No 'Holes' in UI alum's film based on hit kids' novel

No 'Holes' in UI alum's film based on hit kids' novel

CHAMPAIGN – University of Illinois alumnus Andrew Davis was not the only filmmaker wanting to make a film adaptation of Louis Sachar's award-winning young adult's novel, "Holes."

The powerful Hollywood directors Rob Reiner and the Coen brothers were pursuing the project at the same time. But Sachar settled on Davis, then mainly known as an intelligent director of action films, including "The Fugitive" starring Harrison Ford. Sachar eventually settled on Davis, and the novelist wrote the screenplay.

"I think Louis thought I would keep it real, based on my work," Davis said Saturday at the Virginia Theatre, after "Holes" was shown as the free family film at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival.

Davis did keep it real. The movie tells the picaresque story of juvenile delinquents, chief among them the wrongly accused Stanley Yelnats, played by Shia LeBeouf, at Green Lake Camp in the Texas desert. They are forced to dig holes all day long by the warden, played by Sigourney Weaver, and a supervisor who demands to be called "Mr. Sir," played by Jon Voight in a hilarious onscreen turn. The boys are unwittingly digging for buried treasure, left there a couple of generations earlier by Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette).

The novel "Holes" was a Newbery Medal winner and a major hit among young readers, teachers and librarians. Realizing that, Davis kept true to the book, making only one digression – having his father, Nate Davis, who turns 90 in May, play Stanley's grandfather.

Nate Davis, who lives in Chicago, is a stage and screen actor who appeared in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Tony Award-winning production of "Grapes of Wrath," his son said. The director gave his son a bit role in the film, too; he played a jail inmate in the scene in which Kissin' Kate comes into the jail to shoot the sheriff.

"Holes" was shot in the California desert, with temperatures at times reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The windstorms were real, but the crew dug only 500 holes, not the thousands created for the film via special effects, Davis said.

About half of the boys in the cast had limited experience onstage in high school productions. Davis found them by visiting school drama departments and through open casting calls. He noted that LeBeouf, who plays the protagonist, has gone on to major success and predicted he will be the next Tom Hanks.

"They became a real ensemble," Davis said of the young actors. "They were characters. There was a lot improvisation going on. The rap song at the end – they wrote that and performed it themselves. Some of their lives have gone in different directions since then. Some have been successes, and some have struggled."

He said Voight mentored the boys, but by remaining in character as Mr. Sir when he first met them, he also terrified them.

Davis said Voight designed his own hairdo for the movie. "I kept looking at the guy and finally said, 'It's Ronald Reagan's old hairdo,'" Davis said. As Mr. Sir, Voight also sported long, skinny sideburns.

"Tim Blake Nelson and Sigourney Weaver were real pros," and we were blessed to do a movie with Eartha Kitt," Davis said. Kitt played a fortune teller in scenes that flashback to Stanley's great-grandfather's life in Europe.

Davis said making "Holes" was like making three movies in one. The three stories: the contemporary one about the boys at Camp Green Lake, another about the warden's ancestors and Kissin' Kate in the Wild West, and the third being the flashbacks to Stanley's ancestors in the old country.

Chaz Ebert said that after "Holes" was released in 2003, many adults would stop her husband to ask about it. She said she had thought it was a children's movie, but that Roger had told her the best children's or family movies are smart ones, and that "Holes" was more of a parable or allegory.

Taking part in the onstage discussion after "Holes" were the Eberts' granddaughter, Raven Evans, 16, of Naperville; Jessica Elliott, 12, of Urbana; and Sophie Kohn, 17, of Athens, Ga. She is the daughter of festival director Nate Kohn and his wife, Pam; Sophie had a small role in "Somebodies," shown at last year's Ebertfest.

The three girls said they had each seen "Holes" three or four times, including on the Disney Channel. Walt Disney Pictures released the movie.

Sophie Kohn said that each time she sees "Holes", she notices more humor. Evans said when she saw it again Saturday, she appreciated the character of Stanley's mother. Elliott gave an analysis, saying she found the title "Holes" interesting.

"It could kind of refer to kids in trouble – digging a hole for yourself," the 12-year-old said. "At the end, you have to fill in the rest of the holes by doing good things and right things. No one else can fix your troubles."

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