Follow-Up Interview: Get Smart's Director Pete Segal
by Alex Billington
June 20, 2008
Back in March I had the honor of interviewing Get Smart's director Pete Segal, who afterwards personally thanked me for speaking so highly of his film here on FirstShowing.net based on the trailers at the time. A few weeks ago I met up with Pete again in Los Angeles for a follow-up interview. When I talked with him in March, I hadn't seen his movie, but was excited for it anyway. This time I had seen it and had new questions, including more about the behind-the-scenes stories, Mel Brooks' involvement, shooting on location, and of course, the latest on Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam. It was definitely a delight to talk with Pete again after finally seeing Get Smart. The film hits theaters this weekend and in honor of its release, I present to you my complete follow-up interview with Pete Segal.
In addition to all of my questions below, Pete and I put together a great feature article titled the Top 8 Spy Movie Inspirations for Get Smart. When you see the movie this weekend, you'll notice a lot of inspirations, cameos (including Bill Murray as Agent 13), hilarious comedy, and great on-location shoots, which can, for the most part, be attributed to Pete Segal's involvement. I hope you enjoy this follow-up interview with Pete Segal - please let me know what you think!
First question - Was that Bill Murray in the tree?
Peter Segal: Yes!
That's what I thought. How did you get him to do that cameo?
Segal: It was the funniest story. We thought okay, if we could get somebody big for this, who would we go for? And he was the first guy we thought of and the other producers said let's just move on. You can not get a hold of Bill Murray. He's notorious. He doesn't have an agent -- we'll never get an answer. Well, our costume designer, Deborah Scott, who won her Academy Award for Titanic, she overheard the conversation and said, 'Who are you talking about, Bill? Oh, he's a friend of mine. You want me to ask?' We said sure, go ahead and ask your friend, Bill Murray, and we thought this is not going to work. Two days later she says 'oh yeah, Bill said he's fine, he's in.' What?! And within three more days after that we were on the set and we were all completely in disbelief. Executives around town said 'You got who?! How did you do that?!' And suddenly the next thing, Warner Brothers execs who were trying to get a hold of him for months to read a script were showing up on the set, trying to just get some face time with him and we just said let's just enjoy the moment, do the scene and worry about that later.
And he wasn't opposed to being inside of a tree?
Segal: He knew it, I mean it said 'in a tree' -- no that was not a surprise. This is what we did a lot on the set -- it was a different scene on paper. And he said, so do you want to do this scene? Or do you want it to actually be funny. And we said 'okay, well I guess we'll be starting over again.' And so I said to Steve Carell, I guess we'll be kind of winging it, we'll have some mile markers and things we know we got to get to story wise, but have fun, good luck! And we tried it and we did it about a dozen times and we came up with that and not one – well a few words of it were scripted -- but it was mostly improvised.
Masi Oka and Nate Torrence mentioned during the press conference earlier that Steve was really encouraging a group aspect to the whole thing, where everyone was involved in every aspect. I know they made their own separate movie that's going to be on the DVD anyway, but I'm just curious about how you guys went about forming this group and how Steve put that together from the start?
Segal: Well, it always starts with the head of the fish, as they say, on down, and Steve was the whole reason why I'm here. Then the world wanted to be in this movie. It was so much fun casting this because it was easier to talk about who didn't want to be in the movie than who did, because the list was so small. The cool thing was, every time we talked about a huge actor to play a particular role, because we had this incredible luck of a wealth of people who wanted to play these roles, we kind of also included their personality off-screen. We said, I hear he's a nice guy or I hear she is a nice woman, because there are other people that don't have reputations like that. So we really cast people that were fun to be around as well. Primarily good at their job, but fun to be around, so that's where that communal feeling came from and to this day, I think it was the nicest set I've ever been on. And that's no BS.
Were a lot of people involved even in scenes they weren't acting in?
Segal: Not really, but I do know that sometimes guys hung around on days that they weren't acting. Just to kind of be around, especially when we were out of town, and that was kind of fun, that made it feel communal like you're saying. We've done so much, so many conventions from Comic-Con to WonderCon to ShoWest and every time we show up together, we all go out to dinner, and we all laugh and we all have fun and we realize, this isn't really normal. Normally, not everybody actually likes spending time with each other. They do it, they're professional but then they go on, and that's it and it's just, from Dwayne [Johnson] on down, Masi and Nate are wonderful and everyone... And now Alan communicates with Matt Ember, one of our writers, they're like pen pals and it's just – it was like summer camp.
I'm curious, how early did Alan Arkin get involved, because I know Steve was there from the beginning?
Segal: Well, Steve suggested Alan for the role and it made sense. They had a built-in chemistry from Little Miss Sunshine. We were kind of going step-by-step, we were going after Agent 99 first and then after that the Chief. We were still on the 99's and the idea of Alan came up and I met with him and he was tough on the script at first. He said no, not quite there, so we took note. He gave us notes, and we said, what are we missing? He said, this, this, and this. And so we came back and Matt Ember and Tom Astle, the thing about them that's so wonderful is -- we have a three-foot tall stack of drafts, we never stopped writing, and several drafts later, we went back to Alan and he said, 'Wow! This is vastly improved. Normally when I give notes, I don't get them actually addressed' and he was in! And then we continued to write -- this stack grew another two feet by the time we hit the set and it kept growing every day. That's why he is who he is, and he's so discerning in the kinds of jobs that he takes, because he cares, he doesn't have to work if he doesn't want to.
