Filmmakers reinvent classic TV comedy
Today’s 12-24 millennial moviegoing demo has probably never seen an episode of the late ’60’s Mel Brooks-Buck Henry spy spoof TV series “Get Smart.” They don’t know from Don Adam’s clueless agent Maxwell Smart, or Barbara Feldon’s sexily klutzy Agent 99.
That hasn’t stopped Warner Bros. from fashioning the show into a summer tentpole starring comedian-du-jour Steve Carell and leggy “The Devil Wears Prada” star Ann Hathaway.
Here’s the original set-up for “Get Smart,” which ran from 1965 to 1970, first on NBC then CBS: spy org CONTROL is waging a cloak-and-dagger battle against its evil competition KAOS. Leading the fight for CONTROL is Maxwell Smart, played with nasal heft by Adams.
“Those who knew ‘Get Smart’ will love the film in its own right,” says Mosaic Media producer Alex Gartner, who tried to “reinvent the project as though there was no name recognition.”
Remaking vintage TV skeins is a risky business. For every boffo summer hit like “The Untouchables” or “The Fugitive” (which grossed $76 million in 1987 and $184 million in 1993), there’s an “Avengers.” Based on the Blighty spy TV series from the ’60s, Warners conceived the caper comedy as a tentpole with a $60-million budget. While the studio touted Uma Thurman as Emma Peel and Ralph Fiennes as John Steed, neither auds nor critics bought the combo. Released in August 1998, pic misfired domestically with $23 million.
The trick to reinventing “Smart” was to not alienate fans of the old show while pulling in fresh auds: to marry the right familiar material with hip stars. Here’s how the filmmakers chased a fresh take on “Get Smart”:
Don’t Do Don Adams
Starting in 1999, producer Andrew Lazar shepherded “Smart” at Warners through several drafts. The studio had owned some rights to the series through HBO. “Andrew Lazar had a script at the time that was a spec,” explains Warner Bros. production prexy Jeff Robinov. “It provided a good foundation for the ‘Get Smart’ film and it’s what jumpstarted the project.”
Comedy stars Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell each attached themselves to “Smart” for a time. Through their attachment, managers Mosaic Media came onboard and remained creatively involved long after their clients’ departure from the project.
Way before Carell established himself as a B.O. leading laffer with “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Lazar called the former Second City alum to meet about “Smart” in the summer of 2004. “He brought his resume and headshot,” says Lazar, “Steve thought he was auditioning.”
Aside from notable credits as a “Daily Show” correspondent and zany turns in “Anchorman” and “Bruce Almighty,” Carell’s conception of Smart convinced producers that he was the right guy.
“Steve’s initial thoughts were simply that he wouldn’t do the voice. He wanted the character to be intelligent and his mistakes to come from exuberance, not incompetence,” says co-scribe Matt Ember. “He also felt that no one could follow in Don Adam’s shoes.”
Ember along with his screenwriting partner Tom Astle landed the “Smart” gig after selling the producers and Carell on their version of a comedic “Bourne Identity.”
“Steve described Maxwell Smart after reading our first draft as ‘having steely, misguided resolve.’ We took that as a compliment,” adds the co-scribe.
Action over Antics
Astle credits the “Get Smart” TV show, which was “more spoof-oriented than this movie,” he says, as spawning both “Naked Gun” and “Austin Powers.” In order to set “Smart” apart from previous spy satires, Astle and Ember churned out a Maguffin-twisted actioner in the vein of “Mission: Impossible.” What begins with an explosion at CONTROL headquarters sends Smart and Agent 99 to Moscow to uncover yellowcake uranium and back to L.A. to stop a bomb.
“When we researched the spy business, we discovered it was truly what they call ‘the wilderness of mirrors’: you don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” says Astle.
When it came to marrying a director to the project, Lazar and Gartner pursued Peter Segal, a helmer who they believed possessed the tonality for handling action- infused comedy.
“There was a scope and deftness in Segal’s remake of ‘The Longest Yard’ that made me think he could handle a project of this scope,” says Lazar.
Make it Resonate
Why make “Get Smart” close to 40 years after it’s been on the air?
“The original series was successful because it spoofed James Bond,” says Astle of the series’ Cold War setting. “It let the steam out during paranoid times when people were building backyard bomb shelters.”
Likewise, “Smart’s” creators believe that the film version of “Smart” will resonate with auds looking to laugh in post 9/11 times. Though the Russkies are still the baddies in the present day setting, a climatic sequence entails a dirty bomb.
But Hang Onto to the Original Fans
While taking a fresh approach to “Get Smart,” Segal, Ember and Astle weren’t going to diss fans of the original skein’s classical gags.
Segal passed a list of jokes from Brooks and Henry to the new scribes. One quip suggested by Brooks: the Chief (Alan Arkin) compliments Smart on his test results with, “I liked your essay on existentialism,” to which Smart responds, “I left that one blank.”
Plenty of Adams catch-phrases, such as “I missed it by that much!” and “Would you believe?” are on-screen, along with a string of supporting characters including Larabee (David Koechner) and Agent 13 (Bill Murray).
The most notable visual bit borrowed from the show is Smart’s opening march as he enters CONTROL through several sliding doors. Another essential ingredient carried over from the series is the romantic banter between Smart and Agent 99.
“A romantic comedy was an important part of the ‘Smart’ pitch,” says Ember. “The key to comedy: hire good comedy actors.”