An Interview with Jerry Seinfield
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After being on TV and gaining that unofficial status of ‘Best Comedy Show’ ever, you have to imagine if Jerry Seinfeld would ever do anything similar to that again. I’m pretty sure he’s declined numerous offers and meetings about projects that closely resemble ‘Seinfeld’. So when it came time for his own idea to be put in action, an animated movie about bees, Seinfeld called the right people, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks, and set out to do ‘Bee Movie’. Little did he know that it would take some three years to complete the films after rewrites and cut, but in the end, he’s happy with the results. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Seinfeld talks about putting this in motion, working with Renee Zellweger, and returning to stand-up comedy.
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, you know, people have seen a lot of me. There's the TV show and I've been a comedian on TV for many years, and I thought it's very important to give the audience a fresh flavor. And it's even more important for me to feel like I'm working with fresh ideas and fresh things. This just seemed like it would be a totally different kind of experience, to see my kind of comedy in one of these movies that looked like this. I love the look of these things, and I didn't know it but I thought it would be worth a shot to try and do something different. I feel a responsibility to the audience to do something different. That's why a sequel is not that likely.
Where did you get your inspiration for the bee world?
JS: Well, my idea of bees is that it's like human society evolved a couple thousand years -- a totally perfected utopia, corporate perfection. So on the one hand, I see them as extremely high-tech -- almost an alien-type culture. On the other hand, everything is handmade, everything is done organically, everything is done with the concept of nature. So it was hard to kind of figure out how to blend those two ideas; you know, their buses, their cars... I mean, that they could invent cars or that they would have escalators. They would have scuba equipment. They would be testing ways to survive a hurricane, you know [laughs]. I started with the idea that I think they're very advanced in terms of evolution and society, but they're very natural. So all of the buildings are kind of round, but they look futuristic at the same time. So that was what the inspiration was.
Can you talk about how after you got a crash course in animation you were able to contribute to the look of things and design of the animated world.
JS: You know, Bill Cosby said to me one time about being a comedian, "It's like being an airline pilot. The airline pilot cannot come on the P.A. system and go, 'OK, I'm going to try and take her up.'" So when I walked onto the Dreamworks lot, I did not say to them, "OK, we're going to try to make a movie here." I just walked in and pretended like I knew what I was doing. I started ordering people around and saying, "I want it like this." That's the job; that's what Jeffrey Katzenberg paid me to do, so that's what I did.
Were you prepared for the three-year longevity that this film eventually took in order to complete it?
JS: No. I didn't know I would get that involved. I didn't know I would get that interested in the day-to-day workings of an animation studio, but I found that everything I learned, I said, "What if we did it this way?" They started liking the ideas and they said give us more ideas, and I would come in the next day and the next day, and then the next thing I knew, I was living there.
Was it frustrating at all knowing that they would or did end up having to cut out some of the material you came up with, especially when the first take of the film was over 100 minutes?
JS: There's nothing that isn't frustrating. It's frustration from start to finish. I'm still frustrated; I wish I could work on it just one more week. There's a couple of things I'd like to polish, but I'm used to that from the TV show. I mean, one of the things that they were very surprised by working with me was that they would have a scene and they would go, "Enh, that doesn't work. We need to do something different with this scene." And I would just go, "OK, let's have him say this. And he says that and that." And they would go, "Wait a minute." I would just change it right there on the spot because that's how you work in television; there's no time, you can't wait. We can't do this tomorrow, we do this right now because in TV it's like getting out the newspaper. You know, the paper's going to close. So normally if you had a scene that didn't work, the phone calls would be made to the writers. The schedules would be organized, and then the writers would come in and work for three weeks, and then they would hand them the sides. I would have it done in an hour.
So you're kind of a one-man show.
JS: I can be, but I also work with a lot of other people. I didn't do everything by myself. I don't want to give you that impression.
What was the challenge in taking your observational humor and translating it into action scenes and set pieces?
JS: I kind of always had this side, and never was in anything where I could express it. All of these visual scenes, I thought of all of them. And as a stand-up comic or on a TV show, you can't put a camera on a bee on a tennis ball or through a car engine or some of the crazy things we did. So it's something I've always wanted to do, and I had an eye that I could never use. So that was probably the most fun thing about it. For the first time in my life, I was able to go, you know, I'm kind of seeing things from this angle. So Simon (J. Smith) and I worked very closely together, and he also has an amazing eye for camera placement and angle. We would just kind of work off of each other and it was really fun.
How important was it to have other writers there to help you on the script?
JS: Very important. I was actually very scared to even take on the idea of writing a movie. It just seemed long, and I was a little bit intimidated, so I thought let me get some buddies of mine around; at least we can talk about sports. I just didn't want to sit in a room by myself and write a movie. I enjoy writing stand-up by myself, but the movie thing... I just wasn't sure how to structure it and where are the act breaks and how do you keep the story going. So I needed some help from them.
You trusted them to help you with the process?
JS: I did. These guys actually happen to be my friends, and I'm at the point where I like being with my friends, and there's nobody else I really wanted to write with. I just kind of liked the vibe, you know, it's more of an atmosphere. Sometimes writing comedy is just hanging around with funny people; someone could not put one funny line into the script, but them being in the room makes you feel funny and then you think of funny things. I can't explain it, but this is how it works; like there are certain people who are not funny at all.. as you know.. and when we would write, if there was a person that would come in the room and it would be like someone just filled the room with water. You know, nobody felt funny any more and we couldn't think of anything funny, so we'd go, "You've got to get out of here."
