In 1972, a group of thieves perpetrated the United California Bank robbery, one of the most notorious robberies in modern American history. They stole from, of all people, President Richard Nixon, who was essentially using the bank to hide his secret extortion and bribery funds. While it sounds like a very serious story from certain angles, deeper investigation reveals a comedy of errors, hubris, and general wackiness.
The story is now being adapted into a motion picture, Finding Steve McQueen (named after one of the robbers' hero-worship fascination towards the iconic film actor). Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the film boasts an ensemble cast of stars, including Travis Fimmel (Vikings), Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones), Forest Whitaker, and William Fichtner.
Related: Peter Segal Interview for Second Act
While promoting the release of Finding Steve McQueen, director Mark Steven Johnson spoke to Screen Rant about making an action/comedy heist movie out of one of the most legendary crimes in United States history, the stress that comes with making a 1970s period piece on a shoestring budget, and the irrepressible comic stylings of leading man Travis Fimmel. He also dishes major gossip about one of his most infamous films, 2003's Daredevil, including how much of a struggle it was just to get studio executives to allow the title character to have a red suit with horns. The things we take for granted in super hero movies today weren't so tried-and-true back in 2003.
Screen Rant: Finding Steve McQueen is based on a true story. It's a hugely important story, but relatively little-known, considering how incredible it is. I didn't know about it until I learned about this movie.
Mark Steven Johnson: I didn't know about it either.
Screen Rant: When did you learn about it and when did you go, "I need to make this into a wild action/comedy?"
Mark Steven Johnson: I was sent a script, and exactly like you said, I had never heard of this. I thought, this can't be real! I started Googling it, and was just like, "Holy s***! That part's true, and that part's true!" It was one of those rare cases where the most outrageous stuff was all dead-on true. I was fascinated by it, because I was like, how has no one ever told this story before? It's fascinating. These guys from Ohio try to rip off the president... It's crazy, like they're gonna rob the Declaration of Independence, know what I mean? It's like... They were so out of their element. It's so fascinating. That's what got me excited about it. We had to change the names and some of the places. But all the big important stuff is directly factual. Even all the quirky little things, like the fact that Harry, for eight years, was in a small town and fell in love with the Sheriff's daughter and nobody knew about his background, and how they left the dishwasher on, and all those great parts of the story are factual.
Screen Rant: And Nixon is hip again, too.
Mark Steven Johnson: You keep hearing about Nixon and Watergate every day in the news. You turn to CNN and you see Roger Stone coming out and giving the Nixon peace sign and showing off the Nixon tattoo on his back. The movie is oddly topical after all this time.
Screen Rant: Not to get political, but who would have thought we could be nostalgic for Nixon?
Mark Steven Johnson: Exactly. (Laughs) It's only getting more and more tense. I'm hitting refresh all the time on my computer... We all know we're living in a historic time right now. We don't know what's going to happen, but we've never had a president like this before. Never. And we've never had anything like this since Watergate. It's definitely in the zeitgeist.
Screen Rant: Obviously, this story is set in the 1970s. Can you talk a little about making a period piece, what you like about it and what's difficult about it?
Mark Steven Johnson: This one was tough, for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that it's told in five different timelines, which is really complicated. The movie opens in 1980. She's dressed like Debbie Harry from Blondie, and he says, "I'm not who you think I am," and then you flash back to 1970, before he makes it onto the crew, and then you flash ahead to about '71, where he makes it onto the crew. Then it's '72, they go to California to pull off the heist. Then it jumps ahead to after the heist, and Forest Whitaker's interviews, and he's investigating a break-in. Then you go back to the planning of it, and then back to 1980... We're all over the place in terms of jumping in and out, putting these puzzle pieces together. It's really cool, it's a really interesting challenge, but very difficult to pull off in the editing room. If you want to cut a scene, the whole thing can come down like a house of cards. The other part is, we had a $5 million, $5.5 million budget. It's a tiny movie. So it's hard to do period. Period is expensive. Period cars, period clothes, all that stuff costs money. Sec decoration and everything. You can't just show up with a camera and start shooting. Everything has got to be brought back to the '70s. That's difficult. It's tough to do on a shoestring budget. Or, like, we have our cars; people asked me, "Why didn't you get the car from Bullitt?" I love that car, but we couldn't afford it! We got the GTO, but we needed two of them so we could crash one and drive one. Those cars are so old, I think they were both '69s, they just kept breaking down, constantly. We had to get very creative and had to worry about things we wouldn't have to worry about if we had a bigger budget. Things like, "Don't crash that car, or we're gonna get shut down because it's the only one we have." It felt very much like film school, in a way.
Screen Rant: You said the budget was about $5 million. Travis Fimmel looks like $5 million.
Mark Steven Johnson: Oh, good! (laughs)
Screen Rant: He's not just gorgeous, but also an amazing actor. I think he's been working towards the A-list for a while now, and I think his turn here will go a long way towards giving him the stardom he deserves. Tell me about directing someone with his level of swagger who's playing a character with the level of swagger required to channel Steve McQueen, one of the coolest human beings who ever lived?
Mark Steven Johnson: The funny thing about Travis is that he's the most incredible looking guy, such a physical specimen, and he looks like such a stud, and he's such an idiot! And I mean that in a good way! Travis is a total goofball, and he loves making fun of himself, he loves looking silly. He has no shame with anything. If anything, there was no swagger there! I had to encourage him to give us swagger. He was the one who said, "Hey, what if, during this big scene where she's asking me about my past, I start eating chocolate cake and get cake all over my face?" I go, "That's a great idea," and we do it, and by the end of the day, he's like, "I can't eat anymore cake." He ate dessert the entire day, and he felt like he was going to throw up, but that was always Travis. He's always like, what can I do to make myself ridiculous? It's interesting to see that side of him. He's incredibly funny, and like most Aussies, very self-deprecating.
Screen Rant: He seems like a super jolly guy.
