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Get Smart - Peter Segal interview

Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway in Get Smart

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Segal talks about the challenges of directing Get Smart, a big screen adaptation of the classic American TV series, working with Steve Carell and tracking down Bill Murray for a surprise cameo…

Q. I gather one of the initial attractions of directing Get Smart was the presence of Steve Carell?
Peter Segal: Absolutely. Not only was he the perfect choice to play Maxwell Smart, he was the only choice. I wouldn’t undertake an iconic adaptation like this without just the right ingredients. Plus, I’m a huge fan of his work as a character actor. Even though he hadn’t quite popped yet – he was just finishing up The 40-Year-Old Virgin – when I went to go see it I realised that this guy was fantastic and was going to be huge.

Q. Was there any trepidation about taking on something that you were such a huge fan of?
Peter Segal: Of course. I’d actually turned it down twice over the years. I think it was first offered to me five or six years ago. But I said no because, well, Steve wasn’t on the scene yet. He was probably still working on The Daily Show. But timing has a lot to do with everything… in life, in this business. I know [Steven] Spielberg waited to make Jurassic Park until technology caught up with him and they were able to make it look real. I never would have done this without Steve Carell and he’s sort of the reason we’re here.

Q. Talking of timing, the film does encompass many contemporary issues much like the TV show did. It’s funny, it’s action-packed but it does have some telling political insights. How easy was it to strike that balance?
Peter Segal: Exactly, it was a challenge to get the balance right between the comedy and the action and it was a challenge to get the balance right of political satire and broad physical comedy. There’s a trial and error period in all movies. There were some earlier cuts that contained a lot more political jokes, but we tested the movie in some very conservative areas of California and realised that while half the audience were loving the jokes, the other half were going: “Hmm, that’s our president you’re talking about!” So, we said: “OK, we’ll lighten up on a few of these…” But we knew we had to do something of that because that’s really what made the original show so unique in its day. They were a bit edgy and that edginess came from their political satire.

Q. And James Caan does give a remarkable impression of George Bush…
Peter Segal: He does… but there’s another reason he’s in the movie and that’s because he was in two episodes of the original show. He was also Don Adams’ [the original Maxwell Smart] best friend, and so we thought that would be an interesting nostalgic quality to have. So, it was a fun little cameo.

Q. Talking of cameos, you have Bill Murray in a tree. Care to explain?
Peter Segal: [Laughs] Well, Bill Murray is taking on the legendary role of Agent 13 who always got stuck with the assignment of providing the other agents – and especially Max – with information. But he always had to hide in these ridiculous locations. So, we thought, OK, that seems a little old fashioned until the communications are knocked out when CONTROL is attacked and we had an excuse to go old school. But getting Bill Murray was a whole challenge in itself because he’s notorious for being very hard to reach. He doesn’t have an agent, his attorney rarely speaks to him and so we would have loved to have him in the role but we didn’t know how to get him.

So, Deb Scott, our costume designer who won the Oscar for Titanic, overheard us talking one day and said: “Oh, he’s a friend of mine. Do you want me to ask him?” We thought, “great”, but didn’t really think it was going to happen and so continued to go down our list of who else might be available. But then she said: “Oh, by the way, I talked to Bill and he’s up for it.” I said: “Great, we’re shooting two weeks from yesterday…” But we still didn’t know if he was going to show up. We had no contact with him. But he did show up, and he showed up early. He took a cab to the set. So, we talked for a while and then he said: “By the way, do you want to do the pages as they’re written or do you actually want the scene to be funny?” So, we ad-libbed the entire scene.

Q. Was there much ad-libbing going on throughout the rest of the shoot?
Peter Segal: There was but not as much as that day. But Steve Carell is such a great improvisational actor that we wanted to give him room to do things. We’d always get one as written, so there was always some continuity and there was always something to fall back on. But then we would always try to beat things… even the dramatic scenes. We’d just try something different. It’s not like the movie has been scotch taped together with no plan but sometimes the extra ad-libs enhanced what was already there.

Read our review of Get Smart