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Famed comedy writer Robert Smigel on directing an oddly soothing Adam Sandler comedy

Famed comedy writer Robert Smigel on directing an oddly soothing Adam Sandler comedy
07 May
5:07

Even as he makes his feature directing debut with the recent release of The Week Of on Netflix, Robert Smigel already has a long legacy in the world of comedy.

He was a writer for Saturday Night Live — including the Saturday TV Funhouse cartoons — created and performed the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog character while the original head writer and producer at Late Night With Conan O’Brien and co-wrote and executive produced Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan along with two animated Hotel Transylvania films.

Co-written by Smigel and Sandler, The Week Of stars Sandler along with Chris Rock as two parents whose children are about to get married. Sandler, father of the bride, is a Long Island contractor struggling to foot the bill for the wedding. Rock, father of the groom, is a successful Beverly Hills surgeon who is caddishly absent from his family and typically tries to buy their affections.

Over the course of a few days, things grow progressively out of control.

The cast also features Rachel Dratch, Steve Buscemi, Allison Strong, Rob Morgan, Roland Buck III and Nasser Faris.

There is something unexpectedly soothing about the movie, particularly given the rancorous cultural moment into which it is being released. It warmly acknowledges issues of cultural difference and identity while also celebrating family and connection. The film finds the balance of emotional earnestness and arbitrary silliness that Sandler has often striven for in his own work but rarely brought to screen quite so gracefully.

The Week Of may be overlooked by people who assume that anything related to Sandler’s production deal at Netflix has been an outlet for his lesser, lazier impulses. While that may have been true with western spoof The Ridiculous 6 and action parody The Do-Over, as with the showbiz self-reflection of Sandy Wexler, in The Week Of there is something sweet and grounded in its look at family life.

Smigel recently got on the phone from New York for a brief interview on his ongoing collaboration with Sandler and taking on directing for the first time.

I have to admit I was surprised to realize this is the first thing you’ve directed. I just assumed you had directed somewhere along the way.

I’ve hovered a lot on some of the movies I’ve worked on but never really directed. And I guess I have done some version of directing with the cartoons I did on Saturday Night Live — I was never a credited director, but I worked closely with the animation directors. And my Triumph scenes never had a director, so I guess I was the director of those, telling the cameraman where to go and editing them and all that. But this was the first time I’ve ever been an official director in any kind of capacity where I’ve actually had the full responsibility. It’s something that I was never that interested in doing.

I started getting involved with some of Adam’s movies, I co-wrote the Zohan movie … we had this very talented director, and Adam himself pretty much has final say on every aspect of the production. As a co-writer and (executive producer) on that move, he wanted me to flag anything. I was heavily involved in casting and even went on the set, in terms of acting notes sometimes and shot notes if I had them. And the “Hotel Transylvania” movies, by then I had a lot of animation experience (and it was) a similar situation — I’d give notes on the animation and work with the actors.

So I had a lot of experience doing stuff like directing. But I kind of avoided it because I felt satisfied — like I have plenty of input, and why would I want to direct and have to be there at 6:30 in the morning and be the last one to leave? I felt like I had enough impact on the movies I’d worked on. But he really wanted me to direct this one, and I was very attracted to the approach he wanted. You’ve seen the movie, yes? Did it feel a little different?

Yes. I listened to an interview with Adam where he said he was a little nervous about the tone of the movie. How would you describe what’s different about it?

Well, Zohan was about as high concept an idea as we could have. It had an inherently sweet character and an inherently sweet aspiration at its heart, so it was easy to make it incredibly broad and still be able to have moments where you felt something for the character. This movie, I wouldn’t call this high concept at all. It’s a very grounded and relatable story, that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the silliest, broadest comedy. And that was fine with me.

It’s going to sound funny, because you just imagine Adam saying it in his goofiest voice, but he made it clear when he pitched me the initial idea that he wanted it to feel much more verité. That word alone out of Adam’s mouth — verité. He wanted it to feel like a naturalistic ensemble movie, and we even talked about directors like (John) Cassavetes. The movie is not like a Cassavetes movie, but I was attracted to the idea of doing something that felt like it had a different energy than a typical summer comedy. And suddenly the idea of writing it and directing it was that much more exciting.

I don’t want to put you in the position of speaking for Adam, but it can be confusing to understand what his impulses are moving between projects like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories or working with James L. Brooks or Paul Thomas Anderson, and the broader comedy of his own movies. And this movie feels like a project coming from his shop that is more aligned with the work he does with other directors.

I’m glad to hear that. We were taking a pretty big swing … I was hoping people would notice this doesn’t look like or feel like a regular summer comedy. And it’s not by accident, it’s by design.

I think Adam has always admired those kinds of filmmakers and those kinds of films. I think he just follows his impulses in terms of what he finds funny, but just because he loves movies that people like Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach do, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he thinks every idea that he has lends itself to that kind of treatment. So he’s perfectly happy to just make straight-on funny comedies.

This movie allowed me to write toward that (naturalistic) style. The whole thing felt like a situation where I could actually enhance the script with some interesting directing.

What was it like transitioning from writing with Adam to then directing Adam? It’s always been so interesting that he’s never taken a directing credit, even as it seems he’s very involved in his movies.

Absolutely. It’s the same thing as when you said you’re surprised I’ve never directed. He is 100 per cent on top of every movie. I’m not talking about the Noah Baumbach, PTA movies, obviously there it’s quite the opposite — he shows up and he doesn’t question any of it. …

But when it’s his own projects — I’ve seen him do it, I’ve seen him reblock entire scenes on some of the movies that I’ve worked on earlier. If he didn’t like the way something looked, he would just literally block out exactly where he wanted the actors to be and where the camera is. Effortlessly.

Here’s what I’ll say is so funny about this project: A lot of times to me the best part of the creative process is by far the very beginning, the genesis of the idea. If it’s my idea or my wife’s idea and I’ll take credit for it, or if I’m collaborating with Adam, whoever gets the idea, we get very excited and we get funny moments right away, kind of like a Roman candle. And then the rest of the process — executing the script, executing the movie or the TV show — are just varying degrees of agony and pain. Until you get to the end result and you’re happy with it and you can kind of look back on all the agony and laugh — you know, tragedy plus time. I was expecting that kind of experience here, being in the thick of directing, but I actually found it to be the most pleasant experience I’ve had executing any project.

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