Exclusive: Interview with Get Smart's Director Peter Segal
by Alex Billington
March 14, 2008
One of the big summer comedies I'm looking forward to almost more than every other comedy this year is Get Smart (watch the trailer here). Based off of the 1970's TV show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart is a spy movie that is best described as a funny Bourne Identity. At ShoWest this week I had the exclusive chance to interview the film's director - Peter Segal (middle in the photo above). Although the film doesn't arrive until the summer, we talked about casting Steve Carell, improvisation on set, staying true to the original show, Judd Apatow, and even DC's Shazam. Pete even mentioned at the end that he was a reader of our site and it is with great honor that I present our interview with him.
Pete is no stranger to comedies, having directed the likes of Naked Gun 33 1/3, Anger Management, and 50 First Dates and it was a pleasure talking with him. I love when interviews like this go so well, because we cover areas that not only interest me, but interest all of you as well. I really urge you to read through this, you won't be let down. Pete does a good job of covering all areas of the production and really making this a fun interview to read. I really can't wait for Get Smart and I wish Pete the best of luck with it this summer.
Let's just get down to it. We get into Shazam later on, if you're curious to hear specifically about that.
To start out, can you talk about how you got involved in the project - starting from how you got the script, to eventually getting Steve Carell and everyone on in terms of the cast.
Peter Segal: It was about 2 years ago. I had been offered Get Smart a few times over the last several years and I turned it down for various reasons because it just didn't feel like it was right, it wasn't ready yet. And then I heard that Steve had signed on, and this was before 40 Year Old Virgin, and I thought for the first time, it sounded right, and so I asked my buddy, Judd Apatow, because I knew he was having a screening of 40 Year Old Virgin coming up and I said 'Hey, do you think I could take a look because all I know is Steve from Anchorman and The Daily Show.' And as soon as I saw him, I thought wow - where do I sign up? This guy is great! And then we got together and we talked about the tone of the movie. I had worked with David Zucker on my first film, the final Naked Gun, and Steve had worked with David Zucker on a pilot and we had done that kind of spoofy police comedy, which in some respects was a bit of an homage to Get Smart.
So we thought, well, let's not go back and revisit the same area. What can we do to honor the show, which we can never be as good as. We have to just acknowledge that. It is what it is, but what can we do to bring our own sensibilities to a feature length version of it and he said, if we can do a comedic Bourne Identity, that would be great. So ground everybody in a believable plot, make the villains bad, not silly, and then go to the Get Smart well, and try to infuse it with as many of the characters and catch phrases and gadgets, but if we give it that kind of, the real stakes of a Bourne [movie], then we might have something different, and so that's how it started.
You touched on this briefly, but how do you work in terms of touching on the original show? And how do you stay at a point where you're not going to anger the fans, and how do you stay at a point where it's also adding your own touch to it as well as Steve's own touch and everyone's own touch to it, and even modernizing it as well?
Segal: You know, in a lot of ways, I analogize it to doing a comic book, because you have such a strong fan base and yet you have to… With a comic that started in the late 1930's as - I'm working on [DC's] Shazam right now - we have to honor the source material and yet bring something new to it. So, we really studied the show, and said let's just base it in the roots of the show, and what it was that made the show famous back then was that it was borne in the Cold War Era. So we thought okay, we have to keep our eye on the political landscape comedically.
Ironically in our casting we went after the best actors we could find, but there is an uncanny resemblance between some of our actors like Steve and Don Adams, and even to some extent, Anne Hathaway and Barbara Feldon. And so while they completely idolized their mentors and it's a bit of a daunting thing to step into those big shoes, but Steve did not ever want to do an impression. He thought that's not going to serve this movie and it's not going to serve the memory of Don, he had to do his own thing. Even down to Alan Arkin… Once Steve was on board, everyone wanted to play and everyone was a fan of the show and so as long as we kept our eye on that, we felt we had license to invent our own story. I even ran the idea of an origin story by Mel Brooks when we spoke for the very first time and he thought it was a great idea and he said in fact he had taken the adaptation of The Producers from movie form back to Broadway and infused it with a bit of an origin element. Once we felt like we were blessed with that, we went forward and told the story of how Max became Max and how Max and [Agent] 99 met.
