Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, producers
AWARDS: 2007 Hollywood Film Award, Producers of the Year, Hollywood Film Festival. CURRENT CREDIT: The seven-time Emmy-nominated producing team revisited the musical genre this summer with New Line's "Hairspray," a vibrant adaptation of the Broadway musical -- which itself was based on John Waters' 1988 original feature of the same name. Along with producers Alan Greisman and Rob Reiner, they recently paired Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in Warner Bros.' Christmas release "The Bucket List," Reiner's latest directing gig, about a pair of unlikely friends who bond over their desire to experience life before succumbing to terminal cancer. ACADEMY MEMBER SINCE: 1991 (Zadan)
The Hollywood Reporter: You enjoyed so much success with 2002's feature adaptation of the long-running musical "Chicago," which went on to win the best picture Oscar and which you both executive produced. Why did you decide to return to the genre with "Hairspray"?
Craig Zadan: I think what we look for when we make a decision about doing a movie musical is: Do we have a vision for the movie, and is there an audience for it? We felt that about "Chicago." We felt that about "Hairspray." We really always wanted to do "Hairspray" because we felt like it had very contemporary values even though it takes place in 1962.
THR: Did you find yourselves more influenced by John Waters' film or the Broadway production of "Hairspray"?
Neil Meron: The interesting thing about our involvement in the film was John Waters told us that when he was approached about the Broadway musical, he said, "I've already done my version. And you make it your own." He said this to the Broadway creators. And then when we spoke to him after we came on board, he said the same thing to Craig and myself.
THR: John Travolta's turn as Edna received so much attention -- how did he become involved with the film?
Meron: When we auditioned for the job of producing the movie, the first question that was asked of us by the executives at New Line was, "Who do you see playing Edna?" And our only response was, "John Travolta."
Zadan: We had offered him the Billy Flynn role in "Chicago," and he turned it down. Three times. When he saw the movie, he was kicking himself because he said, "I can't believe I turned this down." (With "Hairspray"), he was somewhat skeptical in the beginning only because there was a fear factor. It had been 30 years since he had done a movie musical, and he took 14 months to make a decision. He really needed to know that as an actor, he could play this female part. Another thing that Travolta said to us: "I don't want it to be John Travolta in 'Hairspray.'" He said, "I want to be part of an ensemble." So he said, "Get me Chris Walken to play my husband."
THR: How gratifying is it that "Hairspray" managed to survive
in such a crowded summer marketplace and is now considered an awards contender?
Zadan: We went into this summer terrified, because we knew that we had a movie musical that we loved and adored. We knew that from the early screenings, the audiences responded to the movie in a major way. But how do you take something like "Hairspray" and go up against all of those sequels? It was really, really scary every single weekend this summer, and we just had hoped that we would be the counterprogramming. We had hoped that we would be the word-of-mouth movie of the summer, and then the big surprise, I think, for us, is that our record now is this movie, "Hairspray," opened as the highest-grossing movie musical in boxoffice history for our opening weekend.
Meron: Movie musicals are a distinct, American genre. It's an American art form, and it's not something to be denigrated. It's something to be celebrated and appreciated because we in essence created this form, and we want to keep it going.
THR: You've produced numerous movie musicals for the small screen, including 1999's "Annie," 1997's " Cinderella" and 1993's "Gypsy." What are the different challenges you face doing a musical for TV versus for film?
Meron: Money and schedule. You get a much shorter shooting schedule, and you get a much lower budget. You try to make it work and try to give it all the value that we have when we do our feature film musicals.
Zadan: At the same time, I don't really feel that we've compromised that much. We treat them like mini feature films that are just being made for TV. They don't resemble what you'd expect to be a TV movie. We get a lot of quality for not a lot of money spent.
THR: How was the approach to "The Bucket List" different from producing a movie musical?
Meron: I think the approach is kind of the same. I think you have to approach filmmaking as filmmaking. There are certainly more elements that go into producing a movie musical than doing something that doesn't have musical sequences, but the approach is really assembling the best group of people to execute the script.
THR: What do you hope audiences take away from "The Bucket List"?
Meron: It's opening at that time of the year -- around the holiday season. We want the audience to have a very cathartic reaction and a very hopeful and joyful reaction, which is ultimately what the message of the film is: to appreciate what you have and to make sure that you live life to the fullest. On a personal level, what I want audiences to get out of it is to be able to honor three unbelievably great men of film, meaning Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman and Rob Reiner. And to have audiences recognize that these are three great artists who are working at the top of their games.
THR: Do you have bucket lists?
Meron: I think one of the things about the movie is that we're introducing a new phrase to the lexicon. Working on the film makes me think about those things.
Zadan: After Rob got Morgan to do the movie, Morgan said to Rob, "My fantasy is to work with Jack Nicholson." And it's funny, because on Morgan Freeman's bucket list was that he wanted to work with Jack Nicholson.