Last December I was lucky enough to sit down with a man behind such films as Airplane!, Ghost, The Naked Gun, Kentucky Fried Movie and Rat Race, Jerry Zucker. He was in town for the 30th anniversary screening of Airplane! set up by the London Comedy Film Festival (LOCO for short) and was happy to talk for 30 minutes about comedy, awards, filmmaking and my favourite subject South Park. Sadly this interview has been lost under a giant stack of rubish but it is finaly here to be read and enjoyed. Read the interview after the jump.
Jerry Zucker: Hi
ScreenGeeks UK: Hi, how are you?
JZ: I’m good. How are you doing?
SGUK: I’m fine, thank you.
SGUK: Firstly, thank you very much for coming down.
JZ: Oh sure.
SGUK: It’s great to have you in the country. So you’ve come down for the 30th anniversary screening [of Airplane!], does it really feel like it’s been 30 years since Airplane!?
JZ: No (laughs), it doesn’t, you know, only when I try to do any athletic activity but it’s amazing that little movie has held up all these years. I don’t think, as high as we were on it, as much as we were thinking this is going to be great, I don’t think we had envisioned this. It’s amazing how fast 30 years goes (laughs again).
SGUK: So it was a very positive filmmaking process then?
JZ: Oh, it was wonderful; I always look back at that experience as one of the best of my life. Making that movie was just great fun and just exciting, not that there weren’t challenges and ups and downs, all the usual stuff when you shoot but it was so exciting because it was the first time we had directed. Really a lot of it was also to see Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, all these guys saying our lines with a straight face. Yeah, it was great great fun.
SGUK: Now the film is being honoured by the LOCO Film Festival, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s great to have a comedy film festival.
SGUK: Do you feel that comedy is sometimes overlooked in the film industry?
JZ: Yeah, I do actually, though I don’t put a lot of stock in all the awards. I love that line in Annie Hall where Woody Allen says, you know he’s supposed to give this award and he says ‘They always give awards, Adolf Hitler: Greatest Fascist Dictator.’ I think people who don’t do comedy don’t realise how difficult it is, and sometimes also I think that comedy doesn’t always require great, incredible production values and it doesn’t always require a high budget and a slick look, it’s just people being funny and doing funny things. A lot of times I don’t think comedy films have that look that we associate with great movies, but I have a lot of respect for a film when I see a comedy that works, if it makes me laugh I have a lot of respect for it.
SGUK: You mention people being funny and doing funny things but I think the important thing about Airplane! and The Naked Gun is that I don’t think anybody is trying to be funny in the film, it’s played very straight.
JZ: Yeah, well I guess what I meant before is… I wasn’t thinking of acting silly necessarily, I mean Leslie Nielsen is funny when he says ‘Don’t call me Shirley.’ We always like to set up scenes as you see them, that was our version of satire, just presenting a scene as though we had been able to go into an old movie and change the lines without telling anybody, you know what I mean? That was the whole reason really we were so excited about making Airplane! and insisted on directing it because we couldn’t trust anyone to play it that straight and cast it that way, so that was our intention right from beginning.
SGUK: Airplane! is so layered in its comedy, there’s just so much in there. Is it all written in the script?
JZ: Like 99% is. It’s great and I take it as a compliment that it looks like we were winging it or coming up with stuff on the fly, its great to have that reckless feeling but in fact it was all scripted, of course something would come up on the set and we’d try something but really, we were pretty much sticklers for following the script. We also kind of felt that since we had worked on the script for years, the jokes that weren’t that great were the ones that fell off and the jokes that remained in were the ones that stood the test of time. The problem is on the set, something’s just seem funny at the moment, but in reflection, and that’s even so in writing, sometimes you laugh and then you look at it the next day and it’s not the kind of a joke you want to do or it breaks the cadence or it’s not that great really and you toss it out but once you’ve filmed it (he laughs), unless you film it two ways, we could always do that and say ‘Try this and then do it the way it’s scripted.’ but we really did stick to the script.
SGUK: So where did the idea for Airplane! come from?
JZ: When we ran a comedy theatre in Los Angeles called Kentucky Fried Theatre, which then became the movie. Part of the show was video tape, and those days it was this big box, black and white, reels to reels of video tape and of course the pictures we got were not as good as my iPhone. We used to leave it on at night, that was when the funniest commercials were on, the best ones to make fun of, these really cheesy commercials. So we left it running and between the commercials was this movie Zero Hour and it was essentially the same plot as Airplane!, it was a wife leaving her husband and he was chasing her around on a plane. We thought this would make a great plot for a comedy and so we ended up buying the rights to it, and writing Airplane!
SGUK: How do you feel about the current state of the parody genre?
JZ: … I like comedy, I love The Hangover, just laughed my ass off with The Hangover, thought that was really funny and there are a lot of comedies that I love, still love, he was really before is and during us but all the Woody Allen movies, any bits of comedy he does gets me into one of his movies. The parodies… I think, I don’t know what they are doing really.
SGUK: What about someone like Edgar Wright?
JZ: Ah yes, Shaun of the Dead was smart, yeah it was funny. I think they did their own thing, it crossed over into our stuff frequently, but they did their own thing I and I thought very well.
SGUK: Also, another one I wanted to bring up was Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
JZ: Love them!
SGUK: Of course, you worked with them on Baseketball, which is one I wanted to talk about as it’s a strange movie. You rarely see those guys on screen apart from that movie and Cannibal! The Musical. I’m just curious how that came about?
