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December 2004
Fat Albert: An Interview with Director Joel Zwick

Fat Albert: An Interview with Director Joel Zwick

By Melissa Walters

Fat Albert should have been on the big screen years ago. So many directors and actors had been mentioned for the project that it became a running joke at some point. Bill Cosby, the creator and star, of the series, wanted the film to be done right, and if the script or actor wasn't the right choice, it was ultimately his decision to say no. Joel Zwick has had one film that many will remember and that was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". That film became a huge hit and brought Nia Vardolos to stardom. Prior to that, Zwick is a veteran at directing TV sitcoms, going way back to "Happy Days", "Mork and Mindy", "Family Matters" and "The Wayans Bros.". So if anyone is going to direct a film that is family oriented and is funny, why not a guy that has the experience. In speaking at a press conference in Philadelphia to promote the film, Zwick talks about directing "Fat Albert" and working with Kenan Thompson.

Was this a fun film to make?

Joel Zwick: As you can tell, I had a really good time. The energy level was scary, I started the movie and I was actually 16 years old I aged slightly. No. I just kept turning their level of energy as positive as I good and got it on screen. That is my job, I sensed that literally within five minutes of pulling this cast together that the key to this movie is going to be my harnessing that insane energy level that this cast has and somehow get it on the screen.

Have you ever directed this many African Americans at one time?

JZ: Well, yeah, I have a little bit of a background. Somewhere along the way because I guess coming out of a lower socioeconomic level out of Brooklyn, New York (Sheepshead Bay) I directed many episodes of Family Matters on TV. The Jamie Foxx Show, The Wayans Brothers. I had quite a long list of African American sitcoms that I directed in the early on days and so I was somewhat conversant, but this was a whole new generation you know, and they took me to school pretty good.

Maybe along those lines, could you just talk a little about the beginning because at one point Forest Whitaker was gung ho to direct this when he was in preparation for this and was anticipating doing it and was very positive about it and then we read a couple of days later in the trades that he is no longer on the project. First of all, what is your take on what happened and also how does that impact you when you know that you are kind of stepping in where somebody has been?

JZ: My take on what happened that there was a generational problem between Cosby and Forest, ah, that basically Cosby wrote about the sensibility of kids who are hanging around doing their thing literally through the late 40's early 50's and Forest Whitaker's relationship to the world was much later and I think that it was just a sensibility breakdown, not craft breakdown. Ah, and as far as taking it over, ah, it was about a year after the project with Forest had disbanded that my name came into the mix as a possibility to take over the movie and Cosby at that point had not seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding so I am sure he either rented or bought the movie or something and he thought, "Wow, this guy's sensibility would work for Fat Albert" and he loved the fact that I had about a 21 year career directing sitcoms because so much ofŠ.What he said to me was "if each director takes a look at a body of water it starts to wonder whether it should be smoky or whether it should be blue, whether it should be blue green. A TV director looks at a body of water and says ok that's the water, let's move on" and he thought that that was the proper sensibility of Fat Albert.

Did he talk about the cast, because you found such great people for these roles, and I would imagine one of the challenges would be finding people who can portray these characters and not really imitate.

JZ: Yeah, that is an interesting thing. First of all, the hardest thing I had going through this cast was that every single one of them was my first choice which is a remarkable thing. That does not happen anywhere. And I knew nothing about the Fat Albert series. My kids were just a little too young, I was definitely too old, so I did not really hook into what the Fat Albert series was really about. I got some DVD's and kind of looked at them and made a determination for myself that it was not really a character driven comedy, the Fat Albert cartoon, it was little moral tales that were being told with Cosby bringing some, you know, educational material. So, I decided what I basically wanted to capture was a kind of innocence and sweetness and purpose in the actors. I was less concerned about their level of craft, although I was totally amazed at how good they turned out to be on that level. I wanted nice people. There is a great story about Keenan is talking about the fact that I had flown in from London in order to put him on tape. So we made this tape in New York of him doing Fat Albert and I brought it up to Cosby to show it to him for his approval. Cosby looked at it for no more than fifteen seconds and said hire him and all Cosby picked up on was his sweetness. He could not have cared less about whether or not he was funny; he was not funny, anything about him except that he seemed to be focused a certain kind of kindness and sweetness that he wanted in the character of Fat Albert. That was, I thought, a pretty amazing thing.

So, you managed to capture some of the nuances of Philadelphia in the movie, butŠŠŠ

JZ: The expense of shooting in Philadelphia. I actually came to Philadelphia and scouted with Bill some possibilities and the money to shoot it on location was just, was going to raise the budget to a point that Fox was not willing to deal with.

What was the best thing about this project for you and what was the hardest?

JZ: The best thing about this project is Bill Cosby. I mean, you have got to know your chance of working with Bill Cosby; it is like WOW, HOLY MACKAREL that was just HUGE. That was the number one thing and the other thing that I loved about this project was that it necessitated invention. I mean once you buy into the premise that people are going to come flying out of their television to solve problems, that cartoon characters are going to become real, you are in for a world of invention. What do they do as real people? What keeps them somewhat cartoonie without letting them be completely cartoonie? How are you able to hold all of that together so that there is some serious things there happening in the movie and actually make them happen. That was probably my biggest challenge, creating a world view for these live characters that made sense.

How involved was Dr. Camille Cosby? You keep mentioning Bill.

JZ: Camille was actually more involved than Bill. Camille, Camille is um, she thought it was a funny thing. Camille does not know the movie business, but she is very much hooked into African American imaging and that is where I had my constant discourse with her to make sure that we were not portraying a stereotypical images of the African American in society that keep on being perpetrated even though we do it in good fun and good taste, we just keep on perpetrating them enough, they are going to be questionable images that people keep on seeing, and so, I would be in touch with Camille considerably more than Bill.

You mentioned that sweetness and what I call a good hearted film. Does that fly in the face of what is now considered okay for kids-the nastiness and testable humor, bad languageŠwhen you put that into the marketplace and they are use to that, so?

JZ: Well, the fact was that the biggest surprise we had was when we tested the movie it was testing through the roof with teenagers that truly amazed us. We expected parents were going to love it because it is such a good hearted story about positive values and we expected that the kids 12 and under would love it because there are people walking into walls, you know, whatever silliness they do that kids like. We did the things that teenagers would find to buy into this for a second but they did big time because one of the things that unites us all is one of the things that Bill and I talked about right in the beginning was that we were not interested in what makes us different in this room. We are interested in what makes us the same. That we all have the same needs and I don't care what the generation comes up with. I mean, my generation came up with, I mean, we wanted to be the hoods. We had our duck's ass haircuts and we had out flips in the front and our black leather jackets with 18,000 zippers and yet we were as middle class white as we could imagine but that was who we chose to emulate. The thing that binds us together is that all need love, we all need to be loved, we all would love to be cared for and these are the things that we were trying to make happen in this movie and we felt, it was me actually, I thought that today's day and age could use a bit of Fat Albert again. You know, not trying to change their choices in the terms of how they experience the world, but just let them know that perhaps a little love and a little kindness and perhaps their respect of each other because respect is such a big thing today. It is one of the biggest words and it is all that we are asking for in this movie that we begin to respect each other as people.

You mentioned the kissing scene, how it was cut, as well as the singing scene. What additional materials is out there that did not quite make the final cut and what do we have to look forward to on the DVD?

JZ: Well, the kissing scene had to go bye-bye because, let's face facts, 12 year old boys are going, AHHH, in the kissing scenes. The unforgettable, which is a gorgeous moment in the movie, just slowed the movie at a time when the movie could not be slowed. It was just in the nature of how to tell the store sufficiently and cleanly that stuff got lost but there is a first time, there is a wonderful the first time that they actually find the junkyard, which is currently not in the movie that will be in there. We had a funny runner but it was also too late to sustain it in the movie after, you know, obviously, the beginning Mush Mouth could only communicate with Old Weird Harold who had to basically speak for him. But once Old Weird goes back into the TV and Mush Mouth could learn to talk, I had this thing going on where he would never shut up and it was poor Bill. We had to deal with the fact that no matter what happened, Mush Mouth just kept talking and the problem is keeping the talking as I say it to you is very funny, as you could have wanted to scream at someone who wouldn't shut up, so it is another thing that you will be finding in the additional material.

This is a very positive, upbeat comedy? But you mentioned walking a very fine line.

