Entertainment Weekly - February 16, 2001
The Sound & the Furry
by Daniel Fierman; transcribed by Son Of Spam
It starts with a high whistle, the register drops, then amplifies, becoming lower and louder. After a few seconds, there's an explosion: a crinkly, bass-heavy crash.
It's just one of those things. The first time the universal sound effect for "bomb" explodes during the interview about a movie, it can be politely ignored. But the second time...? Deborah Kaplan-the blond, dry-witted half of the writing-directing team behind Josie and the Pussycats-flashes a wry smile at her skinny screwball partner, Harry Elfont, and cracks: "That's the sound of our careers, I guess."
Never mind the noise leaking from the studio where Universal comedy is begin mixed, Kaplan and Elfont have every reason to be as nervous as a pair of you-know-whats in a room full of rocking chairs. Because, of course, the corpses of projects like Josie are stacked like cordwood on the streets of Hollywood. For every Charlie's Angels there's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. For every Addams Family, a couple of Mr. Magoos.
Then there's the property itself. Sure, Saturday-morning-cartoon obsessive might recall the jaunty theme song (Josie and the Pussycats!/Guitars for sharps and flats!), but those are probably the sort of folks who also think that Gleek the monkey was tragically underused on Super Friends. And after all the $125 million success of Charlie's Angels, there's the question of whether this $24 million movie can live up to expectations. ("I don't know why we're being compared," jokes Elfont. " Just because there are three hot females leads and it's based on a kitschy project from the 1970's and uh, oh...")
But with a cheeky script, songs from hit-meister Babyface, and a litter of hotties in the cast, the studio thinks this pussycat can kill. "We made a good movie," says Universal production executive Allison Brecker. "It sounds basic, but you can't fool people. Once it hits theaters, the cat is out of the bag."
Josie rocks. She just does. Flaming red hair licks over her eyes, an oversized guitar howls in her hands, and an urgent, sexy-sweet voice pleads into the mike.
But sitting under an orange tree in Los Angeles, Rachael Leigh Cook casts her eyes down. The 21-year old, with perfect nails but dried-out hands, slowly tears the label off her Diet Coke as she talks; twisting it into almost origami corkscrew arrows, squooshed frogs, and mutilated cranes. "I was a fan of the comics," she says, almost whispering. "I don't know about the movie. People are either going to love it or hate it."
At the very least, people have always loved Josie, a character Dan DeCarlo cooked up for Archie Comics around 1960. "It was originally for my wife, who is named Josie, for a cruise party," remembers the 80-year old artist from his home in Scarsdale, N.Y. "She wanted to go as a bunny and I said, 'Everyone's going as a rabbit.' So I designed the costume." Soon after, his creation become the guitar-playing star of a crime-fighting rock trio, which also included tough bassist Valerie and ditsy drummer Melody. The comic book was adapted by Hanna-Barbera into a beloved Saturday-morning CBS cartoon in 1970 and had a second life from '72-74 as Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space.
So when Allison Brecker arrived at Universal from Disney looking for a project, she remembered Josie. "I took it to [Universal Studios chairman] Stacey Snider and she had the same nostalgic feelings about it I had," Brecker says. "But all we remembered was there were three girls that played rock & roll and solved mysteries." A fan of Elfont and Kaplan's previous film, the 1998 teen comedy Can't Hardly Wait, Brecker brought the project to the duo.
"We said no. Three times, in fact," Kaplan told EW on the set last September. "We had done the Brady Bunch sequel, worked on the Flintstones sequel, and put together a pitch for a Gilligan's Island movie that was so bizarre they thought we were on crack. It wasn't appealing to become those people who turn cheesy TV shows into movies. But we always wanted to do a music movie."
In the script that evolved, Josie and Co. are discovered in the imaginary Archie town of Riverdales by an oily record exec (Alan Cumming of Broadway's Cabaret) who has just "lost" his star clients, the boy band DuJour (a savage 'N Sync send-up). As he and his nefarious supervisor Fiona (Parker Posey) catapult the Pussycats to stardom, the group discovers that its music is being used to brainwash teens into consumer zombies.
