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The art of writing and making films: EVERYONE'S HERO

"I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. They are the real heroes, and so are the families and friends who have stood by them."
-- Christopher Reeve
FROM BEDTIME STORY TO THE SCREEN
Everyone's Hero began as a bedtime story that IDT Entertainment founder and chairman Howard Jonas wrote for his children.  The story of a young boy who overcomes the odds and several harrowing and amusing situations to travel across the country and achieve something he never thought possible, doing it as any good batter would:  He just keeps swinging.
"I had been telling the story of Yankee Irving to my kids for years.  It was one of their favorites.  They just loved how the family stuck together and how a young boy could overcome all sorts of obstacles to become a hero to his family," Jonas recalls.  "One day, I told the story to our creative executives and everyone thought it would be a great film."
Jonas says there was never any question of who should direct the project. "I always knew I wanted to bring in the biggest hero I could think of to direct. To me, there is no bigger hero than Christopher Reeve," Jonas says.
Through mutual connections, Jonas reached Reeve, who invited Jonas and Robert Kurtz, an IDT Entertainment creative development executive, to his home to discuss the project.  Reeve was immediately drawn to the story of Yankee Irving.  "He related to the vision of a boy's perseverance and overall theme of love between parents and their kids," says Jonas.  "We left him a copy of the story and as we drove back, both Rob and I really felt that we had just experienced something very transforming. To be honest, even if Christopher hadn't ended up making the movie, I would still think of that day as incredibly special."
Appropriately enough, the decision to do the movie was a family affair, as Jonas recalls.  "Apparently that night, Christopher's son Will had picked up the story and started reading it.  When (his mother) Dana called everyone for dinner, Will said he couldn't come down because he was in the middle of reading a great story.  After he was done, Dana read it to Christopher.  The next morning, we had a phone call and he agreed to do the movie," Jonas says.
Producer Ron Tippe says:  "There's no question in my mind the reason that Christopher Reeve was in love with this story was because of its meaning. The story is about a young boy who has to keep on swinging.  If you look at Chris' life, and I don't mean post-accident, I mean from day one; that was his philosophy.  That vision that he had -- of never giving up, of believing in oneself, is a beautiful thing and certainly informed the film.   And Dana Reeve (executive
producer and voice of Emily, Yankee's mother) was marvelous and equally committed to those ideals, in the film and in life," Tippe says.
Producer Igor Khait says:  "I've never been involved with a project that meant so much to the filmmakers on a personal level.  What's really amazing about the making of this movie is how everyone who came in contact with it fell under its spell.  It was impossible to work on the film and not have it grow into a labor of love.  This kind of passion for filmmaking helps you overcome the most incredible obstacles.  I guess that's what the movie is about anyway:  prevailing against all odds because you believe in what you're doing."
Reeve worked closely with writer Robert Kurtz to transform Howard Jonas' bedtime story into a movie.  He completed much of the storyboarding and prep work before his death.  Soon after, Janet Healy joined IDT Entertainment as president of animation and brought in two animation veterans to direct and to continue Reeve's vision.  Daniel St. Pierre, an alumnus of Disney and DreamWorks animation, and Colin
Brady, an ILM and Pixar veteran, stepped in, with Reeve's spirit and intention in mind.  St. Pierre joined the team first.
"I knew Dan when we both worked at Disney," Healy explains.  "I was heading up the use of computer graphics in the traditional movies and he was the fellow who was pushing for the use of painterly artwork in 2-D animation. So, Tarzan was the first time we started to work together.  He oversaw what was
one of the biggest selling points of Tarzan, which was deep canvas - the moving shots through the brush strokes.  After we both left Disney, we went to DreamWorks.  I was the producer on Shark Tale and I hired him as the production designer.  I knew he was a visionary in our industry for movies that had great camerawork and a great look.  I came to IDT after
Shark Tale and the movie was underway in Toronto but, after Chris' death, not really finding its way. That's when I brought Dan in."
