"Would you believe" … that it’s been more than twenty-five years since bumbling Agent Maxwell Smart battled against the forces of KAOS on the big screen? Back in the ‘60s actor Don Adams and show creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry crafted their clueless character into the anti-Bond and won the hearts of audiences that actually liked a spy who was more goofball than suave killer. Maxwell Smart, and Adams, became television icons with Get Smart’s original five season run and then returned to accidentally thwart the bad guys once more in Agent 86’s lone theatrical adventure - 1980’s The Nude Bomb.
Despite various Get Smart TV movies and even a reboot of the series in the mid ‘90s, Agent 86 has missed jumping back to the big screen by that much…until now. Get Smart returns June 20th as a potential summer blockbuster. Not exactly an easy proposition for a franchise that has to please both the old school fans and a gaggle of teenagers that wouldn’t know KAOS from a rapper.
This time around Steve Carell has the daunting task of stepping into the shoes (or perhaps we should say, the shoe phone) of Don Adams’s classic character in attempts to bridge the entertainment chasm and make the befuddled spy a hit with a whole new generation. And with a supporting cast including Anne Hathaway as Smart’s really smart partner Agent 99, Dwayne Johnson as Agent 23, and Masi Oka as Bruce, Maxwell Smart might end up being hip without even knowing it.
Director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, 50 First Dates) is the man in charge of updating the Get Smart franchise and he told Newsarama that figuring out how to appeal to audiences, both old and new, was a big concern that was partially assuaged last year with the release of the films first teaser trailer.
“Our teaser came out with Harry Potter and that was our first test to that question,” Segal said. “The interesting thing was there were a lot of theater reports and [audiences] would vote on which teaser or trailer they liked the best. There was a remarkable number where we won the vast majority. The demographics were very young because Harry Potter skews young and very female. We were blown away by that. It’s partly because of Steve Carell’s appeal on The Office, partly because of Anne Hathaway’s appeal and The Rock’s appeal. You also can’t underestimate the power of Borat and what that did for Ken Davitian, who they recognized within flash frames of the teaser. And I think we’ve got the attention of the older audiences who remember the series.”
Segal said finding the right balance of nostalgia versus contemporary updating was key, especially in regards to Maxwell’s particular brand of humor.
“It’s very hard,” Segal admitted. “It’s not easy. It’s easy to make a dumb comedy dumb and that’s what you constantly have to battle against. We would always have this benchmark from the [series] pilot “Mr. Big” in 1965. It’s a cold open where Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone rings at a concert. He leaves and goes into a closet to answer it and talk to The Chief. As he leaves the door is locked. Well, that doesn’t make him dumb that he accidentally walked into a locked closet. So we use that as a template and ask ‘Is it dumb that Max did X, Y or Z?’ No, that could have happened and it happened to me the other day…like my mother-in-law just dropped her car keys in our toilet! She’s not dumb,” the director laughed. “So as long as we keep our eye on that ball we’ll hopefully avoid being dumb.”
Plus, Segal admits he went back to the original creative team to help with some inspiration.
“[Brooks and Henry] are creative consultants on the movie and I have talked to them several times,” Segal said. “Mel has given us a few jokes that have wound up in the film. Leonard Stern is also involved. He was the main showrunner and is the guy who actually created the doors for the pilot. He even has a cameo in the movie. We tried to do a lot of things that are almost like Easter Eggs, so if you look closely and watch things in the background, there are tips-of-the-hat to episodes.”
But the real test of the success of the film rests on the shoulders of the cast, who will have to charm both the cranky purists and the impatient Generation Y viewers. Segal said casting was integral.
“Steve I knew going in was already on the project, but I wanted to surround him with people who were innately funny,” Segal said. “Alan Arkin was one of the founders of Second City. David Koechner was a part of the Will Farrell/Judd Apatow crowd and one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, so we hired him to play Larabee. The Rock is surprisingly funny! People don’t know that side of him. You see him in some comedies but that was exciting to have him do something a little less typical for him. And Anne Hathaway…if you look at Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, she’s not an improv actress. But if you surround people with the right talent, you can get things out of them and Anne is very similar in that way. In fact she was attached to Knocked Up for awhile.”
And by creating a loose set that encouraged improv meant Segal got even more than he hoped for from his actors.
“There is more improv that went into this movie than any other movie I have done and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of it,” the director said. “It’s fun to work with people who like to play and enjoy the process. They feed off each other and people’s sense of excitement…It doesn’t always work but it might lead to one thing that is great that wasn’t in the script and it makes the moment funnier or more real.”
Segal said Carell in particular added a lot of his own riffs that stayed in the final cut.
“The line “You’ve underestimated me and the element of suuurprise!” was an ad-lib and that’s a highlight joke.”
Of course, Get Smart might have a new look but Segal said there will be plenty of core elements from the series included in the movie too.
“We weaved it in. The “Cone of Silence” is in it but it’s a new high-tech “Cone of Silence” that works just as poorly,” Segal laughed. “Hymie the Robot is in it. A lot of people are wondering if The Rock is Hymie, but he is a different character. He’s one of Max’s mentors and a new character. Also Agent 13 is in - the guy who hid inside things [played by Bill Murray]. It’s hard to figure out with a contemporary movie how not to be too goofy, but I think you’ll see it works.
As a fan of the original series, Segal admits he even had some “fanboy” moments on the set seeing many classic props and even new gadgets come to alive.
“I love the shoe phone,” the director said. “I love seeing the shoe phone and it gave me a chill. Don’t tell Warner Bros but it’s in my house right now. I didn’t want that one to go to some prop house. And we have a couple new inventions in this – there is a Swiss Army knife that shoots a crossbow with an arrow attached to spider silk, nano-thread with the strength of half a steel cable and it also has a blow torch and a toothpick! They work themselves in organically to the story and are pretty funny…and I accidentally have that one in my house too.”