Toronto International Film Festival

Saturday, September 16, 2000

How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog Press Conference

Most folks who fantasize about killing their neighbor's pets get a restraining order. Michael Kalesniko got a semi-autobiographical screenplay entitled How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog that attracted such marquis-caliber stars as Kenneth Branagh, Robin Wright Penn, and Lynn Redgrave. Not bad for a first-time director and admitted part-time "suburban terrorist."

Kalesniko was joined by Branagh, Redgrave, Wright-Penn, Jared Harris (son of Sir Richard Harris), and 11-year-old scene stealer Suzi Hofrichter to discuss the film in a lively Saturday afternoon press conference prior to its premier on the closing night of the festival.

Kalesniko, a British Columbia native, admits the film's title --not to mention its subject matter-- bears a less-than-coincidental resemblance to his own life.

"We had a dog next door that was so horrible, I became obsessed with euthanizing it," Kalesniko explains. "I actually bought a sonic disrupter to mess with ears --it has a super-high frequency that you and I can't hear, and it sort of screams at the dog. But all I think I did was confuse it. It just gave him momentary pause before he started his incessant barking noise again."

All of Kalesniko's dog-assassination research paid off, not with a slain pooch, but rather the idea for a book entitled, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, and Other Acts of Suburban Terrorism. The book didn't happen, but the screenplay --a quirky tale of a gifted playwright (Branagh) struggling to reconcile his perceived misanthropy with his need for love and approval-- developed into the kind of dialogue-rich, comedic character study that actors fight for. But as Branagh notes, even well-written comedy can be a truly challenging acting exercise.

"It's easy to pull on a pair of tights and do a lot of tragic acting," Branagh says, tweaking his own image as a serious Shakespearean actor. "People will say, 'Oh, look-real tears! Isn't it marvelous? He got so worked up!'" But with comedy, Branagh notes, the ultimate goal is to be funny and real at the same time. "In that way, it's a lot more brutal."

Some other highlights:

Branagh on his chain-smoking character:
"I didn't inhale. And I wouldn't recommend the youth of Canada do so."

Redgrave on her sense of liberation playing Edna, a woman with Alzheimer's:
"When you play a character that's not listening, it's wonderfully stress free. Michael would say, 'Lynn, can we have it funnier,' and I just didn't listen."

Kalesniko on the long, hard road to becoming a director:
"It was sheer economics. In the 80s in Canada, there were just no jobs. A friend of mine who was living in the Northwest Territories said, 'you know, they need over-educated, big men to teach up here and keep these kids in line'... Believe me, I was not a good teacher. It wasn't To Sir, With Love. In fact, one of my students beat me almost unconscious on the street once...Another summer, a friend and I ended up sleeping in a car just to find work...That was sort of a breaking point: I thought, if I can survive sleeping in a car, I can survive anywhere.So I'm just going to go down to Los Angeles and become a filmmaker. At least it's warm there."

Wright Penn on the kind of roles she usually gets offered:
"Oooh, the soulful, understanding woman. BORING!"

Harris on following in his father's footsteps:
"To me, he was just my dad. He was always a larger than life character, but the first time I realized he was a movie star was when he took me to the set of Camelot...Growing up, I was really disappointed he wasn't Rolf Harris. Everybody my age knew who that was."

Hofrichter on the scene when her character jumps off a diving board onto Branagh's character's head:
"I do my own stunts. It was a hard scene, though, because my grandmother has a pool, and whenever we go over there, my mother says, 'Don't you jump on anyone.' So there was Michael saying, 'jump on that guy's head.'...I ran into Kenneth afterwards and asked him why he wasn't there, and he said I really should talk to my agent."

-Jessica Aldred


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