The lighthearted family comedy film, The War with Grandpa is about Peter (Oakes Fegley), an eight-year-old kid forced to give his away most prized possession to his widowed grandfather, Ed (Robert De Niro) — his bedroom. Driven by growing resentment, Peter declares an all-out war with his grandpa. His grandfather decides to play along, establishing the rules of engagement — keep it a secret and not hurt/involve their family. From then on, the two engage in a hilarious and elaborate prank war. Based on the book, "The War with Grandpa" (by Robert Kimmel Smith), the screenplay was a collaborative effort by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. In a recent interview with Borrowing Tape, Director Tim Hill (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run) gave us his thoughts on his experience working on the picture, which is now available to watch via Amazon and while it's showing in a theater near you.
Photos courtesy of 101 Studios and Brookdale Studios
Wow! First off, congratulations. The War with Grandpa is so good and includes some pretty big names — Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken. Plus, Oakes Fegley is a brilliant young actor who was able to shine among them. Can you tell us about the casting process for "The War with Grandpa"?
Well, we did get an amazing cast. Robert De Niro was our top choice for the role of Grandpa, although he initially had issues with the script and story (as did I). We agreed on some significant changes to be made, after which he signed on. Then we were able to interest other actors like Chris[topher Walken] and Uma [Thurman]. I spoke with them about my approach to their roles, what they thought, etc., and then they too signed on. Cheech, Jane, Rob, and Laura joined soon after. Roe Baker did the casting, and we looked at a lot of kids. My wife, Veronica, who is my associate producer, helped me sort through all of the submissions. We had a ton of them, but we got some great kids. I knew of Oaks’ other films so I auditioned him and liked him for the role of Peter. He came to New York to read with Bob. It worked out as they really connected.
The War with Grandpa comes across as a timeless family movie staple —it's wholesome and funny for audiences of various age brackets. How did you find the process of working with screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember?
The writers, Tom and Matt, were great and gave the story an emotional bottom. Since the first script had strayed too far from the essence of the book, I gave them a rough idea of what I wanted. Then Bob and I sat down with them to discuss the new approach – they really came through. Later during prep, cast, and production considerations called for more script work; I hired Dave Johnson to rewrite some scenes and add dialogue punch up, etc. At the end of the day, I think we got a great script and story.
What did you find to be the most memorable scenes to film during production?
Lots of scenes are memorable for me; Some scenes were really fun, some were both fun and difficult, like the dodgeball scene. It was hilarious to see the cast tossing foam rubber balls at each other while bouncing up and down on a trampoline, but it was tough to stage and to photograph. Imagine shooting on a bed of 20 trampolines for three days!
What was it like working closely with Robert De Niro?
Robert De Niro was fantastic. We had an extraordinarily good working relationship, and we continue on as friends. It was a plus to have him invested in the entire process – not just involved in the script development, the casting, etc. He cared about his character, its evolution over the course of the film, and he was so good with the kid actors. Bob was game to try different things on different takes, and sometimes he asked for more takes for himself. He is just a great partner to have.
What was it like working with Cinematographer Greg Gardiner on the aesthetic for The War with Grandpa? Did you both discuss any movies to use as inspiration/reference?
Cinematographer, Greg Gardiner, is very talented and very good with color, in my opinion. We went for a natural, slightly dramatic, and rich look instead of the brighter look you see in a lot of comedies. Also, there were many moving parts on this. With our tight schedule and the limits on how long kids can work on a film set, we had to have contingency plans for everything, including summer storms in Atlanta (This also involved my AD, JJ Authors). Greg is simply very good at what he does.
Which films/directors have influenced you as a filmmaker - and The War with Grandpa specifically? Which movies do you consider to be 'Essential Viewing'?
Well, I love classic American movies by directors from Keaton to Lubitsch to Wilder to Hitchcock (to name a few), and then there are my foreign film favorites, so my list of essentials is long. As far as which filmmaker most influenced my approach to “The War with Grandpa” goes I guess John Hughes figures at the top; For example, there are similarities to “Home Alone,” especially in tone. Additionally, there’s the dynamic of kids vs. adults, the physical comedy, and that fun-for-the-whole-family vibe he understood so well.
You have another project coming out soon, the new SpongeBob movie, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run." In case we don’t get a chance to ask you, what was it like to write/direct the new installment of the beloved animation?
Writing and directing “Sponge on the Run,” was really satisfying. I was involved many years ago with the development of the SpongeBob SquarePants TV show; I collaborated with the creator, Steve Hillenburg, with whom I remained friends until he passed away from ALS. So, it was very meaningful for me to be able to make that movie.
Best piece of advice for budding filmmakers?
My advice for budding filmmakers is; turn on your camera and get to it, don’t let anyone deter you — listen to your teachers, not your critics, and absorb all of the art you can.