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Get Smart Director Peter Segal Talks To Film School Rejects

As part of our Spy Week, check out the Film School Rejects sit-down interview with Get Smart director Peter Segal, who talked to us about spies, Steve Carell, and Shazam!
By  · Published on June 19th, 2008

We caught up with Peter Segal during the Get Smart press junket, and he agreed to sit down with us, because his favorite movie site is Film School Rejects. What, don’t believe that? Would you believe… it’s his second favorite? What about… he has it bookmarked? At any rate, we talked to him about his career, how Get Smart came together, and what’s happening on the Shazam! movie.

So, we know you’ve directed movies like Tommy Boy and Anger Management, but what were you doing right out of college? Did you work in television?

Yeah, I started working in local tv at KCBS, doing sports specials, traveling around with the then Los Angeles Rams, kid specials, etc. One thing led to another, and I got my first national job doing a couple of HBO specials. After working with Harry Shearer and Marilyn Markoe on those, Chris Albrecht, then head of HBO said, “You did a pretty good job working on that last special… do you know Roseanne?” I said, “Oh god, am I going to get to do something with Roseanne?!” And he said, “Well…her husband Tom Arnold…”

This was before anybody knew Tom Arnold, but he had all these friends like Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Chris Farley, and all of these up and coming young comics joined our show. We did a couple of these series, and David Zucker saw the third one of those, and he decided to hand over the reins of the third Naked Gun movie to me, and that’s how I got into movies.

At what point did Get Smart come together? We heard that Steve Carell was attached before you were, so at what stage did they contact you and say we want you to direct this thing?

They had actually come to me a few times over the years before Steve was involved, and I thought gosh… this is such a special title, I don’t know if we should mess with it. It doesn’t feel right. When they came back and told me Steve was involved, something clicked and I thought “Hmm, that’s actually very interesting, I never would have thought of that.” Steve was very early in his career, this was before The 40 Year Old Virgin. So I called Judd Apatow who was working on it, actually Judd worked on those HBO specials with me. He said come and see a screening, because I’d never seen Steve as a featured player. As soon as the curtain went up and when it was over I thought, “Oh my gosh. Sign me up. This guy is fantastic.”

However what really sealed the deal for me was our first discussion about it. Because I’d come from the Naked Gun world, and Steve had worked also worked with David Zucker on a tv pilot, we both said we don’t want to go back there, because Naked Gun was a partial homage to Get Smart in the first place. We didn’t want to be doing an homage of an homage, and we’ve done it already, and so many spy comedies have come since the Naked Guns, and a lot of them that hadn’t been good… it was just very “thick water.” So, when we talked about it, Steve said “Well, what about doing a comedic Bourne Identity?”

So, I thought that sounded kind of cool. Just elevating a bit in terms of the action, but retaining all the spirit of the comedy and the political satire, the characters, the gadgets, but putting it in a Bourne kind of world. I thought there might be something to that. If we can still bring what we do comedically to it, that’s something I haven’t seen. So that’s why we decided to go down that route.

I’ve seen your previous movies, and these look like the biggest action sequences you’ve ever filmed. Is that right?

Yeah. Well, you know The Longest Yard had a lot of big action in it, but most of that took place on a football field, which was very complicated in itself. But, this definitely has the biggest action off the field, so to speak, which was fun it its own right. People keep asking me why I keep going comedies, and I say look, every story is different, and as long as the story is unique within that comedic world, I have something fresh to attack. And the action is what was fresh about this.

Were there some sequences that you had to lose in editing that might end up on the DVD? Or was it all on the screen?

I think there were only a couple of things that hit the floor scene-wise, and they didn’t necessarily have any big effects in them or anything. It was just, as always in editing, you realize you can get to the point faster. What was an interesting lesson was in balancing tone – action vs. comedy. How long do we go in an action sequence before we start exiting the genre we’re in and entering a different kind of movie? We said, okay, we’re not that kind of movie, so we’d pull it back. So we would cut certain moments during the action, and there were a lot of cool shots that we’d cut, but we felt like it was ballast in a hot air balloon. Losing them made the balloon float better, and that’s what editing is all about. The cool thing was, we got to work with Rick Pearson who had cut The Bourne Supremacy, and Blades of Glory, so he had a great combination of action and comedy.

