When I really like a movie, one of the first things I do is try to get an interview with the screenwriter. In the case of “Death to Smoochy,” easily my favorite movie so far this year, that man is Adam Resnick, a fellow I was already a big fan of.
Resnick got his start on “The David Letterman Show” in the late ’80s (nominated for many an Emmy and taking one home his first year, 1987) and moved from there to the co-creating the classic Chris Elliott-starring television series, “Get a Life,” which served as a springboard for writers like Bob Odenkirk and Charlie Kaufman and directors like Dean Parisot and David Mirkin.
In 1994, Resnick wrote and directed one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, “Cabin Boy,” the movie that made me the I’ll-see-anything-Chris-Elliott-does fan that I am today. Resnick returns to the wildly surreal with “Death to Smoochy,” a Damon Runyon-esque blast of bright colors and dark humor. It’s a helluva bizarre film and my jaw was on the floor for most of the movie. I hardly knew a thing about it when I saw the pic and there was just surprise after surprise that had me not believing my eyes. It was the next morning that I requested to speak to Mr. Resnick. And here he is:
Question: How long ago did you start working on “Death to Smoochy?”
Answer: I think this is like two years ago.
Question: Where did this come from? An interest in children’s television…?
Answer: A little bit of that. There’s always been marketing towards kids going back to Mickey Mouse or Davy Crockett hats, but it’s the realization that now at this current point in history it’s huge business and it’s serious business. It occurred to me that wherever’s there’s big money anywhere, there’s a very serious, no-fucking-around attitude. Why not take the next step and think there could actually be violence? (laughs) That made me think of “Serpico.” To me, Sheldon Mopes (Ed Norton’s character) is Frank Serpico. He goes into a situation with the best intentions, thinking it’s going to be this very nice situation where it’s all about fighting for good and he gets there and realizes, no, it’s something quite different. Again, it’s all over money. In the case of Serpico entering the police department, everything he goes through is all about money and people making money in an underhanded way. There’s that great scene where he’s been transferred yet again to some other precinct, which he’s been told is a clean precinct. He’s gets there and he’s out on the street when one of these cops pulls over and tells him to get in the car. They basically lay it out for him how much money actually goes through this precinct, what the drops are, how much of a cut each of these cops makes every week and the cop says, “with that much money, you don’t fuck around.” (laughs) Marketing to children now is very serious business. It’s not just like it was thirty years ago, there’s much more at stake. And with that much money, no one better fuck around. Even the Enron thing, there’s money involved, someone’s fucking around and before you know it, there’s a suicide. To me, it all makes sense – money is money. It’s a recipe for trouble ultimately.
Question: What about Steve Burns – the guy who left “Blue’s Clues” over how much marketing was being done towards kids? Was that before, after or during your writing on this?
Answer: Well, you know what’s funny about that? That happened during pre-production and I called Danny right away, funny you should mention that, and said, “Danny, we’ve got to do a scene in Spinner Dunn’s bar where Sheldon’s walking out and he runs into that guy, Steve Burns from “Blue’s Clues and says, ‘hey, how’s it going, Steve?’ and Steve just shakes his head and says, ‘what do you think?’ Sheldon’s like, ‘what did that mean?'” The problem was, Danny had never heard of Steve Burns and didn’t know what “Blue’s Clues” was and thought it would be way too inside, but I kind of liked that it would be inside. I thought it was inside just enough to be a really great moment. I’m sure that guy would’ve loved doing it.
Question: When you were first writing this, did you think there would be so many surreal elements or were you really, at first, looking to ground this in reality?
Answer: Well, it was always a wild story and it was always a combination. It’s weird. I wanted it to be grounded in a very real sort of situation, but then, ultimately I wanted to spiral out of control. I was probably thinking even more “real.” Danny brought his touch to it which added a certain surreal element here and there, which I like and admire. The other thing that was a big influence for me was “The Sweet Smell of Success.” I strongly wanted it to be in that kind of world. I wanted it to be a world where everyone was always going to places like ’21’ or those kinds of restaurants and all these people in the children’s television business were all wheeling and dealing. I specifically did not want it to be a “Krusty the Clown” sort of thing where you’re going to some funny bar like the Fuzzy Balloon where it’s just clowns drinking beers and smoking cigars because I wanted it to play completely real. At least, that was my idea, to just have it be these executives that were just as real and straight-forward as Enron executives. But then ultimately, when you start getting into this, it’s starts getting crazier and it did start to get weird when I’m having Buggy Ding-Dong, the heroin addict/ex-children’s host mixed in. So, Danny and I – it was a nice collaboration of tones, I thought.
