I’ve driven onto the Warner Brothers lot countless times over the last six years, but this is the first time I’ve imagined making this kind of entrance:
Yes, it’s a Friday afternoon in late January, and I’m striding into Building 4 on official Get Smart business. Of the big screen kind. Based on the classic television show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. And you know they’re making this because you’ve seen the teaser, the international trailer and my exclusive interview with director Peter Segal at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con.
Apparently, I made a decent enough impression on Segal to rate a visit to the editing room, where he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a film he wrapped back in June of last year. That’s quite a long time to be in post, so the invite threw me a bit. Generally, whenever I drop by the editing suite of a film nearing theatrical release, it’s a lot of thousand-yard stares, unkempt facial hair (Thelma Schoonmaker is famous for her “Steenbeck beard”) and spent cans of Red Bull. You can smell the “We’re fucked!” in the room. Sometimes a fistfight breaks out. I once walked in on a shirtless Brian De Palma clutching Paul Hirsch in a headlock. “Don’t worry about him, Smith. He’s been there since Thursday.” It was Monday. They smelled of Tuesday.
But Get Smart isn’t due in theaters until June 20th. That’s, like, six months away. And while Get Smart is a big summer movie for Warner Brothers, what gives with the year of post? This isn’t Titanic. And even if it is, where there’s a delay, there’s behind-the-scenes strife, right?
Not in this instance. As I walk into the editing bay, I’m struck by the cleanliness, the relaxedness and the absence of bruises about the well-maintained faces of Segal and the 1st Assistant Editor, Sean Thompson. These guys are downright chipper. Though there were a few stressful weeks back in December as they rushed to finish a cut of the film for studio accounting purposes (nothing like busting your ass for the bean counters!), they’re back on schedule and performing tweaks as they prepare to lock picture.
Still, it’s strange to have time in this business, and even stranger for that lengthy duration to be planned. But that’s the way it was (almost) always going to be. “They picked June 20th well over a year ago,” confides Segal. “So we knew that when we finished it was going to be six months before it was out. That’s never happened to me before. It’s a nice luxury. And luck of the draw because, for a second and a half, we could’ve been a [Christmas ’07] movie. That would’ve been a very different schedule.”
As I settle in on a couch not cluttered with empty Fritos bags, Segal has Thompson call up the first scene he’d like to run. Before he does, though, he gives me the thumbnail of their plot (actually, he forgot to do this until after the scene had run, but let’s pretend otherwise): Maxwell Smart aka Agent 86 (Steve Carell in the role owned by Don Adams) is an inexperienced, confidence-challenged, recently slimmed down (not “bumbling”) agent for CONTROL who’s teamed with the lovely Agent 99 (a stunning-as-usual Anne Hathaway) to stop the nefarious organization KAOS’ latest grab for world domination. Why assign Smart to a mission of such dire consequence? Well, he’s the only agent whose identity wasn’t compromised when KAOS raided CONTROL headquarters. As for Agent 99, she’s undergone extensive plastic surgery (and de-aging).
The highly competent 99 is, of course, mortified to be heading out into the field with Maxwell, and her disrespect for her partner informs the first scene Segal’s chosen to show me. It takes place on a commercial airliner from which Maxwell and 99 must clandestinely parachute (via the lavatory), and it’s a crisply executed mixture of banter, physical humor and big summer action. As often happened in the show, 86 delves too deeply into their cover (they’re husband and wife), which results in his casually browbeating the older-than-she-appears 99 about her ticking biological clock (as they spat, Maxwell quips that she’d better get on with child-bearing before her “eggs dry up and fall out of” her). After a brief back-and-forth, a flustered Max notices gum on his shoe, so he sets about scraping it off with the first implement he can find. That said implement happens to be a match sets off a bit of a panic onboard the plane (who doesn’t love a little shoe bomber humor?).
Once that misunderstanding gets cleared up, Maxwell excuses himself to go to the lavatory, where he makes the disastrous decision to try out his gadget Swiss Army Crossbow. And it isn’t until he’s poked himself with somewhere around a dozen arrows that he activates the drop function… inadvertently and without a chute. So it’s 99 to the rescue, but not before they engage in a midair tussle with a bad guy who’s tailed them onto the plane.