Mark Steven Johnson: He really is. Sometimes you have to pull him back, because he's like a big brother to Rachel (Taylor); you know, they're both Aussies. And, you know, he'd be teasing her and giving her wet willies, and, like, I'd have to go, "Travis, she's not your little sister, she's the love of your life!" But they were so great together. It's very odd to have two Australians, actually, in those roles. Rachel is fantastic, I love her.
Screen Rant: There's been a groundswell of support for... At Screen Rant, especially, we've been tracking the Zack Snyder Director's Cut of Justice League. It's a really big thing that's been going around for a year or more. I think a big part of the reason of this phenomenon is because of your movie, Daredevil, which has one of the most acclaimed Director's Cuts of any movie out there. It's like a whole other movie from the theatrical version, which itself, I personally feel, is underrated. You did a superhero movie before the big tidal wave of these movies. Back in 2003, the things we take for granted in superhero media now, I imagine you had to really fight for back then.
Mark Steven Johnson: Oh yeah. It's funny, because Daredevil's been coming up a lot lately. It's a funny thing. There are a lot of people who bring it up to me in my personal life, too. Sometimes they'll apologize, like, "Can I say something? I really like Daredevil." I'm like, it's okay, I'm not going to tell anybody! (Laughs) It's one of those really bittersweet things. When the Director's Cut came out, a lot of people who really hated the film came around and loved it. As you said, it's like a whole other... Like, a fourth of the movie had been cut out, all the character stuff. It's very bittersweet. I'm glad people feel that way about the Director's Cut. Of course, I wish that had been what was released, but... It was tough, though. It was a non-stop battle. It was way before the MCU. The Marvel characters were all over different studios, but no one quite knew what to do with them. When we were doing Daredevil at Fox, they were really fighting me on any kind of costume. It was ridiculous. They were like, "We're not going to put a man in devil horns! They call him Daredevil because he does daring things, not because he dresses up like a devil." I was like, "You have to! Otherwise, he's not Daredevil." I remember, one time, with the Chairman of the studio, he was actually a really good guy, he said to me, "You're gonna quit if you don't get horns, aren't you?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Okay... Well, it's not gonna be red." So then it became three or four months of different color swatches of different shades of red, because they wanted him to dress in black. They said red would be ridiculous. These people don't understand that you fight and fight and fight just to get horns, just to get the color red. And then some people go, "Bah, he's got a leather costume, that's bulls***, he should be in spandex. You ruined my childhood." And I'm like, dude, you have no idea; I fought so hard just to get horns. It was like that all the time. Now, it must be a dream, because anybody would say, "You're Marvel Studios, do whatever you think. You have the magic touch!" It would be amazing to make a film for Marvel that didn't have all the politics. It's draining and it's not productive. I'm like everyone else, now. I'm dying to see the next one, I can't wait!
Screen Rant: Would you like to tackle another superhero movie if the opportunity came up?
Mark Steven Johnson: Sure! I mean, you know what, for the right character, I would. It would be great. I haven't seen Kevin (Feige) in ages. He's fantastic. Kevin's a genius. It would be great to do a show. Most people don't realize that I was the first one to bring Preacher to HBO, years ago. I worked with Garth (Ennis, comic book writer and creator of Preacher), and wrote the script, wrote the Bible, and we were very close to going forward when there was a regime change. Michael Lombardo came in and became head of HBO, and he sat down with me and said, "Mark, I love you, but I don't get this. I mean, angels and demons and the voice of God?" He was like, I'm sorry, I just don't get it. He put it in turnaround, then Seth Rogen came in and set it up at AMC and the rest is history. I've been very close on a couple of things I really love. I would like to do that again. I would like to create a great show with Marvel or anyone else, from a graphic novel, that I can live with, hopefully for years and years. I think that would be amazing. I'm definitely open to that.
Screen Rant: Well, I can't wait to see your show on Disney Plus.
Mark Steven Johnson: Hey, I hope so! That would be amazing.
Finding Steve McQueen hits theaters, Digital, and Video on Demand starting March 15.
Rupert Wyatt has been named as the “Runaway Bride” for movie studios. The genius director that kicked off the critically acclaimed Planet of the Apes franchise back in 2011 has since then departed projects such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Halo TV series, and of course Gambit. When learning about Wyatt, and in speaking with the director one will quickly find that he is not one to sacrifice creative vision for fame and fortune. Over the years audiences have been privy to the rise and falls of independent film directors who are given big picture vehicles, and then cave when they lose too much control.
Once Gambit was out of the picture Wyatt dove into the development of his sci-fi flick, Captive State, with writing and life partner Erica Beeney, writer of The Battle of Shaker Heights. Captive State is an original sci-fi flick that frames the United States as a country under occupation by extraterrestrials. This intense thriller stars Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, White Boy Rick’s Jonathan Majors, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s John Goodman, and The Conjuring’s Vera Fermiga.
We spoke with Rupert Wyatt and Erica Beeney about the parallels between their film and real life history, and were able to get their thoughts on the Disney/Fox merger, and Wyatt’s vision for his version of the Gambit film.
Screen Rant: Many people will comment on the parallels between this story and the current administration, however this was being developed during Obama’s term. Is it a bit shocking to see life imitating art?
Erica Beeney: It's a good question. Yes, exactly. We started writing it prior to this last election cycle. I think that some of the themes are sort of timeless and universal in a way, right? And we were always in danger of becoming complacent, whether it's, prosperity, or media manipulation. So, the fact that there are parallels. That’s sort of surprising and then come as no, surprise.
Screen Rant: When you were developing this script with Rupert, and you were brainstorming about who the antagonist was going to be, did you think it was easier and a little more attractive for the audience to come see a movie where the oppressors are extraterrestrials and not actual people themselves?
