Fred Savage is over thirty years old now, but he still has a special affinity for working with child actors. After all, he was one himself—the star of the long-running ABC series “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993) and star of features like “The Princess Bride” (1987) and “Vice Versa” (1988).
But while making his TV show he got interested in directing, and has largely abandoned acting for it, first in television shows aimed at young viewers (like the Disney Channel’s “Even Steven”) and now with his first feature “Daddy Day Camp,” in which Cuba Gooding, Jr. takes over the role of Charlie Hinton, the jobless guy played by Eddie Murphy in “Daddy Day Care,” who started a child-care business. This time around, Hinton takes on the challenge of reviving a run-down summer camp, surrounded by obstreperous kids and confronted with a childhood rival who runs another camp down the road.
In a recent Dallas interview, Savage talked about the shift in his career and the way his stint as a child actor still resonates with him. “I just find directing much more stimulating and energizing [than acting],” he said. “Acting to a large extent is really kind of a solitary pursuit—you go home and learn your lines, and then you go to work and sit in your dressing room until they call you to shoot, and you go shoot, and then you go back to your dressing room. There’s a lot of down time. As a director, you’re just constantly engaged, you’re always sharing ideas with incredibly talented people. It’s a real collaborative effort. You’re always in this exchange of creative ideas, and I love how all-consuming it is. It encompasses everything, and you’re always thinking and always working—always on the go. That just really energizes me.”
But Savage’s own experience led him almost naturally to working in family entertainment featuring younger actors. “It seems to be a logical extension—it has worked out that way,” he said. “And I think it was because my first [directing] break…was at the Disney Channel. I think that they figured, given my background, that I would have a knack working with young actors.
“I really love working with them, and I feel from my perspective there’s just nothing more gratifying than working with young actors. I don’t think any kind of actor brings a freshness or enthusiasm or spontaneity to their work like young actors, and there’s nothing more gratifying for me than helping a young actor discover the talents that they have inside. And I think it’s no accident that I ended up there. It was a very natural transition for me to go into a more family-oriented movie for my first feature. And I definitely draw on my experiences as a kid—both the good and the bad. You find things that you really liked about how directors worked, or things they did that you appreciated, and you incorporate as much of that as possible—at the same time realizing the approaches that might not have worked. And I try to keep them off the set.
“It’s important to have as positive an atmosphere on the set as possible,” Savage explained. “That it’s a light and fun place that the kids—and all the actors—want to go to at the beginning of the day and hate to leave at the end. There were kids that, when we wrapped, they were crying because they didn’t want to go home. And as much as it broke my heart—I hated to see that—in the back of my head I was like, ‘Good, that’s what we’re going for.’ As a kid, looking back on my most positive experiences, I was the same way.”
Having Cuba Gooding on the set, Savage added, made the job easier. “He’s incredibly energetic,” he said, “and just game for everything, and just throws himself head-first into whatever it is. And he was great with the kids. All he wanted was for them to do their best, and he was so supportive of them and patient with them. He was just terrific.”
The weather, on the other hand, wasn’t. The movie is about a summer camp, but the locale hardly matched the season. “We shot this in the mountains around Park City, Utah, from late August to late September, kind of the tail end of their summer,” Savage recalled. “It was supposed to be nice enough. Of course, it was the worst weather in forty years. On the news they have graphics of what’s going on, and it was ‘September Surprise.’
“We had everything—we had sleet and a lot of rain, and that whole final Olympiad [scene] was all rain. [The crew] did an amazing job…we had to digitally remove some breath, because it was freezing. There are photos that are so cruel of me in full parka gear—gloves, hat—talking to kids who are in shorts and T-shirts. They were real troopers.
“The worst is,” he recalled, “I woke up one morning and looked out the window, and it’s a white Christmas out there! We had three inches of snow. And that was the day we shot the opening of the movie, where the kids are running around and Cuba and Paul [Rae] are at the barbecue. If the cameras didn’t hit their marks perfectly and panned a little to the left or right, you’d see three inches of snow. We literally had the art department with blow dryers on the leaves, getting the ice off. But they pulled it off.”
But while calling the shoot, with its small army of young actors and weather-related problems “controlled chaos,” Savage remembered it with great affection because the movie’s theme so perfectly dovetailed with his personal life—he’d just become a dad for the first time, and his wife and new son Oliver joined him in Utah for the second half of the filming. “It was great making a movie that to me, at the core, is about fathers and sons, and what a dad will do to forge a better relationship with his son,” he said. “And thematically, to be making that movie as I was forging my relationship with my son—it was a great parallel.”