For four decades, Brian Levant has been at the creative helm of many of the most beloved franchises in modern family entertainment – making him the perfect choice to direct the first-ever telling of the Mystery Inc. origin story in Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins. Levant began his career at age 23 as a story editor on Happy Days and went on to produce Mork & Mindy and The Bad News Bears series before returning to Happy Days as the series’ supervising producer. After winning a CableACE Award as Best Director of a Comedy Series for The New Leave it to Beaver, which he developed and served as executive producer, Levant turned his attention to feature films.
In 1991, Levant made his feature directorial debut on Problem Child 2, which he followed with the original Beethoven. In 1994, Levant directed the star-studded film adaptation of Hanna-Barbara Productions The Flinstones for executive producer Steven Spielberg, as well as its 1999 prequel. Levant’s other film credits include the hits Snow Dogs; Are We There Yet;, Jingle all the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; and the upcoming Jackie Chan vehicle The Spy Next Door.
Levant, who has nine large dogs of his own running around his ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, spent some time discussing the latest incarnation of the Scooby-Doo franchise, the all-new live-action cast, and the joys and challenges of adding a new chapter to a 40-year legacy.
GARY MIEREANU: What significance do you place on finally telling the origin story of the Mystery Inc. gang for a franchise that is celebrating its 40th anniversary?
BRIAN LEVANT: This means that for the 40th anniversary of Scooby-Doo, we go back and start at the very beginning – we go back to when these are just meddling kids, and they truly are kids. When we started filming, the youngest member of our cast was barely 16 years old, and I think the age of the cast reflects the innocence and energy and an openness to new stimuli – in general and specifically – in this franchise. By starting over, we have re-energized the franchise and given it a new reason to exist.
GARY MIEREANU: You have some history of converting animated cartoons into live-action film. What’s the trick?
BRIAN LEVANT: In translating an animated piece into a live-action film, every day you walk the tightrope between what is too silly and what is too cartoony versus what is too real for the situation. I think we have successfully navigated that tightrope so that we maintain our balance, and yet stayed true to the original.
This is a very contemporary, 21st century version of Scooby-Doo. The relationships are real, they are real people, they have real ideas, they have real problems, and they are a real team. Then to counter that with the shtick of a six-foot-tall, computer-generated Great Dane, that tips the balance a little bit every day. So sometimes we have to lean a little bit harder on the real in order to maintain the total balance.
GARY MIEREANU: These “kids” really seem to have made these roles their own while staying true to the traditions of this franchise. What’s it been like working with this cast?
BRIAN LEVANT: This has been a great opportunity for this cast to learn to become professionals and to take all their enthusiasm and energy and channel it into a process where they’ve become very polished performers. In doing so, they have really learned to inhabit their roles.
When you watch this film, mainly it’s composed not of singles or individual shots, but of big tight four-shots of the group, and they have become a group in real life as well as on film. That’s really reflected in the performance and in the teamwork that they display every day on screen.
GARY MIEREANU: Let’s break down the cast one at a time. Tell us about your Velma – Hayley Kiyoko.
BRIAN LEVANT: Hayley is very different than Velma Dinkley. She has really had to strip away who she is completely and inhabit the soul of somebody who is a little bit cloistered, who relies on their intellectual prowess and has less success in their social skills. And in doing so, Hayley has found new ways to invent.
Obviously, Hayley does not look the way Velma did in the cartoons, and I think that’s a great thing. I think that’s one of the things that makes our project here individual and different and contemporary, but it didn’t affect Velma’s characterization. Velma has broadened her appeal. She has become more human, and that is all due to Hayley’s input.
GARY MIEREANU: What made Kate Melton your ideal Daphne?
BRIAN LEVANT: When Kate Melton first walked through the door, before she uttered a word, I knew that we’d found Daphne. I don’t know how things like that work, but it turned out to be true, and through every step of the way, she did not disappoint. She grew in polish, she grew in confidence as the audition process continued, and what you see on (screen) is the work of someone who has no fear. And, like Daphne, Kate ventures into the unknown every day and her hair always looks good.
You have to remember that no matter what you do in animation, you have two-dimensional characters. In order to make them three-dimensional characters, we have to add to their beings, and a lot of that work has to come from the actors themselves in trying to inhabit them and trying to say, “What would that person be like if I met them on the street?” And then try to bring that to life. Katie has done that very, very successfully.
GARY MIEREANU: How close are Nick Palatas and Shaggy?
BRIAN LEVANT: Nick is not really Shaggy, but totally Shaggy. Nick is a very unique talent in that he’s a very, very smart young man, who’s playing a very spaced out, somewhat dimwitted person. That’s a rough job, and there is a lot of weight on Nick every day to be funny, to be endearing, to be charming, to be sweet, and not turn into a parody. I’m really proud of the way Nick progressed every day, every scene, every week. He grew to inhabit the role, and to say he has become Shaggy is a credit to the hard work he put into dumbing himself down and being open to the possibility of being a blank page every time he walks into a room.
