Here he is

Michael Patrick Jann's beauty-pageant sendup "Drop Dead Gorgeous" lands the crown.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lanky, bearded Michael Patrick Jann is known to MTV watchers as part of the satiric ensemble "The State." But to the art-house crowds who packed the San Francisco Film Festival in late April, he was just another fledgling auteur in a black leather jacket -- that is, until he opened his mouth to introduce his debut feature, the hilarious beauty-pageant sendup "Drop Dead Gorgeous." Striding to the front of a packed theater and pulling himself to his full height, the 28-year-old director warned an audience used to seeing "visionary international cinema" that he was about to present "a big fat American comedy." The line got tumultuous applause -- and so did the movie.

Advance reviews have treated this gleeful burlesque as a hybrid of two Michael Ritchie films, the sublime "Smile" and the rambunctious "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom." But Jann told me in an interview the day after his smash success in San Francisco that Ritchie's films had nothing to do with the genesis of his picture. After all, he points out, "Michael Ritchie has done some cool movies, but they're not what you refer to when you talk to Hollywood executives." (The Texas cheerleader film was made for HBO; "Smile" was both a box-office failure and a disappointment to out-of-it critics, who dubbed it snide and artificial when it opened in 1975.)

"Drop Dead Gorgeous," set in the made-up hamlet of Mount Rose, Minn., is actually based on screenwriter Lona Williams' experiences as a competitor in the Junior Miss pageant in her hometown of Rosemount, Minn. (She went all the way to the nationals in Mobile, Ala., where she was first runner-up.) Although "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is broader than "Smile," Jann and Williams (who also executive-produced) arrive at their own authentic mix of crassness and ebullience. They tap into the primal ruthlessness and hysteria of grass-roots American competition while chronicling the travails of a good-hearted heroine: a pristine blond named Amber (Kirsten Dunst).

Sixteen years ago, at a beauty pageant for the deaf in Northridge, Calif., I watched a contestant do an ice-skating routine without ice while one helpmate signed the words to the accompanying song and another waved his arms like a human metronome. So it didn't strike me as outlandish for a girl in "Drop Dead Gorgeous" to translate Melissa Manchester's hit "Through the Eyes of Love" (the theme from "Ice Castles") into a pidgin version of American Sign Language.

The filmmakers' golden girl, Amber, worships Diane Sawyer and practices her talent -- tap dancing -- while working part time as a makeup artist at a funeral parlor. Nothing about this is far-fetched. "Becoming a Beauty Queen: the Complete Guide," written by two Minnesota sisters (Barbara Peterson Burwell, Miss USA 1976, and Polly Peterson Bowles, Miss Minnesota-USA 1981), advises contestants to "sneak in extra minutes of talent rehearsal every day." The book's photos include a full-page picture of Diane Sawyer, America's 1963 Junior Miss -- as well as a portrait of the 1985 Junior Miss, a fetching Minnesota lass named, yes, Amber.

In the course of Mount Rose's teen princess pageant, one participant after another (and at least one innocent bystander) gets knocked down, blown up or shot. There's nothing delicate about this movie. But Jann doesn't merely set a raucous tone. He gets his actors to behave consistently (and thus believably) within it, so that you root for Amber to win the contest and attain her dream of becoming the next Diane Sawyer.

The film has a real, if wayward, conviction. As Jann explained, that's partly because he identified with Amber as an American success story: He sees himself as a small-town boy who made good. He says he thought Hollywood had already given audiences enough stories about homicide invading the heartland. So he wanted to throw part of the emphasis on "good things happening to good people."

He grew up in tiny Colonie, in upstate New York, and had what he calls "a great childhood." Unlike many a budding satirist, he never felt violently alienated from the blandness of American suburbia: "What I got was a sense of the absurd. I think there's a crux point in high school where you either get pissed off at your circumstances or you just say to yourself, 'This is ridiculous.' I always knew I would move to New York City as soon as I got the chance -- that when I was 18 I'd go to college there."

He went to Catholic school for eight years and a military academy after that (on scholarship), never dreaming he'd end up as an undergrad at NYU film school. But he always did like movies. His mother was a movie fan "by default" -- there wasn't much else to do in Colonie. Jann has a vivid memory of her taking him to see "What's Up, Doc?" at age 3: "I remember sitting in the backseat of the car and being so short I couldn't look out the window, and seeing the marquee, and thinking it was a Bugs Bunny movie. I mean, I was 3 -- I didn't get the Howard Hawks references. But I remember liking the car chase and the character of Hugh, the obscenely European music specialist."

Jann remained a "random movie watcher; basically I liked everything," he says, until he saw "The Last Starfighter" at age 14: "That was the last movie I liked even though I thought it was too much like things I'd seen already. I remember thinking that it was real neat that they made the spaceships out of computers but that it wasn't that interesting." So he started to "do research" -- read movie books. And he "accidentally" saw "Taxi Driver": "There were still mom-and-pop video stores you could browse through, and me and my friends rented it because there were guns and blood on the cover. We took it to my room, where we had put the family VCR -- six of us crammed into a room the size of a restaurant booth -- and we were totally mesmerized. This was something totally different, totally cool."

