that the kids are really running risks, then a lot of the enjoyment goes out of the film.

We got a Blu-ray release of Toy Soldiers in the UK.

I’m so envious. It’s not released on Blu-ray in the States.

It only happened here because a small label, 101 Films, fought for it. Even looking at the logos on the back of the box, there’s Tri-Star, Orion, MGM, and this disc is distributed for 101 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Appreciating some of the rights have been sold on, which accounts for the logos, but did you effectively have four or five bosses when you were making the film, which made it easier to get what you wanted?

Actually, not so much. You’re right: those are people who are either passively involved, or came involved later in the distribution process.

I’d forgotten that Orion were involved, but they had rights to it before they put it into turnaround. They were developing the David Koepp screenplay. Then Tri-Star distributed theatrically, whilst others did so overseas. Different distributors had it for video and DVD. It probably has acquired a lot of logos.

Did you ever see the disc? Because someone really cares about the film.

No! [101 Films have now sent him a copy]

I’ve just finished reading Corey Feldman’s book, where he admits to not being in the right place when he auditioned for Toy Soldiers. But him aside, did you get your cast? Because your ensemble feels like an end of an 80s era young friends group. Then, on the other side, you have Denholm Elliott and Louis Gossett Jr. Did the set divide, generationally, or were they all a close bunch?

It really came together, it was just delightful. This group of kids really gelled as a group and supported each other. The adults surrounding them were very nurturing of their younger peers. Lou was always very, very generous – I would say something to him, and he would generously say things like ‘that sounds good to me, what does your star think?’, referring to Sean Astin.

It was a lovely how they all melded together so well. Denholm Elliott was one of the great gentlemen too. A treat to work with. At the time, I think the original Beverly Hills 90210 was on the air, and it was emblematic of the fashion of casting high school characters from a pool of actors in their mid- or late-20s. I didn’t want that. All of those kids are really the age of the characters. They’re 18. They were all either 18 or 19, playing 17 or 18 years old. Except for Shawn Phelan, the younger kid, who was 16 at the time. He was the only one who had to have his mom along.

It meant some better known actors… I didn’t pursue. They were just a little older. Nothing against them but they should be playing college students rather than high school students, in my view.

So it was supposed to be a Tom Cruise film?

Yeah, yeah.

You’ve worked with Roger Spottiswoode a few times in your career. Can you talk about your involvement with the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The 6th Day?

I was executive producer. It’s also the genesis of Enderby Entertainment.

I was exec producer, one of many producers as you know of that film. But all the other producers had other jobs that necessitated they were in the office all day. We were shooting mainly at night. My job was to support Roger.

And because we were shooting at night, I was the only producer on set. We were shooting very complicated things at very difficult and sensitive locations. There was one kid, 21 years old, who was basically in charge of the whole location department. He had PAs working for him, because we had to lock up the whole area surrounding Vancouver Public Library. It was he and I being thrown together if something came up during the night. If there’s a physical production issue, you’re either going to wake up, or you’re going to deal with it. About two weeks into the picture, I pointed to that young guy and nudged Roger, and said, ‘see that kid? We’re all going to be working for him some day?’

Roger said ‘oh Dan, I’ve known that for two weeks!’

That guy was Rick Dugdale, who is now my partner in Enderby Entertainment. He produced Dawn Patrol, and was my producing partner before we founded the company together. He is the company CEO.

Going back to Dawn Patrol, and Enderby then, is one of the delights that you can direct more? After Toy Soldiers, you didn’t seem to direct much after that. Was there a reason for that?

After Toy Soldiers, I went back to my deal at Disney. We developed a couple of things that came close for me to do as a director. But they didn’t gel. Disney had a picture that they knew they were going to make money on, if only they could get a screenplay and director. It was a window of opportunity they were eager to take advantage of – that’s how I ended up directing and co-writing In The Army Now, with Pauly Shore. Which is not my favourite film. But it was something I felt I owed the studio, who were such great partners to me, and had backed me on a couple of things.

Then after that, with my involvement in the Writers’ Guild, and with television, I got busy with a lot of things that kept me away from the director’s chair. Things that I’d written to direct that didn’t work out. And also I did quite a bit of work during that period as a script doctor. You can only do that kind of thing for so long, but the payday tends to be so attractive that you feel like you’re crazy not to do!

Did that script doctoring involve capes?!

Sometimes!

So what next?

Directing is one of my passions. But so is producing. And I get a great deal of satisfaction out of it. Helping to build Enderby with Rick. The writing is a consuming passion too. Also, there are two other things that I get tremendously excited by. One is television, the opportunity to follow characters over a season or hopefully longer is pretty great. And I’ve always been incorporating teaching and service to the community. That’s also been a very important part of my life, and I’d like to continue to do that.

What a life. One last question, then. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham film?

I’d have to say The Italian Job! Handsome Bob!

Daniel Petrie Jr, thank you very much!

Dawn Patrol is out on DVD now.