big fat liar - production notes

Big Fat Liar’s young stars, Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes, have cultivated a devoted legion of fans as the stars of two highly popular television series -- Malcolm In The Middle and The Amanda Show.   In Big Fat Liar, they offer those fans a thrill ride by proxy when their characters, Jason and Kaylee, invade the lair of hot-shot producer Marty Wolf.  The fictional Wolf’s production company is based at Universal Studios, so the kids hide out and live on the immense studio lot during their stay in L.A., and ingeniously employ the studio’s world of make-believe in their campaign to make Wolf come clean.  In addition to undertaking a great adventure, Jason and Kaylee get a vivid picture of what Jason might have become had he not met Wolf.

   Producing partners Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins and screenwriter Dan Schneider began working on the idea for Big Fat Liar four years ago, shortly after the release of Tollin/Robbins Productions’ first feature film, Good Burger.  Tollin and Robbins are both directors as well as producers, and typically, one of the partners directs any film their company undertakes.  But that changed after they met director Shawn Levy, who has directed several episodes of Tollin/Robbins television shows on Nickelodeon.  “Shawn had a special way of dealing with actors – particularly young ones – that seemed a perfect fit for this material,” said Tollin.

Levy was pleased to come aboard.   He also savored the challenge of leading his young Big Fat Liar star into a brand new direction.  “The movie is quite a departure for Frankie’s persona,” Levy observed. “To date he has played largely awkward and ill at ease characters.  Jason Shepherd, on the other hand, is supremely confident and clear minded.  He has an uncanny knowledge of human nature and knows which buttons to push to get what he wants from people.”

   Indeed.  Marty Wolf has never had an adversary as determined, imaginative or worthy as the teenager from Michigan.  The stakes are high for Jason because at the young age of 14, he has lost his parents’ faith. He is committed to doing whatever it takes to win back their trust.  Marty Wolf has never felt such passion.

    Among other things, Jason fills Wolf’s pool with blue dye; dyes his hair orange; diverts him from a business meeting to an eight-year-old’s birthday party where the kids attack him; re-wires his car so that the brake activates the horn, and sends him tumbling down a street on the Universal backlot in a flash flood.   Still, Wolf stands steadfast, refusing to admit that he has stolen Jason’s idea.  Jason raises the stakes with each denial.

For Levy, one actor was born to play the shameless Wolf, and he was determined to cast him in the film. Although Paul Giamatti had deftly handled a number of supporting roles, he had not yet proven himself with a leading role in a feature film.   But Levy knew he had the chops to make the megalomaniac movie producer delightfully and unforgettably ridiculous.

     “I’ve been directing Paul since we were teenagers,” said Levy.  The actor and director had first met at Yale where they’d collaborated on several theatrical productions. “I remember the first time I saw him on stage.  Everyone knew this guy was too good to be held down. I didn’t know if it would be theater or film, but his talent was so evident it was astounding.”

     Tollin was a quick convert to Levy’s vision. “It’s hard for people outside the movie business to imagine that people like Marty Wolf exist,” Tollin said,  “but they do.  Paul has done an amazing job with this character.  He’s given Marty the appropriate levels of insanity and insensitivity, with just a touch of sympathy to show that this guy is a human being.  Because basically Marty Wolf, for whatever reason in his psychological make-up, is a guy who wants ‘it’ so badly that he can’t help himself.”   

     Giamatti found his research quite easy.  “I actually didn’t have to do too much research,” he laughed.  “I’ve never worked for anyone as mean as Marty Wolf – though I wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like this does exist – but I’ve witnessed things from time to time that made Marty seem pretty familiar.”

     Amanda Bynes plays Jason’s best friend and cohort Kaylee.  As the star of The Amanda Show, Nickelodeon’s top-rated, live-action cable series for kids, the young actress is a seasoned comedienne who plays a wide range of outrageous characters on her show.  Big Fat Liar takes full advantage of her comic agility.  “Because of Amanda’s experience in sketch comedy,” noted producer Brian Robbins, “she can take a scene in any direction that Shawn wants. She’s great at playing outlandish characters and is willing to experiment to take the material to places we’d never imagined.”

     Although Big Fat Liar was Levy’s first feature film, he came to the project with a wealth of experience in directing young actors and possessed effective ideas on how to get strong performances from them. “What you say in your direction to kids is far less important than how you say it,” he reflected. “Ultimately, acting is about getting back to instinctive responses in a given situation.   

With adults, there are so many layers of thinking about the character that as a director you spend a lot of time whittling away the cerebral stuff just to get back to the instinctual.

     “Frankie and Amanda are much closer to their instincts as actors,” he continued.  “What they want to know from me is the energy and the vibe I’m looking for and that’s how we connect and bond with them in a productive way.”

     Levy enjoyed his time with the grown-ups, too.  He and Giamatti were both thrilled by the chance to work with Lee Majors. “Paul and I were both pretty amazed that a guy we had idolized as kids was now working with us,” said Levy.   “Paul turned to me one day and said, ‘We’re workin’ with the Six Million Dollar Man!’”

     Majors plays Vince, the stunt coordinator for Marty Wolf’s productions.  Vince is subjected to some of Wolf’s most outrageous diatribes, and the filmmakers again took care to make an unpredictable choice for the role.  “In the script, Wolf calls Vince ‘father time’ and ‘grandpa’ so we thought it would be fun to cast an actor who is actually more fit and virile than Wolf,” said Levy.

     Big Fat Liar was filmed in and around Los Angeles and on the Universal Studios lot.  Production began March 28, 2001 and wrapped May 25.  The company filmed its Michigan scenes in Pasadena, a distinctive Los Angeles suburb that was originally settled by Midwesterners.  The scenes depicting the upscale world of Marty Wolf were filmed in wealthy enclaves of L.A.’s Hancock Park neighborhood and the Hollywood Hills. The production spent three weeks filming at Universal Studios where Wolf’s fictitious production company was based and where Jason and Kaylee hid in various back-lot sets, soundstages and warehouses while waiting to pounce on the big bad wolf