Q & A: Director Harald Zwart on “The Pink Panther 2”

Director Harald Zwart with Steve Martin

Director Harald Zwart on set with Steve Martin.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Harald Zwart about the making of “The Pink Panther 2”, in which Steve Martin returns as bumbling French police Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

The MGM and Columbia Pictures comedy franchise episode is directed by Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks”) and produced by Robert Simonds (“Cheaper by the Dozen”). Its screenplay is by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber and Steve Martin.

Peter Sellers created the role of Clouseau in the franchise that began with Blake Edwards“The Pink Panther”, which opened domestically in March 1964 and also starred David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine. Henry Mancini’s memorable score for the film was Oscar nominated. David H. DePatie and Fritz Feleng’s opening animated credits were a big hit with moviegoers and, as a result, the Panther starred in his own 1964 animated short “The Pink Phink”, which took home the Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons in 1965.

Sellers went on to star as Clouseau four more times before he died in 1980. “A Shot in the Dark”, in which Sellers played Clouseawwwu but not in a “Panther” plot, was based on a stage play and had been completed before “Panther” was released. United Artists, which distributed the “Panther” films, had put “Dark” on the shelf because it had doubts about how well it would do. When “Panther” turned out to be a big hit, UA opted to release it only a few months later. “Dark” opened domestically in June 1964.

In those days Hollywood didn’t quite understand the marketing power of movie franchises the way it does today. If it had, “Dark” would probably have been retitled “Pink Panther 2” at the time. In fact, the first real “Panther” sequel didn’t arrive in theaters until 1975. That was “The Return of the Pink Panther”, in which Sellers starred opposite Christopher Plummer, Catherine Schell and Herbert Lom.

Sellers also starred in the 1976 sequel “The Pink Panther Strikes Again”, opposite Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk and Lesley-Anne Down. And he returned again as Clouseau in the 1978 sequel “Revenge of the Pink Panther”, opposite Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk, Dyan Cannon and Robert Webber.

Although Sellers was seen again as Clouseau in the 1982 sequel “Trail of the Pink Panther”, opposite David Niven, Herbert Lom, Joanna Lumley and Capucine, it was archive footage of Sellers who had already passed away. Some of the scenes with Sellers were ones that were originally shot for “The Pink Panther Strikes Again”. Edwards’ original cut of that film reportedly ran 124 minutes before being been slashed down to 103 minutes after it was submitted to the British Board of Film Censors.

Edwards’ 1983 sequel “The Curse of the Pink Panther”, which did not do well, revolved around the search for the missing Clouseau. Ted Wass played Sgt. Clifton Sleigh, known as “the world’s second best detective.” Also starring were David Niven, Robert Wagner, Herbert Lom, Capucine, Joanna Lumley, Robert Loggia, Harvey Korman, Burt Kwouk and Roger Moore.

Edwards tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the franchise with the 1993 spin-off “Son of the Pink Panther”, starring Roberto Benigini as Clouseau’s illegitimate son, Herbert Lom, Claudia Cardinale and Robert Davi.

The series finally came back to life when Steve Martin was cast as Clouseau in the 2006 remake “The Pink Panther”, which grossed $82.2 million domestically. Martin returns now in the new franchise’s sequel “The Pink Panther 2”, which also stars Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Andy Garcia, Lily Tomlin and John Cleese.

Q: Harald, why did you want to do “The Pink Panther 2”?
A: I’m a huge fan of Steve Martin and when I met Steve and met (with) the studio I sensed that they felt that there was a lot more in the franchise so they had a high level of ambition, which I really appreciated. And the script was great and Bob Simonds is a lot of fun to work with. So it was almost too good to be true.
Q: Although the film is set for the most part in Paris, I understand you only shot there for one week and did the rest of your shooting in Boston.
A: The reason why we move around — and I do this in commercials, also — is that money (is more important than) anything. We can make anything look like anything. So movie productions or commercials go where it makes sense financially. With commercials you sometimes go to places where it’s more sunny, but sometimes if it’s cheap (and not sunny) we go there! Boston has a fantastic deal with tax incentives. A percentage of what you spend you get back.

What they’ve done in Boston is they’ve made sure that as a filmmaker you’re incredibly well taken care of. Everything was just really, really easy. It seemed that every door was open to us. When the producers first told me we’re planning to shoot in Boston, I’d never been to Boston so I was just curious about how we were going to make Paris in Boston. When I got there and I saw those magnificent buildings with all the marble staircases, it was just like an endless pool of European architecture. As long as you (include) a fair amount of exterior shots from Paris, people will just believe they’re in Paris. We found even to make the Vatican in Boston was easy.
Q: I understand that at first you were going to film in Paris for two weeks.
A: And then I went to Boston and I saw that we could do a lot more in Boston than what we first scheduled. So we reduced our schedule to one week in Paris and we shot the rest in Boston.
Q: Well, it certainly looks like you shot at the real Eiffel Tower.
A: That’s the opening scene (and was shot in Paris) with Clouseau giving out the parking ticket. Then they run out of frame and the rest of the scene is in Boston.
Q: And that’s not the only “movie magic” you've used in the film, is it?
A: I decided in this movie to put cast above schedule. A lot of huge talents were interested in doing it. People like John Cleese and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are incredibly busy people so the mathematics of making this schedule come together forced us to sometimes shoot the scene without a big part of the cast. I shot the whole ending without John Cleese and then two months later I built a little corner of that location in (a) studio and I plugged in everything with John Cleese afterwards.

