MEET THE FOCKERS - Q&A with director JAY ROACH
Can you talk about the process getting this sequel made four years after MEET THE PARENTS?
Well, when we started this, I wanted to find a way to make it seem like it was worth doing a second one. And there was a kind of delicate balance in the first one, a sort of tension between De Niro and Stiller. And they resolved a lot of that stuff. So it was difficult to figure out a way to start it again without seeming very contrived. The trick, for me, was to bring in another force, and that's why I wanted the other cast members, Dustin and Barbra to play those characters.
Because I wanted somebody very, very strong to take him on. And Bob and I talked about it a great deal. And Ben and I talked about it a lot, too, about who would really be fun to go up against him. Who would the audience really enjoy seeing De Niro go up against? So once we decided that, that those guys were the right ones then it was just about the script. It was good at first but it took a lot of work shopping. And most of the hard work was the three personalities, well, the six personalities in the rehearsal phase. That's when it was really terrifying. Because I would bring them in, and we would just argue for two weeks straight about what the story should be and how the characters should go. It was a little bit of a corralling process because they all had ideas. They're all directors. They're all very opinionated. But I love that. I really requested and required that they just bring it on and tons of ideas. And we unraveled that script completely, by the time the rehearsal was over. So it was about getting them a sense of being playful, and try to just bring everything that you could possibly think of into it. And then sort of try to sort it all out, while they're all yelling and finishing each other's sentences, and cutting each other off. They were so much like off camera, like what they were on camera. And it was pretty easy to just kind of throw them all in, and watch that dynamic kind of go to town.
How did you get Barbra Streisand to join the cast?
It took a while. It took some cajoling and a lot of rewriting. Because her natural issue was that the script really didn't serve that character as well as it wanted to, when she first started reading it. I started about a year before she actually agreed to do it, and with a whole other draft. I didn't, myself, love that draft. And we were trying to get her to do a read-through. And she couldn't really come to doing it. But I said, "I'll come back to you, with a better version of this character." I just kept coming back, and she kept saying maybe. She was very open about not wanting to come back, and kind of being comfortable in her life; enjoying sleeping late, and (laughs) just not interested really in jumping right back into it. But she was clearly intrigued by getting to work with De Niro and Ben Stiller, and she loved the first film. So, I sort of designed the character with the other writers, around what I thought she might be best doing. And once she saw that I was really committed to that, she agreed. But, only about four or five weeks before we started shooting. So it was a bit of a dance the entire year.
What convinced her?
Well, the one scene that she finally said "okay, I get it", was the massage scene. When she knew she could take on De Niro and force him to come out of his thing, that it would be her responsibility in the story to loosen him up physically. And she had already pictured herself climbing on top of De Niro, and sort of throwing him around. Once she saw that, she was pretty ready to go. By then we had the first half of the script, and that scene. The whole second half of the script sort of evolved. But, once she had that scene, then she saw that we were on the right track.
So was the massage scene her idea?
Well, we had a massage scene. But, originally it was Dustin who was going to massage him. He was going to kind of wake up and be massaging his feet. And Bernie has so many other places in the movie to be overly physically. Then she said "there should be a scene where I confront De Niro. You know, there should be a scene where I and he sort of go at it. And I try to get underneath him. I'm a professional, I have a much more open lifestyle. And so, there should be a moment where that really clashes." And I thought "well, it would be great if it was this massage scene." So it came out of collaboration with her. I mean, this whole film was a complete collaboration from beginning to end. There's so much improvisation that went on in the process. Not just in the shooting, but in the rehearsal phase, where we would come in and read the scene and read the scene, and read the scene. And they just kept throwing new ideas. Many of the big moments in the film evolved from that give and take. The writers, especially John Hamburg stayed with us the entire time. And we'd constantly fold the stuff they were coming up with in rehearsals into the process. And that continued right through. We wrote the third act quite close to the finish of actual shooting. We didn't have a third act when we started shooting. So, the cast came up with a lot of what happened in the movie.
Just watching the film, it seemed to be that, Dustin Hoffman, particularly, maybe also Barbra Streisand just felt so loose, that it must have been slightly improvised?
