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Soul of Detroit

"The film is so filled with fantasy," director Bob Shaye says, "that when I got all the actors together, the major note I offered them was that you have to totally believe what's going on, and you can't for a minute be coy or arch about the circumstances that you're experiencing. From time to time during a production, you give out T-shirts, and one I gave out said, 'RIG, You Dig?' RIG means 'Real is Good.'"

When Shaye talks about his long-gestating second feature, The Last Mimzy, his no-nonsense demeanor is mixed with a palpable sense of wonder. At 68, the founder of New Line Cinema still recalls the excitement he felt as a teenager in Detroit when he read the 1943 short story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore.

"The essence of the film was really this short story," he says, "about two kids who find this box of objects that they decide are toys, and because their brains had not become hard-wired yet, they're still open to all kinds of influences and experiences."

That story also stuck with Detroit-born Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, 64, who first encountered it in a television adaptation that seemed frustratingly incomplete.

"The original story ends obliquely," Rubin says, "with two kids who have found these toys that start to change their brains just disappearing, the implication being that they have gone into the future. Bob said, 'You bring me the ending.' It was a big leap of imagination to come up with something that would explain that. I struggled with it for a long time before it finally hit me."

"Tibetans, when they're identifying reincarnated lamas," says Rubin, a longtime adherent of meditation, "take the toys of the previous child's life, and put them in a room with other toys. If a child goes and picks out their own previous toys, that's a sign that they're a reincarnate. I found that really fascinating, and I said, 'These toys know where they're going. There are kids waiting for these toys'."

The Last Mimzy would take 14 years to get made, but Shaye — who began developing the film three years after his 1990 feature debut, Book of Love — doesn't regret the wait. It meant that the studio chief would return to the director's chair with a fresh perspective after surviving a rare and deadly form of pneumonia in 2005, resulting in a two-month hospital stay and an arduous recuperation.

"If we succeeded in making this 10 years ago," he says, "it wouldn't have worked. It's more resonant now because of what's happened culturally in the last decade."

The Last Mimzy follows 10-year-old Noah and 5-year-old Emma, who unplug from their wired lives in Seattle and discover a magnificent box on rustic Whidbey Island during Easter vacation. Slowly, their exotic toys make them acutely aware of the natural world, and lead them to helping future generations adversely affected by pollution and mind-numbing technology.

Shaye quickly points out that he "didn't want this to be a message movie, I wanted it to be an idea movie." The $35 million, PG-rated family film is chock-full of heady topics, from DNA manipulation to string theory to the evolution of the brain.

The key, Rubin says, is "not underestimating the intelligence of your audience on every level; these ideas are very human ideas."

Those ideas found an enthusiastic audience at a sold-out show at the Detroit Institute of Arts last Saturday. Instead of a typical press tour, Shaye and Rubin ended up spending a whirlwind weekend in their hometown, culminating in the pair being honored for their contributions to the arts by the mayor's office and City Council.

But these two Mumford High School alumni actually never met until they were both in New York City beginning their filmmaking careers. Rubin was curator of film at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Shaye had formed New Line Cinema in 1967 to distribute niche films. They bonded over their love of movies and shared experiences growing up on Detroit's northwest side.

Shaye, whose father ran a wholesale grocery business with his brothers and later owned a chain of supermarkets, lived near Livernois and Seven Mile. Rubin grew up near Schaefer and Outer Drive, his father a building contractor. In solidly middle-class households, both had moms who exposed them to the arts at a young age. Shaye got a business administration degree from the University of Michigan before attending Columbia University Law School, and Rubin was at Wayne State University before attending film school at New York University.

Their friendship continued after both moved to Los Angeles: Rubin (Jacob's Ladder, My Life) won a screenwriting Academy Award for Ghost (1990), and Shaye built New Line Cinema into a powerhouse with a series of successful franchises, from Nightmare on Elm Street to Austin Powers to the magisterial Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rubin sees their shared outlook strongly reflected in their first collaboration, The Last Mimzy.

"If you have a life that is as charmed as mine was as a kid," Rubin says, "you look at life from a very loving, almost innocent perspective. The world was quite open to us. There was no fear. I used to go downtown on the bus with my brother. We'd walk around, go to Hudson's, go to Sanders and get sundaes and tuna fish sandwiches. That was a Saturday, and there was no talk of anything happening or dangerous. It was a joyous life. We had kids on the block that played all the time. You're formed by that, and it's part of the soul you bring to your creative life. It's your expectation from life.

"Mimzy has a double dose of that," he says, "because Bob and I both are from the same environment, and when you look at it, you really get this sense that there's some heart on the screen. And that heart is the heart and, if you will, the soul of Detroit."

 

The Last Minzy opens this weekend. A full review by Corey Hall will appear in next week's Metro Times.

Serena Donadoni is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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