JZ: Well, you know, I never attempted to pigeon hole Fat Albert as what kind of a movie it was going to be. I kind of generally knew that it had to be a family movie but Bill Cosby never talked down to a person in his life. He always assumed that everyone would somehow achieve the level of understanding he would do and his script did that and it dealt with very serious issue you know what you call mortality I call my Back to the Future syndrome where they were fading, just as they were about to become Pinocchio's they all became little boys that find out they cannot be real boys and then they are dealing with first love and they are dealing with issues that are much more sophisticated than the normal 12 and under would get into, but there seemed to be enough, like I said, people who are in holes and falling off of windows to keep the 12 and under quite happy. But you are right, the word that kept throwing out was tone to all that was sustained in the same tone of movie so that you feel like you are watching one movie instead of a series of movies and I think that the movie succeeded in doing that.

In terms of the animation, did the animator go back to the original drawings? How did it work?

JZ: No, see first of all I believe that I am not a legal expert; I do not have a legal right to the original drawings that was number one. Number two the whole idea was, it had to upgrade the quality of animation that was being done in 1970, is not the quality of animation you can go and see today in a theatre, but I wanted to keep it from, it could not be Pixar animation, it had to be drawing, it had to be the full style digital animation, that was going to be it's translation. We took the original characters and added to them by my characters here. We put their faces in their, get some of their expressions work so that when they came out of the TV, that we recognized that they were the characters from the cartoon world. I mean, the thing we seemed to find out was the people who grew up on Fat Albert felt completely satisfied in that they were seeing the Fat Albert that they remembered so we did not veer far enough from it to annoy the base audience that grew up on Fat Albert, but yet we veered far enough from it that a new audience could look at it and say this is fresh.

Let's talk a bit more specifically about working with Keenan and Kyla?

JZ: Keenan and Kyla, remarkable craft, I don't know why people that age have that kind of craft, I really don't. I did not have that kind of craft when I was that age and I was totally impressed with their work ethic, I was totally impressed with their professional ethic. I don't think that there was ever a take in that movie that got lost because either one of them could not find a line. They were there with all of their work, they were there to work and they had a kind of, they brought a spontaneity to the work that you need as a director. I mean, let's face facts, you cannot direct through seven actors all in the same shot; that was probably our biggest challenge. Two things I decided up front, when they come out of the TV set, they were going to initially do the same thing they do in the cartoon and that was cling together. They were always going to be clung together until they got more comfortable and started to spread out at the mall. The was number one and number two is that they were going to break into song on anything that would remotely sounded like a rhythm to them. Those were to the two things I had said to myself as things I was going to explore as we moved on and that is where a lot of the work came from. But I lucked out big time with Kenan and Kyla, I mean BIG time. I don't know, we could not have made Fat Albert without Kenan, I don't know who else could have played that role. And as far as Kyla, Kyla was a complete find. She had come in because John Davis was the producer had begged both of the Dr. Doolittle movies and she played the younger sister to Raven and initially I thought that I was going to go after Raven, it seemed like a very good possibility for this kind of a role. Raven has her own TV show, was unavailable, so John said please audition Kyla who is on the young side, and all of a sudden I thought, you know something, I like the fact that she is young, I think that it helps us understand things a little bit better as to why she is not secure in herself as she might be is she were slightly older. I liked the idea that than Lori became an older sister to her as opposed to a contemporary and Lori was another Kook. I mean, Dania, the concept, that was not the concept, the concept was that Lori should be Hispanic, absolutely not. But she was so breathtaking as you probably have figured from the audition process that the Cosby voted into it immediately. They liked the idea that it spread the demographic a little bit in that we were uniting more that African Americans in the movie.

There are some pop star cameos in the film, there is Aaron Carter, there is Joe Madden, Farnsworth Bentley, how did that come about and why were they there?

JZ: Why were they there? They were there because it was a good cross promotional thing to do to try and attract that teenage audience that we were frightened of loosing because the movie is kind of a goodie two shoes underpinnings and we thought that it could not hurt to have those people in. They wanted to do the movie; that is the second reason. Farnsworth Bentley stands for at least at this point, many of the things that we are trying to accomplish in the movie and that is to get a little bit of, I don't know what the word is I am looking for, it, but just to basically add some love and add some color and add some class to a world as it is today.

Could you tell us at what point did you come in on the script? I am assuming that it was scrapped and changes made?

JZ: Yeah, I think, and I cannot even begin to tell you because I really did not want to get myself overly involved. I paid the dues to everybody that Forest Whitaker had cast. The only two that made it into my movie was Old Weird Harold, Aaron Frazier, because it you think that it is easy to find someone 6'7" who weighs 140 lbs., they are not around, although I had Kareem Abdul Jabar come down and read for it, that was pretty funny, but he did not weigh 140 lbs. At any rate, what was the question again?

