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A young director takes on a king-sized task

Interview / Andy Tennant

Director Andy Tennant called "Action!" and it was quickly relayed through 10 assistant directors in five languages to the crew assembled from 20 countries. It was the ceremonial cortege sequence in the new Victorian epic, "Anna and the King," filmed entirely in Malaysia and based on the real-life story of Anna Leonowens, a teacher who taught the 58 children of the King of Siam in the 19th century.

Recalling that huge procession that involved a couple of thousand extras, children, horses, and elephants, Tennant says, "You can direct actors, even a two-time Oscar-winner like Jodie Foster [as Anna], herself a film director, or Chow Yun-Fat [as King Mongkut of Siam], who speaks Chinese but had to master English and Thai..., but you can never control a bull elephant. Add to that, it was 120 degrees ... with bugs the size of Miami."

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Tennant is a young director, with "Anna and the King" only his fourth film. His show-business career began as a dancer with John Travolta in the movie "Grease," followed by a move to Los Angeles where he perfected his craft at the University of Southern California.

"I began directing TV sitcoms [with 'The Wonder Years' in 1988], until I did my first movie. Four years ago I was the Olsen Twins guy. I directed them in [the movie] 'It Takes Two.' Then I did 'Fools Rush In' with Matthew Perry, and then 'Ever After' with Drew Barrymore."

Tennant was in London scoring "Ever After" when he received a call from Bill Mechanic, chairman of 20th Century-Fox Studio, who offered to send the "Anna" script.

"I couldn't believe my ears," Tennant admits. "I ... realized each page of 'Anna' was bigger than the entire movie I had just made ... I've devoted one year and nine months of my life to this movie," he says. "One of the big hurdles was casting the starring role of Anna...."

Foster had been to Thailand the year before and fallen in love with it. She and Tennant were both excited by the idea of following the true story of Leonowens and King Mongkut.

Since the previous two movies - "The King and I" starring Yul Brynner and "Anna and the King of Siam" with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison - had been filmed on a sound stage, they were enthusiastic about filming in Thailand.

But Tennant's silver lining began to tarnish. After months of conferences between the studio and the Thai government, officials refused to give their consent. They were still infuriated at the way their king had been presented in "The King and I."

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"Suddenly we had to scout for a new location, and actually build the Royal Palace and surrounding area. We discovered Malaysia had everything...," Tennant says. "I felt a tremendous responsibility not only to all the earlier versions, but to Jodie, Chow, the studio, and to the country of Thailand that had been so offended by 'The King and I.' "

An army of 1,300 construction workers built the palace. "It wasn't completed until the last week of filming," he says, "so we had to shoot in the areas that were finished."

The famous dance sequence took nine days to film. Movie audiences say it's a romantic scene even though the stars never kiss. "It is the first time they touch. My favorite scene is at the end of the film where they again dance...."

What is Tennant's next goal? "My dad always said the key to life is how well you deal with 'Plan B.' If my 'Plan A' was to be the next Gene Kelly, I guess my 'Plan B' is hopefully to be a small, humble version of a David Lean-type director."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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