Healy adds that often at least two directors helm animated films.  "It's because there are so many places to be at one time, so many departments to oversee and so many tasks, it's really hard for one person to do it alone.  We started looking for a partner for Dan, knowing that Dan comes from production design and from layout; we knew that we had the look of the movie in really great hands, and knowing that Dan is a really great storyteller, we felt really good there too.  So, we were looking for someone to complement him, someone who had an animation background.  One of our favorite movies is Toy Story II and one of the people who really shaped that film in a big way was Colin Brady.  Dan met with Colin and they just seemed like they were a good team.  They're both funny and smart about the choices they make as directors. Between them, they have very strong specialties and they are both the full package," Healy says.
"The thing that attracted me to the movie in the first place was the idea -- and it was Christopher Reeve's idea -- of this whole keep-on-swinging kind of perseverance in the face of adversity that Yankee Irving has," says Daniel St. Pierre.  "That theme was very important to me.  It had such honesty and sincerity and heart.  I took it upon myself to make sure that we retained the spirit of the film that Christopher was originally making and I was steadfast and absolutely adamant that we had to do that.  In fact, after one of the first cuts of the movie, Dana (Reeve), said, 'This is a movie that Christopher would have wanted to make.'  That validated it for me, I felt really good about that afterwards."
Everyone's Hero was a labor of love for all concerned and it was crucial to everyone to produce a movie that reflected Christopher Reeve's vision and spirit.  "We were determined to complete the movie Christopher Reeve began," says Janet Healy.  "We put together the best team of experienced creative people, alongside our producers and Dan.  Our mandate was to honor Christopher Reeve's vision and, in many respects, the way he lived his life.  The theme of never giving up resonated with Chris and became the backbone of the film." 
Brady says he was deeply honored to help realize Christopher Reeve's vision and adds that he had been a big fan since childhood.  "In fact, the first movie I ever made when I was eight years old was based on his movie Superman.  I was so excited after seeing it that I went home from the theater and made little characters out of clay and made a stop-motion film based on Superman.  So, to know that he was part of this project and to be able to help bring his integrity to it, that's what appealed to me," Brady says.

THE STORY
"The movie fires on so many levels," says St. Pierre.  "It's a comedy.  It's an adventure.  It's about friendship.  It's about following your dreams and sticking to it, even when it seems hopeless.  It's a heartwarming story about families.  It has something for everyone, really.  It is also Christopher Reeve and Dana Reeve's movie and all those themes reflect them."
"Everyone's Hero is the story of a young boy who, with the help of a talking baseball and a talking bat helps the New York Yankees win the 1932 World Series.  But it's not just about that, it's the story of a father and a son, because Yankee's mission begins because he believes it will help his father get his job back.  But, to do this, Yankee gets to jump on trains, leap off fire escapes, run through the woods, meet a bunch of interesting characters, and travel 1,000 miles to new places.  I mean, don't you wish you could have done that?  So, it's a romp and a road trip and a buddy picture, but the buddies happen to be a talking baseball and a talking bat and a little boy," says producer Ron Tippe.
Co-Director Colin Brady notes that the story also intrigued him because it was about the triumph of the underdog.  "Yankee loves baseball but, at first, he thinks he doesn't have the talent for it.  So, this certainly discourages him and he gives up on the game. 
He learns not to give up on his dreams because he has to overcome all these obstacles to bring Babe Ruth's bat back to him, thereby saving his dad's job.  In doing this unselfish act, he learns all the tools and skills he needs to actually be a good baseball player and plenty of life lessons as well.  So, this boy, who at first, doesn't seem to have the stuff required to do all the amazing things he does in the course of the film, really rises to the occasion.  He seems to be that underdog in each of us."
His companion, a discarded and decidedly cantankerous baseball named Screwie, initially doesn't seem the sort of character anyone would want around for a long - or even short - journey.  His blunt manner results from a lingering disenchantment directly related to his failure at baseball, like Yankee. 
"Screwie kind of represents Yankee's inner thoughts because only he can hear the baseball speak.  And instead of saying, 'Hang in there, kid, just keep trying,' the baseball actually says the opposite. He says, 'Baseball is a field of broken dreams.' And then we learn that Screwie has a very sad story - during his one appearance in a major league game, he fouled out of the stadium and nobody came to look for him.  It was his moment to shine and instead he was forgotten. But, at a pivotal moment in their cross-country journey, Screwie encourages Yankee and gives him hope and Yankee does likewise for Screwie.  And they both end up regaining their confidence and self-respect and rekindling their love of the game," says Brady.