And have you been involved since the very first script or even before there was a script?
Segal: Yeah, before there was a first script. We started with a blank page. And that was fun because you never know what's going to come out of that. We literally spit in the palm, slapped it and said let's go that way! And we changed it many times and there's always that thing -- certain people will steal an early draft on the bottom of this three-foot tall stack and they'll slam us on the internet and I say, hey, that's like blueprints for a house. That's not how the house is going to come out and there are change orders and things get done, I mean let the house get built, let us put in the landscaping before you tear an early draft down! But that's why it's fun to see people seeing the movie now from everyone's speculation a year ago.
How much involvement did Mel Brooks actually have?
Segal: Mel was a consultant. He was busy doing Young Frankenstein casting in New York, but I called him many times and ran ideas by him, ran the concept of this being an origin story. He gave that his blessing. He told me that he felt that The Producers, when it went back to Broadway, he made more of an origin story. And every time I would call him to give him an update on how things were going, he would say, 'Segal, keep me posted, tell me how it's going. How's the marketing? You like how everything is going?' He would always say, by the way I've got an idea for a joke. And whether I was in my car or on the set or whatever, I'd be scribbling it down, and we put all of them in the movie. There was one that I couldn't fit in because it was another invention that was kind of like the cone of silence, but everything else we put in.
He finally saw the movie about two weeks ago and loved it and he was on the phone with me for about a half hour telling me everything that he loved and I said, Mel, you don't understand, this phone call I've been looking forward to and dreading for the past two years. But I have to admit, when I met him before the screening, Steve and I were nervous and our palms were sweating, but he was telling us stories and because although I talked to him many times on the phone, I had never actually met him. So we said, look we don't want to breathe over your shoulder and say, 'What did you think of that joke? What did you think of that?' As he was watching, we said, 'So we're going to leave you alone, if you feel like calling us tomorrow, if you don't hate our guts, let me know what you think.'
And I will admit this to you, as we left, Steve and I still snuck in the back and just stared at Mel from the back of the theater just like, oh, he's laughing, he's laughing and we just couldn't sleep until we at least saw how he was responding. But then we still didn't know until -- actually he came out and he told someone at Warner Brothers what he thought and they said he's going to call Pete tomorrow, and I thought 'oh my god.' I couldn't sleep that night. But it worked out well.
So obviously it was important for you to have his blessings?
Segal: I learned – having done The Longest Yard, we had to get the blessing of Al Ruddy, the producer, and Burt Reynolds. You can't embark on something that that's beloved and ignore the people who invented it, that would be wrong. There are a lot of people on the internet who said we did ignore them and they're wrong, they're absolutely wrong, but we can't say that. I mean, I'm saying it to you and maybe I shouldn't even have said that, but we have such affection for the source material. Were they there on the set every day? No, but they're the godfathers of the project and we kept them posted on how things were going and they gave us input.
That's why I appreciate that you actually did involve them, because since fans have heard that Mel was involved in some way, they've start to take a liking to it more.
Segal: For all the past year decided to take the high road and not debate people online and we said, 'You know what? We know the truth.' Let's just let the movie speak for itself, and if these guys, meaning Mel, Buck [Henry] and Leonard [Stern], don't like it, then so be it. But if they do, that would answer our dreams and it turned out well. Leonard was there the night Buck was, which was about a week ago, he was going on and on about the origin story, how smart that was, and he said, 'You know Pete, just expect people still to want to have heard Steve do an exact impression of Don Adams and you may get criticized for that, but I got to say, I think you've made a wonderful movie.' And I said, look, if that's the worst thing they say, we'll take it.
When I was watching Get Smart, there seemed to be a very distinct visual style to it, and I'm not sure whether that was just the cameras you chose to shoot with or otherwise, but was that something you were trying to following? Was there a visual style that the original show had that you were trying to mimic?
Segal: It's fun to tell a story like this. The original show was – it was kind of expensive for its day because it was single camera and they went on location a lot more than the other comedies of that time. So we said, I'm going to bring back Dean Semler, who I've worked with many times who's done both great action and comedy. We're going to bring in just the best people behind-the-scenes. I like to study other filmmakers' work who I admire, so the war room scene we kind of patterned after Dr. Strangelove visually.
I hired Rich Pearson, the editor of Bourne Supremacy and United 93, because he also edited Blades of Glory, so I thought if we can find that frenetic energy from the Bournes and match it with that kind of comedy, that's the perfect editor for this. I didn't want to shake the camera as much as Paul Greengrass did because I didn't feel that it fit the kind of comedy here, but I wanted it to make it feel like it had as much balls as an action movie as well as the funny bone of a comedy and if we could push both of those, that we might have something a little bit unique. So maybe that's what you were responding to...
