Movie City News
April 4, 2003
by Gary Dretzka

The brief biography included on the What a Girl Wants website credits Dennie Gordon with being one of the most versatile directors working in Hollywood. The anonymous author of the bio goes on to say the Minnesota native is "known for her craftsmanship, as well as her cojones." Unusual, but it beats having a reputation for bringing in your pictures late and over-budget.

What a Girl Wants is that rare bird in Hollywood, a romantic fairy tale that should play every bit as well with mothers, as it does with their teenage daughters. Although posters for the Warner Bros. release feature only 17-year-old Amanda Bynes, What a Girl Wants also stars a lovelorn Kelly Preston and British hunk Colin Firth. (Earlier this week, reporters noticed that one-sheets no longer showed Bynes flashing the peace sign, while posing in front of a pair of beefeaters. The gesture was removed so no one would think the movie was trying to make a political statement.)

Bynes plays the energetic and free-spirited Daphne, an 18-year-old New Yorker who travels to England in search of her father (Firth). Until Daphne arrives on the scene, the wealthy aristocrat is unaware he fathered a child with the hippie-dippie American musician (Preston) he traveled with in Morocco 17 years before. Nor is Lord Henry aware of the subterfuge that caused their relationship to evaporate before the girl was born.

Although Bynes' name won't be familiar to most adults, the newly 17-year-old actress is hugely popular among teenagers who have watched her grow up on Nickelodeon's All That and The Amanda Show, as well as the WB's What I Like About You. The Thousand Oaks native can also be seen alongside Frankie Muniz in Big Fat Liar.

Dawn Taubin, Warner Bros. president of domestic marketing, was also interviewed for this article.

MOVIE CITY NEWS: Is it true that you're known around Hollywood for your "cojones"?

DENNIE GORDON: Some of the actors I've worked with say I direct more like a man than a woman. I take it as a compliment.

MCN: It seems as if you're walking a tightrope in the marketing campaign for What a Girl Wants. Amanda's a big star among teenagers, but you want adults to know the fairy tale aspect of the film will appeal to them, too.

DG: When I took this on, the story was very much directed at a teen audience. As a movie-going mother, though, I just couldn't bear the thought of waking up every morning to go the set, and pour my heart and soul into it, unless we could make it a fairy tale for all ages.

I wanted to make something smart, witty and fun, so parents could enjoy the movie, too. I liked the idea of the love triangle.

MCN: Based on the posters and billboards, I didn't really expect to see a movie people my age could sit through.

DG: Everyone who went to see it in the test screenings was so surprised, because it's Amanda on the poster, and they thought they were going to see a teen comedy. It became this conundrum for marketing. Early on, they realized they had this "four-quadrant" movie. That's a big deal for them, and it happens once in a blue moon.

MCN: OK, I give up. Is a four-quadrant movie like a four-bagger in baseball?

DG: We have the Amanda audience—the teen and pre-teen girls—already. The tracking is off-the- charts in terms of their awareness of the movie, and desire to see it on the first weekend. The second key quadrant is made up of the same adult women who are attracted to movies like "Bridget Jones," and we hope they'll drag their husbands or boyfriends to see it. Or, fathers might agree to see it with their teenage daughters. Teen girls might have to drag their boyfriends along, but we're hoping the boys will come on their own to see Amanda. My 14-year-old son thinks she is really hot.

MCN: She has a terrific comic sensibility.

DG: Amanda's huge with girls because they think she could be their best friend or the girl next door. She isn't so beautiful she intimidates them, like other young actresses. She's so real and charming on screen, they really connect with her. They think they actually could be her.

DAWN TAUBIN: One of the segments we're targeting in our television campaign is pre-teen girls. They're attracted to the physical comedy, and are very aware of Amanda. The older girls, and tweens, enjoy watching Daphne go out on her own for the first time…experiencing romance for the first time…the sense of empowerment.

The ads with Colin Firth and Kelly Preston are designed to attract moms. We'll use testimonials and reviews to the get the word out. It's easier to make our point in television commercials than in print ads, and that's why Amanda is prominent in the print ads.

MCN: Is Amanda known across the pond?

DG: Not yet. We were shooting in London, and the crew kept asking me who Amanda was. I said, "She's huge in America, trust me."

