It's more than talk with David Dobkin

Special to The Times

WHEN it comes to the gift of gab, director David Dobkin and actor Vince Vaughn are both 99th percentile -- with the rapid-fire Vaughn having a slight edge in the words-per-minute category. So it's no surprise that when the two sat down for dinner for the first time to discuss Dobkin's feature debut, 1998's death and adultery comedy "Clay Pigeons," they barely bothered to say hello before launching into the impassioned discussion that has continued to the present.

"It was as if we were picking up a conversation that we had been having earlier in the day on the telephone," recalls Dobkin. "We had a connection like that immediately. Everybody goes, 'Oh, you've developed a shorthand.' We always had a shorthand."

They must have -- Vaughn agreed to do the movie on the spot. "I felt so confident and inspired by the way he was so detailed about everything," he says. "And then I had just a tremendous experience working with him. He allowed me to write lines and improvise stuff and would help me with ideas. It really did feel like we were kids making a video together with a video camera, sort of. It's so hard to even go into words, but David's my favorite director to work with."

After collaborating on "Clay Pigeons" and the R-rated box office bonanza "Wedding Crashers," the creative partners are teaming up for a third time on the PG-rated "Fred Claus," a comedy about a regular guy (Vaughn) who lives in the shadow of his saintly younger brother Santa (Paul Giamatti), due in theaters Friday.

LARGELY shot at Pinewood Studios and Cardington Airship Hangars near London, "Fred Claus" features a practical Santa's Toy Shop inspired by New York's old Penn Station and a North Pole village with details and designs borrowed from Ukrainian Easter eggs. The computer-graphics quotient is high, with round-the-world sleigh rides, a giant snow globe that functions as a window into children's lives and blue screen wizardry involving superimposing the heads of Ludacris and John Michael Higgins -- who play elves -- onto the bodies of little people.

The movie even required the construction of a series of Vince Vaughn-sized chimneys -- the actor famously stands well over 6 feet tall.

With R-rated innuendo out of the picture, "Fred Claus" emphasizes physical comedy.

Dobkin, though, says making the transition from an R-rated sex comedy to a family-friendly Christmas extravaganza wasn't as difficult as it might seem. " 'Wedding Crashers' is a very soft movie in the way that it's emotional," he says. "It's about friendship, love and relationships. I tend to go to the light. My frustration in life is that I've always been a lover of Paul McCartney. You want to be taken seriously as the artist and be John Lennon, and I've always been drawn to the Paul McCartney colors in life."

Dobkin's optimistic outlook dates to a happy childhood spent in Washington, D.C., and the posh suburb of Bethesda, Md. When he was 8, he saw "Star Wars" in the theater and, in his words, had his "mind destroyed -- in a really positive way." During his days at Walt Whitman High School, Dobkin was a 5-foot-4 Dungeons and Dragons-playing, science fiction-loving monster movie geek who never got away with anything, but he was able to successfully parlay his way with words into a film school degree.

Although Dobkin's early decision application to NYU was on the verge of being denied, the admissions staff, impressed by his essay, opted to deliver the news by phone. During that conversation, he convinced them to allow him to pursue a course of general studies for two years with the option of transferring into the film and television program at the university's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts if he maintained an A grade-point average. They agreed, and he kept up his end of the bargain.

Finding work after graduation proved more challenging though, and Dobkin spent time painting houses and delivering cookies in San Francisco before moving to L.A. to work as a production assistant.

When he couldn't land an agent, Dobkin decided to rep himself out of his home and cold call record companies in the hopes of being hired to helm a music video.

"THEY thought I was very confident was what they said," Dobkin recalls. "And so they threw me into the room with this artist that they were having trouble with because he had clashed with the director of the last video. I pitched a couple of ideas to him, and he liked them both. I got my first job, and that was with Tupac Shakur. It was what started my career."

As Dobkin segued first into commercials and then into film, he proved his knack for working with artists with big personalities -- Joaquin Phoenix, Janeane Garofalo, Owen Wilson and, of course, Vaughn. "Incredibly talented people are that way because they have a powerful point of view on the world," says Dobkin. "I embrace that. I never ask them to change who they are. In fact, I ask them to show me more about who they are."

"He's good at taking what you feel and trying to play around with it," says Giamatti.

Dobkin is producing "The Flash" and two projects with Will Smith and thoroughly enjoys commercial filmmaking, he has never lost sight of his first love: working with talented actors like Vaughn. "Our process is unusual, and it can be challenging for everybody who's not inside the process around us," Dobkin says. "We push each other all the time. We're driving each other nuts, because we just want to get more across. You want to keep working until you do something that you feel is as great as it can be."

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