Jerry Zucker for “Rat Race”

Director Jerry Zucker has come a long way since he co-directed those memorable Airplane films of the early eighties. His solo career is going along very nicely, with his latest film, The Rat Race, returning the comic director to his madcap roots. The zany farce stars such comic veterans as John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson and Whoopi Goldberg, and is a loose retelling of the classic sixties farce, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. Zucker spoke to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

Jerry Zucker is no stranger to the world of madcap comedy. Remember the Airplane films of the early eighties, not to mention Naked Gun and top Secret. Now the master cinematic farceur is back as helmer of the often blisteringly funny new comedy, The Rat Race. Featuring an all-star cast, The Rat Race is not too dissimilar Stanley Kramer’s, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, but Zucker insists on downplaying the parallels between the two films. “I liked that movie and I think we owe them a lot because this movie owes its form to that movie but the idea wasn’t mine. it came from the studio, they hired Andy Breckman and the script was sent to me which I just loved. I think in my mind when I was making the movie, I was thinking of the way that people like Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and people like that set up their jokes and did their comedy, more than Mad World or Cannonball Run.”

Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, and Breckin Meyer star as the lucky winners of special tokens in the slot machines at a Las Vegas casino. Casino owner John Cleese informs them that they are invited to participate in a race: the first of them to reach Silver City, New Mexico, will receive the $2 million cash prize. To make things interesting, there are no rules, which leads to the commandeering of a bus, a run-in with Nazis, the use of a high-speed experimental car, and revenge on a cheating boyfriend-And that’s just the beginning. In the meantime, the participants are really part of a bigger plan: high rollers are betting on which of them will win the cash.

Watching Rat Race, the film’s comedy at time seems so seamless, that one has a strong impression that much was improvised. Says Zucker: “In all my movies I usually stick close to the script but in this movie when you have gifted actors and they all had ideas – there were a lot of things that came up – the beats, particularly with all the physical stuff were very tough and we took a lot of time crafting and figuring out each piece. Then when you are on the set there is a line of dialogue that the actor comes up with and a gesture, but basically if you read the last version of the script you would find that it is pretty much the film.”

Some sequences may cause discomfort- Jon Lovitz’s impersonation of Hitler for one – but it’s also one of the film’s most hilarious moments. “I think that in certain ways this movie pushes a little but, I never thought of that as being a problem – we had years of Hogan’s Heroes and that was a long time ago and I think reviewers from Germany thought people from Germany would like this.To me it doesn’t step up and feel controversial – maybe I’m wrong but it feels like silliness – one thing that always makes me laugh is when Jon is doing his rant with the moustache – as many times as I have seen it, it’s funny to me.”

While for a decade, Zucker worked closely with brother David and college pal Jim Abrahams, now that he’s making movies HIS way, he approaches projects differently. “I get to make all of the decisions myself – it was really great fun working together, because we remain close and talk to each other all the time. I think that now that we have all done solo projects, it would be hard to go back and share that again, though there COULD be some other collaboration I guess such as writing together. I don’t know if I approach it any differently other than the fact that I approach every movie differently – each movie is its own thing; this was a perfect project for me because I really miss comedy, I love it and I found myself being very excited at doing a comedy, particularly one that was so different from films like Airplane and Top Secret – this was sort of a different style – but probably the most fun for me was just the fact that it was one of the happiest experiences I have ever had on a set.”

Next for Zucker is a producing gig – P.J. Hogan’s long awaited Unconditional Love. “It’s a wonderful movie which will be coming out either later this year or earlier next. It’s finished and we are just putting together the campaign now.” Zucker describes it as “very P.J. Hogan, very sweet and it has a lot of silliness. It’s Kathy Bates, Rupert Everett and a dwarf and it’s about three disenfranchised people, three forgotten people and it’s just sweet and really funny and I think P.J. Hogan is brilliant.” But given the choice between producing and directing, the veteran Zucker says that “I like directing – I just don’t want to go from project to project directing because it takes a lot out of me and I’ve got two young kids and I don’t like to be away from them for long stretches of time and although they could come with me, the longest I’ve been away from them is a week or two – it’s just so busy when I’m directing that I don’t like doing it back to back but with producing I can treat it like a normal job.”