Erica Beeney: Certainly Rupert as you know from his past history with science fiction and, coming to it myself as a genre that I love, it brings possibilities and opportunities of holding up a mirror to society. And I think sometimes that, you know, it’s easiest done with the ‘One Step Removed of Distance’ that science fiction offers. No way when we set out to write this was it going to be a polemic, or some kind of teaching thing. There's none of that. It was sort of, how can we tell a story about these situations that Rupert found really compelling and interesting, and I did as well about how people behave under the immense pressure of war time. The background of that, looking at French people under German occupation, at the troubles in Northern Ireland, at various conflicts in the Middle East. The science fiction part of it gives you an opportunity to make that more entertaining and and have fun with it. That opportunity for distance that maybe makes it easier to see.
Rupert Wyatt: It did also allow us well to put it on the footprint of America in a kind of plausible grounded way. We sort of pushed into the future, but in the very near future and it's always our intention to sort of ask that question what would it be like to live in a country, that was the great democracy for the last 100 years. Of course that sent us into the realm of side by side.
Erica Beeney: Another piece of it is you know finding it very compelling with these pictures and these ideas of the places that are now kind of totally decimated by war whether it's Syria or other countries that used to be beautiful thriving places where people were living their everyday lives and sometimes we forget that because we're certainly used to seeing them another way but we’re using this opportunity to use Chicago really highlight that.
Screen Rant: Like you said this film is more of a character study of how people react to certain situations and Rupert mentioned that he didn't want to set this too far into the future. We’re used to sci-fi films being set 100 plus years into the future, so what is something that you guys don't want the audience to miss with their first time viewing this film? What is the ultimate message?
Erica Beeney: I would say, as much as there are aspects of it that are sort of serious or bleak that it's fundamentally an optimistic movie.There’s the idea that there is some kind of great hope for human nature and mankind that deal is is really the heart of the story.
Rupert Wyatt: When you're dealing with the near future totalitarian society where civil liberties kind of been thrown out of the window that is sort of natural tendency to expect that to be a dystopian future. One that kind of in a way has a narrow bleakness to it, but I think what we tried to do was bring this idea that within that existence there’s always cover there's always life. Basically people going about their business in a way that's every day and Erica was very keen as we were writing it to show, even in small little moments a mother seeing her child walk for the first time. That is far more interesting way to approach a character whose husband is about to walk out the door to join a terrorist cell, to see her in that brief moment of happiness is, even though their lives are under duress. I think often you can kind of forget that when you're making films in an Orwellian sort of way. We were really keen to make it more visceral and colorful.
Erica Beeney: And also, you know, love so many of these characters so much and, that it is such an ensemble in that way. I'm thinking of Daniel, one of the members of this now. and just the specificity of a trans person. All of these sort of people who do tend to be the people who feel ‘bring the fight to the man’ if you will, and to bring those characters to life in their small ways was such a pleasure.
Screen Rant: Now, I love this entire cast here. Besides actors like Will Smith and Billy Dee Williams, John Boyega, and a couple others you don't really see black actors headlining science fiction films. The characters that the actors I mentioned play are moreso framed as archetypes that has no bearing on their race, so that was something that was really nice for me to see in this film. Did you utilize blind casting or did you always see the roles being played by black actors?
Rupert Wyatt: We saw it as colorblind in a way. We saw it as trying to be true to the cultural diversity and the ethnic diversity of Chicago. I mean our two brothers are sort of key younger characters in this film even though it’s obviously a large ensemble. Rafe and Gabriel played by Jonathan Majors and and Ashton Sanders could have been frankly any ethnicity, but what was important, was to ask the question, ‘in the times of an occupation period who is it that invariably becomes the hero or who is it in the eyes of others becomes the terrorists?’ depending on how you look at it. You look at the French Resistance, and it was the railroad workers or the communists who were for criminal. You are joining that movement. Then there’s the boy who is hanging out with the Nazis. Culturally, and I’m really pleased that you say that, but I'm really pleased in a way that the film is never really kind of getting into the sort of the notion of racial divide. We, as a species, are uniting. You know tribalism is going out the window and there’s this unity to all these peoples ifrom very different backgrounds, whether they be an ex Catholic priest, a member of the trans community to young African Americans within this kind of working class neighborhood in Chicago. They’re all together in this which I think is pretty exciting
Erica Beeney: There are some people who are more used to you know ‘fighting against the man’ than other people are for sure.
Screen Rant: Rupert, some of the biggest industry gossip surrounding you in the past few years was the fact that you exited Fox’s Gambit project. Now that it looks like the film may never get made at least under the Fox banner, what would a Wyatt-Tatum Gambit have looked like had your vision been brought to life?
Rupert Wyatt: Well, yeah, I think I mean, when, when I was working on it with Josh Zetumer another writer, Channing and Reid Carolin, his producing partner. It was this really exciting and very interesting. It was kind of The Godfather with mutants.There was this amazing clan like. Multiple gangs of different mutants in Louisiana, in the bayou swamp area of Louisiana and New Orleans. It had a heist quality to it. There's a gang of thieves….it was a really great take on the superhero genre. I do know, after I was no longer involved the development took a slightly different turn and it became somewhat more of a romantic comedy. Yeah, I read that script. It was great. Very different.
Screen Rant: Is there another superhero project or character that you would like to helm?
Rupert Wyatt: I’ll go ahead and let Erica take this one.
Erica Beeney: I mean, I'm so I'm so down with the current trend of people realizing that, you know, superheroes are not all muscley, white men. I'd love for it to be another woman, person of color, that’s where my interest lies for sure.
Screen Rant: A sci-fi character probably.
Rupert Wyatt: Yeah, maybe, that would be interesting.
Erica Beeney: It's like Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse, we could reincarnate, or rebirth one of those old school superheroes in a completely new incarnation. You know what I mean, it be so interesting to see, ‘Oh, it's Iron Man’. But now the character is a scrappy, young Asian girl. I'm not. Amy now, that would, that would be fine. Yeah, because they do have like, a female version of Iron Man, iron heart. So that would be fun to see. come to life as well.