If this is the scale on which all of the action in Get Smart happens, color me impressed (Segal says the aerial unit performed eighty dives to get all the necessary footage). According to Segal, this is in keeping with Carell’s desire to suggest the open-throttle velocity of the Bourne films (when the director ran this by Mel Brooks, he adored the idea). So it helps that Segal’s editor on the film is Richard Pearson, the Oscar-nominated cutter* who worked with Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse on The Bourne Ultimatum. And before you start worrying, know that he’s an experienced comedy editor as well (his credits include Bowfinger, Blades of Glory and Men in Black II).
Still, when comedies go big like this, there’s always the danger of the action overwhelming the laughs (John Landis and Ivan Reitman used to be the masters of maintaining that balance). But Segal, who counts David Zucker as a mentor, never loses sight of the gag. This is evident in the next sequence he shows me, which finds Maxwell and 99 infiltrating a lavish cocktail party at the palatial home of one of the bad guys. First, there’s an unintentional dance-off initiated by Max (he gets jealous watching 99 gallivant with the suave host); then, there’s the parody of the Entrapment break-in sequence (snippets of which can be seen in the international trailer). True, these aren’t the most original comedic situations, but it’s not like Top Secret was the first film to stage a ludicrous dance number. The trick is to do it well. And Segal works a crowd-pleasing variation on both stock scenes.
And just how might I adequately judge the “crowd-pleasing” nature of anything when I’m sitting in an editing bay with two other people? I’m glad you asked. As you know, it’s common for comedy filmmakers to record audience reactions in order to gauge the effectiveness of jokes; Segal takes it a step further than most by putting night vision cameras on the house** so that he can not only see where they’re laughing, but where they’re yawning, too. So he ran some of this footage for me. And I’m glad he did, too, because it’s difficult to watch this stuff cold (with people who’ve obsessed over each pixel). Also, I’m a fan of invading folks’ privacy; I could watch this shit all day (I didn’t ask, but I’ve got to think they’ve caught some serious hanky-panky doing this).
Undoubtedly, Segal has dragged Maxwell Smart into the twenty-first century. He had to. The old physical schtick and so-corny-it’s-brilliant humor won’t play for today’s audience (see The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle). But Segal is adament that he hasn’t lost sight of what made Maxwell Smart endearing. “It kind of bothers me when I read a logline that says ‘The bumbling Maxwell Smart and his more capable partner 99′,” says Segal. “I never thought of Max was bumbling in the original series. Especially in the pilot. He was very capable: a good fighter and good with a gun. We used the rule that ‘if it happens accidentally, it doesn’t make you dumb. It could’ve happened to anyone.’ If you look at the pilot, one of the jokes is that, in the middle of a concert, he goes into a closet to answer the shoe phone, and he gets locked in. That doesn’t make him dumb; that’s just a funny moment based on circumstance.”
Is the sexuality more pronounced than in the series? Absolutely. They cast Anne Hathaway. But her performance is a love letter to Barbara Feldon in that you can actually see why she might fall for a guy like Maxwell. The chemistry between Feldon and Adams was an integral element to the series’ longevity, and Carell and Hathaway honor that.
Before I bolt, Segal also lets slip that he’s hidden “easter eggs” all over the film for fans of the series (there was apparently one in the airplane scene, and I missed it). The faithful might’ve been reticent about this production at first, but, tonally, they’re getting a film that feels exactly like a Get Smart episode. They’re also getting David Koechner as Larabee, which is a stroke of genius in and of itself. But when you team him with Terry Crews (as Agent 91)? And throw them both into a ridiculous argument with Dwayne Johnson (as the suave Agent 23) over a jammed copier? Explaining comedy is death. Just trust me: it works.
Warner Brothers releases Get Smart wide on June 20th, 2007.
*For United 93.
**This, incidentally, is how they caught a guy recording a test screening of Anger Management.