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WHEN ROBERT MET JANE (and ate all the bread)
Australian director Robert Luketic was apprehensive and nervous about meeting one of his favourite actresses, Jane Fonda, when his dream for working with her - on Monster In Law - was about to be realised, so he ate all the bread, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

While waiting at a West Hollywood restaurant to meet Jane Fonda for the first time, a nervous Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) ate three baskets of bread. This was one of his ‘fan moments’, when he was faced with the reality of meeting an icon he had admired since he was a kid. At film school in Melbourne, after a screening of Klute, he was so impressed with Fonda he boasted rashly that one day he would work with her. 

Now, finally, that day seemed tantalizingly close. He had already had one rebuff five years ago, when he sent out an invitation to Jane Fonda via layers of intermediaries that he would like to cast her in Legally Blonde. “At that time, she wasn’t looking to work in films, so I made note to myself to keep tracking and if she ever changed her mind, I wanted to be there.”

Some weeks prior to the lunch meeting, while still editing his film, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton, his agent called on the mobile. “What? I said testily, I’m busy.” “Well, it’s happened,” said the agent. “Jane Fonda has a screenplay she’s interested in doing…” “I’m coming over,” said Luketic and dashed across to his agent’s office.

“When I heard that it was Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, I was already hooked. It hardly mattered about the script… with Fonda, I could make a movie about green bags,” he laughs as he stares out across Sydney Harbour towards the Opera House from the Park Hyatt Hotel room where we meet for our interview.

"otherwise I’d have chewed my fingers"

His first meeting for the film was with Lopez, at her Mulholland home. “She was nothing like the image that is bandied about … I could tell she would work hard and we agreed it had to be fun.” The next meeting was with Jane Fonda, which is where the bread comes in … or rather goes out. “I kept eating the bread, otherwise I’d have chewed my fingers,” says Luketic.

He looks up and the maitre d’ is pointing in his direction. A tall, slender woman dressed all in black, wearing dark sunglasses, approaches him, lowers the sunnies and smiles: “My, you’re just a child!” Luketic has no snappy reply, but when she sits down and says, “You could be my son,” he manages a nervous shrug; “Yeah, well this is how they make ‘em these days.” As the two cob salads arrived, Fonda leant forward: “I LOVED Legally Blonde ONE…” Luketic grinned when he heard the exaggerated emphasis on ONE. “I knew then that we’d get along just fine.”

Fonda and Lopez: two iconic figures from different generations, and very different acting styles. “Jane Fonda is like method acting … she goes into a corner and does this stuff. Jennifer Lopez is quite the opposite. But it worked - and they were both great to work with.”

It was Fonda who helped refine aspects of her character so that her initial antipathy towards her son’s girlfriend had some basis. Lopez plays Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Honeywell, a would-be designer filling in as a dog walker and office temp who has a hard time finding any good men to date. Her dreams seem to come true, however, when she meets Kevin (Michael Vartan), a young doctor and the perfect guy... until she meets his highly groomed, TV presenter legend of a mother Viola (Jane Fonda), who thinks no girl is good enough for Kevin, and especially not a temp! With her mother-in-law trying to sabotage the relationship by driving Charlie crazy, her dream of a perfect wedding and marriage seems doomed.

The other major change to the script (by Anya Kochoff) was the character of Wanda, who plays Viola’s housekeeper, an acerbic observer. In the movie, she’s played by comedienne Wanda Sykes, in a role that perhaps represents the audience, with her sharp and fearless tongue often making points about her self centred boss that no-one else could get away with. “Originally,” says Luketic, “she was written as a sort of middle aged, overweight Jewish woman, but when I saw Wanda’s tape, I immediately ordered a re-write of the character.”

On the set, Luketic tries to exude calm and confidence. “I get a hundred questions before my first coffee, and you have to know your material. You have to be sure and you have to stay calm.” He burns candles on the set around him and has an internet connected laptop nearby (with an www.urbancinefile.com bookmark) so he can browse between takes. And he never lets any Hollywood bulldust onto the set.

" I make them for audiences"

Reactions to Monster In Law have been largely positive, and when Luketic is asked to respond to a couple of critics who dislike the early scene where Viola has a nervous breakdown on camera (on her final day as a high profile tv presenter) he just smiles. “Look, I wanted this scene of her having a nervous breakdown on camera, and when we screened it for 5,000 people in Los Angeles, it was like a rock concert … everybody went ballistic. Critics challenge me to find better material but I don’t make films for the critics. I make them for audiences.”

Aware that Legally Blonde, Monster In Law (and to a lesser extent Win A Date with Tad Hamilton) might imply a fixation on comedies about women triumphant over obstacles, Luketic has told his business team that he wants to diversify. Already in the works is a major and dramatic movie version of the TV series, Dallas, plus “a fascinating and moving” screenplay, One Of Us, which explores what would happen when an ordinary person is confronted by intelligent life from another planet and offered happy immortality on another planet … would you go?”

But Luketic is also hoping to make an Australian film (he hasn’t made one here since his first short, Titsiana Booberini in 1997, which opened the Hollywood doors for him); all he will say is that “it’s about a truly enormous crime that was committed on this continent …” He is excited by the prospect of working here and says – with a sincerity hard to fault – “I think we’re on the precipice of a new renaissance here…”

Published July 21, 2005

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Robert Luketic


Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez

(October 11, 2001)

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