Screen Rant: Yes, it would! I have just one last question for you both. I know that Rupert, at least has a history with Fox, but for the both of you how surprised were you to find that the studio decided to sell itself off? And do you think it creates this industry monopoly?
Rupert Wyatt: I might be interested to know and find out what Disney plans to do with Fox because if it becomes an arm that actually continues to make a particular kind of film I think there’s value in that .It’ll allow Disney, the brand, to sort of expand in a way that perhaps they can’t otherwise. But if it all gets confused into the same sort of equivalent of what the Disney films are then I think you know, there is always that challenge when the monopoly to start to take hold then there are less diversity in the types of filmmaking that’s happening. I would like to think that they're still looking at Fox as being its own thing just under the Disney ownership. I hope that's the case.
Erica Beeney: I think one of the big reasons that they get it was for the Marvel characters. People love those movies and they love them for a good reason and ultimately it's down to the audience. If we keep on being able to make lots of different kinds of movies, the big fun tentpole movies and the more personal movies, and as long as the audience finds them it's all good.
Rupert Wyatt: I read the other day that both Green Book and I believe Roma to an extent, have gone massive in China which on paper you would never think. That's the wonderful thing in many ways for a film that isn’t necessarily a typical tentpole. For an international audience like the Chinese market they are actually seeking out different types of things. I think that's proof positive that that no one really ever knows anything as they say, you know, that says that just that unknown of what people going to go for. And I think as long as people keep on making original films that are proving that then cinema will be alive and well.
Erica Beeney: And it's going to get as much as people decide streaming and all that. It has opened up so many opportunities in that way. So we're still watching it all unfold.
Second Act tells the story of Maya (Jennifer Lopez), who creates a fake persona for herself in an effort to climb the corporate ladder in an effort to prove that it takes more than a fancy degree to make it in the world of business. Of course, once her lie begins to unravel, chaos and hilarity inevitably ensue. Co-starring Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, and Milo Ventimiglia, Second Act was a strong performer at the box office, grossing $72 million worldwide, more than four times its budget of $16 million.
While promoting the home video release of Second Act, director Peter Segal spoke to us about making the film, the comparisons to Working Girl, building off the real-life friendship between Lopez and Remini, and why he dislikes when the film is called a "rom com." He also shares stories from his earliest days as a film director, working under comedy legend David Zucker for The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.
Screen Rant: I'm such a huge fan of your movies. You make dramatic movies funnier than the audience is expecting, and you make comedies with more heart than the audience is expecting.
Peter Segal: I appreciate that, it's a nice way to put it!
Screen Rant: It's balanced, but that balance is having an imbalance. I don't know if that's what you're setting out to do when you're making movies, but I love that approach.
Peter Segal: I appreciate that. You put that in a way I've never heard, but I like it. I like straddling tone. I think that, my first movie, Naked Gun 3, I would call a "Joke Book Movie." You're not trying to have a lot of heart in a movie like that. You have to take the story seriously, but you're really all about the jokes. There are other comedies that I've done, like, for example, my second movie, Tommy Boy, had a lot more heart mixed with the comedy, and I think, you know, those are the kinds of movies that I've gravitated towards in different forms, whether they're political comedies or romantic comedies. Things that have a little bit more of an emotional spine to them. I think those movies resonate a little bit more.
Screen Rant: A lot of people have been comparing Second Act to Working Girl. Was that intentional when you were putting the movie together?
Peter Segal: It wasn't intentional, but I definitely resembled the similar DNA when I read the script. Working Girl is from Mike Nichols, a director who is one of my favorites, and I felt like we could live in that world. It's a kind of movie that has not been done recently. Right now, we were categorized as a rom com, but I don't really think that's as accurate as it could be. We're more of just a comedy that has some romance in it because we're about more than just the male/female relationship in this story. I definitely felt, like I said, there was similar DNA to Working Girl, and that kind of story, combined with Jennifer Lopez, who I have loved in light comedy fare that she hasn't done in a number of years; I thought it was a very fun opportunity, plus the fact that there are definitely differences in this story from Working Girl. I think Working Girl is almost a Cinderella-type story. There are many like that, where you have to assume an identity under false pretenses to enter a new world, and then those relationships are always balancing on the unraveling of that lie as you're getting an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise have had to explore.
Screen Rant: I love that you said it's not a rom com. I love how female-centric this movie is. Yeah, we've got Milo Ventimiglia, he's gorgeous and fantastic, we love This is Us, and, ooh, Rocky Balboa, a Grudge Match connection!
Peter Segal: Yes, exactly.
Screen Rant: But I'm so happy that it doesn't turn into that, quote-unquote, "typical rom-com," since, you know, Jennifer's already done that. The closest you've come to that is Fifty First Dates, but nobody would call that "typical." Can you tell me a little bit about being a man directing a female-led movie and not falling into any of the traps I imagine might be so easy for a male director to fall into?
Peter Segal: I think, because I'm a fan of rom-coms... And they have not been as present recently, I wanted to steer clear of any of the typical tropes. As you referred to Working Girl earlier, had we gone down the more typical path, we would have been way too similar. We knew there were certain mile markers on our journey on this story that set us apart from that movie and from other romantic comedies in general. My thing is to always try to subvert expectations. When you think you're about to hit a trope, you either have to recognize it and own it, or you have to steer clear of it. I think, sometimes, people can fall into a trap of just running right over the trope as a speed bump and the audience, I think, senses that familiarity, and that's where you've got to be careful.
Screen Rant: I think the X-factor in this movie is the chemistry between Jennifer and Leah Remini. I know they're best friends in real life, and you can just see that in Second Act. I think there are so few opportunities for female actors to be paired up the way they are in this movie. I mean, there are some, but not nearly as many as for guys. Can you talk about the energy on set with their scenes together, directing them together?