Through various misadventures, Yankee and Screwie rescue a mellifluous Southern belle named Darlin' who also happens to be Babe Ruth's lucky bat.  The trio's friendship offered the directors several creative, character-driven comedic opportunities that always had to be tethered to a certain level of reality.
"Yankee goes on the road with these two fantasy characters, Screwie and Darlin,' whom he manifests out of his needs - for attention, guidance and his love of baseball.  All of that comes into play and they become alive for him and the dynamics, comedy and situations between them are born out of the fact that the ball and the bat hate each other and Yankee's in the middle," St. Pierre explains.  "So, we had to create certain rules for the characters and hopefully, if we followed them, audiences will believe that they are actual personalities, actual characters and will go along for the ride.  For instance, Darlin' has to be carried; she doesn't have her own locomotion.  So, there was   a limit to the fantastical element that kept it grounded in a kind of reality and as long as we respected that, we had the fun of a talking bat and a talking ball and the absurd situation of a boy talking to them while nobody else can hear them."


THE VOICES
It was, of course, the human voices that initially gave the characters life.  While Yankee, Screwie, Darlin' and company began on the page, in script and storyboard form, many of their characteristics were informed by the actors who voiced them.
The impressive roster of actors includes Rob Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, William H. Macy, Mandy Patinkin, Raven-Symoné, Brian Dennehy and newcomer Jake T. Austin.  All the actors wanted to help complete Christopher Reeve's vision and fell for the story of Yankee Irving.
"Generally, we tried to have storyboards that would begin the process so we'd know where to go," says St. Pierre.  "We usually start out with what we call a 'scratch recording' which is so we're able to build a reel that gives us an idea of what the movie is going to be like.  In fact, Ron Tippe did the scratch dialogue for Screwie - he
was Screwie for the longest time.  Then we'd go record the voice of the actors.  It's an amazing experience to watch actors do this, as they try new things and suddenly land in a very comfortable place that feels original but completely right.  That's where the characters begin to develop.  Sometimes it was verbatim to the page and sometimes it wasn't, but that's always where the treasure was, when the character begins to speak on its own."
Of course when you have the kind of talent we had behind the microphone, that was a great gift," adds Brady.  "The actors gave us a lot of ideas through their performance, in a visual respect, but specifically, vocally.  We loved little nuances, imperfections, any stutter or stammer.  That's like gold to an animator."
"Rob Reiner as Screwie is the quintessential foul ball," says St. Pierre. "He did a terrific job with Screwie's sort of disgruntled leave-me-alone-I'd-rather-sit-here-and-rot-in-peace attitude.  Of course, he begins as this embittered thing and becomes a real pal to Yankee, in spite of himself, and actually ends up bringing him out of his despair.  And Rob has been a comedian, actor, writer, producer and director, so he knew how to serve that whole emotional arc as well as mine
the humor in it.  It was a little intimidating to meet him and work with him at first.  What was great was he was an artist that I got to not only collaborate with but also I got to learn from him on this project."
"Rob has such a wonderful sense of comic timing - he knew exactly when a line was landing and when it wasn't and how to say it better than anything we could think up," Brady adds.
As a lifelong baseball aficionado, Reiner brought a keen and personal insight to his character who is a baseball. 
Everyone's Hero also marks Reiner's debut as an animated character.
"I love baseball. I'm a ridiculously huge fan, so it was the perfect opportunity for me," says Reiner. "As a kid, I used to go to 50 to 60 games a year. Now, as an adult, I have sons and a daughter who love baseball. I take them to games all the time, I probably get to 20, 30 games a year. Plus, I've never been involved in a feature-length animated film, so it was a real thrill to be a part of it."
He points out that the story of Screwie and Yankee also appealed to him because the lessons they learn through their adventures change their outlook and are inextricably linked not just to baseball but also to life itself.
"Even though Screwie is curmudgeonly at first, he softens up, even as he constantly gives Yankee a dose of reality. And the two of them come together and find each other and find baseball again because they learn not to give up.  And that's a lot like baseball itself and it's a great metaphor for life. I mean, you can be down by ten, 12 runs at the bottom of the ninth inning and you can still win - if you keep trying," Reiner adds.
