Commentary: 'Smart' approach contemporizes '60s series

Carell cast before 'Virgin,' 'Office' were hits

"Smart" story: With brand names driving the boxoffice these days, Hollywood understandably looks to movie franchises, comic books and classic TV series to find new product.

When it comes to vintage television series, however, the transition to the big screen is complicated because the original material typically needs to be contemporized in order to be relevant to today's audiences. A case in point is Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's action comedy "Get Smart," opening June 20 (and tracking very strongly to kick off in first place), based on characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry from the hit 1960s series.

Directed by Peter Segal ("The Longest Yard," "50 First Dates") and written by Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember (who co-wrote "Failure to Launch"), "Smart" stars Steve Carell as CONTROL agent Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99. Also starring are Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp and James Caan. Produced by Andrew Lazar, Charles Roven, Alex Gartner and Michael Ewing, it was executive produced by Segal, Carell, Brent O'Connor, Jimmy Miller, Dana Goldberg and Bruce Berman.

For some insights into how "Smart" transitioned into a feature film, I spoke recently to veteran producer Charles Roven ("Three Kings," "Twelve Monkeys"), who's also a producer on Warner Bros.' Batman action adventure "The Dark Knight," opening July 18. "Knight" is the follow-up film to the 2005 hit "Batman Begins," on which Roven was a producer, which successfully reinvented the studio's Batman franchise.

"Warner Bros. had been working on trying to figure out how to make 'Get Smart' work for some time before I was involved," Roven explained. "In terms of the producers on the movie, I would say that the guy who was on the project even before me was Andrew Lazar and he actually got involved by selling a spec script to the studio that had nothing to do with 'Get Smart.' They thought it could be (turned into a story for) 'Get Smart,' but it ended up not working out."

Roven got involved with "Smart" in 2004: "My producing partner on the project is Alex Gartner. The first thing we did is we wanted to attach an actor. We thought that Steve Carell would be great. This was while they were in pre-production on '40 Year Old Virgin' and he was shooting the pilot of 'The Office.' But what he had was that great work he had done in 'Bruce Almighty' and in 'Anchorman' and all the great Comedy Central 'Daily Show' stuff that he had been doing. We felt that he would be a fantastic Maxwell Smart so we brought him into a meeting. He actually thought he was coming in to audition. He didn't know that we were bringing him in to build the movie around him.

"It was really a pretty remarkable thing considering what's happened to him in the intervening time. We started developing with him and we offered him an executive producer-ship on the movie. We kind of struck out (with) the first draft, but then Pete Segal became interested and he brought with him Michael Ewing, who we also made a producer on the movie. So that's why there's four producers on the movie. A very good team and, actually, we all contributed to the process. It's a very congenial relationship and everybody was active."

Once Segal joined Carell on the project, Roven added, "the real ideas started to shape -- (especially) the idea of making truly an action comedy where you've got equal amounts of action and comedy in the movie. The writers, Astle & Ember, came on and executed on that vision. We pretty much had a direction in '05 and a script that we were developing in '06. We started pre-production in the fall of '06 to take advantage of (Carell's) 'Office' hiatus in the spring of '07.

"By that time, 'The Office' had been a hit, '40 Year Old Virgin' had been a hit and we were looking like we were really smart guys because everybody said, 'Gee, what a great idea (to cast Carell). What a natural idea.' We all wanted to make sure that while we tipped our hat to the original show we took the inspiration but were able to create something that was very contemporary and original from the show."

How did that compare to the approach taken on "Batman Begins?"

"On 'Batman Begins' -- and 'Batman Begins' was really (director) Chris Nolan's vision -- the concept, which I fully embraced, was the fact that we were going to go back to what the core or the essence of what Batman was when he first started in Detective Comics way back in the '40s and to what he was in some of the more recent comics (like) 'Batman Year One' or 'The Long Halloween,'" he replied. "Those had a more gritty dark feel than where, let's say, the TV series (that starred Adam West) had gone to or even the later movies that Warner Bros. did (like) 'Batman Forever' (1995) and 'Batman and Robin' (1997). They were more cartoony, more campy.

"So it's slightly different (with 'Smart'). You've got that situation that you're doing something that has a legacy to it and you've got to decide how you want to deal with that legacy. (With) 'Get Smart' we wanted to honor it by doing tips of the hat, but creating something that was inspired by it but actually (is) very contemporary today. With 'Batman Begins' we actually wanted to go back to the tonal quality it had in its roots."

Besides finding Carell to play Maxwell Smart, Roven and his colleagues also needed to find the right actress to star opposite him as Agent 99. "That was the second piece of the casting puzzle for sure," he agreed. "There was wonderful interest in the role. When Anne (Hathaway) came in and met with Steve they kind of just decided to have fun by doing some improv and even reading the script (together). The chemistry there was just fantastic. When she needs to react off him (in the movie), she can initiate the comedy, too. She's got every range as an actress. She's just amazing."

Production got underway in March '07 and Carell got started in April. "We shot until the end of June and shot in Los Angeles, in Washington and Montreal and finished our shoot in Moscow in Red Square, which was so incredible," Roven noted. "Our last night of shooting, we shot all night in Red Square. They shut Red Square down for us. I don't think they did that since 'Reds' (which was released in 1981). There we were right next door to the Kremlin and Lenin's Tomb. It was pretty cool. It was really exhilarating to be near that much history."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Roven told me, "Just moving around. Going to all those places and making the production design consistent and trying to do that perfect balance that we were trying to create of an action-comedy. Those were the challenges (as was) maintaining that proper tone where we wanted to make sure we got the laughs. Obviously, laughs are really important, but (it was also important to) still have you exhilarated and entertained by really going for it with the action. There's a sky diving sequence in the film that's just extraordinary. And there are fantastic chases and explosions. The action is very credible. We spent a lot of time and energy on it. We had a fantastic team working with us and doing that is very challenging."

As for Roven's role as a producer once production is underway and Segal is directing and the actors are acting, he explained, "You know, once you're in production your job as a producer is (that) you're always advancing the shooting. You've always got to be ahead of it and trying to solve those problems so that there are very few of them on the day when you're on that next set or on that next location. So you're constantly trying to be as far out in front of the actual production itself and then you're also really trying to plan the post production process and the marketing. We're all part of this process. From the time you start on a project you're looking very far down the field while you're still wanting to make sure you don't drop the ball on what the immediate issue is.

"So it keeps you pretty busy whether you're dealing with an actor who's got another commitment some place or whether you're dealing with how to make sure that when we get to Russia they're actually going to give us Red Square for that night because we can't go there without it and trying to make sure that when we go to Montreal we can do what we need to do physically to make it look like Russia because we shot Montreal for Russia. So there's plenty to do. We didn't get to Russia until the end of June. We started working on going to Russia in January."

The problems of shooting on location are compounded when shooting takes place in parts of the world where local governments aren't accustomed to working with filmmakers. "When you go to an international city that's not steeped in motion picture making like we are here in Los Angeles or New York or even Chicago, it's complex when you want to do complicated things (that are) not just two people walking down the street," he said.

As for how cooperative the Russians were about letting "Smart" shoot in Red Square, Roven recalled, "As we walked through the process with them the red tape got less and less. In addition to dealing with the political side of things --whether you're dealing with the state government or the city government of Moscow -- you've also got to deal with the local production team. You've got to find a local production team and work through them because they know their city. And we did (that) and they were extremely helpful. But we didn't know how much the city was going to give us in terms of control over Red Square -- whether it was going to be two hours or eight hours -- until we got there."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel