Commentary: 'Pink Panther 2' should keep boxoffice bouncing


"Pink Panther": With the world in its present sorry state, people are clearly finding a few hours of escape at the movies is well worth the price of admission.

Despite plunging stock markets and unending job losses, the domestic boxoffice enjoyed its first ever billion dollar January. "As the momentum continues and audiences continue to embrace the moviegoing habit," Media by Numbers president Paul Dergarabedian observed last weekend, "there is no question that going to the movies has become a favorite recessionary pastime."

We're likely to see more moviegoing momentum this weekend with a boxoffice bounce from MGM and Columbia's comedy "Pink Panther 2." Directed by Harald Zwart ("Agent Cody Banks") and produced by Robert Simonds ("Cheaper by the Dozen"), it was written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber and Steve Martin.

Martin stars again as bumbling French police Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the role created by Peter Sellers in the Blake Edwards directed franchise that began with "The Pink Panther," which opened domestically in March 1964. Also starring were David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine. The film's bouncy score by Henry Mancini -- memorable to this day -- was Oscar nominated. The opening animated credits by David H. DePatie and Fritz Feleng were so popular they sparked a 1964 animated short called "The Pink Phink," which won the Best Short Subject, Cartoons Oscar in 1965.

Martin took over as Clouseau in the 2006 version of "The Pink Panther," whose $82.2 million domestic gross brought the franchise back to life. Also starring in "Panther 2" are Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Andy Garcia, Lily Tomlin and John Cleese.

"I'm a huge fan of Steve Martin and when I met Steve and met (with) the studio I sensed that they felt there was a lot more in the franchise so they had a high level of ambition, which I really appreciated," Zwart told me recently. "And the script was great and Bob Simonds is a lot of fun to work with. So it was almost too good to be true."

One of the first decisions that had to be made was where to shoot "Panther 2," which takes place mostly in Paris, one of the most expensive places to shoot. As things turned out, the production spent its first week in Paris shooting exteriors and then headed for the rest of production to Boston, which doubled perfectly for the City of Light and everything else.

"The reason why we move around -- and I do this in commercials, also -- is that money (is important) above anything," Zwart explained. "We can make anything look like anything. So movie productions or commercials go where it makes sense financially. With commercials you sometimes go to places where it's more sunny, but sometimes if it's cheap (but not sunny) we go there! Boston has a fantastic deal with tax incentives. A percentage of what you spend you get back."

Besides the good financial deal, he added, "What they've done in Boston is they've made sure that as a filmmaker you're incredibly well taken care of. Everything was just really, really easy. It seemed that every door was open to us. When the producers first told me we're planning to shoot in Boston, I'd never been to Boston so I was just curious about how we were going to make Paris in Boston. When I got there and I saw those magnificent buildings with all the marble staircases, it was just like an endless pool of European architecture. As long as you (include) a fair amount of exterior shots from Paris, people will just believe they're in Paris. We found that even to make the Vatican in Boston was easy."

Originally, plans called for two full weeks of shooting in Paris, Zwart noted, "and then I went to Boston and saw we could do a lot more in Boston than what we first scheduled. So we reduced our schedule to one week in Paris and we shot the rest in Boston."

In Paris, one of the first scenes Zwart shot was at the Eiffel Tower. "That's the opening scene with Clouseau giving out the parking ticket," he said. "Then they run out of frame and the rest of the scene is in Boston."

That's not the only "movie magic," so to speak, to be found in "Panther 2." In casting the film, Zwart pointed out, "I decided in this movie to put cast above schedule. A lot of huge talents were interested in doing it. People like John Cleese and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are incredibly busy people so the mathematics of making this schedule come together forced us to sometimes shoot the scene without a big part of the cast. I shot the whole ending without John Cleese and then two months later I built a little corner of that location in a studio and I plugged in everything with John Cleese afterwards.

"Working with doubles and making sure that in the structure of the scene to have people's point of views and have doubles cross in front of the lens, you sort of glue the absent cast member into the scene. As opposed to just cutting to them, there is sort of a shoulder (that we see so that) they're part of the scene and then later you can just plug them in and nobody will know."