It was a little of both, rehearsals and improvising. Dustin is great, because he's desperate to make you laugh and shake you out of whatever your presumptions are about the way something's gonna go, both on and off the camera. He's always telling a story. He's not a prankster so much, as he's just always in your face with a new idea and a new joke and a new story. Literally, right until, I'm saying "action", he's still finishing a story. (Laughs) You know, he's great and then he'll carry that into the character. So in a number of moments he's being particularly outrageous...like there's one scene where he explains to Blythe Danner and to De Niro that he conceived his son without full equipment. He came up with that in the rehearsal phase. So that was a Dustin Hoffman idea. And there's like a dozen of them through the story that he'd get big laughs and great moments in the film.
Do you already have plans for the third Fockers movie?
Not yet. I'm always a little superstitious about that. If people seem to like this one, when it comes out, and there seems to be a need, we may start talking about it. The studio is always eager to jump into that stuff. But, I can't, it's hard for me to think about it when I just finished this one.
Did you feel there was still mileage in the story?
I think the characters are good enough that people might want to see them get into new predicaments. But, again, it was difficult to come up with. It took three years to come up with an idea that was strong enough to make it seem like this one was worth it. Because I just didn't want it to be forced that, suddenly, Stiller and De Niro were at each other again. It just didn't make sense, since they were so resolved, after the last film. There was one key idea that did that for me. One writer, Marc Hyman, came up with the idea that he would have this grandson from another daughter, and he would be obsessed, kind of almost training that child, like the way he trained Jinx, the cat. And when I saw that I could have him have a new agenda, focused on his legacy and so, therefore he would be concentrating on how his own progeny, his own bloodline would be passed on. Then he's gotta worry about Ben Stiller's parents. Because they're gonna merge with his link and chain both culturally and physically, literally. And then he calls it, "I don't wanna chink in the chain." He's really focused on how it's all gonna merge down the line, even after he's gone. And it's sort of a narcissistic place to be. But it meant Ben had to now prove something else to him which was that his parents would contribute and have contributed, through his bloodline, to whatever would the future be. As soon as I saw that, then that was my controlling idea. And everything else was worth it.
Barbra Streisand's clothes and her character's whole attitude was very open. Was it her idea to have her hair on frizzy curls?
I have to credit her a lot on that. I told her I wanted the character to represent an openness and a tolerance of lots of different ideas or ethnicities and cultures. She, actually kind of derived the hair from seeing Dustin's wife, Lisa Hoffman, who has hair a little bit like that. The clothes came from a combination of, really looking at a lot of stuff in her closet, mixed with Carol Ramsey, who is my costume designer, and I sat and flipped through a lot of magazines to find a way to have her just seem somewhat intellectual, somewhat worldly, tied to sort of '60s and Zen and Eastern traditions. And we kind of just mixed it all together. But we worked really closely with her and her ideas.
What's the secret of your brilliant comedy?
I wish I felt that way more often. At the end of a film, especially after the first, MEET THE PARENTS, I really recognized that something clicked. But I couldn't figure out what, (laughs) why it clicked. There are lots of good reasons for it. But the overall kind of gestalt of it, I never really felt in control of it. And I didn't in this one, either. So I often have to just scratch my head and say, "well, the most important thing, above all, is what everyone always says, a great script and, and the most incredible cast." I always reach beyond where I think I can go. We really never thought we would get Barbra Streisand. And I feared I might not get Dustin Hoffman. But I thought, "if it's gonna be funny, it's gonna be because they're strong enough and funny enough to take on Robert De Niro." So, it's, it's just casting and scripts, really.
So, how does your persistence work? You talked how long it took convincing Barbra Streisand. How was it with Dustin Hoffman?
