Get Smart: Carell on Spy Show with Old and New Gadgets

Director Peter Segal approached “Get Smart” as both a filmmaker and a fan. “This was an iconic show from the 1960s, a true classic and one of my favorites,” he says. “I loved it. It was smart, irreverent and hilarious.”

One of the challenges in making “Get Smart” was how to interconnec the comedic timing and the action timing with precision and style.

It all came down to beats, as Lew illustrates. “If we plan a fight sequence as a rhythmic series of punches, we would have a ‘bump, bump, bam’ or a ‘bump, bump, smack.’ We can slot in a punchline instead of a physical hit. The rhythm accentuates the joke and it becomes ‘bump, bump, joke’ with the verbal jab as the knockout or a joke immediately followed by the last physical beat that essentially ends the conversation.”

Understandably, that imposed a moratorium on ad-libbing and other impulsive departures by the cast of incorrigible improv artists–if only for a moment.

Embracing the Spirit

“Our goal was to embrace the spirit of what Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created and bring it to a new generation. The movie pays homage to the touchstones of the series; its irreverence, political satire and some of the catchphrases that are now part of our culture,” says Segal, “but with a fresh story, a 2008 point of view and a style and energy all its own. The idea was to make a movie that offers as much to new viewers as longtime fans and, bottom line, to just make it funny as hell so it doesn’t matter if you know the history or not.”

Producer Alex Gartner credits Segal with “the ability to blend smart comedy with serious action, neither of which is easy and certainly not easily meshed, but it’s something at which Peter excels and why we wanted him to direct. There’s a lot of physical humor here, but played against a realistic backdrop.”

Steve Carell, who stars as Maxwell Smart and also serves as an executive producer, sums it up this way: “I’d say it’s 80% comedy, 20% action, 15% heart, 35% romance, 10% adventure and probably less than 1% horror. Put that all together and you have more than 100%, which is more, really, than you can expect from any movie.”

Earnest and Dedicated

As the movie opens, Max is hard at work deciphering suspicious international chatter from surveillance tapes and preparing voluminous reports for his CONTROL colleagues. He is such a valuable analyst that his boss, the Chief, is regrettably unable to offer him the one thing Max wants most in life and has been training for so diligently: to become a field agent. Says Carell, “Max is incredibly earnest and dedicated at what he does but wants desperately to prove himself in the field.”

No Fool

“Watching the show I always got the impression that Maxwell Smart was no fool,” says Carell, a longtime fan. “I saw him as a resourceful, capable guy who had principles he was willing to fight for. He didn’t always take the route others might have taken but still, even if it was counter-intuitive, he managed to come out on top.”

By presenting Max as a newly minted agent whose abilities haven’t yet been tested, Carell begins from a different place than series star Don Adams, of whom he says, “Don was so distinctive, there was no realistic way to recreate his approach and his cadence, and I didn’t want to do an impersonation. Instead, I wanted to tap into the essence of the character and the show’s rich template and, without taking anything away from that, create something new and fresh in a way that honors the original but also stands on its own.”

Steve Carell as Most Important Element

Not surprisingly, notes producer Andrew Lazar, “Steve Carell as Max was the most important part of the puzzle in putting this project together. His involvement triggered everything and his ideas about how to play the character informed the entire piece.”

“What first attracted me to the project was Steve,” acknowledges Segal, who committed on the strength of Carell’s casting even before seeing a script. “In my mind, there was no one else who could do justice to this role, and if you don’t have the right Max it’s not worth doing.”

“We were able to tailor the script to Steve’s immense comedic talent, which gave us free range to take it to places other people might not be able to go,” offers producer Michael Ewing. “Together with screenwriters Tom Astle and Matt Ember, Peter and Steve worked on developing the character, as well as some of the plot points.” Bringing with him a wealth of improv experience honed during his days with the famed Second City, Carell often brainstormed with the filmmakers and his fellow actors to come up with alternate jokes and angles on a scene.

Sticking to the Script

Says star Steve Carell, “As much as we enjoyed the freedom Peter fostered on set, this was one area in which all bets were off in terms of anything else we might want to try. When you’re having a fight on top of a moving vehicle and you have to deliver three lines before you get smacked by a swinging crane, that’s where it gets technical and you stick to the script.”

Gadgets as Defining Elements of Spy Stories

“It wouldn’t be a spy story without gadgets, such as a Swiss Army Knife with a flamethrower attachment,” says producer Charles Roven.

“The show was famous for its gadgets and we have a lot of them,” Peter Segal says, noting that the film pays homage to certain old-school props while introducing a number of equally improbable gizmos to help our heroes meet the modern challenges of surveillance, communication and destruction–although not necessarily in that order.

Shoe Phone

“The shoe phone will make an appearance and the Cone of Silence is back in a new 2008 design, as well as cutting-edge equipment that spies like Max and 99 would need,” he says. “As hard as it is to believe in this day and age when every kid has a cell phone, the shoe phone was an amazing concept in the 1960s; the very idea of mobile communication then was really ahead of its time. Taking off your shoe and putting it to your ear to take a call doesn’t seem so innovative now but, c’mon, how can you make a ‘Get Smart’ movie without it It’s such a definitive image, we figured out a fun way to work it in.”

Sports Cars

Several distinctive sports cars from the series will make drive-on cameos. Fans will spot the red Sunbeam Tiger, the gold Opel GT and the blue Karmann Ghia.

Property master Tim Wiles met with renowned Hollywood memorabilia collector Danny Biederman to examine some of the show’s original props, including the shoe phone, that have become icons of American pop culture and were recently on display as part of the Treasures of Hollywood exhibit at Washington, DC’s International Spy Museum.

Like kids with toys, there is always an undercurrent of rivalry among the field agents when it comes to the gadgets they employ, each trying to one-up his colleagues with the latest-and-greatest and a casually dropped, “What You don’t have this”

Soon after Max demonstrates his radiation-detector wristwatch, Agent 99 coolly reveals a roll of explosive dental floss. Later, following 99’s introduction of a molar-mounted radio, Max breaks out the cufflink bombs.

Pocket Compact Smokescreen

Other debuting items from CONTROL’s fantastic crime-fighting arsenal are a pocket compact smokescreen and Max’s specially equipped Swiss Army knife that includes, beyond its standard attachments, a flame thrower, a blow gun and a miniature titanium-threaded grappling hook.

With all this state-of-the-art equipment being tossed around, veteran producer Leonard Stern wouldn’t be surprised if the Feds came calling…again. With a trace of decades-old incredulity, he recalls how he and his production team were actually approached by the FBI in the series’ heyday with questions about how they happened to come up with some of the devices featured on the show. “Apparently some of our creations were close enough to reality, and it was unnerving to them at the time to think that comedy writers could just dream this stuff up.”

Some Things Never Change

New and dedicated fans alike will be glad to see that some things never change. Says Wiles, “The Cone of Silence is now completely digital, with a sophisticated hand-held activation system and multiple ports.” Still, even after 40 years of Research & Development, fans would probably be disappointed if it actually worked.

Incorporating familiar favorites while propelling spy-tech gadgetry into a new century exemplifies the kind of balance Peter Segal and the filmmaking team sought overall in bringing “Get Smart” to the big screen.