'Little Rascals' director finds that kids' charm outshines the chaos

August 05, 1994|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

Director Penelope Spheeris, who had to deal with punk rockers in one of her documentaries and hard rockers in the popular movie "Wayne's World," confessed that she wasn't quite prepared for the task of directing very young children in "The Little Rascals," which opens today.

"There were numerous times when the kids would just walk off the set without warning. I'd have the camera fixed on them, and they would just drift off. These kids have an attention span of about five seconds."

It sounds as if Ms. Spheeris, 48, just went through the worst moviemaking experience of her career, but she said she actually enjoyed making this movie, based on the 221 classic "Our Gang" comedies made over a 22-year period by Hal Roach. These Depression-era short films made household names of Spanky, Alfalfa and the rest of the gang.

"Technically, the movie was a nightmare, because you had to keep doing the shots over and over again, because someone was always making a mistake," she said. "You couldn't have two of these kids in the same shot, because one of them was always making a mistake.

"The other side of the coin is that these kids are so sweet and loving. They're really special people, and I'm so glad I did the movie."

And how would the outspoken director compare these kids with the punkers she encountered in her celebrated documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization"?

"These kids are little angels that just flew down from heaven," she said. "The punk rockers are devils . . . "

Fresh from directing "The Beverly Hillbillies," Ms. Spheeris found her cast of rascals after a nationwide talent search that included thousands of professional child actors and acting wanna-bes.

"I wish I had made a tape of just the hundreds of kids who came in with the cowlick, freckles and bow tie and tried to be Alfalfa," she said. "But I based all my selections on which kids felt right for the part.

"Bug felt right as Alfalfa, and that's why he got the part. I kept asking whether I felt like I was with the original characters. That was the criteria."

Because she helped to write the screenplay, Ms. Spheeris had to study all 221 original episodes and decide what plots to use in her version and how to fit them into the structure of a 90-minute film.

"You have certain restrictions, like no night shoots and only being allowed to shoot each kid five or six hours a day, so you plan your shoot accordingly," she said. "It was extremely difficult at times, and there were moments when the crew members would roll their eyes. It was tough, but it worked.

"As for the plots, I wanted to get certain things from the original films into this movie, like I knew I had to get Spanky and Alfalfa into a tutu," she added with a laugh. "I wanted little boys wearing little girls' clothes. That's my kind of movie.

"I also wanted an issue in this movie, and that's why we did the women-haters club. That's a good issue."

The movie is filled with cameo appearances by celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Buckwheat's mom, and Donald Trump, who plays Waldo's dad.

"The trick was getting Whoopi, who is a big 'Little Rascals' fan," Ms. Spheeris said. "Once she said yes, it was a matter of calling people up and saying, 'We're doing this movie about the "Little Rascals," and Whoopi is playing Buckwheat's mom.'

"The only one we couldn't get was Magic Johnson. He was supposed to play Stymie's dad, but the day we were going to shoot his scenes, he was picked to be the Lakers' coach, so he was a little busy."

The youngsters weren't the only ones who caused problems for the director. With so many kids around, there were bound to be at least as many stage parents.

"I pity the next director who has to work with these kids, but for me it wasn't bad," she said. "Fortunately, it was the first film for most of them, so the parents were so happy their kids got chosen [that] they didn't cause trouble.

"I built a video village away from the set so they could watch from a distance and not get too close to the set. Once they were intimidated, they didn't bother me. But they're not intimidated anymore."

Ms. Spheeris said she intentionally maintained a timeless look in the film, keeping skateboards, in-line skates, video games and Day-Glo clothing out of sight. The result is a nostalgic film for all ages, she said.

"Someone described the movie as a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup," she said. "What she meant was that the film is comforting. Hopefully, for at least the teen-agers and young adults, they can go back in their memory to a time that was a little more comforting.

"Unfortunately, very small children today have never experienced that comfort, so they never miss it. If they find it too slow or old-fashioned, I understand.

"But it really doesn't matter, because their parents pay for the tickets."

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