Peter Segal: First off all, with Leah, we got built-in equity of a relationship that already existed. There's no way you can teach chemistry. It's either there or it's not. So, the fact that Leah, who primarily lives in television, wanted to come play in the sandbox with Jennifer in this feature, was an opportunity. When I really understood what that meant was when I went over to Jennifer's apartment in New York to read through the script with her and Leah. That's when I saw that chemistry in full force, right before my eyes. They act like sisters. Actually, like pretty juvenile sisters at times. Leah would poke her and push her and, you know, tell a lot of jokes that were kind of tough! Jokes you wouldn't hear around the dinner table, but they were hilarious! Seeing Jennifer kind of getting picked on by her big sister, so to speak, I thought was a really interesting dynamic. I thought, hey, we need to bring this to the story, bring this to the set. This is awesome! I don't think Jennifer is as used to ad-libbing as much as Leah is, because Leah lives in the comedy world. Leah asked me if it was okay if she improvised a little. I said, absolutely. Let's get one as scripted for my editor so he doesn't kill me, and then let's have some fun! She kind of, I think, threw down the gauntlet to Jen, who said, alright, come on, bring it! Almost every scene, we played. I would always hesitate to say "cut," because they're kind of like an engine. They keep sputtering and sputtering, and then something funny would happen, and then funnier, and then the other would pick up on that. Sometimes I just would wait until they'd go, "Alright, are you gonna yell cut, Pete?"
Screen Rant: I want to ask you about going way back to you ZAZ days. Working with Zucker/Abrams/Zucker. They're iconic in comedy, and you're part of that pantheon. How did you get involved with them and what did they teach you that you've carried with you since directing Naked Gun 33 1/3?
Peter Segal: I owe my start in this business to David Zucker, one hundred percent. He had seen some HBO specials that I did with Judd Apatow, with Chris Farley and Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey, and he gave me a shot. I had no idea what I was doing. I never dreamed I would become a movie director. The first couple of weeks on the set of Naked Gun, there was this guy sitting behind me in a chair. Very nice guy, but we didn't really speak much. I said to David Zucker, "who's this guy that's been sitting behind me these past few days?" And he tells me, "Oh, that's Peter Farrelly. He's about to direct his first movie, and he wanted to observe what it's like to direct." I introduced myself, asked what he was working on, and he says, "I'm doing this movie called Dumb and Dumber." I thought, ooh, that's cool. I thought to myself, I don't think he's gonna gain much from watching me; it was my first movie, I was just stumbling through it. But David Zucker taught me everything. People don't realize how hard it is to do a movie like The Naked Gun. It's such a ballet of foreground jokes and background jokes. It's so disciplined, there's almost a math to the storytelling. Those movies, in particular, like I said earlier, are all about the jokes. The scripts are very thick. The script for that movie was about 135 pages, and yet it had a very short running time. That's because there's no such thing as comedy omniscience. Nobody knows what's going to work every single time. We in the business might have a slightly better batting average than an uncle at the dinner table telling jokes, but we still can't be one hundred percent. So, the jokes that don't work, we cut them out. That kind of discipline, I brought to all my other comedies. That was really "comedy boot camp," working under David.
Second Act is out now on Digital, and releases on Blu-ray and DVD March 26.
Tim Burton is back at Disney with Dumbo this year, which marks the studio's latest live-action adaptation of a classic animated movie. While Burton has brought several of his mainstay actors along with him for the ride, he's also added a number of new members to his troupe, such as Joseph Gatt.
Gatt, who's known for starring in films like Thor and Star Trek Into Darkness, plays Neils Skellig, who's the head of security for the circus owned by Michael Keaton's character, Vandevere. Of course, that makes him somewhat of a villain in this film, as it brings him at odds with Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo, as well as the human characters.
In September 2017, Screen Rant got the chance to visit the set of Disney's live-action Dumbo, where we interviewed Joseph Gatt alongside a handful of other movie news outlets. Gatt expressed his enthusiasm for joining the movie, in addition to discussing how Dumbo is essentially the new Mickey Mouse and why Skelling is Darth Vader.
So what can you tell us about your character and role in the movie?
Nothing at all [laughs]. No, I play... the way I like to describe Skellig, Neils Skellig, is if you imagine Vandevere, Michael Keaton’s character, is the Emperor, I’m Darth Vader. So basically he’s the more powerful, you know he's in charge of everything, and I just do his bidding. I’m his head of security, and I’m a hunter, and I don’t like animals very much, so as you can imagine I get along really well with Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. I have a lot of interesting interactions that don’t end very well, generally for me.
Do you actually do anything harmful to the animals that we see, like Dumbo?
Like I say, we do have our conflicts. Most people see Dumbo as this cute big-eared pachyderm - and he’s very cute, has these big eyes, and little lashes. I see him as something that would look nice on my wall or as a new hat, maybe a new jacket perhaps. So we don’t really see eye to eye.
What kind of conflicts does your character present to Dumbo?
Ooh that would be telling. There’s a part in the story where Mrs. Jumbo, well actually there are two occasions — also like in the original animated movie — where Mrs. Jumbo has a bit of a fit and she’s taken away and put in her little rail car by herself. And there’s another part in the story where Medici’s circus has been integrated into the Vandevere Dreamland World. And we don’t know if Mrs. Jumbo is there, she’s in disguise. Well, Vandevere doesn’t know that she is Mrs. Jumbo, and we don’t know at the time. And there’s a moment that’s really cute in the story where Mrs. Jumbo hears Dumbo in pain and she starts calling out to him from the other side of the park, and he escapes from the tent and starts flying through the park to get to his mom. And it’s really very cute, and of course it’s my job to ruin all of that. To find Dumbo and capture him and put him back. And then we have to obviously get rid of this distraction, being his mother, and I have to do that. But I can’t tell you if we actually do get rid of the distraction or not. Let’s just say I’m given the task of putting everything in order.
What were some of the things you did to work on the dynamic between your character and Michael Keaton’s character?
