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It’s Not What It Seems

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Atop a beautifully generic suburban bluff in the western San Fernando Valley, director Jake Kasdan is trying to capture Orange County, the setting--and the title--of his comedy about a high school senior trying to get into Stanford.

But the sunlight required to shoot a swimming pool scene in the Southern California dystopia of Mike White’s script is fading fast, and now, even after the 12th take, Kasdan isn’t happy. “Tell her, delicately, to stick to the script,” the 26-year-old Kasdan says after hearing from the script supervisor that actress Schuyler Fisk, 18, is ad-libbing lines.

“I have to [urinate] like a mule!” interrupts actor Jack Black, 31, while wading chest-deep in the shallow end of the pool, clad only in a pair of worn-looking tighty underwear and a wet, shaggy black wig. Treading water next to Black is the film’s protagonist, played by Colin Hanks, 23, whose face cocks to the side, registering an affable concern that reminds one of his actor father, Tom Hanks, after one of the crew suggests to Black he simply relieve himself in the pool.

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Jointly produced by Paramount and MTV Films and shot, ironically enough, around Los Angeles County, the movie “Orange County” represents the highest-profile outing to date for three children of Hollywood’s elite: Joining Hanks are Jake Kasdan, son of director Lawrence Kasdan, and Fisk, daughter of actress Sissy Spacek and “Days of Heaven” art director Jack Fisk.

What has brought them together is an offbeat script by Pasadena native Mike White, 30, writer and star of 2000’s indie sensation “Chuck and Buck,” a former writer for the television shows “Dawson’s Creek” and the critically applauded but short-lived “Freaks and Geeks,” on which he met the younger Kasdan. Producer Scott Rudin decided to move forward with the project “from the momentum of ‘Chuck and Buck,’"according to White, who said he was asked to rewrite the script to tone down some of its more cynical elements.

“Orange County,” which opens Jan. 11, tells the story of Shaun (Hanks), a senior at the fictional Vista del Mar High School in Orange County, and his attempts to get into Stanford University, as much to study under his idol, novelist Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline), as to escape what he sees as the callow pop culture, surfer speak and dysfunctional family life of his birthplace. His girlfriend, played by Fisk, helps him through a series of wrenching comedic mishaps, as does his druggie older brother Lance (Black).

Besides Kline, the film includes a bevy of comedy veterans in supporting roles, including Lily Tomlin as a ditsy college counselor, Chevy Chase as a high school principal trying to book Britney Spears as a commencement speaker, John Lithgow and Catherine O'Hara as Shaun’s father and mother, Harold Ramis and Gary Marshall as Stanford deans and Ben Stiller as a fire inspector. Kasdan said he first read White’s “Orange County” script while directing episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” and was delighted when Rudin called him to ask if he wanted to direct it.

“‘Freaks and Geeks’” was a painstakingly real treatment of high school life, so the look was flat,” said Kasdan, as he gazed into a live monitor that showed the California sun glistening brightly and largely off the water around Hanks, though, in fact, this is an overcast day. “This [‘Orange County’] is a more stylized comedy, glossier.” (The film has been toned down to get a PG-13 rating in hopes of attracting a younger teenage audience.)

Because Hanks often visited his actress girlfriend Busy Phillips on the set of “Freaks,” the young actor was fresh in his mind, said Kasdan. Also, they had met once as children. The director had not met Fisk before, though both she and Hanks were submitted for the movie by Courtney Kivowitz at Creative Artists Agency, the same firm that represents Tom Hanks, Sissy Spacek and Lawrence Kasdan.

“I saw a lot, a lot, a lot of people,” said the diminutive Kasdan, as he pulled his “Freaks and Geeks” cap over his eyes. The lucky genes in the cast of this film happened “by lottery; everyone wanted to be in this movie, the script is fantastic,” said producer Scott Aversano, 31, of Scott Rudin Productions, one of a handful of producers who spend each shooting day making sure this young director is crafting a product the studio will be happy with.

The young Hanks realizes the possible marquee value of his last name. “It’s genetic; I can’t do anything about that,” said Hanks, who nevertheless notes, “If I wasn’t good, they wouldn’t cast me. Who would cast someone just because of a last name or who they’re related to? That would be stupid.”

Though he grew up in Sacramento and now lives in L.A., Hanks spent his freshman year of college at Chapman University in Orange County. “When I was there, I wanted to get out,” said Hanks. “Looking back, it was the best place for me, though, because I was not happy. I knew I must do something to change it. I draw on that for this character.” Hanks said he’s not concerned about following in his father’s footsteps.

“I’m concerned about [director] Jake’s expectations. I’m concerned about keeping my job,” he said.

At 18, Fisk is the only cast member playing her real age. “I read it just before Christmas, and so did my agent, manager and mom,” said Fisk, who has her mother’s straight red hair and freckles with an offbeat farm-girl smile. “I’ve been acting since I was ‘teeing,’"said Fisk, explaining that in her family “teeing” is short for “tiny totting,” meaning that she’s been acting since she was a little girl in plays and movies, though “Orange County” is her biggest role to date. Fisk’s parents and 11-year-old sister, Madison, are daily visitors to the set, looking on like a proud family at a graduation ceremony.