So he upped my game in the editing room, and I really annoying him because I stayed in the room and he kept asking “So you’re really going to be here? Most directors just give me notes then go off to play golf.” But, it was great because we’re close to the same age, and Steve is the same age, so at Christmas we all bought each other gifts, and we all ended up getting each other Major Matt Mason figures that we’d bought off of eBay. It was cool because some people don’t know who Major Matt Mason is, and we’re all from the Get Smart era, that is the Major Matt Mason era. So, that was a great relationship.

Spy films these days are pretty much James Bond movies, or recently the Bourne Trilogy. Where does Get Smart fit into that landscape?

Somewhere in between, I think. It’s funny because Rick Pearson, our editor, went straight from our film to Bond 22. We talk every now and then, he’s cutting over in England. Plus like I said he worked on Bourne, so he’s right there in the heart of the spy movies, and it’s fun to talk to him about the differences.

Our strength is in our comedy, you know I’m not Paul Greengrass, I’m not Steven Spielberg, so I have to go with my strength. But, I do love the challenge of trying to rise to the level of those films, and as long as we do it with a sense of humor, and as long as we continue to embrace the spririt of the show, that’s what makes us unique.

Iron Man has been this big summer hit for Marvel for one of their lesser-known characters, and DC is trying to do the same thing with Shazam!/Captain Marvel. Is that still moving forward?

There was a hiccup with the strike, that was right at a critical time during our writing process. Unfortunately what’s happened for John August is that after the strike there was a huge backlog of a zillion things that were due, so he’s having to balance a lot of his scriptwriting responsibilities. We’re in line, and he’ll get to us when he gets off of something else, and then we’ll continue. Fortunately I have a lot to do with releasing Get Smart, but we’re really excited to get back into that.

Do you see that film as being another balance between action and comedy?

It’s almost an identical situation with Get Smart, in terms of adapting something that’s so iconic. We’re going to be very faithful to the source material in the comic book. Somebody just asked me if we’re being faithful to the tv show, and I said no, no. Unfortunately that’s not where we’re going.

What attracted me to this, and people say “Why you?”, it’s the same reason why Stan Lee came to me for Fantastic Four many years ago, and we couldn’t get the budget down on that which is why things never went forward with me. He said to me, “All of my heroes have flaws, and in the flaws is a sense of humor,” and I thought that was very interesting. So New Line came to me about Shazam, and before they told me the title they said “Okay, imagine Superman meets Big” and I said “Oh, you’re talking about Shazam.” I loved that, and that would be something different.

Somebody could say “A wealthy flawed genius invents gadgetry around him to fight crime” and that’s both Batman and Iron Man. It’s all in how you execute it. I haven’t seen that written up anywhere, but if you hold the two up together there’s a lot of similarities. Now, I think they’re both great, and there’s a place for both of them, just like I think there’s a place alongside Superman for Captain Marvel. It’s scary, you know… going head to head against Superman, but you know they did that in the comics in Kingdom Come. What’s really ironic is that with all the Superman legal troubles lately Captain Marvel may be the next version of a Superman figure to hit the big screen.

Well, I’m a huge Shazam/Captain Marvel fan. I have so much Captain Marvel junk in a room at my house that it’s ridiculous, so I’m really looking forward to this.

Really? Wow, I didn’t know that, that’s great! I have to say, I think you’re going to be pleased. We’ve woven in so many things from the comic book. I remember being asked about this at WonderCon, and someone asked about Tawky Tawny, the talking Tiger, and I said “Yes… believe it or not, he’s in there. But, in a very cool way that you wouldn’t expect.” I’m just really excited about this film, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

Get Smart opens in theaters this weekend. Don’t miss it by that much.

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