How do you guys work with improv on the set? How far away did you go from the script? Was there a lot of improv or did you try to stick to the script?
Segal: It's always so much easier to improvise when at least you have some decent pages that you're going off of, as opposed to just okay, so, be funny! But I knew getting into this that it was going to be a lot of fun working with Steve because he was known for his improv skills and then when we got Alan, who was one of the founding fathers of Second City, I think it kind of scared some of the other actors when they signed on, in a good way. They felt challenged and there was like this electricity because everybody felt like okay, the car can easily go off the rails at any given time in any scene, so be ready! Then I think everyone calmed when… Steve would always be very respectful of the pages and he'd do it and then he'd say 'oh can I try something?' And that's when you knew okay, here we go.
And you buckle your seatbelt and then you go on sometimes little journeys off the page and sometimes bigger ones, but a smart improv actor will always remember to tie it back to the story because if you go off on a tangent, the first thing that gets cut always, when your first pass of a movie is two hours and twenty minutes, is the stuff that's not story related. So you can do a really funny riff but you can only have so many of those before you say, okay, it's not making sense anymore.
So he was very smart about that and then Anne followed - she wanted to audition for this because she felt that she had something to prove comedically, even in spite of all of her great success comedy-wise, but she's such a huge fan of Steve's and 'The Office' she said I want to prove it to you, so she came in and some of the improvs that they did in their very first audition, it was the first time Steve had ever uttered the words of Max through his mouth on camera, stayed in the script. We wrote it in and it's actually in the movie now and they were improvs from the very first time they met.
How much extra footage did you shoot? I was actually going to ask, like Anchorman, did you have enough to make a separate movie?
Segal: I don't think it's that much, because well, I don't think it's that much… But even if Steve wasn't improvising in a certain scene, the writers and I would always come up with a series of 'alts' - back-up jokes - because we thought, okay. There are a lot of things that can play here, and let's say preview one, we try this, and it doesn't work, we got a back up or maybe preview one, we get a medium size laugh and we want to try and beat it. So that was great, and for the first time, I had to take a much stronger hand in organizing the DVD materials recently because I said…
We're trying to design something where there's a regular theatrical version of the movie and then there's going to be this other version where a little icon will pop up every now and then and if you click on it you can see all the alts for that particular line, or even a different version or two that we did of a scene, because as I said there are so many wonderful things here. It may not make a good second movie or no one would want to see four hours of extras, but at least you can see the process of which joke wound up in the movie and why. Some areas we had multiple laughs and we had to choose our favorite which was a blessing, but yeah, there was a lot of extra footage.
Also, talking in the realm of length, I actually just saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall a couple of days ago.
Segal: How did you like it?
I actually liked it a lot. I think Apatow, although he only produced, I think he's got a strong track record. That's one of the things I wanted to ask - most of his movies seem to really push a two-hour limit, which in recent years is really rare for comedies, and I don't know if you have a final running time on Get Smart yet…
Segal: Yeah. It's about 1:44.
Right, I was going to say, do you feel an emphasis to really push time, or do you feel more of a studio push to cut back? How do you feel when it comes down to editing? Or is it purely based on story?
Segal: It's interesting because one of my best friends edited Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad and we grew up with Judd, we've known each other forever, and I think we have a similar philosophy. When I did my first movie I was taught by the Zuckers - no comedy should be longer than 90 minutes, that's just a rule.
Segal: And then as I started to do other kinds of movies that weren't complete joke book movies, I realized, people do actually get caught up in something called a story, it's not just, if the weight of a movie is carried joke to joke, that's a really hard strain. You put so much pressure on the next joke, and sometimes you can – people can start checking their watch if the jokes aren't equally as strong, you have to engage them in a story and once you start doing that then all bets are off. It really just depends on that movie. If people are still engaged at two hours, fine.
