Rat Race
I Love All These Characters 
Interview with Jerry Zucker
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 17 August 2001

Jerry Zucker is a friendly guy. Before I even sit down, he wants to check out my cool new tape recorder and chat for a second about recording disasters we have known. He sits comfortably, whether leaning back into the sofa or leaning forward to make a point, plainly at ease with himself and happy to talk about just about anything. Probably best known directing Ghost (1990), the fifty-two-year-old Milwaukee native has actually been involved with a range of movies, from the early, wild comedies he co-wrote with his brother David and their partner Jim Abrahams -- Airplane! (1980), Ruthless People (1986), and Naked Gun (1998) -- as well as some relatively sedate fare. He produced A Walk in the Clouds (1995) and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), and directed First Knight (1995), with Julia Ormond and Sean Connery.

Today, we're talking about his new movie, Rat Race, an ensemble comedy featuring Whoopi Goldberg (who won her Academy Award  for Ghost), Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, John Cleese, Amy Smart, Rowan Atkinson, and Jon Lovitz, among others.

Cynthia Fuchs: What drew you back to working on a broad ensemble comedy, after your forays into other genres?

Jerry Zucker: It was really the script [by former Letterman writer Andy Breckman]. When I look for a new project to direct, I'm looking for something that grabs my attention. I'm not necessarily looking to go back and do comedy or another genre. This script was kind of irresistible, so funny all the way through. And I liked the idea of doing all these big physical stunts and set-pieces. Then Andy and I worked together: he did the writing, but we put cards on the board, and brainstormed together. I don't think I've ever just gotten a script that I thought was just great the way it was. And I don't think I'd ever want that, because in revising, I immerse myself in it, and we can explore ideas. Then when I'm on the set, I know why we're doing something. We just cracked each other up, and it was really fun, and I realized how much I missed comedy.

CF: How do you know when something's funny?

JZ: Some of it is that you just know that cutting from one thing to another will work. A lot of it, the comedy doesn't really happen until you put two things together. And some of it is standing behind the camera and feeling: "Does this feel funny?" "Does this feel right?" There are no real rules for it, I don't think. And it's the same for drama. You ask yourself, does this give me emotions? Does it feel real to me?

CF: Rat Race also seems like it would have been easy to break down into several different movies, so you had to work on making it coherent, as well.

JZ: Yes. Mostly that's a script function. It was a clever script in which all the characters have their individual personalities and situations. But Andy also gave the actors enough that the actors could immerse themselves in their characters. So what's different between this movie and most of the ensemble comedies of the past is that, in the past, it was an opportunity for every actor to do their shtick. You cast Milton Berle and he does his shtick, or Dean Martin or whoever. In this movie, everybody is really playing the character that Andy wrote. So, the people in the cast are really funny, but they're good actors, too. Obviously Cuba [Gooding, Jr.] and Whoopi [Goldberg] have played straight movies, but also, Jon Lovitz: he's really a good actor. He can do something so focused and so real. They were all willing to not let on that they're in a comedy. Whereas in other comedies, the performers are more like, "Aren't I funny?"

CF: You know, literally, as I was leaving home today, CBS ran an ad for their fall series, The Amazing Race, which has much the same set-up as this movie, as far as I can tell, but in a reality-TV way. 

JZ: Really?!

CF: Yes. And I thought about how reality-TV shows tend to showcase humiliation, as much as competition, for entertainment. Where do you see your film in relation to this? 

JZ: In this case, you feel for the characters. They're everyman in a way, they're representative of parts of all of us. And again, the actors are not doing exaggerations. There is an element of reality to these characters. So, the Cody brothers [played by Seth Green and Vince Vielhuf in Rat Race] are like real brothers, where Cheech and Chong were comics, like Rodney Dangerfield doing a movie. And the further you get out into that place, the less believable you get. And if you get a writer or director who loathes the characters, not the actors, but the characters, that can affect the outcome, make it condescending. Here, I love all these characters, and the actors each found a little bit of themselves in their characters.