The biggest trial for Reiner was creating Screwie in the void of a recording studio.  "It was a challenge - I mean, you're sitting by yourself and interacting with characters you don't see. So, I relied heavily on the directors and the other people making the film because they had the vision of how it was going to lay out and what the tone needed to be," he says.
The fact that Screwie wasn't human per se didn't affect Reiner's portrayal.  "For me, Screwie was a character with real emotions - anger, sadness, humor - all the things that come with playing a part," Reiner continues.  "So, it was easy to forget that he was an inanimate object.  He could be a person except that he is a baseball.  The whole idea is to try to bring him to life, to give him a soul.  And that's just like any other kind of acting.
As fan and a student of baseball history, one of Reiner's favorite parts of
Everyone's Hero is when Yankee, Screwie and Darlin' hook up with a busload of players heading for a game in the Negro League. On this bus, Yankee literally finds his footing and Screwie begins to recall what he loved about baseball. 
"You know, my father was a big New York Giants fan until Jackie Robinson came into the major leagues. And then he became a Dodger fan because the Dodgers were the first team to break the color line. And that was very significant, not only for baseball but for America.  I think it's an important section of the film, about the history of the game and this country, of course told through the journey of Yankee Irving," Reiner says.
Whoopi Goldberg voices Darlin,' Babe Ruth's lucky - and purloined - bat. Her honeyed southern accent and slightly diva-esque attitude constantly infuriates Screwie but like the irascible Screwie, she too proves to have a huge heart.
Goldberg found a kindred spirit in her character.  "Well, Darlin' is Babe Ruth's bat, so she is the Queen of the Louisville Sluggers," says the Oscar®-winning actress.  "And when the filmmakers approached me to play her, they showed me some very raw animation of the story and I saw Darlin' and thought, there I am!  I knew it was me the minute I saw her.  She didn't have dreads or anything; she did have these very long, luxurious lashes.  She was quite the woman!"
Christopher Reeve had directed Goldberg previously, in the telefilm "In the Gloaming."  "Christopher's spirit was involved throughout production," Goldberg says.  "He was a friend and I would do anything for him, so I knew I had to do this.  All the filmmakers carried on his commitment - this was as much a labor of love for Chris as it was for the kids who will actually get to see it.  So it made me feel quite good to be a little piece of the pie."
Goldberg adds that adults could learn a thing or two from
Everyone's Hero and enjoy themselves as much as the children.  "The idea of persistence towards a goal you set for yourself, the notion that there is nothing we can't do if we put our minds to it; it's always the best to see that in young people, in kids. But, there are also great lessons in that for adults. We often think we've failed, we're done. And that's not how we are as children. We would keep going and going, it's only as adults that we decide we're out of the running," she says.
She adds that, like Darlin,' children and adults can learn a thing or two about themselves in striving to attain their goals and dreams.  "Along the way, Darlin' learns about team work, about doing things with other people and not making it all about herself.  So, it's really a slice of life lesson told in a beautifully realized fashion," she says.
Goldberg finds voicing animated characters to be "more freeing than being in front of the camera.  "It's just fun. To me, it's the greatest expression you can have and you have more options when you're in animation because you can play a bat or a hyena or whatever. That's really why I became an actor; I thought you could do anything as an actor but, in the real world, people have limitations in their minds. But, in animation, there are no limits.  Nobody says, oh, well, you've put on some weight or gosh, you know, it turns out you're black and we don't think this part would ever be something you could relate to.  You don't hear any of that in animation. For me that's heaven because you can literally do anything or be anything," Goldberg says.
Goldberg's passion for and innate understanding of Darlin,' as well as her process for communicating that, thrilled and mesmerized the two directors.  "Whoopi is very, very smart and she would not read a line unless she understood what it was about and she brought so many of her own ideas to Darlin' that were so much better than what we had," says Brady.  "Very often, she would say, 'Well, I don't think Darlin' would say it that way, let's try it this way," Brady recalls.
"Whoopi was an absolute delight to work with because she imbued the part with so much that wasn't on the page.  And once she found the character, she knew exactly how Darlin' should speak and it was extraordinary to watch this unfold," says St. Pierre.
