In theaters on November 10, Paramount release Clifford the Big Red Dog updates a classic character, beloved by generations of children worldwide, for a 2021 audience—and for movie theaters. What better place than a big screen, after all, for a big dog?
Clifford, the brainchild of late author-illustrator Norman Bridwell, has been the star of numerous books, TV outings, and even a 2004 animated theatrical release. In this new film, director Walt Becker (Old Dogs, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip) and veteran producer Jordan Kerner (Smurfs trilogy, Charlotte’s Web, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Mighty Ducks trilogy) bring Clifford out of the realm of animation and into the real world.
In this live-action/CGI hybrid, Clifford finds a home with young Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) and her uncle (Jack Whitehall), who soon find that their adorable, bright red, small puppy has taken a turn for the gigantic. In the run-up to the film’s theatrical release, Becker and Kerner sat down with Boxoffice Proto talk about adapting a classic property into something that can keep bringing families together for years to come.
Jordan, as a producer you have a history of taking classic children’s stories—The Smurfs, George of the Jungle, Charlotte’s Web, and now Clifford—and cracking them for the big screen. What’s your approach to adapting these properties for a modern audience while still maintaining their emotional core?
Jordan Kerner: Two things, I would say. The first is: In my mind, as we develop a script, I’m hopeful that what we will find is a movie for adults that is appropriate for children. It’s complex, it’s interesting, it challenges you, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it has adventure—all of those.
One example of that would be The Mighty Ducks. [Kerner is a producer on The Mighty Ducks trilogy and an executive producer on the new Disney Plus series.] Hockey was a predominantly male sport, and in The Mighty Ducks we had girls on the team. [Hockey] was predominantly white. We had people of every race, every religion. But we never said it! That permeated the DNA of the movie, which was a father-son story about hockey games, and comedy. It permeated a whole generation of people in terms of how they perceived those who are different from them.
With Clifford, I’ve read it to my three daughters. I read it when I was little, and I loved it. When Paramount came to me and said, “Would you work on this and help put the script together?” I had tried 15 years before to get it. And it was already being developed, so I couldn’t. Needless to say, I was very excited. I had to find—the equivalent of how hockey was a white, male sport—what was the similar underlying DNA here. And what I realized is that [Clifford is] about a character who, because of something—magic, maybe?—becomes huge. And he’s bright red! And if you think about our script development, being in 2018–19, there were a lot of issues going on in the country. In the DNA of the movie—not in the language, not part of the story—there are people who love him because he’s big and red, and there are people who are afraid of him because he’s big and red but who will come around to understand: You don’t have to be afraid of him. He’s a big puppy, and we love him.
We also think about movies like this as trilogies, in terms of telling a three-part story, this being the first part. What you saw in the trailer is that he’s little in the beginning, and he becomes huge. But he’s still a puppy! There are two sets of Norman Bridwell books. In the first set he was grown, and in the second set of books, he was a puppy. We chose one of Bridwell’s approaches, to keep him a puppy at least for the first movie. It gives us that room to continue the story and also continue the growth of Clifford.
Walt, what’s been your connection to the source material, and how did you come to be involved in this project?
Walt Becker: This is one of the first books that I read. I think it’s almost everybody’s first book. It’s one of these really easy picture books with few words. I’d been exposed to it as a kid and loved it. And I’ve always been a dog person. When I had kids of my own, I think they probably read the copy that had been in the house forever. It was a really terrific brand, I thought. I got involved in it a few years back, actually. It was a long journey. It was when it was at Universal, and it came over to Paramount. During the course of making the film, both Jordan and I got very close to the amazing people at Scholastic. We got to pick their brains about, “Here’s how the books started. This is why Bridwell was doing this.” We heard these amazing stories about how this gigantic piece of I.P. around the world—I think it’s 134 million copies—came to be. It’s actually Scholastic’s mascot. It’s all over their buildings. I came up knowing the property and then was excited that Paramount was going make a live-action/C.G. hybrid, where you could take a fantastical character and put him in a world that acts real.
The number one thing you have to nail with this is the design of Clifford. You can make him look more realistic, like you did, or you can lean into the more cartoonish element. What was the decision-making process behind that?
WB: If it was a fully animated movie, you’d probably have a character that might talk, that might be way more anthropomorphic. But because it was a live-action film, I think both Jordan and I felt like—what we got out of the books was that even your own dogs, if you’re a dog person, you really can communicate with more than you think, without the dog talking. We both thought it was very important to make him photoreal and make him be a dog. We really wanted to tell a story about bringing some of the magic of the book into the real world, where you would feel like you could be in the real world with a fantastical creature.
JK: I would add one thing. In setting out—and there’s no hubris in this, it’s just an intention to honor a writer-illustrator like Norman Bridwell—[our goal was] to create a classic. As his books are classics. They aren’t silly. They have big heart. They are about love. They are about acceptance of those beings which are different. They are about lots of important things. We wanted to make sure that all of that was in the movie. And so for [Clifford] not to talk, we thought, was very important. I remember in the conference room in our prep, we would talk about expressions, whether his paws would go like that. [Kerner puts his hands on either side of his face.] It was just too much. We felt that it would take the reality of the movie away from the audience and the classic nature of it.