JZ: Well, that was actually my brother David’s film. Briefly I can tell you, David used to play that game, he used to play Baseketball, and I used to play it with him sometimes you know, but it was really David’s invention. He decided ‘Wait a minute? Why don’t we make a movie out of it?’ And then he found… Trey and Matt had done an early… this is before South Park, we found the first little short that they had done which were essentially the South Park characters and we found it funny. They did another thing for us; we were at Universal Studios at the time…
SGUK: Ah yes, Your Studio and You.
JZ: Yeah, and so they did that. They [Universal] asked us for a little thing to do, to show to all their people and then we brought on Matt and Trey to kind of help with it.
SGUK: I have a few fan questions.
Graeme Macpherson: Do you like gladiator movies and have you ever seen a grown man naked?
JZ: Yes to both.
Russell Newlove: Why is it that I can watch Airplane! again and again and again, yet struggle to finish one screening of the crap that’s at the cinemas these days?
JZ: Because you’re a highly intelligent and thoughtful human being. As I said before I think there’s still good stuff done today, so I wouldn’t dismiss everything as “crap”. There’s still good comedy out there, I think Airplane! just happened. It was such a combined effort, from the three of our heads. I saw it recently at a 30th anniversary screening at the Lincoln Center in New York and I hadn’t seen it for a while, actually for ages in front of an audience and I was watching it and I was just shamelessly laughing. It was the first time I really could just relax and enjoy the movie. Yes there are a lot of great jokes up there but there’s a lot of just oddity, there’s a certain sensibility more than just the serious actors playing it straight, it goes to a place sometimes that’s just… I don’t know how to describe it but it goes to a very bizarre but funny place. Here’s another thing I think about Airplane! that’s different from other comedies, as edgy as it is, grown man naked and all that kind of stuff, it’s also very sweet, it’s very good hearted, it’s not mean spirited at all and a lot of comedy is mean spirited and as much as I hate to say it, a lot of comics are pretty dark people, and maybe that’s why it took three of us, I mean we were all individually and collectively narcissistically disturbed, no I shouldn’t say that… we were odd, but we just didn’t go to places that were mean or left you with a bad taste in your mouth.
SGUK: You mention you, David Zucker and Jim Abrams all directing together, is it easy to collaborate? Of course, you’ve worked alone, so do you have a preference?
JZ: If I were going to do this kind of comedy again I would want to direct it with David and Jim. I think the thing that allowed us to do it was that we all had the same vision, in other words three directors with slightly different visions, could be a problem but we had been doing that kind of comedy in our live show and Kentucky Fried Movie even though we didn’t direct it. We really knew what we wanted and then on the set it was just problem solving and then the other thing that was great was that three, an odd number, is good because you always have a decision, I don’t know how two people or four people could direct a movie but three is good. Another thing is we were so close, we’d known each other for years and years so we really had kind of a respect and love, not that we didn’t battle all the time about stuff but we had a great respect for one another and it just made it work. A lot of times in this kind of film, it can be very technical like with Peter Graves and Joey, where he’s got a hand on the plane and then he’s got to look at him and say ‘Joey’ and then he’s got to look up and say ‘Have you ever seen a grown man naked?’ and then look… its not like Peter would go and just feel it like he would in a normal role with an actor and then you go try this and make some little adjustments, we were very specific about stuff so it helped to have six eyes watching what was going on the monitor so someone would catch one thing, someone would see an extra in the background smiling. So it was really helpful.
SGUK: Do you have any advice for young people who do want to get into the industry especially the comedy side of it?
JZ: Yeah, forget it, give up, don’t go. Find a decent job… [After advice from the LOCO Film Festival correspondant] Oh, yeah, go to the Comedy Film Festival and all your dreams will come true. That’s my advice for now. No, here’s my advice, instead of writing a screenplay and trying to sell it or trying to get a job as a director or something like that which is fine to do but now it’s so easy with the equipment they have, with the video cameras and the editing equipment. Really you can shoot it with an iPhone and edit it on iMovie or whatever, it’s simple form, or if you want to get a little more sophisticated you go to a better camera, shoot it with a Cannon 5D and Final Cut Pro, you can show the thing in movie theatres. What I was saying was do a ten minute film and show it to people, the thing you have to know is what works and what doesn’t and we learned that, you have to have a natural… I can’t teach someone to be a comedian, you have to have a sense of humour but being that you start with a sense of humour and a passion for it, you need an audience to try it in front of and in the years we ran the theatre, the 5 or 6 years, both in Madison, WI where we were going to school and Los Angeles, every night we were there on stage and in addition to the live stuff we also had video tape of segments and that’s really where we learned to put jokes on film, with this black and white video and we would show it to people. We would think something is really funny and we’d show it, people didn’t laugh and we’d say ‘Oh.’ and we eventually developed rules not that you… comedy is always like your never sure, you never get to the point where it’s a formula but we really developed certain rules of things “we know this isn’t going to work because…” and then it becomes more instinct, the more you see what makes people laugh, you know doing stand up is excellent for that to, ask any stand up, you can’t just go and put together a brilliant routine and go and do it on your first try, you need to develop a sense. It’s so easy now, you can shoot something and edit it together and bring in an audience, get a bunch of friends together in your living room and show it, see if they laugh or get a bunch of friends together who have done these things, a bunch of your other comic friends and say lets each do a ten minute thing and then we’ll have a night, we’ll get a bunch of people together somewhere and put it on a big TV and you see what people laugh at because you do need the practise, and then if you get good at it, then it will happen for you, you’ll get one that goes on the internet; that’s another great venue now, it can get lost but it also can spread and if it’s really funny people can discover it or you can send it to people. I think people focus to much on trying to get a job, so that would be my advice.
SGUK: Thank you very much.
JZ: Pleasure, very nice to meet you.
Visit the LOCO Film Festival website today to find out about the great things they are doing for comedy film in the UK.