Interview: David Zucker on How Spoofs Have Changed from 'Airplane!' to 'Scary Movie 5'

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Film scholars may be quick to overlook his massive contributions to the medium, but David Zucker is a key figure in the world of contemporary cinema. Between "The Kentucky Fried Movie," "Airplane!," "Top Secret," and "The Naked Gun," the writer / director practically invented the spoof, and made the films that still endure as the genre's finest examples, continuing to vindicate the form even when the likes of Friedberg & Seltzer ("Disaster Movie") do their worst to make us wish that spoofs would go away.

When the "Scary Movie" franchise found itself in need of a new mastermind after the Wayans brothers opted out of a third installment, Zucker was a natural choice. After directing "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4," he contributed to "Scary Movie 5" as a writer / producer. We spoke to the comedy legend about why he opted against returning to the director's chair for the latest chapter, and also about how cinematic comedy has changed over the 30+ years that he's been in the business.

Film.com: We interacted by email a couple years ago.

David Zucker: I think I do remember, yes. What was that about?

I had written something at Film.com about the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," and about comedy and the making of it, and you sent me a very nice email about your own experiences with making "Airplane!" and "Top Secret"!--

Yes, that's why I recognized the name! I think you wrote something and I thought, I can't let this go! Because I know a lot about the Marx Brothers!

So you directed "Scary Movie" 3 and 4, but you were not credited as a writer -- but those movies are clearly your style of humor. As the director, how involved are you in the creative process of actually coming up with the gags and so forth?

A lot. In 3 and 4?

For example, yeah.

I think it was 90 percent Craig Mazin and Pat Proft having written 3 and 4. Five was Pat Proft and me.

Right, so 5 is kind of the other way around, where you wrote but didn't direct it.

Right, I wrote, and then Malcolm Lee directed.

I think that is not a common scenario for you, is it? To write something that you didn't also direct?

That's right. Well, I can't remember what the last -- on the third "Naked Gun," I was also done with directing those.

I can tell you the last one you wrote but didn't direct. Do you want to know?

Sure!

"High School High."

Wait a minute, I DID direct "High School High"!

You did?

No, I didn't! Oh, I need you to remind me! Hart Bochner directed it!

I was gonna say, I was going off of IMDB...

[laughter]

You know, in one of the interviews I did, somebody said, "Ashley Tisdale's character in 'Scary Movie 5' is listed as Jody Campbell. Did you do that on purpose, to link it with Sidney [Campbell], Anna Faris' character?" Wait a minute, that's -- no we didn't do that. In fact, her name in this movie was Jody Sanders, and that was a mistake.

IMDB does make mistakes sometimes.

That was a HUGE mistake! It's the main character!

How is the process different when you're on just the writing side of it and not as the director? I mean, here you were also producing, so I'm sure you could make your opinions known.

You know, I have to do all the work as a director. I mean, it's so much work. It's a year of your life. I have to find something about it that I'm passionate about, and I found that on "Naked Gun" 1 and 2 and "Scary" 3 and 4. And "Airplane!," the first "Airplane!" But it's just hard to do a 3 and maintain that passion. To power you through all that work, and all that -- you have to run down every single little detail. I just didn't – like the "Naked Gun" franchise – I didn't want to do it again. I'd just rather write and produce, let someone else direct. So that's how that decision was made. And it's different because you have to sit back and let the director do it. I have to train them on the job, as I did Pete Segal [for "Naked Gun 33 1/3"], Hart Bochner, and now Malcolm Lee. Because this is unlike something they've ever done!

With "Scary Movie 5," where you directed the previous two, so you could have directed this one too, if you'd wanted to. I certainly understand all the energy involved. Was that a hard decision for you, knowing that you'd have to, as you say, sort of train them on the job?

It was just what I had to do. I mean, I was resolved not to direct it. I just, I can't do it. And that was it. And the studio tried for two years to get me to direct. That's why it's been so long since they've done a "Scary Movie."

Oh really?

Yeah. And so – well, partially because no movies came up that they really – there hasn't been a "War of the Worlds" or "Grudge" or "Signs" or "The Ring" in a while. In fact, we kind of went with this one without the necessary movie that we needed that had a physical monster. In 3 we had the scary girl from "The Ring," "War of the Worlds" had the big aliens, and "Signs" had an alien. So we started out with "Paranormal Activity," which is not any kind of visible demon, and "Black Swan," which doesn't have a demon, and "The Planet of the Apes." So that's why we added "Mama" later.

You bring up an interesting point. The early spoof movies, "Airplane!" and "Top Secret!" and so forth, were not very specific. Watching "Top Secret!" recently, I was surprised by how few dated references there were. Whereas now the trend in the spoof movies is to be very specific, very of-the-moment.

Right, no, it's very specific, and so you really recognize those movies. [But] we spoofed different movies in "Airplane!" I mean, that movie was the forerunner of this, and kind of invented that style or genre, if you will, of doing specific movies. The one specific movie that we did -- you know, outside of just the "Airport" movies, I suppose --

Sure, the genre.

