Dennie Gordon DRA ’77 emerged from the Yale School of Drama with a passion for heavy German plays and cut her directorial teeth on off-Broadway Bertolt Brecht productions.
Her feature film debut, by contrast, involves a dog with a prosthetic scrotum.
The funniest sequence in “The Adventures of Joe Dirt,” which opens this week, “is one in which a dog is licking its balls and they get frozen to this aluminum porch,” she told the Yale Daily News.
The fact that Adam Sandler served as executive producer will come as a shock to few viewers.
“They put this prosthetic thing on this poor dog and then had the dog jump forward and get sprung back.
“My camera guys could hardly keep the cameras from shaking,” she said.
Gordon’s professors at the School of Drama included noted film critic Stanley Kauffman.
“I’m sure all my professors are spinning like rotisserie chickens saying ‘What have we done to deserve this?'” Gordon said.
David Spade plays the title character, a good-natured yokel who maintains his optimism during a decades-long search for the parents who abandoned him as a child
“It’s really rich stuff,” Gordon said. “I’d be surprised if people in the audience don’t have tears in their eyes at certain moments.”
The film, which Spade co-wrote, draws on Spade’s own experience of being abandoned by his father as a child, Gordon said.
Gordon fell back on her training while preparing Spade for the climactic scene in which Dirt confronts his parents.
“We were tight on time and I just pulled him aside and said: ‘I want you to remember what it was like when you were that little boy and you realized daddy wasn’t coming back. You absolutely have to go there for me.'”
“There wasn’t a dry eye on the set when he played that scene,” she said.
The film tested “off the Richter scale with young male audiences,” at preview screenings, she said.
“This is a movie my 12-year-old son is really going to enjoy,” she said.
Critics have been less than kind to “Joe Dirt,” with many initial reviews slamming the film for both its sophomoric humor and its sentimentality.
Gordon’s transition from the theater of Brecht to the cinema of barf has been far from abrupt.
While at the School of Drama, Gordon performed sketch comedy at the Yale Cabaret. Even in her self-described “dark German period” following graduation, she worked on a series of sketches called the “Late, Late ’70s Revue” at the American Place Theater.
Gordon began directing for television in the early 1990s, most notably with writer-producer David E. Kelley, for whom she directed episodes of “Picket Fences,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice.”
David Kelley’s work “just speaks to me on a really profound level,” Gordon said.
“I love the juxtaposition when something turns on a dime between comedy and drama,” she said. “It’s all so much like life.”
Gordon says that she has a reputation as an actor’s director.
“This is my Yale Drama School training,” Gordon said. “I will always try and dig out the richest, deepest performance with as many colors as I can find; I will really get in and work with the actors on that journey.”
Gordon’s emphasis on building a rapport with her actors, she said, makes them increasingly willing to take risks for her.
In an episode of “The Practice,” veteran actor James Whitmore played an aging lawyer whose mental health is in decline. “Whitmore had to get naked for me and huddle and curl around a toilet bowl in the bathroom and huddle there on the cold tiles for take after take,” recalled Gordon. “He was an extraordinary sport.”
Whitmore came away from the episode with an Emmy, one of the many actors, including Ray Walston and Calista Flockhart, to be so honored for their work under Gordon’s direction.
“I secretly share in their glory,” Gordon said.
Gordon herself won a Director’s Guild of America award for her work on an episode of “Tracey Takes On.”
Unprepared for the honor, she earned notoriety for her off-the-cuff remarks at the awards show. Wearing a low cut dress, she announced, “This is for all those producers who called me in for meetings thinking Dennie was a guy — hah!” and grabbed her breasts.
Following the completion of “Joe Dirt,” Gordon declined multiple offers to direct similar projects, fearing typecasting as a director of slapstick comedies.
“If you make two films in the same genre, that’s really it,” she said. “Ever getting to have a shot at ‘American Beauty’ or something you aspire to in another genre is very, very difficult.”
Gordon’s future projects include a pilot for a new television series created by Kevin Williamson, the writer of “Dawson’s Creek” and the Scream series. She also hopes to make a film showcasing Martin Lawrence’s abilities as a serious actor.
“You never know where your work is going to take you,” she said.