GARY MIEREANU: Robbie Amell is the most experienced of the four main actors. How did that play into his filling the role of the leader of Mystery Inc.?
BRIAN LEVANT: Robbie Amell is obviously one of those guys who, in his high school class, was picked to be most likely to succeed. He’s obviously a good-looking kid. He’s a great athlete. He’s a really strong actor, and every day, once again, he’s improved – he’s worked on his energy, on his command of the lines. But what has never faltered is his natural leadership abilities. And it is not a great leap for him, the person, the guy who was the captain of the hockey team, to become captain of Mystery Inc.
GARY MIEREANU: What is it about these characters and this franchise that is so endearing and enduring?
BRIAN LEVANT: The reason that Scooby Doo is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year is due to its creators. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were the gentlest, kindest, sweetest men who ever lived, and they spent their long illustrious careers doing nothing more than trying to make people laugh. And they created very sweet characters. There is no evil in the world that they created.
It is a testimony to their generosity of spirit that their work survives for so long and so intact. We are doing a project that I think they really would have loved. I remember very fondly the first time I ever showed Hanna and Barbera a finished version of The Flintstones movie. When the lights came on, they stood up with tears in their eyes, and they both rushed over to me and threw their arms around me and swore that they couldn’t believe that they had lived to see something like that made of their work. And I think if they were still around today, they would feel the same way when they saw this film.
GARY MIEREANU: What is it about this story that makes it accessible to everyone?
BRIAN LEVANT: What makes Mystery Inc. unusual is that it really does gather people from the different sides of a high school. It’s the jock, the drama queen, the brain and however you want to describe Shaggy – a collection of individuals who would normally not have much to do with each other.
But they’re all thrown together and find that they have a lot in common, and that they can support and help each other solve a mystery and grow as people. We all went to school, I think we all associate with one of those four segments of the high school social scene, and so we can in some way relate to these kids and their adventures.
GARY MIEREANU: Did you direct this film with a target audience in mind?
BRIAN LEVANT: In my work, I aspire not to make a kiddie film, but to create a family film that can be enjoyed equally by all segments of the audience. With Scooby-Doo, we have an audience who grew up with the show on Saturday mornings and now have kids of their own, and they do want to share what they experienced and what they felt as kids with their kids. That works best when the project radiates their best hopes and ambitions for this series and this film. That’s what we’ve sought to accomplish.
GARY MIEREANU: As much as you want to present a modernized Scooby-Doo tale, how important was it to include the familiar, iconic symbols of Scooby-Doo?
BRIAN LEVANT: There are definitely elements of the program that you want to continue. These are what we call “runners” – things you’ve got to see the characters do. You want to see the Mystery Machine. You want to hear Velma say, “Jinkies.” You want to hear Shaggy go, “Zoinks!” You have to hear Scooby start every sentence with an “Arr.” (he laughs)
Things like that ground you and remind you of the foundation of the franchise. And we try and build on top of that with real characters, real relationships and hopefully some topnotch comedy effects, as well big blocked scenes to give you a much larger vista than just the touchstones that the franchise was built upon.
I think the future will still hold some surprises. In this initial outing, we did want to have the classic villain-unmasked-by-meddling-kids, but I think there’s many more areas of the supernatural, and many different kinds of mysteries that we can delve into in future films. The limits are only those of imagination here, and I think we’re just opening the door to something very new and exciting and very unsuspected for this franchise.
GARY MIEREANU: You’ve created some fairly elaborate twists on commonplace sets, and not gone with huge amounts of green screen or computer special effects. What was your mindset on that approach?
BRIAN LEVANT: We have really worked hard – and by “we” I’m saying people like our producer Brian Gilbert, production manager Chris Foss, art director Tyler Haron and storyboard artist Darryl Henley – in trying to create very different visuals for this film. Different than you’ve seen in the cartoons, different than you’ve seen in many comedies.
As an example, the underground school offered some tremendous visual possibilities that really intrigued us. We’ve also tried to take the everyday things that you see in life and imbue them with an air of mystery, with some suspense, so that the kids really don’t look at the world the same way at the end of this journey. I think that audiences are going to respond to it.
An all-new, live-action/CGI film, Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins premieres Sunday, September 13 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Cartoon Network, and will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray™ Hi-Def Combo Pack on September 22 from Warner Home Video.
A co-production of Warner Premiere and Cartoon Network, Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins uses adventurous storytelling and stylized visuals of both live-action and CGI technology to entertain fans of all ages. Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins follows the Mystery Inc. gang, a mismatched quartet of unlikely teenage pals, uniting for the first time to solve the haunting of their high school. Along the way, fans will discover the backstory of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo.
The Sept. 13 premiere coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Scooby-Doo franchise – Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! made its CBS debut on that date in 1969.
The live-action cast features Robbie Amell (Cheaper By The Dozen 2, True Jackson) as Fred along with Kate Melton as Daphne, Hayley Kiyoko as Velma and Nick Palatas as Shaggy. Frank Welker, a member of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! voice-cast, provides the voice of Scooby-Doo. The film is produced by Brian Gilbert (Skinwalkers).