GOOD MORNING from New York’s Central Park, 5th Ave. — and the four giant stages at Sony Studios in Culver City, where Columbia is shooting the “under-$90 million,” certain-to-be-rated-G family comedy, “Stuart Little,” based on E.B. White’s classic kiddie books. And sure, Geena Davis, who plays Mrs. Little, admitted to me that she, too, had lovingly read the story of the first mouse who roared. In the movie, the voice of Stuart is provided by Michael J. Fox. Jonathan Lipnicki (“Jerry Maguire”) is Stuart’s brother (!) in the family which adopts the mouse, while Hugh Laurie (“Sense & Sensibility”) is Stuart’s father. The movie is being directed by Rob Minkoff, who helmed the roaring box office hit “The Lion King.” This is his first full-length live-action feature, although he previously directed shorts combining live-action plus animation with celeb voices. In “Stuart Little,” he has cat and mouse voices provided by Jennifer Tilly, Gene Wilder, Bruno Kirby, Chazz Palmenteri, Dabney Coleman, Estelle Getty, Alyce Beasley and Steve Zahn. Director Minkoff, looking very much like the lion king with his long mane, was directing the action on Stage 30, converted into Central Park and its pond dressed for a toy boat regatta — in which Stuart climbs aboard to personally skipper his boat. This same stage once housed the pool where I watched the inimitable Esther Williams perform her amazing aquatics … “I’m breaking all the rules,” said Minkoff, “directing a picture with animals, kids — and talking mice!” While Davis, Laurie and Lipnicki were placing (an invisible) Stuart in his boat, I asked Minkoff how he directs the players working to an absent mouse, who is later to be inserted by the latest movie magic. “I use a laser cue light for them (the live actors). Its frequency does not interfere with the camera’s speed.” Producer Doug Wick admits the movie, with a script by M. Night Shyamalan from one of Wick’s favorite books, had been a dead project; but with Sony’s Imageworks’ latest developments, and Patrick Tatopoulos’ animatronic designs, the impossible is now possible. But Minkoff reminds that, despite the $200,000-a-day filming cost, each additional digitally (CGI) created shot costs $50,000. And a great deal of patience. Talking of patience, I walked over to Stage 15 where N.Y.’s 5th Ave. was also re-created for the street on which Stuart’s family lives. The sign on the stage door noted: “Cats Rehearsals in Progress — Enter Quietly.” The cats (real), trained by Boone’s Animals for Hollywood, are of course Stuart’s nemesis. Many of the (human) “Little” crew also worked on Sony’s “Godzilla” and they posted signs like these on the sets of this mouse starrer — “Stuartzilla — Size Doesn’t Matter.” Minkoff was to have made his live-action directorial bow on “Into the Woods” but its start was KO’d. He remains with live action next, directing Marshall-Kennedy’s “The Lion(!), the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Wick and his Red Wagon banner are busy next with “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Girl Interrupted,” “The Hollow Man” and “Gladiator.”
NEGOTIATIONS ARE STILL GOING ON between Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Standards & Practices and Shukovsky/English Entertainment on the latter’s first seg of their “Living in Captivity” series, which bows Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. The subject: racism. Exec producer Diane English notes they went to the Fox web because of its profile: “Because of its inventiveness, we felt it was the place to be.” The series “pushes boundaries of good taste.” The second seg’s about sexual mores; the third, obsession with and paranoia about security; later on religion, etc. “We feel some people may get offended — so be it,” said English of the comedy series which avoids politics as one of its subjects because of concerns about timeliness. She says, “We get three memos a day (from the Standards & Practices division) and while Fox programming approves of what we do, the two divisions don’t answer to one another — so it’s all about negotiations. And I don’t feel you can negotiate about humor.” Who won/lost the first seg battle? “We’re still negotiating on the pilot,” she reiterated. They have an order for 13 segs and have completed (more or less) five. After 10 years with Candice Bergen and company on “Murphy Brown,” English says of this series, “Some will say that we’ve stepped on the boundaries of good taste, but I feel you can’t talk down to an audience.” Her hero is Norman Lear.
LILLIAN BURNS, THE EARLIEST of top women studio executives, died Aug. 31 at home. She was 95. Burns had been right hand to Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and later with then-husband director George Sidney to Harry Cohn at Columbia. In later years, Debbie Reynolds told me she had adopted Burns, who had looked after and coached the famous roster of femme stars, like Reynolds, Janet Leigh, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner at Metro. Debbie, packing up her movie museum following the sale of her hotel in Las Vegas, says she “dreams” one day to house it in the Motion Picture Academy’s expanding facilities on Hollywood Blvd. As for herself, Reynolds laughed, “My life will be quite a saga — or series. Three actresses would have to play me.” She’s off to play nitery dates in Tyler, Corpus Christi, Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach, etc. “I’ll entertain till I die,” she said. “It’s what I love” … Tony Curtis will appear at the MGM Grand Art of Entertainment Gallery in Vegas, Sept. 4-5, with his exhibit of paintings, lithos and unique boxes.