Feb. 4 2009 12:00 AM

MSU alum helps put edge on kids story Coraline


Bill Mechanic rubbed shoulders with Hollywood’s biggest names, from Kate and Leo to pre-Angelina Brad and pre- “Passion” Mel, during his tenure as chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment. At a special preview of his latest production, “Coraline,” though, Mechanic looked quite happy to rub shoulders with friends old and new.

“Coraline,” the first stop-motion film to be shot in 3-D, opens in 3-D IMAX and regular theaters Friday. The preview event last Sunday was a joint venture of MSU Athletics and the MSU College of Arts and Letters, and was hosted by Celebration Cinema. Despite being wedged between the MSU Men’s Basketball game and the Super Bowl, the movie played to a capacity, invitation-only crowd of MSU alumni, supporters and their families.

Mechanic grew up in the Detroit area and graduated from Southfield High School. He graduated from MSU with a degree in English literature in 1973. He also met his wife, Carol, while at MSU. Legend had it they met in a class, but Mechanic put that rumor to rest during the post-movie reception. “We actually met at a Who concert!” he laughed.

Mechanic went on to University of Southern California Film School, where he continues to sit on the board of counselors. After stints with Disney and Fox, he formed his own studio, Pandemonium Films, in 2000.The studio began work on “Coraline” in 2002.

The movie is based on a book by acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman, the man responsible for DC Comic’s hugely successful “Sandman” series and last year’s blockbuster “Beowulf.” Director Henry Selick directed the classic “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” The voice talent includes Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Brit comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Ian McShane, known best for his work on HBO’s “Deadwood.”

This is a story for all ages, although children will doubtlessly titter at a scene where aging burlesque queens Miss Spink and Miss Forcible perform a number in their old costumes. The film is rated PG, for “thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor.”

For his part, Mechanic is proud to bring a little edge back to the genre. “Stories for kids used to be scarier, and they’ve all been sanitized,” he said. “We kind of de-sanitized the process.”

There are moments of real tension, harkening back to the early days of animation, when even Disney movies retained some of the terror of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

It’s not only the story that creates tension. The technique of the film contributes greatly to the atmosphere, creating a look that evokes wonder and fear. “Coraline” is a true stop-motion film. With the exception of a few computer-generated backgrounds, everything on the screen is real. The characters are 10-inch tall puppets wearing fabricated costumes, interacting with real props and scenery., which gives the film more gravity than CGI-style animation. But it was one of those real costumes that weighed on producer Mechanic during the preproduction phase of filmmaking.

Mechanic was signing off on the costumes for the characters, when he discovered one unacceptable choice. “The father’s costume had U of M on it. I said, ‘I’m not producing a film that has U of M in it,’” Mechanic explained to the rapt crowd. “They said, ‘It’s $10,000 to knit that little sweater.’” I said, “‘The movie costs a lot more than that. You’re stopping until you get it in there.’”

The “it” is the green MSU sweater worn by Coraline’s father, a detail not missed by the audience during the screening.

Mechanic’s love for MSU does have its limits, however. He had a special fee arranged specifically for his appearance at the event and at basketball game. “The guarantee was that they would win today, so I want my money back,” Mechanic joked.

Coach Tom Izzo, who scrambled from the game to the screening, was more generous with Mechanic’s work. “It was unique and different. I thought it was cool,” he glowed, his post-game voice gone, but his winning smile intact.