June 18, 2008
Ed. Note: We've got a few "The Love Guru" related treats this week. On Thursday, we have a rather amazing interview with co-star Romany Malco ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Weeds") that covers everything from puck bunnies to Gary Bettman. On Friday, we'll have a review of the film. But first, here's a chat with Mark Ellis, the second-unit director and hockey coordinator on the Mike Myers comedy.
Since 1993, Mark Ellis has served as a sports coordinator on 30 different films and television series. The football scenes in "Invincible," "The Longest Yard" and "Any Given Sunday." The baseball scenes in "The Rookie" and "The Bronx Is Burning." The basketball in "Semi-Pro." And hockey in "Miracle" and in "The Love Guru," which opens Friday.
Ellis was a football player at Appalachian State University, and earned a master's degree in coaching at the University of South Carolina in 1993. That's when the makers of the football drama "The Program" hired him to coordinate some of their scenes. Now in his mid-40s, Ellis is considered the leading sports coordinator in Hollywood.
But he and his company don't simply choreography the action. They consult on the script, to make sure the dialogue is authentic and the terminology correct, or to make sure the sports action meets realistic and budgetary goals. They help cast actors in lead and supporting roles. On set, they'll cast extras to fill out team rosters in the film. "The Love Guru" features former Detroit Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert and ex-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jamie Allison among others.
Chatting with Ellis this week, we discussed building fictional hockey teams, shooting "Miracle" before he really knew how to skate, and the athletic prowess of Jamie Foxx, Nelly and Justin Timberlake.
Q. Saw you had some ex-pros come out for the movie. What was it like working with them?
ELLIS: When you out an open casting call to be in a Mike Myers movie and you're in Toronto, Canada, it's bees to honey. Literally thousands of kids showed up. The challenge was that we were shooting right in the middle of hockey season, so I lost a lot of the potential guys. The minor league guys would have really loved this, because they're always looking for some supplemental income in the off-season. It was tough because I had to find guys that were just retired, maybe got cut or released. Sports and entertainment collide in such a way these days that they're naturally drawn to a project like this.
Literally, we didn't go out and recruit Jamie or Bob. They came to us and said it sounded like a cool project. And we needed those guys. We had a young group of players. We needed those guys as team leaders in the locker room. We asked those guys to put on skates five days a week for three weeks, 12 hours a day. Hockey's not meant to be played 12 hours a day; day after day after day.
Q. On "The Love Guru," I understand Mike Myers had some influence as far as what he wanted in the hockey scenes. Is there anything he suggested that you used?
First of all, you used the words "some influence." That is an understatement.
When I took on this project, I knew it was a double-edged sword. Having the NHL, shooting it in Toronto, being able to use the real teams [the Toronto Maples Leafs and Los Angeles Kings] were all going to be assets. Mike Myers, his love for the game, was going to be an asset. But at the same time, he demanded perfection. He felt an obligation that he then passed on to our team, to make sure that the hockey was as real as possible. That it was a supporting character.
Mike gets it. Some of it was just him being a writer/producer guy, and some of it was him being the hockey guy. Believe me: We earned our money working for him.
Q. You went into "Miracle" as a non-hockey guy, not knowing how to skate, right?
My father is from upstate New York, and was a hockey player. I was raised down south, so I'm a football, baseball, basketball guy. When I was approached my "Miracle," I thought I wasn't the right guy for this.
I went to the local ice hockey rink in South Carolina, and asked the guy who runs the rink if I could hang out with him because I was doing a movie about the 1980 [U.S. Olympic hockey team]. And he looked at me like I was nuts. I'll never forget this for the rest of my life: He was this old salty hockey guy, and he was in the room with a bunch of other hockey cronies. He looked at me after I got done rambling and he said, "You know what, son? You're going to have the best time of your life. Hockey people are the best people in the world." And he could not have been more right.
Q. From a hockey fan perspective, the scenes in "Miracle" were very revolutionary. I talk to people who say, "Why can't NBC or Versus make hockey look like that?" Do you think your coming at it as an outsider had some effect on the end product?
When you talk about movies like "Slap Shot" and "Mystery, Alaska" ... you know, God bless the NHL, but you can't put cameras on the ice like we do. Hockey's a sport you have to see live, and on television you just feel removed because of the glass and the boards. You can't get the cameras on the field like on NFL Films. The puck's moving 90 MPH and you can't follow it.
We have the ability to shoot with cameras on the ice. With a cable cam, or a pogo cam ...
Q. The hell's a Pogo Cam?
It's a camera on a stick. We use an unbelievable skater named Scotty Wa to grab the Pogo Cam and skate with the players, behind the players, skate with the puck. He's literally a camera on skates.
Q. So how do you make hockey on television work like it does in the movies?
I've heard they're now deciding on consistent television camera angles throughout the League. The audience will start to intake the action on a consistent level. The NFL has been great with that, and the NHL has to figure that out.
Q. What are the differences between shooting sports in a comedy and a drama?
Because we had the NHL behind us, we didn't want the comedy to be Keystone Kops. We wanted the hockey to be real, and the characters to be funny. Don't make the hockey corny. Make the characters playing hockey funny.
With that being said ... when you're running up and down a basketball court with Will Ferrell in "Semi-Pro" or you're going up and down the ice, there's going to be some funny dialogue that takes place and you have to capture that. In drama, you don't stop the action to have those moments; in comedy, you have to do that, but find a way for it not to look set up.
Q. I think it was Roger Ebert who once said that sex, in and of itself, isn't funny. But the characters having sex can be funny. Same deal in sports, huh?
It takes you out of the moment. If it becomes too hokey, you stop believing the characters, and therefore it's not going to be funny.
Q. Outside of "The Love Guru," who was an actor that blew you away with how he or she took to the sport they were playing in a film?
The two best actor-athletes I ever worked with: Jamie Foxx in "Any Given Sunday" and Nelly in "The Longest Yard." Nelly was an amazing athlete. He could have gone on to play minor league baseball.
Q. Jamie Foxx in "Any Given Sunday" looked like a QB. He looked a little like Vick.
His father, I think coached high-school football in Georgia, so he came from that background. One of the most talented guys I ever worked with. Jamie was the whole package.
You know who I just worked with on "The Love Guru" who I thought was amazing? Justin Timberlake.
Q. Really? As a hockey goalie?
Extremely athletic. Really great guy. The stuff he pulled off in goal was really, really good. He surprised the heck out of us. We had a very short time getting him ready, and he just got it immediately. I just worked with Josh Duhamel, too. I think he played D-II football. I did a movie with him called "When in Rome" where he plays a Syracuse Heisman Trophy candidate. Good, all-around athlete.
Q. Finally, was there a sports movie growing up, or maybe early in your career, that served as an inspiration for you?
"Rocky." Still inspires me. As I read a script, I go back and look at "Hoosiers" and "Rocky." I look at the foundation, the structure, the emotion that they drove. I left that theater in 1976 [after "Rocky"] and I could have fought the world. Mike Tyson would have never had a chance. That's what you want in a sports movie.