"People look down on this project. They're like, Wasn't that a cartoon?" says Cook (She's All That), who signed on for a reported $1 million plus. "Well, yes, but this is more than that. It's a sociopolitical statement about the state of our materialistic, hype-driving society, you know?"
Right, With babes in cat suits.
"Normally when the product placement department gets involved, filmmakers are like, 'You're corrupting my movie!'" laughs Elfont, who says companies that wouldn't let their products be used - such as Nike and Adidas - got the litterbox treatment, being tagged as uncool in the flick. "We were like , Bring...it...on."
To add to the purr factor, Tara Reid (American Pie) was tapped to play bubbleheaded Melody. "Melody's like the family dog, always excited, always waggin' her tail," says the 25-year-old actress, whose fiance, MTV personality Carson Daly, has a cameo. And after her auditioning scores of young women to play Val-included TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes-Elfont and Kaplan added Rosario Dawson (Kids) to the meow mix.
"The initial idea had been to find actresses who could sing," says Tracey Edmonds, who produced the music with husband Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. "But that was impossible. So we put the girls in our studio for about a month and a half of training we called 'band camp.'" (Recalls Reid, "On the first day, my drum teacher was like, 'Oh God, are we in trouble.'")
"I studied Blink-182 and Hole," says Babyface, who auditioned about 20 singers for the voice of Josie, before settling on Kay Hanley, formerly of Boston popsters Letters to Cleo. "The music started punk, but we ended up with something more pop-flavored. Almost Go-Go's-ish."
And while the girls learned their instruments (Cook sums up her previous music experience thusly, "I play the radio"), they also bonded. "There could have been, mind the pun, catfights," says Dawson. "But none of that was there. Tara even asked us to be in her wedding. I can't tell you how wonderful that is, just as a special girl thing." (Those aren't the only upcoming Pussycat nuptials, either: Kaplan is engaged to actor Breckin Meyer, who appeared in Can't Hardly Wait and plays one of the members of the DuJour.)
The youthful cast and crew-Elfont and Kaplan are only 32 and 30, respectively-had at least one participant feeling a bit like Grizabella, however. "Parker left quite early and left me on my own with all these children," laughs the 35-year-old Cumming. "I was chatting with the girls and said something about Lauren Bacall, and one said, 'Who's Lauran Becall?' But we found middle ground. We would rap. I would say things like 'Who's your daddy?'"
The Vancouver shoot lasted 47 days, climaxing with stadium concert sequence, which required luring 10,000 locals with the promise of a performance by Canadian boy band b4-4. "It was exciting," remembers Cook, "but then you realize the audience is paid to cheer. So it's like, RAAAHHH! 'Cut!' And then silence. Thank you! Good night Vancouver!"
"I was hitting the drums so hard, going off people's energy, that my hands were shredded," says Reid. "Blisters everywhere. Blood. I didn't even notice until after, when everyone was like, 'What the hell happened?'"
Meanwhile, as the filmmakers sweated blood to make the April 6 release date and Universal planned a marketing blitz (including tie-in dolls, backpacks, and underwear.), creator DeCarlo coughed up a hair ball, filing suit against Archie Comics for ownership of some of the characters and financial compensation. A federal judge dismissed his case in January, but the cartoonist's lawyers have filed an appeal. "If they said 'this is you baby and this is what you're going to get,' Id be as happy as a log," says DeCarlo. "Now I don't know whether to wish it will be a success or a flop." Responds Archie Comics chairman Michael Silberkleit, "It's news to me that they're appealing, but all I can say is it's a shame that after 40 years, a guy decides to sue us."
Back on the Universal lot, those absurdly symbolic explosions have stopped. Instead, a power-pop tune called "Three Small Words" lilts from the mixing studio. Elfont and Kaplan smile. They cowrote that one. Elfont's head nods and Kaplan listens for a moment and then says, "See, the truth is, if a 12-year-old girl sees this movie and wants to start a band, I'm happy. And what's wrong with that?"
Copyright © 2001 Time Inc. & Entertainment Weekly