Is the process of working and reworking the script the best way to find the right balance between your more adult, sophisticated humor and something appropriate for a family-oriented audience?
Seinfeld: I didn't know what I was doing. This is the way most movie studios work: They think, "We have to cater to boys eight to 14, and this is the kind of humor they like." These are the kind of people that you say, "Get out of here." I don't work like that, I wouldn't know how to work like that. All I know is what me and my friends think is funny, and that's what I put in the movie. I figure enough people know me, and there's enough people in the world that someone will like this thing [laughs]. It doesn't have to be everyone; you don't want it to be everyone. I think if everyone likes it, it's not good.
Can you talking about bringing in Renee Zellweger as your costar?
JS: Renee is someone that I feel is an extremely unique talent in the world. She is not only an amazingly broadly talented actress, she is mentally one of the fastest-thinking people I've ever talked with -- and perceptive. So again, just being around someone like that makes funny things happen, things just pop in your head from her being in the room. She's obviously very in-demand and hugely successful, so I really was like a little leopard in the weeds with her, just creeping slowly. I would turn up places where she was and just happen to bump into her, and it was an accident. But she was the only one I really wanted desperately to get in the movie, so I'm very excited to have her.
Did you have any idea you'd be so hands on with it? Because it's such a slow process, did it drive you insane?
JS: Insane. Insane. But then I started to just have to accept that this is what it's going to be and I just slowly went through it. And then I got more and more involved. And I said to my wife, "Why do I have to do everything this way? Why can't I find some other way that's not such torture?" And she said, "You do the same thing with a box of cookies. You just have to eat the entire box until you are sick of it, you know?" I always have to get way in over my head. I wish I could pull the throttle back somehow.
You wrote the script, produced and are the leading voice. But how many of your ideas are ultimately in the movie?
JS: I don't know. I don't really keep a chart of those things. A lot of people put a lot of ideas in. I kind like of like to play the captain of the ship and I decide what comes in and what comes out. And I come up with stuff and everyone comes up with stuff. It's kind of like The Dick Van Dyke Show. Remember when they would write, there was the head writer and that's kind of the role I like to play. Like, I'm in charge of the gate of what gets in. And anyone can throw out anything they want. There are ideas in the movie that people just in the office just threw in. Oh, the idea of calling the judge Bumbleton, so, you'd kind of have an idea of how this trial was going to go. So, I dunno. There is a lot of my stuff in there, though. But a lot of other people's stuff, too.
How about Ray Liotta's cameo?
JS: See, comedians see a guy like Ray Liotta and we know he's funny, but the general public does not know he's funny. But then it takes somebody to put him in a funny situation, and then everyone can see. Like, remember when they first put Leslie Nielsen [in comedies]? Those guys are nutty. Ray Liotta's one of those guys, and no one is seeing him the way I see him. So that was a lot of fun, and luckily, he has the same sense of humor; he likes being funny, too, but nobody thinks of him that way.
So what was the biggest challenge of making this movie?
JS: The biggest challenge was, frankly, the story. I found it's very difficult to sustain comedy for a full-length movie. And if you watch comedies or you watch any movie you know that people struggle with the resolution of the story. It's the most difficult part of a movie, but comedies in particular tend to run out of gas about two thirds of the way through. And then they get into these romantic things and you are kind of having fun as you're getting into the premise and then figuring out how to resolve the whole story -- the guy and then he professes his feelings and I really loved the girl next door all along. And then [audiences] go, "What happened in the labs? We were having so much fun." But I was determined not to do that. And I struggled a long time to find a new... you have to create something that is fun to end the movie, but keep it silly and funny. So that was the thing; we had a lot of trial and error until we figured that out.
Was that an intentional reference to The Graduate when Barry's parents tell him to get a job as he lounges in the pool?
JS: Yes, of course. No, there was a time when I first conceived of the film that I was going to do a complete metaphor for The Graduate, all the way. But most of it, we ended up losing. But that scene I still liked so much and I liked that movie so much I left it in.
Were there any thoughts of making it more musical or having musical numbers?
JS: There was a huge, very elaborate musical production number that I ended up having to get rid of because it just threw off the plot drives at a crucial moment. But there is the song that Matthew and I did that's at the end of the credits.
Will that be on the DVD?
JS: Yes. Yes it will, but it's not fully animated.
Would you say this is a more innocent character than you usually play?
JS: Hmm, it didn't start off that way but another thing I learned was that movie audiences weren't liking me in that TV version. I had to kind of take the edge off because it's the way he looks. He's younger and cuter than I am, and they didn't want him to be quite so nasty. He was nastier at a certain point of making this and I had to take that off.
How much stand-up have you been able to do in the past few years?
JS: A little. I'm going to go back to it next year.
You recently appeared on 30 Rock. Did that give you an itch to return to TV?
JS: No, not really. I mean, nothing could beat the sitcom experience that I had and I enjoyed being on 30 Rock. I now know what it's like for the people that came on my show just for the day: What an easy job that is! You come in, you give me the sides, see you later.
What about the itch to return to animation?
JS: I don't know. This movie still feels like a joke I haven't told yet. Once it comes out and the audience reacts, however they react -- you never know, then I'll know what I made. I don't know what I made until they see it.
Now that it's finished up are you thinking of what you're going to do next?
JS: No [laughs].
BEE MOVIES Opens on November 2, 2007
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