Fisk is still very much a teenager, going home each night to e-mail digital photos of the set to her friends back East who went to college instead of Hollywood.

“Orange County” screenwriter White, 30, is also the offspring of someone known to consumers of mass media, but from a different corner of the American cultural pantheon. White is the son of Methodist evangelical minister Mel White, a former Christian conservative who used to write speeches and “first person” books for Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Oliver North, among others, before coming out of the closet and leaving his marriage in 1993 to become a high-profile advocate for the acceptance of homosexuals in churches.

“I come from a very literary family,” said White, who originally wrote the “Orange County” script three years ago under a contract with Paramount. White said the story loosely follows his own higher education exploits. After insisting to his family that he go to college on the East Coast, because he thought it was more sophisticated, he landed at Wesleyan University, a prestigious liberal arts college in Connecticut.

“I showed up in the winter time wearing sockless Dockers,” recalled White. “And everyone was like ‘Why would you leave California to come to this dreary Connecticut town?’ I understand what it’s like to be a writer conflicted over where you grew up.”

With another of his scripts coming out soon, “The Good Girl,” with Jennifer Aniston, and the pilot for the critically lauded television show “Pasadena” under his belt, White is riding high these days. He even has a cameo in “Orange County” as a clueless English teacher. He prefers writing about teenagers, he explained, because the stories work from characters’ coming of age rather than on plot machinations.

“How do you give the studio the elements they need to pull the trigger on a movie yet undermine that at the same time?” asked White rhetorically.

After a rewrite, the script is less a scathing critique and more a celebration of Southern California, explained White, though he originally set out to capture “the nightmare that is Orange County” as opposed to an idealized sunny paradise.

Making issue of the fact that this movie is shooting in Los Angeles and not Orange County “is splitting hairs,” argues White. “It’s not specific to Southern California beach culture. It’s about any place that isn’t conducive to high cultural aspirations. This is a story about someone with literary aspirations trapped in a world that is not literary ... but is, instead, a world of cheerleaders, surfers, Britney Spears, Beavis and Butt-head-speak that blankets this country because of television.”

The northern part of Orange County that is in the union shooting zone doesn’t have the look the filmmakers were going for, said line producer Herb Gains, because it’s an older community than south Orange County. So, for Hanks’ character’s house, the filmmakers settled on West Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, to stand in for the affluent parts of Orange County. Tract homes in a variety of plans--Cape Cod, Victorian, Santa Fe, Spanish ranch, Tudor--sit snugly in crevices of the valley hills that have been lopped flat by developers.

“The Orange County state of mind in this film is blissful ignorance,” said Gains. Caltech is doubling for Stanford, Malibu for an Orange County beach and a high school in Diamond Bar is the fictional Vista del Mar High School.

Back at the pool scene, the March wind is blowing on this late afternoon, and the actors in the water are growing colder. Black’s constant mad gaze is growing madder still with each passing moment. He is scheduled to begin shooting the Farrelly brothers’ movie “Shallow Hal,” with Gwyneth Paltrow, starting the next day, and he wants to wrap. (“Shallow Hal” ended up being released two months before “Orange County.”)

Meanwhile, Aversano, a former Ivy Leaguer prone to barking out things like “Something different than that pantaloon statement,” when describing what he wants from this teen comedy, is talking with someone from Paramount on the phone:

“We had Lily Tomlin in here yesterday,” he said. “She was making my grandmother laugh 20 years ago. It’s hard to argue with that kind of comedy cachet.”

Anxious over the then-looming writers’ and actors’ strike last spring, Rudin oversaw the shooting of “Orange County” from afar, while producing four other movies, including “Zoolander” and the upcoming “The Hours,” with Nicole Kidman.

“I can get you there in three hours!” says Black, delivering a line of dialogue to Hanks as the camera rolls. But Kasdan still feels the scene is missing something. He’s starting to think he may have to find a way to quickly dry off Hanks and his clothes and hair and ask him to jump in the pool again.

Suddenly, a wrinkled, bronze-skinned guy with a pencil-thin blond mustache, knee-length surf pants and wild eyes approaches Kasdan and hands him a film canister. He’s Uri Furant, a daredevil documentarist who has three hours of stock surf footage he shot in Hawaii during a recent tropical storm. The images will be used in “Orange County” for a pivotal surfing scene early in the movie.

As Kasdan again tries to turn his attention to the pool scenario, the shrill whine of a tiny engine takes up a little more precious daylight on the final shooting day the director has with both this house and actor Black and without rain, which has been a constant shooting obstacle. In the near distance, a production assistant chases a mischievous neighborhood kid across a public playground to ask him for the third time to please stop riding his motor scooter so close to the set.

Noted a somewhat stressed Kasdan: “There’s a logistical pressure to get it right. [This is] a high-pressure gig.”


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