Jann was at a rich high school buddy's house when he first thought of trying to make films: "It was a wealthy family, and they heard me talk about movies, and they told me I should go into movies. That's the benefit of hanging out with rich people; they have no sense of what is or isn't possible. Knowing what I do now, I don't know if I'd ever have the balls to go to film school, with no connections and no knowledge of the business side at all. Basically, when I look at my life, I think I'm lucky to be given the opportunities I've had. And that's what I liked about 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' -- that's the story line I picked to peg the movie on. If you blithely do what you do and you're good at what you do, and try to be a decent person, you can succeed."

Even before Jann went to college, he started shooting skits on video with a bunch of high school pals. Reading a history of "Saturday Night Live" had inspired him, but the results were more like summer stock. "A lot of it depended on whatever props or costumes we had available. We would do a lacrosse player sent back in time, simply because we had a lacrosse uniform and a pelt. I come from a background of hanging out with friends and shooting videos with them, with funny stuff coming out of the group. I guess we got the same charge jocks get out of sports."

Jann continued to get that charge at NYU, where he helped found a comedy group (centered in the School of the Arts) whose performances turned into multimedia shows. Monty Python was a major influence. And as Jann became more ambitious as a filmmaker, Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" loomed large: "That was the first thing I saw at NYU, and it was already one of my favorite films. Usually you talk about directors in terms of the way they choose camera lenses or a kind of light to create a certain effect. But to me the most valuable commodity for a movie to create is a feeling of life, and that's what 'A Hard Day's Night' has in spades. It doesn't matter that it's not really about anything: It makes you feel good about being alive. And that can be translated even into a film like 'Trainspotting,' which views everything that's terrible about life but is still a joyous kind of movie -- and not in a spoonful-of-sugar sort of way."

Looking at films analytically, in context, gave Jann the confidence that he could master the craft of filmmaking. Seeing "Rear Window" with his mom during its 1983-84 re-release, he had "just about jumped out of my seat" in the turn-around moment when the murderer (Raymond Burr) stares right back at Hitchcock's snoop voyeur (Jimmy Stewart). Watching it at NYU, he could see how Hitchcock set that moment up -- and realized, "Duh, that's brilliant."

Jann almost immediately began working on techniques that he could call his own. His relationship with MTV started during his years at NYU, when he did part-time work for the head of the network's news and specials. "He'd ask me to figure out how to fit every cover of 'Rolling Stone' into two minutes, or tell me to supply a B roll on hookers for a special on AIDS, or go to Nebraska to interview Cliff of Cliff's Notes." Later, he and a friend proposed spicing up an awkward MTV show called "You Wrote It, You Watch It" -- based on letters sent in by viewers, which served as sketch material -- by doing man-in-the-street interviews and spinning jokes off of them. "It was a lot less stagy and a lot easier to fake," confesses Jann, who sharpened that documentary edge through much of the '90s as segment producer on "The State."

Without making outrageous claims, Jann says, "I think we did invent our own raw TV comedy style, one that was editing-driven and music-driven -- it seemed like a waste not to use all that music that on MTV we had access to for free. And shooting things in a documentary style was a good way to create tension and energy without money."

That experience pays off in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," which plays snappier games with the audience than the much-lauded "The Blair Witch Project." This is the rare "mockumentary" in which the director intimately orchestrates rough-and-tumble camerawork with the often-improvised movements of the actors.

Jann's goal was for the cast "to be as sincere as possible and to resist passing judgment on the characters, no matter how off-putting they may be. The actors knew from the script how far they'd go with their behavior; the deal was to go there and still be a person, not a ham. My message was 'Don't try to talk with your ass cheeks -- that's a very special skill, and I'm not casting for that skill.'"

For Denise Richards, who plays the daughter of the pageant honcho (Kirstie Alley) and the runaway favorite for the tiara, Jann says the challenge was "to be sincerely insincere, but not empty and not campy." Vice-president of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club, Richards' character, Becky Leeman, tells the judges, "My mother is my hero, 'cause she would solve world hunger with one of her blue-ribbon rhubarb pies, create world peace with one of her prayers, and still find time to look beautiful for my dad."

At one point Becky balances a sculpture of Mount Rushmore on her head. In the talent spot she warbles a love song to her own special guy: Jesus. To pull it all off Richards had to throw herself into the role. "She showed up early, to rehearse with the people we cast locally. They'd be introducing themselves and saying, 'I did some dinner theater' or 'I did some things in school,' and Denise would say, 'I've done "Starship Troopers" and "Wild Things."'"

Perhaps Jann's most instinctive collaboration came with New York stage actress Allison Janney, who plays Amber's biggest booster, a hearty, affable gal who's also the best friend of Amber's adoring, beer-guzzling mom (Ellen Barkin). Jann's skill as a director shows in the way he and Janney keep building bigger laughs with ad-libbed lines about her character's horniness, until the plain declaration "I got some" incinerates the house.

Jann is self-critical enough to see the structural flaws in his film and savvy enough to cover for them. He understands that close viewers will note that Dunst doesn't do all of Amber's tap dancing. But he feels that's not much to give up for Dunst's perfect innocence in the rest of the part. He recognizes that the film peaks at the local pageant's parade. He banks (correctly) on the idea that Dunst's charm will keep us rooting to the end.

Thanks to a sniper incident in Mount Rose, Amber does get the chance to be Diane Sawyer. The moment that happens is the kind of coup de cinema that Jann says he always wanted to have at the center of his movies. Like Raymond Burr looking directly at Stewart and at the audience in "Rear Window," it makes you sit up and say to yourself, "Oh, yeah!"

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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