Director Peter Segal is not a household name, and to hear him tell it, that’s by design. But the 56-year-old Hollywood veteran is one of the directors most responsible for the evolution of movie comedies over the past two decades, with a seemingly preternatural sense of what moviegoers want. Segal’s films, which include a couple of cult classics and some of Adam Sandler’s biggest hits, have grossed more than $1 billion wordwide, the majority grossing more than $100 million each.
Segal’s latest film, “Second Act,” stars Jennifer Lopez and hits theaters Dec. 21.
Consider this praise from fellow funnyman Judd Apatow. “Pete is one of the few directors who knows how to balance hard comedy and emotional storytelling,” Apatow says. “His films are always moving and hilarious. People always want that magical combination.”
Agrees Segal’s longtime agent, Adam Kanter, “Pete’s films are successful, not only because they are entertaining, but because they touch on universal themes. Whatever the genre may be, there is always heart at the center of the film. I admire him for his unique ability to always find the humor in any given situation.”
Calling from Toronto, where he’s shooting an action-comedy with Dave Bautista, Segal says his primary focus is entertainment.
“The first time I read [a script], I never read it as a director. I read it as Joe Popcorn. I just want to be entertained. I want to make movies that are the kinds of movies I would see. And so I guess I’ve been fortunate that other people share my taste.”
Segal doesn’t do abrasive or dark. His films steer clear of hot-button political topics. Segal’s comedies are sweet, even when they’re raunchy. He knows that critics haven’t always welcomed his work, but he subscribes to the model outlined in “Sullivan’s Travels,” in which making people laugh, and taking their minds off their everyday problems, is the equivalent of giving a gift.
Segal didn’t always plan to direct movies, but the industry is in his blood. He grew up in New York City, where his father was head of worldwide advertising and publicity for MGM. Eventually, he was moved out to the Sony lot in Culver City. “I would go visit him sometimes when I was a kid and I would say, ‘Hey, can I go get lost on the backlot?’ And I would go across the street and just get lost. I felt like ‘Planet of the Apes,’ I was the last man on earth, and I’d round the corner and I was in the Old West and then I’d round the corner and it was Esther Williams swimming pool and so, that’s where my fantasies began.”
At USC, the English and broadcast journalism double major set his sights on making the football team. He was a walk-on, but eventually got cut, and during his junior year he started an internship at KCBS-TV.
On a little-watched show called “Friday at Sunset,” a guide to local weekend activities, he was given a shot to create a couple spots. “My first assignment was to do a story about the best pizza joints in L.A. And I said, ‘can I do whatever I want?’ And they said, ‘yeah, just get the name of the place right, spell the address correctly and yeah, do whatever you want.’ ”
Segal shot a black-and-white spoof of “Citizen Kane,” then a take-off on “The Color of Money,” and suddenly he had a local Emmy and a reel. He moved on to HBO, where he worked on comedy specials with Merrill Markoe, Harry Shearer and Roseanne, and met Apatow, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Chris Farley.
David Zucker was impressed by Segal’s HBO work, and tapped him to helm the madcap Leslie Nielsen farce “Naked Gun 33 1/3” as his directorial debut. No small undertaking, the sequel had a budget of $35 million back in 1993.
“When we shot it, I started to hyperventilate,” Segal says. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I have no idea what I’m doing.’ I remember when I told my mother how much the budget was, she said, ‘Wow, your balls are really on the line.’ It was really comforting.”
While on set, he says he learned to narrow his focus on “that scene that I was on, [and] the line that was being performed,” in order to be undaunted by the extreme scale of the enterprise. It was like a high-stakes film school.
“In the ’90s, comedies were supposedly the thing you could cut your teeth on,” Segal says. “But then you were supposed to segue into something that was actually important, a drama.”
Segal decided to stick with laughs, as long as he could continue finding new forms within the genre. “I’ve done political comedy, sports comedies, romantic comedies, joke-book comedies, gross-out comedies. If I can find a story that [has] something fresh in it, then I’m satisfied creatively.”