It was pretty simple in the fact that…we kind of figured out from the start that my character wouldn’t be very subservient to his character, to Vandevere. That was one of the main discussions that we had at the very beginning was how subservient I would be to Vandevere. But again, pretty simple to the whole Darth Vader-Emperor [dynamic]. If you go back to that analogy, he’s his own powerful character. He ultimately takes order from the Emperor, but you’re ultimately just as scared of him as you are of [the Emperor]. He’s his own powerful character who makes his own decisions, and Skellig is exactly the same. I mean, left to his own devices, what would Skellig do? Probably rid the whole world of elephants.
It sounds like you’re doing a lot of acting opposite a tennis ball, so to speak, if you’re dealing with the elephants. How did you deal with acting with something you couldn’t see and how did you find that?
You know, they’re doing that in lots of very interesting different ways. It’s something you get used to whenever you’re working on a movie like this it involves a lot of VFX. To be quite honest, apart from so far Dumbo himself, the sets are incredible. And Tim really does like to have as much physically there for the actors as possible. Because there are certain other directors that would do this completely green screen and we’d have to imagine everything. But Tim has given us so much. And regarding working with Dumbo specifically, there are different ways that they’re doing that. We have an actual life-size beautiful-looking Dumbo, and I think we have him at two different ages, which they put in to give us an idea of his size and shape in the scene, and do the lighting and that kind of thing. When we actually shoot the scene, he will be removed and we’ll either do it with either nothing there or we’ll do it with, we have this guy called Ed, who is put into a green costume that vaguely mimics the size and shape of what the elephant will be. And he’s there, and it’s great having him there because he’ll actually physically interact with us and move around a little bit. Especially with the kids, they have a lot of very specific interaction with him so it really helps them out, and it helps us get an idea of the elephant’s energy. It’s really great at bringing the character to life. But it’s very rarely that we’ll do the work with nothing there at all, there’s always something there for reference. A little more than a tennis ball.
What are your memories of the original movie?
I only saw the original animated movie about four weeks before I flew out. I for some reason never saw it as a kid. Which is strange because I’m a huge Disney fan. I love Disney and love most of the work that Disney had done. And actually I watched it after I’d read the script for this. So it was interesting to me while I was watching it to see how much of it was integrated into Ehren Kruger’s script. I was speaking to yesterday, I met him yesterday for the first time, and I just congratulated him because he’s done such an amazing job at taking all the best stuff from the original movie and then expanding it and putting in all these incredible human characters. But still the main character is Dumbo, it’s all about Dumbo. I’ve read a few things online that people have written where they’ve gone on about how, “I don’t understand, this is supposed to be Dumbo’s movie, why are all these other characters in there.” And I really want to go on there and start writing and responding, but I can tell you this is Dumbo’s movie. Ehren’s written these great characters but it all facilitates the story of Dumbo and his journey from birth to the end of the movie and his future so to speak. All the best of stuff is in there. And it’s all very politically correct. Because there was a lot of stuff in the original movie, and it’s very of its time, that wasn’t very socially correct. That’s now completely gone. It’s very animal-friendly, you won’t see elephants standing on top of each other. Everyone’s gonna love this movie.
You’ve done a couple of genre movies where you’ve played the villain, but you’re not that recognizable to your everyday appearance. Are you prepared to be the face of the villain in a family film and have kids scared of you?
I cannot wait. I’ve done a lot of things, like you said, where I’ve played the villain. But I try to — like social media’s great for this — show the world that I’m an actor and I actually love animals. And I’m kind of a silly person, I work out, I love my girlfriend and I love animals. I’m doing all these fun things. And then I play all these evil, nasty villains onscreen and I love showing people that diversity, that difference. That stopped, so far, people wanting to spit on me in the streets or slap me. But I do get a lot of shouting across the street, especially in LA. “Oh why you’d do that? You tried to kill Thor!”
So as a self-professed animal lover, how do you approach playing a character that is not a fan?
It’s difficult, it’s hard to explain. It’s weird. I had to play a character once where I was a horrible racist, and shouting all this really nasty, racist stuff. And it was very, very difficult for me to do. To the point where I almost turned down the role because I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” You just find the thing about the character that you can relate to. Anything. And as long as you can find something you like about the character, something you can relate to, even if some things go way off into some weird place, then you can connect. And you can use substitutions, you do the actor thing were you turn the racism into some other kind of hate or dislike. But it can be very difficult sometimes. We had to do a scene last week where I was basically threatening to turn Dumbo into an item of clothing, and it was very difficult imagining cute Dumbo there and me being very mean. But that is what we do, that’s the job. And then you laugh about it when Tim yells cut, and you do it again.
The idea of a Disney villain is very specific. There’s often that sort of pantomime silliness and archness. Is there any of that to Skellig or is it more grounded?
I wondered about that before I came here and before I met Tim for the first time. It was one of my big questions. It would be very easy to imagine a Disney villain as sort of “muahaha” and over the top. But Tim is great, he wants everyone playing everything very real, very held back. Not forced, nothing over the top. Even to the point where you feel like, “Did I do enough?” I think the characters and the writing and the story speak for themselves, the actors don’t really have to do much. It’s so well-written. Everything is played very real, very down to earth and grounded. You don’t get much over-the-top stuff, which I think means people are going to hate me even more!
What were your favorite Disney films growing up?
I’m an old romantic. And I cry at silly things. Beauty and the Beast is a favorite. But you know, of the old things, I like the Mickey Mouse originals like Steamboat Willie. That was always a favorite because I used to watch it as a kid with my dad. I liked Lion King, which was always one of my favorites. So I had a few, but they always get me. Aladdin for example was another. I used to do musical theater, so it was always fun singing that when I was at drama school. All my audition songs were from that show. But I pretty much like all of them. I haven’t seen much of the newest ones.