Dustin was a lot easier and a lot more fun. I met with Dustin in his office. He was barefoot, then he put on his shoes, so we could go to the restaurant. He demonstrated that kiss he does, and he tried to get the waitress to do it. I mean, he is that person. And he said to me "I've never been allowed to play myself." He is that way with his own kids. He's that way with his wife. He's always nuzzling and being way too affectionate. He comes right up to you and he'll look at your face. And he'll give you advice about your skin. I mean, he has no personal space, boundaries, no inhibitions. When I saw that, I knew needed someone that you would both love and embrace, and he would stand for a loving, open thing, as compared to the closed, suspicious thing of De Niro's. And he would do that in a way that would be both, even obnoxious, so that Ben Stiller would be embarrassed by it. But, also done in a way you wished that he was your dad. (Laughs) You know, like you wished he was your father, who would be that aggressively loving to a fault, but to a virtue, too. And he was easy. And once he saw what I wanted to do with it, the deal was complicated. But, his commitment to it was instant, actually.
Did the kid know how to speak before the movie or did he learn during the filming?
Well, the kid was preverbal when we cast him. He was very sign proficient. That was one of the things we found, they had never been in commercials or anything. We found them, they're from Sacramento. And I have tried this with my kids, too. There is a theory that if you teach your kid sign language, a few basic rudimentary things, like food and diaper, that they develop communication skills before they develop the coordination, physical skills so they can actually be very articulate in a certain way, and listen...
Did it work?
It did work. And for our kids, they learned to talk quite quickly because they'd been doing this for a while. The mom, Wendy Pickren, had been doing this with these kids. So, they knew about 50 signs, when we cast them. But they had not spoken a single word. They had made noises. And they were starting to develop other words...
When you say, kids, you mean more than one is in the movie?
Two, they are twins, Spencer Pickren and Bradley Pickren, who played little Jack, that's usually how you have to do it. Because there's a very limited amount of time you can have with them on the set. And we talked to the mom and said, "you know, how do you feel about teaching your kids this word?" It was a very, (laughs) delicate conversation. Because I have probably already corrupted children worldwide with some of the other films I've done. So they taught him a different word, which was 'azzol'. They made it mean French fry, which is his favorite food. And he just kept saying, "azzol, azzol." So we kind of slowly molded it. Frankly, by the end he was just saying the flat out, 'asshole'. (Laughs) And it was too late. Mom was very good-natured about it. But I do fear for their future. (Laughs) I'm gonna always look out for them, (laughs) if I can.
Well, you're responsible for Fat Bastard, you can't really sink lower than that, can you?
I can share a little of that with Mike Myers. But, yeah, I am constantly apologizing to parents who ignore the PG13 warning on the films.
You seem to like to break the rule of filmmaking 'never work with kids and animals', why did you choose both?
That's a good question. Bob is a really specific kind of actor who loves the external. You think of him as so method. But he really loves having external things to help him take the contrivance off of the way the lines are spoken. And he uses props that way. He'll spend a lot of time on props and wardrobe, so that he'll just have something to kind of obsess about, in the scene, to take his mind off the dialogue. And, in the first film, I was really worried about it, throwing this cat into the situation. Because I thought, "oh, he's never gonna like that, it's always gonna mess with his performance. It's gonna be doing bad things, but he's doing a good thing and vice versa." And he loved it. And he kept asking for it to be in more scenes. I realized that it was a way for him to kind of create a whole other reality. The plan with the kids was that that would do the same thing. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. He loved them, he really loved those kids and he spent tons of time with them in pre-production playing games and trucks, so that they wouldn't be afraid of him. And the first day we shot the head-butting scene, and Ben had to react suddenly, it scared the kid. And then Bob had to hold the baby and yell at Ben. And that scared the kid. From then on, the boys didn't really enjoy being around either Ben or Bob, (laughs) for the rest of the shoot. So we had to put them in kind of couples therapy. You know, trying to have them spend a lot of time together. And they did get better over time. But a lot of the kids' stuff was shot separate from them using over the shoulder shots and stuff like that. But he loves kids and animals. And that, that actually made, I actually think that rule is outdated, for me, at least. I'm always gonna have kids and animals, because it throws another wild card into the situation. The actors never know what's gonna happen next. They have to be incredibly good on the first or second take because that may be all you get with a little kid like that. And it's always something funny to cut to. Those kids were such great comic relief in the film.