Working with doubles and making sure that in the structure of the scene to have people’s point of views and have doubles cross in front of the lens, you sort of glue the absent cast member into the scene. As opposed to just cutting to them, there is sort of a shoulder (that we see so that) they’re part of the scene and then later you can just plug them in and nobody will know.
Q: People always think it’s easy to do comedy, but that’s certainly not the case, is it?
A: First of all, I wish that more people knew that comedy’s harder than drama sometimes. There’s no real rewarding of great comedy. People tend to think that if it’s a good comedy it’s not as credible as a proper film. I think just the fact that we were accepted in Berlin shows that this is a really smart comedy. (The film was shown out of competition at five screenings at the 59th Berlin Film Festival.)
Q: Tell me about how you like to work with your actors.
A: These people are funny to begin with. People like John Cleese and Steve Martin have a history of being funny. So for me to go in there (as a director), it’s more a matter of mapping out the scene, doing the rehearsals and then guiding them in what I think is (going to work best). It’s funny how you think these guys just know exactly how it should be done, but they also need feedback. So it’s a matter of rehearsing the scene and then saying, “You know, that works” or “Try to move over there so you’re closer together and maybe the sparks (will) fly a little more.” Scenes were written and rehearsed and then we had some room for improv if we wanted to. But normally we stuck to the script.

(One exception) was when we did Lily Tomlin. That was the day I had two cameras running and I let them go crazy. That was a trip. The two of them (Martin and Tomlin, who’d starred together in the 1984 comedy fantasy “All of Me”) together again was sort of an iconic historical moment for me to witness. Again, we had a script, but then they started improvising around the script. They went to places we couldn’t really use in this movie. There was great reunion energy going on there.
Q: What were some of the challenges of production?
A: I think (with) the whole idea of shooting huge scenes without all the cast members there was a bit of a mathematical puzzle where sometimes I was the only one in the whole universe who knew how it was going to be put together. Other than that, the juggling scene (was a big challenge). Steve Martin is a juggler from the old days. He knows how to juggle. So that was one where we had fire in bottles. People ask me if those are CG (computer generated) bottles? All those bottles are real. There were a few that crashed. There were dummy bottles, but you can only go (so) close with dummy bottles. Eventually, you have to use real glass sometimes. That was a fun scene to do.
Q: It looks like editing was particularly important with this film.
A: This is also where a big collaborative process starts working. I cut it with my editor (Julia Wong), a very talented young woman who has a great sense of comedy (and has edited such films as “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Good Luck Chuck”). And then you have people like Bob Simonds, who’s done this for years and years and years, who has a real smart intellectual instinct on these things. Although the material in itself is very funny, we did do a lot (through editing).

(With comedy) it’s how long do you leave a shot on screen? How short can it survive? Do you cut the jokes too tight together so (moviegoers) laugh and they miss the joke? The proof comes when you start testing it, which I think is a fantastic way to actually gauge where your film is. When you do comedy, testing is just priceless.

There’s two sides to the test. The notes that people write, all of us know you can just take with a grain of salt. But you can’t deny the spontaneous reactions in the audience or, more importantly, the absence of reactions. Sometimes you think, ’I can’t wait for this joke to come on screen.’ You just think you have a homerun — and nobody laughs. Sometimes you can fix it, but sometimes you just drop it. And, frankly, you always have a little more (material) than what you need.
Q: Are you a director who shoots a lot of takes?
A: It’s a very precise form of working. I think we were pretty much on average when it came to the number of takes. I generally know when I have enough alternatives. You make sure you have the cutaways you need to sort of save yourself. What I felt was really important in this movie though was I didn’t want the jokes to be freestanding. That’s something that when it works, it really works because the jokes become a part of the story. They are either a consequence of something or they have consequences, themselves. I’m not a fan of totally freestanding unmotivated jokes.

Now, obviously, if you have a totally freestanding unmotivated joke you can easily lose it without sacrificing the story or messing up the story. We kind of consciously shot ourselves in the foot by making sure the jokes had a time and a place a reason to be in the movie. It’s a gamble because if they don’t work you’re kind of stuck with having to have it in order to tell the story.
Q: I know you’re getting ready to do a new version of “The Karate Kid” that’s going to star Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan and be filmed in China.
A: Will Smith is producing through Overbrook Entertainment. (We’re shooting) this spring or early summer so I’m moving to China for a period of time in a couple of months. The whole thing will be shot in Beijing.
Q: So you’re not going to double Beijing in Boston?
A: Thankfully, Beijing is going to be Beijing. I had a great week with Jackie in Beijing. It’s when you get there that you realize how huge a star he is in that side of the world, at least. He’s so humble and human. I just can’t wait to get to work with him.
Q: I understand your version of “Karate Kid” will depart in some ways from the 1984 film and its 1986 sequel (both directed by John G. Avildsen and starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita).
A: If there hadn’t been the original, I still would want to see this movie. It’s a lot of the same structure, but you know Jaden is younger than the character Ralph Macchio played so already there there’s a big change. And there’s a bigger cultural difference between Beijing and America than the East Coast and West Coast (in the original). And obviously with Jackie Chan on board the martial arts are going to be amazing.