I just was wondering what type of changes you made? Have you considered bringing the girls in the animated world?

JZ: No, that was all the same stuff. Basically, it was very intersecting. Bill Cosby has been noted in his career for being a perfectionist and for being hands on. That has been his modus operandi. I came out to Philadelphia to meet Cosby after I decided that I was going to do the movie and I said, the first thing I said to him was, I know who Bill Cosby is, I know you are an icon, I have seen all of your work, but I will tell you one thing, if this does not become my movie we are going to fail and he looked at me and said, you got it, just take off and do it. And you know something, he just let me do it. As long as he felt the sensibility was in the world that he felt it should be in, and in some degree it was. I am a little younger than Bill, thank God, but somewhat of a contemporary. I have an understanding of what it was to grow up in a neighborhood in the 40's and 50's and the nicknames we had for the gang of kids that hung out with. So I had that kind of a relationship with him and he thought my sensibility was right on and he just said, run with it as in that point on he was nothing but supportive and I took over the script and he allowed me to do whatever changes I needed to do on the script in order to hand tailor it to the cast, which I eventually came up with.

I have a question about Keenan's fat suit. How did you know how big to make it and did you have make some accommodations?

JZ: Well, he was a remarkable trooper I can tell you. We had on the set a cold truck which was basically air conditioned as cold as we could get it so that anytime he wanted he could go in there and cool down but essentially, nope, he would take it off for lunch but essentially it was not that difficult to put on and off as it turns out. They really built it quite well for him and we went through a couple of renditions on that fat suit before it was a look that I was willing to live with because one of the things I could not have happen was Fat Albert could not be grotesque. He just could not be grotesque, he just had to be acceptable and charming for this movie to work, so therefore, the first fat suit they came up with was just a little bit unrealistic in terms of what I thought Fat Albert should look like, but it was just the luck of the draw, just eyeballing it and saying, oh, could you make the back a little less and you know his butt looks a little large, whatever. We went through a few versions before we came up with the one that we finally wanted.

That theme of inclusion and acceptance and appreciation of differences, is a thread that is somehow woven through your work and even the filming?

JZ: Oh, very much so, yes, that is absolutely right, I intend to gravitate towards those things, that is who I am. Um, that is the generation that I come from and as long as I keep on making products that enough people go and see, I would not know how to make an action adventure, I would not have the foggiest idea, I would be embarrassed at the concept of an R movie. They would be embarrassed when Kenan would have kissed Kyla and that was just little.

Can a film make a difference? Is it too much to hope for that any piece of work can change people's minds?

JZ: Well, you put it out there and hope that people come away and say wow I should change the way that I approach things in the real world. There will be some people that will be actually affected that way. I am always amazed that that occurs and figure that that is not going to happen much, but the fact is yes, I found out that I had enormous amount of people that feel My Greek Wedding made a difference in my life and I did not have any idea why that should be you know. I was not looking forward, I was not making a movie trying to make a difference in people's lives, I was making a movie that tended to show us as more of the same than different. I guess that is the best thing. I am trying to do the same thing with Fat Albert. I am trying to show that this is an African American movie, if you saw it, even if you are African American and look at this movie, it does not come across as an African American movie, it is because of the fact that all of the role models happen to be African American, but there is no reason that a cross cultural people could not do this thing and feel it is them as well as anybody else and that is what I did with My Greek Wedding, that is why that is a success. I cannot begin to tell you the amazed, the Jews, the Italians even the African Americans who saw their families in that particular movie. I am hoping that I can get the same thing to happen with Fat Albert. People can look at it and go, it is about kids not about black kids not about white kids, it is about kids. That would be my greatest hope.

If this does well, will we see a sequel? If there is, will you direct it and what could we expect to see in it and how do you avoid the sequel slump?

JZ: Well, if it does well, they are going to want to make a sequel. I know that they have the cash all signed to deals that will allow them to make a sequel and I think that it is story based and I am a story driven director. I tend to do it unless he story is so completely absurd that I believe the integrity of the project is not one that I want to get behind and I hope that I don't wish to retread the same material. I do not have years left to go back a re-tread stuff that I have already done and hopefully we can somehow find a fresh take, but you know, they will try to work on that. Cosby will pitch the story. He does not want to try and write this next one he just wants to pitch the story and be in on that level of it. Um, and just basically we can just find a story that would take the characters into different places in this one.

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