- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

The evening before meeting Jerry Zucker to talk about "Rat Race," his presumably surefire return to movie farce, I was at a screening where the trailers shared a curious coincidence. One anticipated the fall release of "Shallow Hal," the new farce from the Farrelly brothers; the other touted "From Hell," a reprise of the Jack the Ripper saga from the Hughes brothers.

Co-writing and/or co-directing brother acts were a rarity in the movie business before the brothers Zucker, David and Jerry, surfaced in the late 1970s with the parodistic miscellany "Kentucky Fried Movie," contrived in collaboration with Milwaukee chum and schoolmate Jim Abrahams. The trio made believers of Hollywood in 1980 with "Airplane," a sustained movie parody that somehow had eluded the reigning specialist of the 1970s, Mel Brooks. A three-headed directing team at the outset, the Zuckers and Mr. Abrahams were referred to as ZAZ in trade stories.

Mr. Zucker, 51, recalls during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown that the concept was a tough sell at the start. Paramount hedged when backing "Airplane." The company reserved the contractual privilege of replacing the tyro directors if the first week's rushes failed to look amusing.

Mr. Zucker calls "being that close" as collaborators — siblings and friend — "an advantage."

"It doesn't necessarily have to be brothers. Garry Marshall and Penny Marshall probably set the stage by collaborating on television, although they've had separate directing careers with features," he says. "Once in a while you hear about people who have been friends since grade school and now work together. A lot of producer-director teams stay together for a long time. Having that shorthand that comes from familiarity and trust is great. David and I went to the same high school with Jim Abrahams, who's about three years older than David. By the time we finished our last film together, we'd been a team for half our lives."

While touring on behalf of his new comedy, "The Princess Diaries," Garry Marshall shared a professional maxim that also applies to Mr. Zucker's new movie: "If you notice that somebody hasn't tried something in a while, maybe it's time to try it." In the case of "Rat Race," Paramount Chief Executive Officer Sherry Lansing suggested that the ensemble chase comedy might be ripe for a revival.

"The studio hired Andy Breckman, who's a friend of mine, to remedy the situation," Mr. Zucker says. "He wrote a script, and they were kind enough to send it to me. Andy and I had collaborated before, on projects that weren't realized. I loved Andy's script. I thought it was really inventive."

• • •

The Zucker-Breckman farce begins at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where a sneaky manager played by John Cleese has devised a treasure hunt for the amusement of high-rolling gamblers. About a dozen customers are selected at random to compete in a dash to the apocryphal town of Silver City, N.M., where a grand prize of $2 million is waiting in a duffel bag in a depot locker.

Mr. Zucker hoped to avoid a cast packed with stand-up comedians rather than skillful character actors. "The tendency in the 1960s was to hire comics to do shtick Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters," he says. "Andy did an excellent job of delineating each character in a short amount of time, in a very simple and clear way. Each character or team of characters has a distinctive thing or problem. The actors really invested in these roles. They're funny while believably in character."

Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman are a mother and daughter reunited slightly before the race. Cuba Gooding Jr. is a pro-football referee who could use some anonymity because he blew a coin toss on national television. Rowan Atkinson is an elfin, narcoleptic Italian tourist. Jon Lovitz plays a family man compelled to take his spouse (Kathy Najimy) and two children along for the ride. Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart are a budding romantic match, thrown together by a chance meeting in Vegas. The likeliest crowd-pleasers are Seth Green and Vince Vieluf as a moronic fraternal team, Duane and Blaine Cody, who may emerge as a "dumb and dumber" gold mine that will merit further misadventures.

The setup obliges the filmmakers to keep track of several subplots without shortchanging any particular contender. "Anything is difficult to sustain if you don't have a compelling story," Mr. Zucker says. "Wait. Forget I said that. You could headline this, 'Director bemoans not having a compelling story.' What I mean is that it isn't such a plot-oriented movie. It's behavior and mishaps and getting the most out of the gags that matter more. You have to keep up a certain momentum in every subplot and be able to return to it at the right moment. That makes things difficult. Where you enjoy more flexibility is in the editing process. The order of scenes in the finished film is not what they were in the original script."

Mr. Zucker and Mr. Breckman color-coded the index cards representing individual scenes or script pages. Each major competitor or set of competitors got a distinguishing color. "We also needed a way of estimating how much time would be spent with any group," Mr. Zucker says. "We tried to get it in balance as much as possible. If someone appeared to be coming up short or being neglected for too many scenes, we tried to update a little faster, get the missing character back at the center of attention for a while. A lot of that work needs to be done to your satisfaction before the cameras roll because the physical production is just so complicated. The whole thing took meticulous planning and preparation."

• • •

A good deal of the film was shot near Calgary, Alberta — both exteriors and interiors, including most of the open-road sequences attributed to Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico. "We really had to work there or reconcile ourselves to deeper budget cuts," Mr. Zucker says, "but it's a really nice city, and the crews are great. I'm not complaining. I like it there."

He also found himself warming to the idea of shooting comedy again. He had drifted away from the genre, while still participating as a producer and writing collaborator on such follow-up ZAZ projects as the "Naked Gun" and "Hot Shots" spoofs. Mr. Zucker had a substantial "crossover" hit with "Ghost," but he had not directed since venturing into medieval legend and romance with "First Knight," released in 1995.

Although he was a film enthusiast while attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Mr. Zucker has concluded, "I'm not a pure film person. I think of myself as more of an entertainer than an artist. I'm in it for the end result. I want people to tell their friends, 'You've gotta see this. It's so funny' or 'It really made me cry.' Something emotional, some impact. I hadn't been consciously avoiding comedy material, either. I like to think of myself as genre-neutral. Having said all that, it had been six or seven years since I'd directed. Having chosen 'Rat Race,' I found I was really happy doing comedy again."

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