The adventures of fun-loving, fast-driving cousins Bo and Luke Duke -- not to forget their sexy but tough cousin Daisy Duke -- were a big part of American entertainment over two decades ago, thanks to the television series The Dukes Of Hazzard.
Now, in the big screen version of the film directed by Jay Chandrasekhar and produced by Warner Bros and Village Roadshow Pictures, the rowdy but good-hearted trio have a whole new set of adventures. The movie is opening in 3,700 theaters and about 5000 screens on Friday in North America. Many box-office experts expect it to be the No. 1 film of the week, grossing $28-$32 million.
This is Chandrasekhar's fourth film and his biggest yet. His previous efforts, such as Super Troopers, were distributed by the smaller wings of major distributors, but the much publicised The Dukes of Hazzard goes out through the main division of Warner Bros. Chandrasekhar has finally arrived in Hollywood, 10 years after he made the minuscule campus comedy Puddle Cruise.
His newest film is not all fast driving, delivering moonshine, and beating up guys who think Daisy is just a pair of sexy legs. Bo and Luke also uncover evidence of their neighbours' properties being unlawfully seized by the crooked Hazzard County commissioner. Their beloved Uncle Jessie is also in trouble because of the commissioner, otherwise known as Boss Hogg.
With some of Hollywood's most prominent young stars --- Seann William Scott (American Pie, American Wedding) as Bo, Johnny Knoxville (MTV reality series Jackass and the movie Walking Tall) as Luke --- in the cast along with veterans such as Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg, Chandrasekhar says he had more than a dream cast. Not to forget the fabulously popular singer Jessica Simpson (MTV series Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica) who plays Daisy and makes her screen debut.
Chicago-born Chandrasekhar (whose official name is Jayant Jambulingam), who grew up enjoying the adventures of the charismatic Duke cousins and the sexy shorts Daisy wore, says he wanted to give his version "an edginess to the humour" and make the villains even more sinister. "I don't like soft villains in comedy films," he says. "I am convinced that tough villains help make a comedy sparkle because they provide a contrast to the funny guys. I have always felt a comedy's story is undercut if you have a villain who is not really menacing."
A few die-hard fans may not like the menacing look, but Chandrasekhar says he wouldn't have it any other way. He is also aware that millions of the expected audience for the film will be meeting the Dukes for the first time.
There are two villains, the second being the ever-angry sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, played by veteran actor M.C. Gainey. The low IQ deputy, who never ceases to bumble, is played by Michael Weston.
"I have always enjoyed outlaw films such as Smokey and the Bandit (which starred Burt Reynolds)," says Chandrasekhar. "I felt, as soon as the casting process began, that there could be nobody other than Burt playing Boss Hogg. He inspired a special kind of villainy."
The director has often been asked what drew him to the movie version of the TV series. "I've always wanted to make a movie that had a Seventies feel to it," he says, "with a bunch of cars screeching around and good guys winning over the bad guys. I had a poster of Daisy Duke on my wall even before I was nine. How could I resist this opportunity?"
He also adds that he didn't want to use the film to make fun of Southerners. "It is a racy, funny movie, but there are no cheap shots taken at any one." How did he go around casting Scott and Knoxville? "If we were making the film 30 years ago, I would have loved to have Burt Reynolds in one of the two parts," he replies, with a broad smile. "It was important for me to find two guys who embody Reynold's kind of mentality. In Seann (Scott), I found someone who had a wild force of energy. Johnny (Knoxville) is a very funny ex-stuntman who is also a terrific actor. They brought to the film a little craziness, some danger and a hint of Southern rebellion."
A number of young actresses also sent feelers about their interest in playing Daisy. "I had to work very, very hard to get that part," says Simpson. "I had to convince people I could act too." Whether she wore the scandalous shorts (for most part of the film) or jeans, Daisy is a role model, says Simpson. "I wanted this part as my debut. I know Daisy is an all-American girl who is courageous and gutsy, and she really cares about her family and friends."
Chandrasekhar says he was more than surprised to see how determined Simpson was. "Jessica came in incredibly prepared, and she was willing to work even harder. She was focused for every shoot, and was willing to learn from her co-stars." On the movie's soundtrack, which is expected to be a big hit too, she duets with fellow Dukes' star, fabled country music singer and occasional actor Willie Nelson, who plays her moonshining uncle. They sing the sexy and rousing Nancy Sinatra hit, These Boots Are Made for Walking.
Simpson, who says singing with Nelson was a dream come true, knows well that Nelson also got an chance to be in the film because of Chandrasekhar's brainwave. Producer Gerber had brought Nelson to lend his voice to the film, but Chandrasekhar wanted him to do more: To play the tough-as-gristle Uncle Jessie L. Duke who is also famous for his one-liners. Nelson, who has released over 100 albums in the past three decades and has secured his status as one of America's most heard icons with songs such as You Are Always on My Mind and On the Road Again, has appeared in numerous films, including the political satire Wag the Dog. "Willie embodies the down-home goodness of the Uncle Jessie character," says Chandrasekhar, of the singer and actor who has an enormous following across America.
The director was also aware that, though he was making a comedy, adventure was part of the scheme, and he wanted the stunt scenes to be alive and authentic. He sent his three principal actors to learn quite a bit of stunt driving and fights. "When an actor is driving a car backwards at 40 miles per hour, hits the emergency brake and does a reverse 180, the wind blows his hair in a way that can't be duplicated without looking unnatural," he says, in the production notes for the film. "By sending Seann, Johnny and Jessica to the stunt driving school, we were able to get them involved in the action and put them in the middle of the most exciting situations possible."
The movie was shot in New Orleans, and at least one hair-raising stunt sequence is performed on the tight streets of the city. Some of the tough action takes place in a bar, but Chandrasekhar didn't want to rely on the standard elements of a typical bar brawl. "We didn't want to break bottles over anyone's head or throw a guy on a table and have it collapse," he explains. "When our stunt coordinator Darrin Presscott came up with some great ideas, I said, 'You have been choreographing fights for years and I have been writing comedy for years, so you choreograph this fight, and I will tweak things to make them funnier.'"
Chandrasekhar also says he was keen, right from the start, to surround himself with plenty of craftsmen and artists from the South. His principal actors, Knoxville, Simpson, Reynolds, Gainey and Willie Nelson are all Southerners. "Apart from their lovely accent, they also brought southern sensibilities to the film," says Chandrasekhar. "Ours is a comedy, but we felt the need to make it an authentic experience. They inherently understand the tone and flavour of the material, and were of immense help."
There was another smart reason for hiring "true southerners." They were like an insurance against an attitude of 'How-dare-he-make-a-film-based-on-iconic-southern-characters?'. "In the first place, I am a Chicago and New York boy," he says, with a chuckle. "And then there's my name. Even as they wonder (in Hollywood and movie theatres) where that name is from, when people see me, they know that I am a true outsider, immediately."