CF: There are many set-piece or sight-gag moments in the film, like the Lucys all crying, or the flying cow. So how do you get the characters into those scenes, which are less about characters than they are about gags 

JZ: I think they have to blend. In this  movie, it all first comes from characters, and if you don't do it that way, you're doing sketch material. There are some movies that do sketch successfully. Like Austin Powers -- there you don't have a real character, but Mike Meyers has created a world and a guy, so it's not sketch. You accept it because he's done it so well and so fully. And so, in Airplane! and The Naked Gun, we had actors' recreations of characters from movies rather than sketch. Nobody was saying, "Aren't I funny?" Or an example in Rat Race is Rowan Atkinson, who plays what is certainly the broadest character in the film. But as played by Rowan Atkinson, Pollini is like Austin Powers: he's a guy in a situation. The actor is gone.

CF: Your earlier comedies, like Airplane! and Naked Gun, have surely inspired recent work, like that of the Wayans brothers. But it feels like there's also a shift in how comedies are working in the culture. Do you have a sense of that shift? 

JZ: Well, everything keeps changing, of course. Obviously one thing that's had an effect is what's permitted now, the far-reaching extreme to which we're allowed to go in a movie, in terms of taste. And personally, I think it can be funny, like sometimes the Farrelly brothers, with Something About Mary: there are things in that movie that would seem to be tasteless on paper, but the Farrellys make it funny. The hair gel scene with Cameron didn't seem tasteless because it was just so outrageously funny. But then I think a lot of times in movies now, they are tasteless, and sometimes tasteless just for the sake of being tasteless. The key difference is whether you think of something that makes you laugh and then ask, "Can we do that?" Then you go for it. Or, you can begin by asking, "How far can we stretch? How can we push people or gross them out?" Gross is sometimes considered funny just because it's gross.

CF: Or abuse is considered funny. Do you watch Jackass? 

JZ: No, but my kids watch MTV, so I've seen it. Once in a while something makes me laugh, but I'm not sure it's a good thing. I think it's related to the nature of that "anything for fame" attitude these days. I hope it's a passing phase. But now, it's fame above anything else. If it's fame for having oral sex with the President, it doesn't matter. I'm famous. People want me at parties. I'm on television. It's good, it doesn't matter what it's for. Obviously, in another day and age, there was always sex, but at another time, there was an embarrassment because it was adultery, and someone would have wanted to hide. But now, you're on talk shows. You pretend, maybe, because you think that's cool, to look away from the camera, but I sensed a certain relish in it. I'm very cynical about that, but it's only the most outrageous example. People do it all the time, when they go on Jackass or Jerry Springer. Maybe it's a narcissism that's growing in society, or a greater emptiness that people have, or a need for attention.

CF: The producers of those shows, and Jerry Springer himself, have said that they're giving audiences what they want. 

JZ: I don't buy that at all. It's not that it's not true, but it's a bad excuse. It's like feeding a child all candy and saying, I'm giving him what he wants. That's totally the low ground. What you're really saying is that this is what I need to do to make money. I'm doing whatever it takes to have my show be successful and I don't care what damage it does. I think Jerry Springer's despicable. He's made a lot of money, and he's famous and he's entertaining. But I think that he allows people to wallow in the lowest aspect of themselves. It's not that it's not natural. I mean, I sometimes channel change and there's Jerry Springer and something will be on that will catch my attention, everybody has that. You can make an argument for  Jerry Springer being the devil because he's the opposite of religion. Where religion appeals to the best part of people, their goodness and their faith in something outside of themselves that they're accountable to, there's another side that makes them prurient and selfish. He appeals to that. And I'm not sure how you can get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror.

CF: And a lot of people who watch don't really watch. They say they walked through the room and the show was on. 

JZ: That's true, and a lot of that goes on in our house. I don't really watch TV the way my kids do. I have a thirteen-year-old daughter, so I see Friends quite a bit, and a son who's nine, who loves cartoons. And they both love MTV, which is basically soft porn. I try to limit it, but I think that MTV is better than Jerry Springer.

CF: MTV brings up another issue, which is that it's often "blamed" for reducing attention spans. But it seems to me that it also encourages viewers to process information very quickly. And Rat Race, on some level, operates like that -- working very quickly. 