As his follow-up to “Naked Gun,” Segal developed the first star vehicle for “Saturday Night Live” comedian Farley. “Tommy Boy,” in which Farley plays the imbecilic, rowdy heir of an auto parts factory in Sandusky, Ohio, remains the late comic’s most beloved role.
“ ‘Tommy Boy’ turned out to be a special one, but at the time I thought it was going to be the biggest disaster,” Segal says. “I had just been coming off ‘Naked Gun’ and I didn’t know the movie business, so I didn’t know you were supposed to take a little break after you’ve finished a yearlong process of making a movie. I just grabbed the next project that was available, and because I had known Chris Farley and I so believed that he was going to be a huge star, I said, ‘I don’t care what state the script is in. I believe in Chris.’
“Well, that was a mistake,” he continues. “We started shooting that movie with only 66 pages. The process was crazy. Having script pages fly out of the computer every day, like a newsroom, you know, taking copy down to the anchor. It was an insane way to make a movie. And the fact that it turned out to be remembered so well is one of those movie miracles that is hard to explain.”
Segal is humble about his approach, but “Tommy Boy” is a testament to his facility with comic performers. The movie gives Farley’s protagonist a sense of genuine pathos without tempering his zany enthusiasm. It has such a vivid sense of place that the real city of Sandusky dedicated its entire newspaper to “Tommy Boy” on the film’s 20th anniversary.
“They talked about how wonderfully we captured the spirit of their city,” Segal says. “Then they called me to do an interview, and I had to break the news to them that we never set foot in Sandusky. The film was entirely shot in Toronto.” They got a kick out of this revelation, Segal says, and he’s been invited to Ohio for the 25th anniversary.
“I never was taught how to direct, or how to direct comedy,” Segal says. “I would watch James Lipton a lot and I would learn about directing by listening to actors talk about other directors. I remember watching Danny Glover being asked by James Lipton, ‘what makes a good director to you?’ And he said, ‘a good director is not just someone who knows what to say, but when to say it.’”
Segal’s ability to communicate with actors has drawn some of Hollywood’s top performers to his projects. Several years after “Tommy Boy,” Segal launched a creatively fruitful partnership with Farley’s “SNL” scene-partner Sandler, whom Segal still calls “a dear friend.” Together, they made three smash hits: the slapstick Jack Nicholson comedy “Anger Management,” the Hawaii-set romance “50 First Dates,” and the prison football movie “The Longest Yard.”
“Pete Segal is an amazingly warm, funny and brilliant guy who lives for family and his movies,” Sandler says. “Had a ball all three times we worked together.”
Having come up in an era of ballooning budgets, Segal’s newest genre is the “lower-budget comedy.” In an inverse of the traditional career trajectory, Segal feels comfortable working with smaller budgets because he learned the ropes on big budget movies.
His latest film, the Lopez star-vehicle “Second Act,” is recognizably a Segal project, a warmhearted comedy about a working-class 40-year-old woman who, thanks to a bit of subterfuge, lands a dream job at a Madison Avenue skincare company.
Segal, though, sees the film as a complete departure, and a welcome one. “You can look at my filmography and … they’re male-dominated stories. You know, I have a house filled with women at home, and I decided to exercise a different muscle and tell a story from a woman’s point of view. And not only that, but as Jennifer [Lopez] and I are maturing, quote unquote, it was also an interesting challenge to tell a story about people going through their own second acts in their lives. Jennifer started out as an actress, then became bigger and bigger as the years went by and she became a brand. And she kind of went away from film, so coming back to it was a nice, refreshing challenge for her, and for me telling a different kind of story.”
“During shooting, we got closer and closer,” says Lopez, “gaining that trust that a lead actor and director have to have. It’s almost like we were working in tandem in every scene to make sure that he got everything that he wanted. Seeing everything he needed to make this story work and me being a facilitator of that, making sure I wasn’t missing any of the necessary moments. We had a really good working relationship in that way and I think that comes from a mutual respect. I’ve always loved his work.”