Peter Segal Gets Smart

How does a journalist transition into the role of moviemaker? Admittedly, this isn’t a foreign question to me—nor, would I imagine to many of my fellow movie-loving writers out there. It certainly wasn’t beyond the scope of questions Peter Segal asked himself during his college years at the University of Southern California. There’s more action; things just seem more exciting on the other side of the desk. So, as many of us wish we could do, the now-director took a detour from his journalism track in the pursuit of art.

From the beginning, Segal carved a niche for himself as the director of action-packed comedies. From his first feature Naked Gun 33 1/3 to the hijinks of his remake of The Longest Yard, he has managed to capture the disparate skills—pratfalls and natural comedic stylings among them—of the genre’s top players. Among his collaborators over the years, Segal has worked with Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. His latest project, Get Smart, features the newest comedian to conquer the box office: Steve Carell.

Carell, the popular actor from NBC’s “The Office” has taken on the character of Maxwell Smart, a role first made popular by Don Adams in the 1960s television series of the same name. As an analyst for the secret government agency CONTROL, Smart longs to be where the action is—on the other side of the desk. Like Segal, he takes action in making sure he’s not left wondering, ‘What if?’ Paired with Agent 99 (played by Anne Hathaway, who once again proves that women can be smart, pretty and comfortably kick some ass along the way), Smart is sent on a mission that will take him around the world looking for members of rival foreign agency KAOS.

As in the original series, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Segal’s film version features lots of gadgets, sexual tension and laughs. With a cast of actors including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the hulking and idolized Agent 23 and Academy Award-winner Alan Arkin as The Chief, Segal’s newest comedy proves that not only did he choose the right path after all, but that with the right director, some television adaptations are worthy of the big screen. The day before the movie’s theatrical release, MM spoke with Segal finding out just how his life led him to this weekend.

Mallory Potosky (MM): You’ve directed Naked Gun 33 1/3, Tommy Boy and 50 First Dates. When you went to film school, were these the types of movies you were attracted to? Is that what you wanted to go into—making people laugh?

Peter Segal (PS): You know, when I was in school I had no idea that I was going to wind up making movies. I thought originally I was going to go into journalism so that’s what I was studying at USC—Broadcast Journalism and English. I was a double major. The first two years at USC were very writing-intensive and then my first production class in television introduced me to the making of television things. I fell in love with it and thought, ‘Well, okay. How do I get into this business? Because I think this is a lot more fun.’

My best friend and roommate was a cinema major, so I would frequently crash his Cinema 466 class, which was the famous class at USC where filmmakers come in, screen their movie and do Q&As with the students. So I would frequently go in and listen to the directors and realized that I was in love with this—but I had no idea how to get into it. I started out with an internship at local Channel 2 and just started from there.

MM: Now you’re directing an anticipated summer movie so there’s already a few built-in audience types: Fans of Mel Brooks, Steve Carell and the original series. How do you think that you made this movie appeal to all of them—or even people who were not fans?

PS: Well first of all, we had to make a movie that would appeal to both fans of the original series as well as people who were unfamiliar with it. I always operate from a standpoint of ‘What I would like to see if I was in the theater?’ I love the original series; there’s no way that we could ever top that. What Mel and Buck created was iconic and once we realized that we could never replace the show (nor would we want to), we just decided we had to embrace the spirit of what they created—the characters, the catchphrases, the gadgets—and infuse a contemporary story with those things as well as the political satire that made that show so iconic. If we did that and if we brought together this cast that we were thinking about… You know, once Steve Carell was on, and by bringing in Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, etc., we thought we could appeal to all of the legions of fans that are following “The Office” as well as The Devil Wears Prada as well as The Rock’s huge following and then we could combine these groups.
MM: Actually all of their comedies, the actors you’ve just mentioned, appeal to different groups in and of themselves. Dwayne Johnson is a little more action, Steve Carell is completely different from that and Anne Hathaway has the female audience.

PS: Right.

MM: So how did you, as a director, bring them all together, to act as this one unit in this one film?

PS: Well, first of all, once Steve was on, everybody wanted to come and play. Dwayne, actually, his agent called me and said Dwayne was interested in the role of Agent 23 and I was really surprised because at the time the role was very small. I met with Dwayne and he said, “Look, I love the work that you guys do. I love Steve. This just sounds like it’s going to be a blast and I would love to be a part of it.” And even took a pay cut to be a part of it.

Anne Hathaway insisted on coming in and auditioning with Steve because she’s a huge, psychotic fan of “The Office” and she wanted to meet him. She wanted to sit down and show she could dance—so to speak—toe-to-toe with his improvisational skills. Once we brought in Alan Arkin, who Steve had just worked with in Little Miss Sunshine, we knew that we were creating a very improvisational atmosphere. Everyone who had their various experiences with comedy knew that they had to be on their toes, so it was a really exciting feeling on the set every day when what I had to do was create an environment where all of these actors from different genres could bring what they knew to the table and then explore. So we’d always do one take as scripted and then once we got that down, then we’d start experimenting and start to play. It was always fun.

In the very first audition, when Anne sat down with Steve, it was the first time Steve had ever uttered the words of Max as Max. He started to improvise; he left the script and Anne went with him and I was scribbling notes in the margins on a piece of scratch paper because they were so great together. Those ad libs from day one wound up in the movie.

MM: So you changed the movie with improvisation? You also said Dwayne Johnson’s part was smaller. Was the script totally different beforehand and changed to accommodate him? Because he has a fairly large part at the end. I won’t give it away to readers but…

PS: Well, originally he was Max’s mentor, Super Agent 23. We thought it was going to be just a character actor. We wanted a quality person to fill these shoes and when he said he wanted to come in, well we couldn’t just waste this opportunity and we really beefed it up and reconfigured the story around that. Dwayne has just been amazing. He’s a very smart actor. You described him yourself as an action star. You look at what he’s done lately and he’s been in family films and dramas and now he’s branching out into more four-quadrant action comedies. I think he’s really smart to do that. He’s going to make a much longer career exploring different genres.

MM: Now you have another movie coming out with him, is that right?

PS: We’re working on the script for Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam and we’d love for Dwayne to play Black Adam, who’s one of the great comic book villains. Ironically, there are many projects that I’ve been talking to Dwayne about and Steve about. I have to say, no matter how this whole movie experience turns out or ends up, this has been one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had and all of us would like to do it again.

MM: On other Get Smart movies or another ensemble piece?

PS: Well if the fans would really like another Get Smart, if it does well, we would do it in a New York minute.

MM: In terms of Carell, he seemed to fit the role perfectly because he…You know, Maxwell Smart’s kind of clumsy but he’s also smart and that’s how he does so well within CONTROL. What do you think made Steve so perfect for the role?

PS: No one can deny there’s an uncanny resemblance between Steve and Don Adams. Also Don and Steve share an intelligent kind of comedy. Both come from the stage. Don was a stand-up comic, Steve started in Second City, so both understand the rhythms of an audience and how to get the laugh. Steve is a very understated actor and brings a lot of humanity to every role that he does and it was his suggestion to treat this movie version of Get Smart as a comedic Bourne Identity. By infusing what he does and not trying to do an impression of Don Adams but to do his own version, which he thought would better honor Don’s legacy… to put it within a big scope where we could have spectacular international locations and action. In that world I think it’s exciting to people because they know him as Michael Scott and they know him from going around in that little yellow Volkswagen bus [in Little Miss Sunshine] and this is a different world for him but it still retains a lot of those elements that people love about his self-deprecating humor.

Catch Get Smart in theaters now.

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