One day, we were shooting on the Millennium Bridge, which leads to the new Tate Gallery, when two busloads of students from the United States recognized her. They started going nuts, and we had to delay the scene to clear the entrances to the bridge.

MCN: You gave Daphne a cute British boyfriend...a musician, like her mom. Somehow, though, I get the impression teenage girls might be every bit as taken by Colin Firth as their mothers or older sisters.

DG: That's probably why you don't see Colin on the posters, with Amanda. They couldn't find a way to put him on the posters and not have it look like a movie about a May-December romance.

It's very difficult to communicate the father-daughter thing when you have a teenager in a sexy T-shirt and a guy who looks like Colin, who's only 42, standing in the background. It's a difficult message to convey...although I desperately wanted to put him and Kelly on the posters, too.

MCN: It didn't help matters any when Colin decided not to come here to join in the publicity campaign.

DG: He's doing some satellite interviews, but thought it better to stay at home with his wife, who is six months pregnant. The war affected everyone's travel plans, as well.

The awareness on the part of moms and other adult women will grow the closer we get to the opening day. After that, the ads will feature testimonials from audience members, and, we hope, the word-of-mouth will increase as moms talk to other moms.

That's why I wanted to get Colin Firth on board for this picture, even before the project was green-lit. I just knew he'd bring this integrity and principle to the part, as well as a smoldering sexuality.

MCN: Is it more expensive to market to several audiences at once?

DT: Not really. We're using targeted advertising. You'll find different creative spots running in different timeslots. The messages don't compete with each other. They're just slightly altered for the different audiences.

MCN: Did extensive coverage of the war in Iraq negatively impact your television campaign?

DT: The situation was very fluid, and we kept a close eye on the coverage. But, the cable channels that girls watch haven't really been hit with pre-emptions. The WB delivers young women in strong number, and it didn't have a lot of pre-emptions.

We had always planned on having sneaks this past weekend, so we could build word-of-mouth among the moms.

MCN: Forgive me, again, but which character did Colin play in "Bridget Jones"?

DG: Mark Darcy. Colin has this wonderfully wry sense of humor, and I find him to be more delicious than Hugh Grant. Women in my age group get weak in the knees when his name comes up. He's so sexy and interesting to us ... in 'Bridget Jones,' all the way back to Pride and Prejudice. I just figured we had to have Colin, and he'd be able to draw women to the movie.

MCN: They like that sort of thing, do they?

DG: Yes, very much so. Colin added to the sophistication of the humor. During the sneaks in the malls, a lot of the droll British humor went right over the heads of the younger audiences.

Last night, at the premiere, it was a whole different experience. They really got it, and it made my heart just leap. I'm hoping they see it as a Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral. A movie parents could go to with their kids.

MCN: I'm trying to picture in my head hundreds of mothers and daughters, sitting together in the same darkened theater, lusting after a pair of Brits ... or, worse, the same one. Most of the time girls of that age aren't even speaking to their moms.

DG: When I was that age, my mother and I communicated by writing notes. I only have boys, so there's a lot of noise in our house, and no one picks up a sock. Girls are very difficult. I only know this because I am one.

MCN: The parallel storylines play like twin fairy tales.

DG: Oddly enough, for too many kids, it's very much a fantasy to embark on a journey to find their father...and to rekindle a fantastic lover affair between their parents, which we also do. More than 25 percent of all kids today come from split parents. I wanted to have that kind of plausibility. It was really important for me to create something parents would enjoy as much as their kids.

MCN: Sounds like you're trying to capture some of the same lightning as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

DG: I love it when that sort of groundswell of public opinion causes things to get shaken up in Hollywood. And, I think studio heads are the last people to recognize why these things happen. They're still scratching their heads about "Greek Wedding." They think there's this great, untapped niche market of Greeks. I kid you not. They're trying to come up with all these Greek projects.

MCN: Among the many places you've promoted the film, the craziest—to me, anyway—was Ain't It Cool News. How do you sell a date movie to guys whose concept of the perfect woman is Queen Padmé Amidala, in Star Wars.

DG: Actually, I think they're big fans of the movie, and they did a director's profile of me. They're opinion makers and I wanted to make friends with them.

They snuck into a preview and trashed my first movie, an Adam Sandler-produced comedy, Joe Dirt.They hurt us badly on the Internet long before the movie was even released. So, maybe I wanted to neutralize them.