JZ: We've always been pace-oriented, my partners and I, and it's because we started in live theater, Kentucky Fried Theater, the precursor to the movie. And we were in it, not because we were great actors, but because it was cheaper. We couldn't afford to hire real actors. We hated to be on stage when people weren't laughing. So we always wanted to get from one thing to another. And that pace stuck when we did the movies. In the editing room we cut out anything that didn't get a laugh. And Rat Race is the same thing: it's like a closet full of jokes, where you feel like you can always open it a crack and stick in one more. And I think you're right, that it's partly a television generation thing. But I still don't get music videos. I hope they don't permanently imprint on my children's brains. And you're right, kids are faster.

CF: It's like they absorb and manage information differently than previous generations.

JZ: You're right. My son plays this game called Magik, with these cards. It's so complicated! He tries to explain it to me and it's like an adult would be frustrated with a child he's trying to teach to play poker or something. And he plays it with all his nine-year-old friends! [Laughs] I feel like they should have remedial classes for the rest of us.

CF: There are a wide range of characters in this film, one from every food group. Who do you imagine as the audience for this?

JZ: I imagine everyone. I was happy to be making a movie that my children and my parents could see, though in the end, I'm always making a movie that I find funny. It's PG-13, but there's little in it that's gross-out or explicit. When was the last time you saw a comedy that the whole family could see? Austin Powers, I guess, which is one of my favorite movies that I didn't make. The studio did make a suggestion that we spread the casting around a bit, which I think was a good idea, but for the most part, I write material that makes me laugh. And I eliminate certain things that I think are too scatological or not appropriate for kids or something. But in the end, I guess we must be somewhere in the middle, because in the test screenings, it played the same for men and women, over twenty-five and under twenty-five. Those are the quadrants that the separate into test screenings. So I was happy that age-wise it was broad, and that women liked it as well as men. That's hard to do.

CF: I imagine that's true. What is your set like? Are you pretty relaxed?

JZ: I like to have fun. I'm somewhere in between being obsessive and tearing my hair out, and having a good time. It's work and I'm dedicated to the end product, not to the day. My only goal is to make a movie that works, so I'm no concerned with my persona on the set, or being buddies with everyone. But when you get Jon Lovitz and John Cleese and Whoopi Goldberg on the set, you start to laugh. I think it's important to keep the actors in that fun mood and relaxed, because their performances will be better. I give the actors a lot of encouragement, and keep the set up, but in my mind, I'm obsessing.

CF: For a film with so many storylines, there must be a lot of juggling for you.

JZ: There is, and some part of me has to be concerned with making sure all the little pieces fit together, but on the set, I try to be loose, even if I'm not quite sure what I'll be cutting to. I find that out in the editing room. [Laughs]

CF: So the film will change for you in editing?

JZ: Yes, the first assemblage for this film was two and half hours, which looked pretty good to me! Until I got it in front of an audience. I'm very responsive to the audience. That's what film is about to me. It's too expensive a medium to approach like a painting, so I can paint something and say, "Screw you if you don't understand it. Zees ees brilliant!" And then you might find twelve people who like it, and if one of them is a buyer for a major museum, you're in great shape, you have a career. It doesn't work that way in film. You're asking people for millions and millions of dollars, and it costs still more to promote it and get it into theaters. It's a business. My aim is to entertain people for an hour and fifty minutes, so if 500 people don't laugh at something, you can't stand up at the end of it and explain to them why they're wrong. There are some things you can fix, you can change a set up or a line reading, but sometimes you just have to say, "Okay, I was wrong. This joke doesn't work." And you cut it. But a lot of editing isn't just cutting whole gags, but tightening. You're always in love with your shots, and you know you worked on that camera movement, and even Scorsese has done that! But then you get to the screening and you realize that the audience just wants to get to the next joke, and they don't care about that. They don't go "Oooooh! Great shot Jer!"

CF: So the test screenings are part of your process?

JZ: Yes, I find them incredibly helpful. I look at it as they tell me when I was right or when I was wrong. And it's exciting if you have at least ninety minutes of stuff that works. I've always done this, too. Particularly with comedy. Otherwise, you just don't know. And, I find audiences are very similar from place to place, within the United States and Canada. When an audience laughs at a test screening, it's funny.

Click here to read Elias Savada's' review.



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