Question: When you started writing this, was Danny DeVito involved then? Was he the first person you took it to?
Answer: Yeah, he was one of the first people I sent it to. Actually, the first person I took it to was Edward Norton who I had written the role for in the hope that he would like it. It turned out that he was very enthusiastic. That was like two days after I finished the script that it was in his hands and he called me right away. That was really gratifying. So no, Danny was not. It was pretty much just me alone.
Question: How much of the final movie was in the original script, how much was added in pre-production as people were added, and how much of it was improvisation?
Answer: I was pretty lucky that it stayed close. Everyone seemed to really love the script. The initial problem with the script was that it was at least fifteen pages too long, which is a lot. There were subplots that had to go, it used to have a narration going through it…
Question: Really? Who was narrating?
Answer: It was literally just a narrator. In the beginning of the movie…(Smilin’ Jack note: Okay, it gets really spoilerific as Adam talks about some of the first few beats of the movie and how the narrator describes them, so I’ve gotta cut a couple of things out. Das tut mir leid.)…then the voice (of the narrator) comes up and says, “Children’s Television – it’s a tough racket.” Then it was like, “but let’s go back…” and you cut to Robin dancing and doing his show. “Let’s go back to the days when Rainbow Randolph was generating more money for the networks than a dozen Colombian drug cartels…” (laughs) It was that hardboiled kind of tone.
Question: Was it always this dark? I can’t imagine something like that having an easy time maneuvering its way through the studio system.
Answer: You mean what I just described?
Question: Not just that, but somebody opening up a page, seeing…(what happens in the opening scene)…and reading, “welcome to children’s television.”
Answer: (laughs) Well, the funny thing about that is it was always extremely dark and in some ways the final product is not in some areas and maybe even slightly darker in others – it shifted here and there. To me, it was like, yeah, it’s kind of dark, but it’s not like this is “Dead Ringers” or a movie like that. To me, it’s just silly, it’s funny – I didn’t think it was anything the average person couldn’t handle or would be so shocked, but maybe I’m just underestimating what is expected out of a studio comedy. for a major studio, I guess I keep hearing that the movie is so weird and so dark and I understand that it’s a little dark and maybe a little weird, but it’s not like it’s “Eraserhead.” Warner Brothers was supportive from the start. They loved it when I pitched it to them. Lorenzo and Jeff Robinov were very enthusiastic about it. They were enthusiastic every step of the way, always with the slight asterisk of, boy, how are we going to market this, though. (laughs) Which again, I never thought was a problem. Doesn’t it just seem like a high-concept comedy premise? Why is that so hard? But again, I think I’m underestimating what people expect from movies.
Question: When did you finally see the picture or were you on it throughout production?
Answer: Yeah, I was on the set a lot. Not every day, but in New York, I was there almost every day and then I went up to Toronto several times for that shooting.
Question: What did you think of the production design? Was this the kind of colorful style you had in mind when you wrote it?
Answer: A lot of that is beyond that, because Danny is very visual. The ice show is pretty much as-written. I always had the idea of an opera on ice with him going through the various stages of his experience, but Danny would just say to me with a little twinkle in his eye, “wait’ll you see the ice show!” Then I’d get there and it was so much more beautiful and elaborate than I imagined. (Oops – more spoilerific info ahead. Cut, cut, cut, cut – but high-larious to hear about!)
Question: Was there ever the idea that you might direct this yourself?
Answer: No, not this. There’s a chance I may direct this next thing I’m writing. I really wanted to get Danny and I knew if Danny could do it, it would just be a much better job than I could ever do. It’s so up his alley and it would just be so much more relaxing to me to just sit back and enjoy the execution of it.