×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Dennis Dugan: A quiet hitmaker

Billion-dollar director calls himself 'comic enabler'

In 1971, actor Dennis Dugan invited filmmaker Roger Corman to his off-Broadway performance of “The House Of Blue Leaves.” Surprisingly, Corman came, and the ensuing talks inspired Dugan to shift from acting to directing.

Cut to 40 years later, when Dugan and Corman are dining as peers the night Dugan learns that his films, including the recent “Grown Ups,” have surpassed the billion-dollar earning mark.

Yet few moviegoers talk about seeing a “Dennis Dugan film” the way they’d name-check, say, Judd Apatow. Nevertheless Dugan has established quite a quiet career as a trusted collaborator with Happy Madison Prods., and a man capable of unleashing the funny potential of today’s biggest box office draws.

“Dennis understands Adam Sandler and he understands comedy,” says Columbia Pictures senior VP Sam Dickerman, who has worked with Dugan on several movies. “Dennis has the great ability to work with the other people, too. He has a remarkable talent to tee up the situation and allow the performers to perform and, in doing so, get the results he needs to make the movie work.”

Popular on Variety

Take “Grown Ups,” the ensemble film that grossed $162 million domestically with an additional $108 million overseas. Dugan found himself wrangling a cast consisting of Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider. Rather than over-direct the comics, Dugan set out five folding chairs in front of a cabin, sat the actors down and had them riff for two 45-minute takes, steering the conversation only when necessary.

“I try to make the atmosphere chaotic and professional at the same time,” Dugan says. “Funny has one goal: to make you laugh. Part of the thrill and adrenaline comics have is the free fall — am I gonna land on my feet or am I gonna die? If I can make them feel like it’s OK to jump, I get the best out of them.”

It helps that Dugan has that actor’s background. He followed up theater work in New York and Los Angeles with performances in “The Rockford Files,” “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye” and as the memorable Capt. Freedom on Steven Bochco’s seminal “Hill Street Blues.” (Bochco and Mark Tinker would later work with Dugan as a director.)

“Dennis always impressed me as being a genuinely multitalented guy,” says Bochco. “He was a wonderful actor. He was a gifted artist and still is — he did all kinds of interesting, mixed-media things. Just hugely imaginative.”

When Dugan auditioned for the 1988 series “Moonlighting,” creator Glenn Gordon Caron called Dugan to say, “That was by far the best audition,” Dugan recalls. He eventually lost out to Bruce Willis, but was later brought on to play Cybill Shepherd’s new love interest.

Fans revolted, and Dugan was written out — but he was offered the chance to direct a few episodes.

“?’Moonlighting’ got me in the place I had to be for comedy — where there are no rules, just chaos,” Dugan says.

The next step was a challenge.

“At the time there wasn’t a lot of crossover,” he recalls. “You were either a TV director or a film director.”

To get his first feature directing job on “Problem Child,” Dugan demonstrated his creative vision for the film by hopping onto the coffee table of a Universal executive (page A18). This marked the second time Dugan worked with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine — the first being his role as an actor in 1989’s “Parenthood.”

“Brain Donors” followed, and Dugan fought to cast the then little-known Sandler. Though he lost, Sandler remembered the persistence, and when Dugan came in to pitch himself on “Happy Gilmore,” Sandler immediately deemed him the man for the job.

The friendship and professional relationship blossomed; Dugan has five Sandler films under his belt (plus one with Sandler as a producer), and two more coming out in 2011.

“I think I make his life easier: He’s the hardest working man in show business, and he needs comrades to take the pressure off him,” Dugan says, adding that Sandler makes his life easier, too. “I’m not out reading scripts all the time, out on the market. But there’s no slacking off. I feel if I’m not out there kicking ass every day, they’ll find someone else who is.”

Gary Martin, head of production at Sony, has worked with Dugan on nine films, plus next year’s “Jack & Jill” and “Just Go With It.” He’s attracted to Dugan because his work is embraced by people — and for his professionalism.

“If there are any issues, he’s always willing to work with the studio,” Martin says.

When asked about Dugan’s artistic style, Martin hedges and reiterates Dugan’s work as an actor prior to directing. Perhaps its tough to nail down Dugan’s style because his focus begins and ends with the talent.

He’s a chameleon, adjusting his expectations to fit the needs of the cast and the script. And he’s become so adept at this process, his output is starting to look as prolific as Corman’s.

“It’s like I was a really good ballplayer up through high school, then when I got to the pros, I realized I was a good utility ballplayer,” Dugan says. “While I’m funny, when I saw really, really funny guys, I realized my greatest contribution to film comedy is to be a comic enabler. I can stoke the first of those guys. And they can trust me.”

More articles from Billion-Dollar Filmmaker: Dennis Dugan:
Quiet hitmaker | Duo defies critics | In the pipeline | Dugan scores with sports | At work with Dugan | Filmmaker recalls favorite moment

More Film

  • 2020 Oscar Presenters: Zazie Beetz, Timothée

    Timothée Chalamet, Zazie Beetz, Gal Gadot Join List of 2020 Oscar Presenters

    Show producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain have announced additional presenters for the 92nd Academy Awards telecast. Zazie Beetz, Timothée Chalamet, Will Ferrell, Gal Gadot, Mindy Kaling, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Ramos, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Marie Tran and Kristen Wiig will be presenting statuettes during the evening’s ceremony. Though none are nominated for [...]

  • Palm Springs

    'Palm Springs': Film Review

    There are far worse places to be stuck for eternity than Palm Springs. Like Punxsutawney, the town Bill Murray can’t escape in “Groundhog Day,” for example. So many copycat time-loop movies have come along in the 27 years since that each new imitator can’t help sounding like a broken record, which is what makes Max [...]

  • American cinematographer Robert Richardson (L) and

    Poland to Build $200 Million Cinema Institution in Toruń

    Poland is setting up a new national cinema institution, named the European Film Center Camerimage, to be housed in a new building in Toruń at a cost of almost $200 million, which is scheduled to be completed in 2025. The director of the new body is Kazik Suwala, former office director of the Camerimage Film [...]

  • Into the Deep Review

    'Into the Deep': Film Review

    Documentary filmmaker Emma Sullivan was already there when inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, went missing off the coast of Copenhagen in August 2017, with journalist Kim Wall on board. Sullivan had been filming Madsen, a hobbit-y egotist with electric blue eyes, for 18 months, and until that day, she believed she was making [...]

  • China leads the world in volume

    China Suspends Film Shoots Across the Country as Coronavirus Epidemic Worsens

    The largest film studio on the planet, China’s Hengdian World Studios, has announced it will shut down indefinitely, as productions in other parts of the country also announce they are closing up shop in light of the worsening coronavirus epidemic.  On Monday, the local government management committee in charge of the experimental industrial zone where [...]

  • Kobe Bryant Oscar Win Dear Basketball

    Academy Planning Kobe Bryant Tribute During Oscar Ceremonies

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will include a tribute to the late basketball icon Kobe Bryant during the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9. “We can confirm that he will be acknowledged in the telecast,” an Academy representative told Variety. Bryant will be included in the In Memoriam montage of film [...]

  • Zola Cast at Sundance

    How Janicza Bravo and the ‘Zola’ Cast Brought the Viral Twitter Thread to Life

    Five years after A’Ziah Wells King posted the Twitter thread known as #thestory — a tale of how a trip from Detroit to Tampa, Fla., to earn money stripping quickly devolved into a wild ride, featuring a kidnapping, a shooting, sex trafficking and a suicide attempt — the real-life “Zola” is celebrating the film adaptation’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content