That’s the great thing about Dumbo. It’s almost like Disney are making a new Mickey Mouse. Dumbo is Disney. More than every other character. You take a picture of Mickey Mouse and Dumbo and show it anywhere in the world and people will go “That’s Mickey Mouse and Dumbo.” Even if you take pictures of the Disney princesses, unless they’re really geeky, most people won’t know which one it is. But everyone knows Dumbo, everybody knows Mickey Mouse. So it’s such an amazing privilege to be part of Disney doing this and being part of Dumbo because it is Disney’s heritage. It’s going back, what 70 years since the original came out.
How does working with Tim differ from other directors you’ve worked with?
The only thing I’ll say is he just cares so much. I don’t think I’ve worked with a director who cares so much. He cares about the actors being comfortable in what they’re doing and feeling safe. And that’s why he’s put together such a great cast. We’re all just playing. There feels like there’s no pressure on set, even though you know there is — it’s a huge studio feature and there’s a lot of money at stake, etc. But you never feel like it on set. Everyone just seems so calm and in control. And none of it gets to the actors. I’ve worked on sets where there’s so much stress, that every time you walk onto set you feel like there’s this massive weight on your shoulders at all times. And sometimes you have to catch yourself because you’re sitting there, and Tim’s there, and Danny Devito, and Michael Keaton, and Colin, and you’re hanging out and having fun, and you’re like, “Should it be this easy? Should it be this much fun?” But it is, it really is.
Were there any inspirations for your character? Did you look at any real-life actors or movies from the past?
A lot of people that I hate very much. As I said, I’m very anti-hunting and I’m involved in a lot of charities and work against hunting and big-game hunting. So I know a lot of people that I can reference this particular character to. None that I would want to be friends with or recommend be friends with.
Does your character have a really cool costume? Because I know these are all very iconic looks in this movie. Does your character have a distinct look?
All of the costumes from what you’ve seen in the photos are incredible. But my costume, I wouldn’t say it’s an exciting costume, I have this beautiful three-piece suit. We’re all in suits, which is fantastic, we’re obviously period. And some very special footwear that I cannot mention. They’re a pair of boots but they’re pretty special. And it’s a first for me because I’ve never done anything period before. So normally I’d be doing something futuristic, or I’m in military gear, or covered in blood, or covered in prosthetic make-up or whatever. So this is lovely, I get to wear this beautiful period suit. And I get eyelashes and eyebrows!
This year's Dumbo movie reunites Danny DeVito with Tim Burton for Disney's live-action adaptation of the animated classic of the same name. While it's very much a remake in some ways, 2019's Dumbo movie is an original story that fans of the animated movie as well as general audiences will enjoy - and DeVito is looking to help out with that.
Co-starring alongside the likes of Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, and Alan Arkin, among others, DeVito plays circus ringmaster Max Medici, who owns a small town circus that's acquired by Keaton's ominous character. Furthermore, he owns the eponymous flying elephant.
Screen Rant was invited to Dumbo's set in September 2017, where we interviewed DeVito along with other movie news outlets - and here's what he had to say about working with Burton and Keaton again, starring in a live-action Dumbo, and getting to used to the movie industry's use of green tennis balls on set for CGI.
So Danny, what is it about you that makes Tim think of circus ringleader?
DeVito: This is the completion of the circus trilogy. You know, we did the Batman. I don't know... when he called, he said exactly that, “We gotta complete the circus trilogy.” And I was so excited because I’m a big fan of Dumbo, and I love Tim and would do anything to be in that movie with him. I don’t know why he thinks of me for that. But what are we going to do next, who knows? Something really weird. Really, an understatement.
Is there a specific note about the character that Tim gave you that sticks out?
DeVito: Well, I feel like in our movie it’s different than the Dumbo we all know and love. Medici, my character... or if you’re England you say MedEEchEE - or Jersey probably. But I call it Medichi. The thing is, he has big pressure, in the beginning, to keep the circus alive because it’s a very, very tough time. It’s 1919, that’s when it takes place. And they were fading, the little circuses, because all the big ones were taking over. So contrary to what it was in the movie where the mouse gives the head of the circus all the ideas, this is kind of how life itself in a modern world puts us on the spot. For some reason, we’re having a very difficult time getting people in the seats and we get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo. So to try to answer your question, it’s more of a guy who’s under a lot of pressure and makes a couple of decisions during the movie that are obvious for a guy whose back is up against the wall, but then, thank goodness everything works out all way. And Medici gets rid of Donald Trump, and the world is a better place.
Has Tim changed much since you guys worked on Batman Returns?
DeVito: Not a bit. I get emotional thinking about how much I care about him. Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft, always just painting with his mind. I feel like I’m part of…some kind of palette or color scheme in [Wassily] Kandinsky’s world or something. Right from the very beginning, even with Batman, the first meeting we had was so great. He had a painting of circus stripes, red and white, just a beautiful big canvas. And on a circus ball was this creature, and there was a caption that said, “My name is Jimmy, but they call me The Hideous Penguin Boy.” And it was so moving but so…you know. From that, he hasn’t changed a bit. When you talk about things, when you discuss what’s going on. Like with Big Fish and even Mars Attacks — with Mars Attacks I went to Vegas for four nights, what’s bad about that? And you know he’s in Hoffa. People didn’t know that, he’s in one of the coffins. But it’s always the same. We don’t see each other for a really long time, but then you just pick up, it’s that kind of friend.
What’s it like working with Michael again?
DeVito: It’s really fun that Michael’s here, and it’s also really interesting that he’s... you know, the last... We’ve done a couple movies, Michael and I. But the last movie with Tim and Michael and I, of course we were both in suits — he was in the Batman suit, I was in the Penguin suit — he was playing the good guy in that movie, I’m the good guy in this movie. So it’s a little bit of an evolution here.
