Killing a Misconception

Lawrence Journal-World, 7 December 2000
by Dan Lybarger

Canadian-born writer-director Michael Kalesniko specializes in movies that feature less than cuddly characters. His feature debut, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," stars Irish Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh as Peter McGowan, a chain-smoking playwright with a quick temper and lacerating wit.

"Whenever I submit a script, I'm always told the character isn't likable enough," says Kalesniko in a recent phone interview from Glendale, Calif. Branagh obviously disagreed, and so did Robin Wright Penn ("Unbreakable"), Jared Harris ("Happiness") and Lynn Redgrave ("Gods and Monsters"). Area residents will get a chance to decide for themselves at 7:30 p.m. tonight when "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" comes to the Manor Square Tivoli Theatres in Kansas City, Mo. Kalesniko and the film's producer, Nancy Ruff, will answer questions after the film. Kalesniko states that his complicated characters and multiple subplots drew top-notch thespians and, he hopes, it will attract viewers also.

"I think audiences are incredibly sophisticated," he says. "We're visually sophisticated because of MTV alone. The moment you write to the lowest common denominator, you're going to offend and disappoint a lot of people. There are a lot of grown-ups out there who want intelligent movies, and I think they are being sorely neglected. All you have to do is look at how much money 'Meet the Parents' is making. Face it: Kids didn't make that movie. It's adults because they're STARVED for adult comedies."

If Branagh would seem an unlikely choice for the lead in such a comedy, Kalesniko retorts, "Branagh's a man who likes a challenge. The words roll easily off his tongue. He's got an incredible sense of humor. When he gets going, to me, it's Robin Williams-level funny, and that's just casual conversation. "He was just standing around with the crew cutting them up. Ken did something pretending to be an obscure historian on the BBC who specialized in the minutia of Michael Kalesniko work. I was just stunned and pleased because I had a suspicion he was a funny man."

Private property
Branagh is not the only star that Kalesniko has made over. The filmmaker is best known for writing the script for "Private Parts," which starred shock-jock Howard Stern as himself. Officially, Kalesniko and Len Blum are credited with adapting Stern's book of the same title. However, Kalesniko explains, "There's no plot (in the book). So I just spent a lot of time with Howard. I was on the show, and I was on the phone with him every single day during the writing, asking him for stories, stories, stories out of his life." "Private Parts" opened to stellar reviews and put Kalesniko on the map. Curiously, the film's leading man has not returned to the big screen.

"I'm surprised he hasn't worked more, but that (radio) job of his takes up five hours of every morning of his life," Kalesniko says. "It could be the case that he doesn't have the time or that no one has offered him a role, but I find that surprising. He's a good actor."

He adds, "I was hired based on my (script) doctoring and some of my spec scripts. They had characters who appeared unlikable on the surface and (later) came across as romantic and even sentimental. It was absolutely done by design to make Howard Stern likable and not off-putting. On the other hand, it may have been off-putting to some of his hardcore fans."

Despite some of his difficulties in selling some of his characters, Kalesniko says, "Filmmakers have been complaining about the studio system since (Columbia Pictures founder) Harry Cohn's day. (The studios) have their way, and it's not necessarily wrong. I'm very happy as a screenwriter. On the other hand, with directing, the emotional level is so high that you have to have a project you believe in. There's no way I could be shooting for the studios and have it be just a paycheck. It'd be the death of me."

He credits producer Ruff, his wife of 10 years, for helping him get through directing independent films. "I think if you can go through a marriage, you can go through anything," Kalesniko says. "It's great to have a person you can express uncertainties to on the set without them waving their hands in the air and saying, 'I knew I shouldn't have given him that money!'"

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