But you don't recognize those as such because the plot was from an obscure 1957 movie, "Zero Hour." But we did "Saturday Night Fever"! I mean, the movie's clippin' along, and it's an airport movie, and suddenly the audience is in "Saturday Night Fever," and our guy is John Travolta. You know, we didn't set out to invent that whole concept in the genre. It was just what we thought was funny. And that's what really started that whole genre, when we did that specific movie within another movie.

At the time, were you thinking about trying to avoid jokes that would not last the test of time, or was that even a conscious thought?

It was not a conscious thought.

Just the way it turned out.

Yeah. I mean, if we had cared at all, if we had been conscious at all of "test of time," we wouldn't have done those stupid jokes on commercials. The coffee thing? ["Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home!"] That's idiotic, if you want to stand the test of time.

The one in "Top Secret!" is there's a joke about "I put your name on the Montgomery Ward mailing list," or something.

Yeah. What's Montgomery Ward? What's a Pinto?

But, it's like the only joke in the whole movie that's like that! I think that's impressive, that almost 30 years later it pretty much all still holds up.

Yeah, it's funny, and some of these funny references are funny in their obscurity.

That's true too. Sort of a time capsule.

Right.

You've been in the business a long time now. How is the process of making these movies now different from the way it was, say, 30, 35 years ago.

Well, definitely we made our own movie 35 years, and 30 years ago, and 25 years ago, and 20 years ago. And now, you know, I mean, the studio controls this franchise. And so we were directed to do "Paranormal Activity," "Black Swan," I think we added "Planet of the Apes." And also "Mama," and "Evil Dead," and "Hunger Games," "50 Shades of Grey" -- all these things are stated by, demanded by the studio.

Is that difficult for you creatively, to not have that control?

Oh yeah. That's like -- it's -- but it's the "Scary Movie" franchise, and the studio owns it. So it's not like they're taking my baby and taking over control. This movie comes from the studio. I get it. Some things I'll argue with. Like I didn't want to do "Hunger Games," but they insisted "Hunger Games" had to be in it, so we shot it.

That makes sense. It's the job they hired you for, so you do what you have to.

Right. Or they wanted to do "50 Shades of Grey," which isn't even a movie! So I said, "What? What is the visual on this?"

"Now you're just listing things that are current!"

Right! And "Evil Dead" comes out a week before we do! And so we had to spoof the trailer! It's really – there is more insanity in making this movie than there is in the movie.

I can believe it. How did you come to this franchise, anyway? They had the first two, that you had nothing to do with.

Yeah, the first two, the Wayans Brothers did the first two, and they were unable to arrive at a deal for 3. So that was kind of a break-up. And Bob [Weinstein] called me because I had done probably the only Ashton Kutcher movie that didn't do any business.

"My Boss's Daughter."

Yeah. It ended up making money, it just wasn't a big hit. But Bob said at the time that he thought I was a better director than the material. Because that was a – I didn't like the script. So I could blame it on that. But he knew that the spoof stuff I could certainly do.

Well, it makes sense. If you're not sure what to do with a spoof franchise, bring in a Zucker. See what a Zucker can do with it!

Yes, bring in somebody who invented it! Let them have a shot.

Who have been some of the writers and performers and filmmakers who have made you laugh, within the span of your career? Who do you find funny?

Well, you know, mostly before my career: the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. And now – you know, I don't find – I thought Mike Myers, that stuff was funny. "Austin Powers." I think Will Ferrell is funny. And I think Kirsten [sic.] – who's the one who did "Bridesmaids"?

Kristen Wiig.

Wiig, yeah. She's funny. It makes me glad when I can go to a theater that makes me laugh.

What have you seen recently that made you laugh?

[pause] I think "Bridesmaids" is the last thing that made me laugh. [laughter] It's already been a couple years!

As a comedy nerd, I'm always interested to know what makes funny people laugh.

I really don't go to a theater unless like three different people tell me it's funny. I can't remember what was out recently as far as comedies. Can you think of any?

Let's see, what were some of the recent big comedies. "The Hangover," "Horrible Bosses."

Yeah, "Hangover," that was funny, although I didn't think it was as funny as everybody else I was with. But I got it. I thought it was a trip. Todd Phillips is good. He's excellent.

This is an unfair question. If you had to choose one movie from your career to be the only one saved in the movie annals of history, or whatever, which one would you choose?

Well, I think that's an easy one. I think "Airplane!" "Airplane!" is the one.

Fair enough. When did that come out? '80? '81?

'80.

So it's been, my goodness, 33 years? Do you ever get tired of talking about it, or of people wanting to talk about it?

No, it's fine. It's great, I'm so proud to have been a part of it, and it's a part of my life. Probably I've never done anything as good as that, but that's fine! They can't take that away from me. There's a lot worse things than having been the director/writer of "Airplane!" It only gives me joy.

Scary Movie 5 hits theaters this Friday.