And I think that's how Judd [Apatow] edits his movies. He knows, he can gauge it, he's very good at what he does. And so I don't really have a prerequisite any more, I know that it would be nice to be in the lower nineties in terms of minutes, but it seems like the last four movies have been slightly over a hundred minutes for me, and that's fine. I think what happens is anytime a comedy has dramatic elements to it, which to me always makes a comedy more interesting, time starts to expand a little bit.
Do you prefer, I mean obviously everything you've done is pretty much comedy. Is that something that you just prefer, you love doing and would you ever venture into another genre?
Segal: Absolutely, I mean we're trying to get Shazam going right now. [Read about the latest on that project here.] I'm a big comic book fan. Many years ago I was attached to Fantastic Four. As long as there's a different kind of story that's comedic, I'm happy. I mean, I've done joke book comedies, sports comedies, romantic comedies and as long as there's a really good story to tell, that's the most important thing to me and if a good drama comes along, great, but right now my strength is in this genre and so it's nice to be able to choose from a lot of wonderful stories. If I say, hey, I love this drama, I know there's a whole different pond that I have to fish in and I'm competing against a lot of other wonderful dramatic directors that are more suited for that material. If that's going to happen, it'll happen, but like I said I'm really content doing what I'm doing.
I hate to jump into Shazam, because, well, how much have you guys progressed on the script?
Segal: Well, there was a set back because of the strike, but we literally just got a new draft a couple of days ago and just getting ready for this and we're doing another project right now I haven't even had time to look at it, but you know, I'm going to open it I think tonight or tomorrow.
Well, because when you mentioned it, when we were talking about comedy, I think that's one of the concerns that people have with Shazam is that they know you as a comedic director and they're kind of worried that it'll be too comedic and it will be like Get Smart but with Captain Marvel instead.
Segal: Right, right. No. As a matter of fact I wanted to – when I went to WonderCon recently, I wanted to dispense with that myth that I've heard I'm trying to turn it into a light comedy. The reason why I was asked to do it was because there is an innate humanity and the idea of a 13 year old boy becoming a 28 year old superhero but still 13 on the inside you - can't handle that strictly dramatically. I mean, you'll have a mistake, there has to be - there is a lightness of touch that doesn't mean it's going to be a light-hearted comedy, we're going to be very faithful to the source material.
Jeff Johns is on as a consultant because we - Black Adam has become such a popular villain recently. He's almost become even more popular than Captain Marvel and so we really want to pay attention to the roots of the comic. Will there be a sense of humor? Well, I hope so. Even if it wasn't me, I wouldn't want to go see Captain Marvel if they try to treat that element completely dramatically. That's the fun of that comic and that's why I think there's room for that comic in a crowded comic book marketplace right now, because there is no story like it.
And I don't want to keep talking about it, because I know people have been asking you forever. We're sort of just waiting for it to progress to the next stage.
Segal: So you're a comic book fan?
Yeah, and I was actually at WonderCon.
Segal: A lot of people were asking which, is fine, but I just want to sort of set the record straight as you know, it's not - it's going to be something you resemble, it's not going to be something that people are shocked and have no idea where it came from. I'm not trying to turn this into something it isn't.
Right. I mean, it's the same idea with Edgar Wright and Ant-Man [read about the latest on that project here], because he's such a strongly comedic director and people are saying, well, I can't see Ant-Man being that kind of crazy comedy. And at the same time I believe that you're more than capable of doing Shazam and that's why I want to set the fans right in getting the right thing out there.
Segal: Well, I mean, I can't wait to see Iron Man, but someone could say, but that's the guy who did Elf. You know?
Right, the same thing. Exactly.