Lastly, you’ll see John Cleese in the movie. He plays a character named Bridwell. We did that to honor Norman Bridwell. Like Norman, he’s full of magic. He is a person with a huge heart and is someone who plays a key role. And we wanted to do that because Norman had passed away a few years before we started this, so it was a way for us to tip our hat and to make something that would have a character that could honor him.
When you’re making a family movie now, compared to in the ’90s with something like The Mighty Ducks, are you thinking about it more as a piece of I.P. than you used to? “This could have a sequel or be a series or have a direct-to-streaming spinoff on Paramount Plus”—is that more of a consideration in the producing process now than it was earlier in your career?
JK: The truth of the matter is, I try to think in terms of story. I don’t think in terms of, “Should we make a video premiere movie for the iPhone?” We’re not thinking that way. We’re thinking, “What’s the size of the story and what is in its DNA that is important?” And “Is it just one movie, or do we need to have more time to tell the larger story?” In a funny way, I wish we had the ability to do a limited series, seven, ten episodes, because then you really have the time to develop the characters. You mentioned The Mighty Ducks—[the characters played by] Josh Jackson and Emilio [Estevez], that relationship has a very clear arc of growth for both characters, in a father-son story over the three movies. The Smurfs have arcs and growth over three movies, mostly that it is good to be different and it takes a village. Diversity is strength. And in this case, Walt and I really looked at Clifford—who, as we said, is a puppy in this movie—[and thought], we have the ability to say something; as he grows and changes, what else do we need to say, and what’s going on in the world around us? And what needs to be reflected in a classic, timeless manner, not in something that just reflects 2021?
At Boxoffice Pro, we obviously care a lot about box office. Not just as a matter of dollars and cents, but because people need to go see movies in theaters for the exhibition industry to survive, especially after the absolutely awful year and a half we’ve had. One of the genres that’s consistently done well as the industry recovers is the family movie—movies like The Croods: A New Age or Tom and Jerry. Walt, I was wondering if you could share any thoughts you might have on why you think that is?
WB: It’s one of those great pastimes that parents have with their kids. It’s an experience you can all enjoy together. You get out of the house together. For me, I felt—like everybody during the pandemic—“Oh my gosh, what is this going to do to our business?” I love movies. I love theatrical movies. Some things, you want to see it on a giant screen. Seeing, like you said, the all-audience movies coming out and getting people in theaters is really exciting. I feel like certain things want to be seen in a theater, and I feel like Clifford does, for sure.
It’s coming, I think, at a really good time in September. I feel like we’re going to be in a really great place. I think kids are going to be getting back to school. And what [better] way to get into that fall/holiday season than to see a big event? I’m hopeful that the business will return to being as robust as it ever was. People like the movies, and they like getting out.
You mentioned you have kids—what was the experience of taking your children to the movies for the first time like for you?
WB: It’s great. Just the whole experience. There’s something amazing when they ask you questions [afterward]. I remember when I was a kid seeing Star Wars on opening day. I think I was 7. Lines around the block. It rocked my world. Blew me away. I was with my mom and dad and my younger brother, who was 6. And we still talk about that. Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I think we actually got on the news as a family talking about how long we were waiting in line. But it’s an experience that we’ve never forgotten. It’s a special time.
Jordan, have you had that experience of relating to your kids through movies?
JK: Oh, absolutely. The pursuit and development of Charlotte’s Web was a result my oldest daughter, who is now 23, and a question she asked me: Why was Charlotte disliked before anyone knew her? That was key. It ends up that [E.B.] White wrote about that in his notes. It was a generational bias, fear of spiders. [Kerner produced the 2006 live-action/CGI hybrid adaptation.] And when I read it to Haley—because my mom had read it to me as a child, and I read it again later in third or fourth grade—to see my daughter’s joy in learning that story and asking that question was everything to me. Ultimately, I changed studios. I was at Disney for 11 years, and I went to Paramount because of Sherry Lansing and that they had the rights to E.B. White’s book. I needed to produce it for my daughter. [My three daughters are] from 17 to 23. When I said I was going to produce Clifford, they were very excited but a little wary that it might be for just young children. That it might not be for them. And I said, “Just give it a chance! Just look at the movie, OK? Don’t form an opinion yet.” They saw the movie and were taken in by the story and the growing friendship and love between Clifford and Emily Elizabeth through the film. Even on a little TV screen. Laughing out loud and crying through the movie. I was so happy because 17 to 23, that’s the hardest age range for family movies.
Do you remember what your first movie in a theater was?
Kerner: It was a rerelease of Bambi. And I cried my eyes out.
That’d mess you up!
Kerner: It messed me up. My mom took me. There’s still part of me that thinks—though I love my mom—“Why? Why did you take me to see his mother die?” I was so angry at Walt Disney!It was traumatic. But I did love looking at the stunning images moving on the screen. On this huge screen. That’s why movies like Clifford have to be seen in theaters for the first time. It creates a lasting wonder; it enters your heart and mind in a deeply impressionable manner. It is put in a special place in all of our hearts—one we do not forget.