Your other costume with the extra…
DeVito: Oh with the feet? Yeah that was kind of weird because we tried to do this gag because I have a “brother” — the Medici Brothers Circus — but there’s no other brother. So we wanted to make the brother eight inches taller. This was like before I even started, and we were doing some tests because he comes out of a box. They bring a box into the middle of the circus on the floor and it [makes exploding noise] explodes, and there’s Medici, but I’m the brother. Now the brother was Max the Italian, and I did a little Italian accent, like a little New Jersey-Italian accent. And the first time Tim saw me, I was standing there with the boots on and he said, “When did you become a member of KISS? [Laughs] It kind of was an interesting idea. That’s the great thing about him, he’s just inventive and off the charts, all kinds of unexpected. But they were kind of hard to walk in. [Chuckles] Oh man. I have a hard time in the boots I’m in today. I’m not good in high heels, I’m a flats person.
You said you loved the original Dumbo, what was your relationship with it?
DeVito: When I was a kid we didn’t have all this stuff that you guys have. Like in the early days in New Jersey I had the million-dollar movie and every once in a while you got to see a cool Disney movie or something. But probably when it first came out I didn’t see it as much as I did [with my kids]. I have three kids so it started with them, I started them really early 30 years ago looking at Dumbo over and over again.
So I have a long history with Dumbo, I just looked at it again before we started. I wanted to see things after I read the script. It’s 63 minutes long and you probably know that. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the thing about Timothy, the mouse. A special edition on the Blu-ray where they put an excised scene that was actually written — the whole scenario was written — and they got someone to read it that sound like Timothy the Mouse, and there are also storyboards that are really cool. But they took it out because it was really dark. What it was, was Timothy explaining to people why elephants are afraid of mice. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but you should check it out. They have the guy sitting there and he looks like a guy who animates, he’s all dressed in the Disney animator way and he goes up on a shelf and he takes it down and they do a whole little thing. But it was really scary because it was: mice were 10 times bigger than elephants years ago, and they would play with the elephants and make them their slaves, and string them around their neck. Disney was really wack!
Did you get to say one of the signature lines of the original animated character?
DeVito: Oh “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” That one? I don’t think I’ve put that. But we’re not finished! And the guy had an accent too, it was a great line. Because there was a moment where we — I’m shaved now — for the Medici Circus I had a two- or three-day [scruff]. There was a moment where we thought I’d be wearing a mustache but… I wish I had a picture of me as the brother because it’s really crazy. Like black wig that doesn’t fit, that kind of thing.
Aside from being the good guy in this, how was this character different from the other circus characters you’ve played?
DeVito: No different. He’s a showman. He’s not as slick and maybe not as savvy as Big Fish, but he’s a showman, he’s a barker, he’s a guy who wants to get people in to have a good time and enjoy themselves. It’s kind of like what I’m doing now. Just want everybody to have a good time, really feel good, be happy to be here, buy a lot of peanuts.
He’s not secretly a werewolf though?
DeVito: No, but I do have a nude scene! But I’m nude in the bathtub so you don’t see it. But I did in Big Fish get up and you got to see my toosh. But when he told me, “There’s a scene in a bathtub,” I said, “I’m in baby!” Try to keep Danny from saying the wrong words and taking his clothes off!
How was it interacting with the CG elephant?
DeVito: That’s really interesting, I’ve never done that before. It’s really so kind of cool. The first time I saw it... we have a couple people in green suits, we have a couple people in big aluminum outlines of how big an elephant would be with eyes by little tennis balls, and they’re carried by a person in green, so that when you’re in the relationship of the, you know, you know where it’s gonna be. He’s not there. There’s nothing there. There’s sometimes the interaction that I found was really great, with the mama elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, and baby Jumbo, because you know he doesn’t get his name Dumbo until... there’s a big brouhaha in the tent and the "J" falls and the "D" falls. This is different. It’s kind of a Tim Burton-esque way of doing it.
They literally in our one set where we have the boxcars in the old circus, they’re more like that brownish color… What happens is the elephant is unloaded on the side of the boxcar on a ramp, and sometimes they would do — this is like a mindblower — there’s nothing coming down the ramp. There’s a guy with a big rig coming down the ramp, and the ramp has a hydraulic thing and it pulls it down. I thought that was the coolest thing. But one of the elephants was purple and one was green. The baby was green and the mama was purple, and I guess when they draw it that’s how they separate it. That part was really cool.
I mean, in Matilda, when I did that there was a lot of acting with dots. Because when you’re working with kids, in that movie I had a ton of kids, so you only get them for four or five hours a day in their school year. So most of the time, Pam Ferris or me, if you’re talking to Matilda she wasn’t there. So if she’s off-camera you’re looking at nothing. So it’s kind of similar to this.
You talked about the hydraulic ramp. There’s a lot of CGI in this film, but are there a lot of practical effects like that?
DeVito: There’s a lot of things where you - like, for instance, when I show them Mrs. Jumbo that I bought, this is my big acquisition that I’m really excited about. She’s laying a boxcar in the hay, and everybody thinks she’s sick but she’s not; she’s pregnant. And there’s a fake trunk coming out of... and the special effects people have little filaments that move the hay. And that’s really cool to watch, it’s like [mimes moving hay]. I think that’s fascinating. Although we do things like we shoot things with the actors, then we shoot things with the silver balls, then we shoot things with the plates. They shoot the scene at least four or five times over. Then people don’t remember their lines and that makes it 10 or 12 times.
So have you worked with Tim more than any other director?
DeVito: Yeah, I think so. I’ve done… yeah with a director I think this is the most except for… Ingmar Bergman. I’ve worked with him I think - yeah I think Tim and I, this is the most anyone would tolerate me.
The film is about a flying elephant, but what is the film about to you?
DeVito: It’s a very, very positive, hopeful, never give up kind of theme. I mean I think that in life you see all the different things that infiltrate the good things in life. The things that kind of surprise you and come out of nowhere, like when you think you’re making a movie with someone who is duplicitous or something. Maybe in terms of a younger person, or an older person, the idea is that you can’t always believe what somebody tells you. And sometimes it messes up all your hopes and dreams, that if you all stick together, possibly you could get a happy ending. And dreams do come true.