Segal: Well, I look at guys like Ron Howard as a wonderful example, Billy Wilder [too], as guys who cross genres several times and I'm sure the first time that they crossed genre from going from Willow to Apollo 13, they had a lot of people really nervous about that and yet look how wonderful his filmography has become and how long-lasting it is. That would be a wonderful place to be, to be able to do all of those things and even a musical, but everyone should feel secure that they're going to recognize Captain Marvel.
To go back into Get Smart, what sort of inspirations did you bring into it?I think I'm kind of stealing this from WonderCon, but I loved that question and I want to get it out to the fans.
Segal: What kind of inspirations?
Yeah. What were your inspirations for you as a filmmaker going into Get Smart and just in general in your life?
Segal: Well, I've been a huge fan of James Bond ever since I was a kid. I read that Buck [Henry] and Mel [Brooks] both said that Maxwell Smart was the figurative love-child of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, and my first movie was Naked Gun 33 1/3. I've always been a fan of the spy genre and there was an opportunity that we had to bring a weight to the action and to be able to work in the shadow of people who I idolized. Buck Henry, I mean my gosh, The Graduate, but also Heaven Can Wait, two of my favorite films of all time, and Mel Brooks, Young Frankenstein, I mean it was an honor. And to look also at Mel's career, to be at his age, back in the limelight again on Broadway, one should be so lucky.
So it was a great place to be and because we took such care in casting this, we felt that if we could show the fans and a new generation that we were taking it seriously and really treating it with respect, that it would be as exciting for my eight year old son, as it was when I was eight years old, when the show was still on the air. I loved it, I thought it was so cool. The [cascading] doors, just the idea of that. I could watch the main title sequence from the series over and over again, and never gets it told and nothing happens - he just walks through doors and goes down the elevator, and so when we were doing our homage to that in the movie, we started at first, yukking it up with all these joke attempts and we said no, you know, when they did it, it kind of set the tone that while the show was going to be really funny, there were elements of it that were real and scary and Max was really good at what he did.
It was like an archaeological dig going through all 130+ episodes and trying to find the artifacts that would be guidelines to us in terms of tone, and so far the audiences that we've shown it to, the people who have no idea of what Get Smart is love it, and that to me is a great sign. And so far the people that have seen it have really responded very well to it too, because I think they appreciate the fact that we're making it our own, but honoring the series.
Actually, I want to ask about accessibility since you touched on that briefly. With building the movie that someone could take their entire family to, and as you said an eight year old kid can end up loving, is that something you really strived for with this?
Segal: You know, it's interesting - a couple of people have said, people in the press, that they were a little surprised that it was as family friendly as it was, and I thought well, it wasn't really a conscious effort, but you have to remember when I grew up I was a kid, I was three, when the movie came on the air. I didn't watch it as an infant, but I remembered when I was about five or six I was watching it. Well, why was I watching it? Because it was family friendly back in the sixties, so I'm not doing anything different that the series didn't do.
There's always the kind of double edged joke, like analogized to a Warner Brothers cartoon - Bugs Bunny - there are certain Humphrey Bogart jokes that the kids will laugh at, they don't even know why, but the parents will understand what it really means as there will be jokes in this. But it turned out that at certain forks in the road, it just felt more in keeping with Max's character that he really not curse, and that even though we wanted real violence it was never really bloody, and at the end of the day we discovered that we really made a very family friendly film, even though it wasn't an objective in the beginning.
Last question - what are your five favorite movies of all time? I hate to put you on the spot…
That's a good mix of drama and comedy.
Segal: Yeah, odd, eclectic. Is that five, or did I go six?
No, that is five. Well, you could keep mentioning more, but…
Segal: No, that's good. Oh, and Porky's IV!
Okay, I'll make sure to mention that.
Segal: That's definitely in the top six.
Thank you to Pete Segal and everyone at Warner Brothers for the interview! If you haven't already seen it, go watch the trailer for Get Smart here. The film arrives in theaters this summer on June 20th - be ready for one hell of a good show!