William H. Macy plays Lefty, the would-be pitcher of the Chicago Cubs and a hapless thief, hired to steal Darlin' from Babe Ruth.   Without his lucky bat, Babe Ruth will be unable to deliver his trademark home runs and the World Series will go to Chicago.  However, Yankee Irving, Screwie and Darlin' foil Lefty's plans, which results in some embarrassing and painful situations for the wannabe thief.  Taking Macy through these sequences sometimes proved slightly embarrassing and painful for the directors.
"William H. Macy is a fantastic actor, one of my favorites, and has been in so many classics and brought so much professionalism to the project. So, of course, we had him play our often ludicrous villain, and sometimes we would say, 'Well, could you just read the line a little goofier?' I'm certain he was used to getting much more sophisticated direction, but he was a great sport about the whole thing," recalls Brady.
Macy, who has played his share of oddball characters, had no problems incarnating Lefty, adds St. Pierre.  "He was an absolute dream. Right off the bat, he was Lefty - he gave him all these quirky mannerisms and a little bit of Chicago.  And we wanted to make him a guy who was really inept, a bad liar, a clumsy person who managed to become a pitcher for a major league baseball team. He likes to cheat to get ahead, to take short cuts so he doesn't have to really do what it takes. He's the complete opposite of Yankee, actually. And Bill understood that right away and really ran with it."
As it turns out, Chicago baseball came naturally to Macy and the tale of
Everyone's Hero spoke to him for several reasons.  "I'm an old Chicago boy and this had the old Chicago written all over it. For me, Wrigley Field is as close to heaven as you can get.  I used to live on Waveland when Dave Kingman played for the Cubs. Every once in a while, you'd hear a SMACK and a baseball would be rolling down the street. Besides that, I thought it was a great story, really well written and heartfelt, and I thought the sketches I saw were original and stylish," Macy says.
He adds that the actual voice work did not come as naturally as the Chicago setting.  Lefty, who finds himself in all sorts of uncomfortable physical situations, plays to Macy's strengths and allowed him to explore some new ones.  "I've done a bit of voice work over the years, yet I still find it challenging," says Macy.  "I have a tendency to be a physical actor and, of course, it doesn't show up on a microphone.  But Lefty gets the stuffing whooped out of him throughout the film so I got to do a lot of oofing and ahfing.  Sometimes we'd get lucky and I'd make a funny sound and they'd animate it," Macy says. "I also have a tendency to read the lines as written, so it was interesting to be encouraged to make stuff up, to go for the joke. It was fun to sort of rock out and come up with all kinds of variations."
Newcomer Jake T. Austin portrays young Yankee Irving.  Like Yankee, Austin is a baseball nut. Unlike Yankee, he is quite good at it.  "We couldn't have asked for a better Yankee than Jake," says Brady. "He knows all the stats and it was very natural for him to talk about not just baseball but to get inside the emotional aspects of Yankee.  He was just a goldmine, a wonder to work with and very talented and smart. He helped us a lot, in terms of our writing and
storyboarding and certainly helped shape the character."
"We had an initial outing where I met him and a bunch of his friends on a baseball field," adds St. Pierre. "It was freezing cold. And they played a game of pick-up, very much like we have in the movie and we filmed the whole thing.  We asked him to do some typical things, like
to show us his stance and how he threw.  And we grabbed some of that, showed it to our animators and started to incorporate some of Jake's mannerisms into that of Yankee.  Jake is pretty good at baseball but it was also fun to see him make mistakes. He'd miss a pop fly and get really angry at himself, there was a little bit of Yankee in that and some of it seeped into the character."
In fact, Austin
is not just a baseball fanatic, he is a Yankee devotee.  One of the highlights of Everyone's Hero for him was meeting Joe Torre who plays - what else? - The Yankees' manager.  "I'm the biggest baseball fan you ever want to meet, the biggest Yankee fan," Austin says. "I have a baseball collection of many things, from autographed balls to pictures with players. I painted my room blue for the Yankees. Meeting Joe Torre was just crazy; it was a dream come true. When I got this project, I was stunned."  continued…… read more

FROM VOICES TO ANIMATED CHARACTERS

READ MORE ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
CHRISTOPHER REEVE  (Director / Executive Producer) 
DANA REEVE (Executive Producer, voice of Yankee's Mother)

DANIEL ST. PIERRE  (Director)
COLIN BRADY  (Director)
ROBERT KURTZ  (Writer)

JEFF HAND  (Writer)