I'm glad you touched on editing because that was something we talked about previously.
Segal: Yeah and actually Rich Pearson's off now cutting Bond 22 so he's still in the genre.
You sort of touched on this previously but I want to go back to it in regards to shooting on location. Did you actually go to Russia to shoot those scenes?
Segal: Yes we did. We couldn't afford it at first. To try to save money we thought we'd do it green screen with plates of Russia and then the more we got into it, the more we realized it was a wash, financially, so let's just go and it turned out to be a great thing. It was the greatest life experience of the whole shoot because we literally finished at three in the morning at Red Square with nobody else there except us and that was very special and fitting. Every time I see those shots of Russia in the movie, I'm still amazed that we actually went there! And it really boosts the movie to another level for me every time I see that Ferrari enter. We shot it from my balcony in my hotel room, because when we got there, we said, let's go scout a place where we're going to put the camera when the Ferrari enters the city. I said I have no better view than right here, let's just bring a camera in. So we just shot it from my room. But that was really cool.
That was another thing I really noticed -- it was great to be shooting on location, it really paid off, Disney Hall as well.
Segal: You know what? Ironically, except for Iron Man, no movie had been shot at Disney Hall, it was all car commercials and I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Really?! Nobody has shot at Disney Hall?' Well, I guess right after us, Iron Man came in and their release date was before us and I looked at my producing partner and friend, Michael Ewing, when we were there because I loved Iron Man, but I thought damn! We're now second, but you know what? Every building in Manhattan has been shot at, almost everything has been shot at in LA, but even to be the second movie to shoot at Disney Hall, I think it's just such a spectacular location and theirs was a night scene and ours is day so we have our place.
I could barely tell it was Disney Hall in Iron Man! Do you have any updates on Shazam! since we last talked?
Segal: Not a lot has happened since I spoke to you last. We're still working on the script. An interesting little development, but it's an annoying one, is that after a strike there are residual effects and one was that everyone who was a writer suddenly had a back log of assignments as did John August, so we started to do our re-write process but he had to service some of these other prior commitments. So now we're kind of waiting in line to get him back but it's worked out okay because we've been working on the marketing of this and getting this going, so we've been doing enough to keep ourselves busy and as soon as this movie gets released then we're going to focus again on Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam.
What's your feeling about the whole superhero marketplace these days?
Segal: The reason why I signed on to this knowing fully well that there was an Iron Man, at that time in the works, and all of these other comic book properties out there is because I still believe that Shazam is unique. It's a different kind of story. It's not about science, it's not about a rich man and this is nothing against – my gosh, I adore Batman and Iron Man -- but rich guys with problems inventing gadgets that help them fight crime. This is about magic, and it puts it more into a Harry Potter-esque kind of world and it – what I love also is the tone of it. It's Big meets Superman. And that's not like anything else out there. And especially now that there are some legal tangles with Superman as a property, it might be just the right time for Captain Marvel... Ooooh -- I like the sound of that!
I wanted to ask because the comic book genre seems to be developing in terms of every big movie these days is usually a comic book movie in some way.
Segal: Yeah, and some are good and some are not good, and it's just like TV adaptations and it turns people off before you even have your shot because someone else screwed the pooch on theirs. Who knows how Shazam! will ultimately wind up? We're just trying to get going on it, because we know – what's been fascinating to me through this past year of the early marketing of Get Smart is to find out how many fans of Shazam! are out there. When I was on Fantastic Four eight years ago, I was concerned about Fantastic Four being still relevant. Obviously it is, but because X-Men was so much younger, that I thought, 'Will kids know? Will kids care?' And of course when the first commercial for Fantastic Four came out, my son, who was then four, said 'Hey dad! It's clobbering time.' And I thought okay, guess what, he's looking forward to a comic book that was born in the 40s, so why not one born in 1939? It's not much of a difference.
What's your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Segal: I love post. It's fun writing, but I have to say, once you have all the pieces, the final rewrite is in the editing room and to take everything and switch it around and give it a whole new meaning and shape it and take all that hard work and strip out certain pieces and rearrange them, it's just fascinating to me. I find, ironically, that you spend more time in post -- hours in a day -- than you do even during production, because it's like Las Vegas -- you're in a dark room, they pump in the oxygen, you don't know what time it is, and you're having fun.
I always ask that question and I always hear the same answer -- editing.
Segal: Really? Yeah. It's just the most fun. And you get really fat in the editing room, which is fun, too. You just eat! And you don't exercise.
Sounds exciting – but you know, I have never heard anyone say they got into filmmaking for editing.
Segal: No, they don't get into it and most people seem to not like filming as much -- it's the hardest. Filming every day is absolutely the hardest. It's where it all happens, you have to enjoy the filmmaking process, but it's by far the hardest.
Thanks again to Pete and everyone at Warner Brothers for arranging the interview! Get Smart finally hits theaters this weekend and you won't want to miss it!