Carroll Ballard interview, Duma movie review, director, stars. By Rob Blackwelder ©SPLICEDwire
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A scene from "Duma"
WHO: Carroll Ballard
WHAT: director
WHEN: February 17, 2005
WHERE: By telephone from Sacramento, CA
HOW (you might know him):
Ballard made his feature debut with 1979's "The Black Stallion," and has specialized in nature films ever since, directing "Never Cry Wolf" and "Fly Away Home" among other movies.

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Director known for quality kids-and-animals fare talks about avoiding clichés for 'Duma'

By Rob Blackwelder

After an early career of documentary filmmaking, Carroll Ballard found a niche -- or got stuck in one -- making movies about children bonding with wild animals.

His 1979 adaptation of "The Black Stallion," about a young boy and an Arabian racehorse shipwrecked together, is considered something of a classic. His most recent sleeper hit was "Fly Away Home," starring Anna Paquin as a girl depressed over the loss of her mother who cares for a gaggle of abandoned baby geese.

In between Ballard made other movies about nature (a sailboat-racing drama called "Wind" and an adaptation of "Never Cry Wolf"), as well as an ill-received film version of "The Nutcracker" featuring Macaulay Culkin. But with "Duma," he's returned to his area of expertise with the story of an orphaned cheetah adopted by a white African boy who eventually resolves to return the feline to the wild on his own.

Beginning April 23, Warner Bros. is test-marketing "Duma" in regions around San Antonio, Phoenix, and Sacramento, where Ballard was visiting for an early screening when I spoke to him by phone about the picture's limited release and his feelings about the kids-and-animals genre.

Q: How do you feel about the film's unusual release pattern that seems to be testing the waters of Middle America and avoiding major markets?

A: My take is that (Warner Bros.) is unsure how to sell the film. They've developed a strategy that I feel is a bit misguided. They're trying to sell the film to very young children, and I think that's the wrong market. I tried to make not just another run-of-the-mill kiddie-animal movie, but I think the picture's being sold that way. The same problem surfaced with the last film I made, "Fly Away Home."

They've only got about $6 million tied up in the film and they don't want to risk more until they know (if it will make money). It's the reality of what the film business is today. There are not a lot of people out there panting to see a film about a kid and a cheetah. But I tried to make a film that was more than that.

Q: Q: Your filmography suggests a comfort with family-friendly films and nature themes -- and perhaps even an agenda. What do you look for in a script?

A: Character and story, of course. Is it a hopeful story? Does it take me somewhere, show me something I don't know?

Q: I have one question I've always wanted to ask a filmmaker with your kind of history: What is the fascination with orphaned characters?

A: [Laughs knowingly]

Q: Many kids' movies -- almost all Disney movies! -- feature central characters who are short at least one parent. Most animal movies begin with a baby critter being left on its own. Most kid-and-animal movies involve a friendship between the two. How does that serve the themes of these movies?

A: It's a formula, it's a formula. I objected to its use in this story (which was adapted from a plot-free picture book entitled "How It Was with the Dooms"). I didn't like the idea that a parent dies. I'm just so tired of that. If you're going to have a parent die, that has to be the emotional core of the movie. So we went through a thing at the studio where we wanted to remove the father's death. They said "do you want to make this movie or not?" So the father dies.

Q: How do you make one of these orphan-and-animal movies different enough to stand out?

A: Not easily. How I tried to do it in this film was with the invention of the character Rip (a tribal native whom Xan and Duma meet on their journey). This man is coming from a totally different place, a totally different world. He's very troubled, but ends up filling in for Xan's father in some kind of profound way in this emotional trip that the boy is taking. That's what we tried to do in order to give the film more substance.

Q: One more animal-movie question: How much footage do you end up shooting and digging through when looking for a certain emotion from an animal? Obviously you can't say "once more, with more curiosity," like you could to an actor.

A: A lot. [Laughs] It's extremely tedious! It's a gig I never really wanted, but in this business you get typecast. The only method I know is to just keep banging on and hoping for the best -- hoping for happy accidents.

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