When I observed that shooting comedy is probably harder than anything, Zwart agreed, "First of all, I wish that more people knew that comedy's harder than drama sometimes. There's no real rewarding of great comedy. People tend to think that if it's a good comedy it's not as credible as a proper film. I think just the fact that we were accepted in Berlin shows that this is a really smart comedy." It reflects well on "Panther 2" that it's being shown next week at the prestigious 59th Berlin International Film Festival with five out of competition screenings on Feb. 13 and 14.

Asked how he worked with his actors, Zwart replied, "These people are funny to begin with. People like John Cleese and Steve Martin have a history of being funny. So for me it's more a matter of mapping out the scene, doing the rehearsals and then guiding them in what I think is (going to work best). It's funny how you think these guys just know exactly how it should be done, but they also need feedback. So it's a matter of rehearsing the scene and then saying, 'You know, that works' or 'Try to move over there so you're closer together and maybe the sparks (will) fly a little more.' Scenes were written and rehearsed and then we had some room for improv if we wanted to. But normally we stuck to the script."

Looking back at production, Zwart told me, "I think (with) the whole idea of shooting huge scenes without all the cast members there was a bit of a mathematical puzzle where sometimes I was the only one in the whole universe who knew how it was going to be put together."

Clearly, editing played a key role in making "Panther 2" work. "This is also where a big collaborative process starts working," he said. "I cut it with my editor (Julia Wong), a very talented young woman who has a great sense of comedy (and has edited such films as 'X-Men: The Last Stand' and 'Good Luck Chuck'). And then you have people like Bob Simonds, who's done this for years and years and years, who has a real smart intellectual instinct on these things. Although the material in itself is very funny, we did do a lot (through editing)."

With comedy, he added, editing is particularly important because timing plays such a key role in getting laughs: "It's how long do you leave a shot on screen? How short can it survive? Do you cut the jokes too tight together so (moviegoers) laugh and they miss the joke? The proof comes when you start testing it, which I think is a fantastic way to actually gauge where your film is. When you do comedy, testing is just priceless."

As for testing, Zwart emphasized, "There's two sides to the test. The notes that people write, all of us know you can just take with a grain of salt. But you can't deny the spontaneous reactions in the audience or, more importantly, the absence of reactions. Sometimes you think, 'I can't wait for this joke to come on screen.' You just think you have a homerun -- and nobody laughs. Sometimes you can fix it, but sometimes you just drop it. And, frankly, you always have a little more (material) than what you need."

Does he shoot a lot of takes to make sure he has more than enough to work from? "It's a very precise form of working," he answered. "I think we were pretty much on average when it came to the number of takes. I generally know when I have enough alternatives. You make sure you have the cutaways you need to sort of save yourself. What I felt was really important in this movie though was I didn't want the jokes to be freestanding. That's something that when it works, it really works because the jokes become a part of the story. They are either a consequence of something or they have consequences, themselves. I'm not a fan of totally freestanding unmotivated jokes."

On the other hand, there's a downside to working this way: "Now, obviously, if you have a totally freestanding unmotivated joke you can easily lose it without sacrificing the story or messing up the story. We kind of consciously shot ourselves in the foot by making sure the jokes had a time and a place a reason to be in the movie. It's a gamble because if they don't work you're kind of stuck with having to have it in order to tell the story."

Looking ahead, Zwart's next film is a major reinventing of the classic "The Karate Kid," which will star Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan and be shot in China. "Will Smith is producing through Overbrook Entertainment. (We're shooting) this spring or early summer so I'm moving to China for a period of time in a couple of months. The whole thing will be shot in Beijing."

So they're not going to double Beijing in Boston? "Thankfully, Beijing is going to be Beijing," he laughed. "I had a great week with Jackie in Beijing. It's when you get there that you realize how huge a star he is in that side of the world. He's so humble and human. I just can't wait to get to work with him."

The new "Karate Kid" will differ in key ways from the original 1984 hit and its 1986 sequel, both of which were directed by John G. Avildsen and starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. "If there hadn't been the original, I still would want to see this movie," he said. "It's a lot of the same structure, but you know Jaden is younger than the (teenage) character Ralph Macchio played so already there's a big change. And there's a bigger cultural difference between Beijing and America than the (original film's) East Coast and West Coast. And obviously with Jackie Chan on board the martial arts are going to be amazing."

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