Were you intimidated by your incredible cast when you started filming?
I admit that, going into the film, I was terrified. People had warned me about having so many big personalities. What I discovered was that, although it was incredibly time-consuming, they all have ideas, tons of ideas, tons of questions. They're all directors. So you can't really slip something past them and manipulate them by only giving them part of the story. They know the whole story. For me the advantage is that they're usually ahead of me, because they're focused on their own character, individually, and they're trying to figure out how the story will be told, filmically, as if they were directing it. It gets tricky when Dustin's sneaking over and giving Ben notes about his performance. Or, Barbra got an idea about, "would it really cut better if you shot it that way?" I tended to use, sometimes not a huge number of their ideas, but sometimes a lot of their ideas, and just trying to stay focused enough on the core idea, of what was going on in the scene that I could still make it make sense. I lost a lot of sleep. I spent a lot of time talking to them (laughs). But I knew it was gonna be like, literally, having a lion taming act, where you had four of the best lions in the cage, as opposed to, just one. And I felt like it worked out that way. One last thing I will say is that they were incredibly cool to each other. They performed for each other. They spent most of the time trying to make each other laugh, which added comic layers to the scenes. And then, also, made it much more enjoyable. I knew everybody was always like "oh, it's a big party on our set." It was, literally, like a troupe of circus performers always entertaining each other, always trying to cheer each other up. It was a pure pleasure. That dinner scene, we shot for four days, with them all sitting around that table, eating. And they could perform it, time after time after time, in big master shots. I have one whole master with that whole scene that could have just run without any cuts.
Are there a lot of similarities between Robert De Niro and his character, Jack Byrnes?
Well, you should ask him that. But it's interesting. A little is made up and a little is him. I think, especially in this film, a warmth comes out that I didn't see as much on the last film. Because of what he's going through in his own life. He's been through transitions. And he's at that place where you're just trying to figure out what it all adds up to. And he's in a legacy phase, if you will. I think he got to a place of looking for more layers. He just seemed more confident somehow. And it was extremely cool working with him like it was last time, too. But I was afraid of him last time, really afraid of him. And I'd gotten to know him a little better on this one. I was a little more willing to go up and say "you know, that thing where you told me how you were feeling about this other thing in your life. This is something pretty important happening. When you realize that everybody's lied to you, you're out of your own circle of trust, all that, that moment." And he was extremely...some of him is in that. The whole hard ass thing, that he is suspicious, he's a private person. But he's a pussycat.
How did you direct him?
On the first one, I would hear myself, in dailies, giving him notes from off camera. And I'm just "oh, my God. Shut up."
How was it directing Barbra and Dustin?
Well, she was fun in a different way. They were both fun, they were actually fun as a duo. The first time we met was in her house in Malibu. They had not seen each other, or talked much in a long, long time. And he came in and it was, right away, just you're so beautiful. He was kissing her and they were doing improvisations sometimes in character, sometimes just off on their own. And she has the ability, she's a great comedienne. I knew she would be, I saw all her old comedies. But she has the improv ability that I don't think people are familiar with, which is to keep up with him. And he's great at it. Then, she is so smart as a storyteller, she can find a button on the comedy that actually concludes an improv. It's very hard to find an ending in improvisation. That's a rare skill. She's amazing at it. A lot of the stuff that happened at that dinner scene, was her coming up with a kind of...she let herself kind of be on the verge of breaking up and laugh, being almost drunk. And that was the way she found all that, she came up with all that stuff on her own. So, I think they're both hilarious, and they should do more stuff as a comedy duo.
What was Barbra's contribution to the dinner scene?
She came up with this whole thing of being so out of it that she could start laughing while she was telling a story of the circumcision. And the idea of arguing with him (Ben) "you slept in our bed until you were 10", and he goes "I don't think I was." "Yes, you were", "No, I wasn't", "Yes, you were." She would come up with things, and then she would turn to Jack and go "He was." And she'd find the ending of it, which is just a rare thing. Usually, I have to do that editorially. But with her, I could just let her run, and count on her to finish the joke in a very funny way.
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