As two of the most popular Hollywood stars of the 80s and 90s, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are no slouches when it comes to making mass-appeal comedy. But for their first teaming in “Parental Guidance,” they also relied on the steady hand of director Andy Fickman.
Fickman, who’s helmed a string of well-performing screen comedies (“She’s the Man,” “The Game Plan” and “You Again)” reveals the strategies behind bringing two beloved icons back to the screen for a family comedy fit for the holidays.
I'm assuming that, like most of us, in your formative years you saw your share of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler films.
Yeah. the truth is both of them were really big influences on me, comedically: Billy, I think from “Soap” on; everything Billy did, I watched and couldn't get enough and loved everything he did on “Saturday Night Live.” He's truly been one of my heroes. And for Bette, years earlier before I really started directing and producing and writing, I was a development executive for Bette at the company, All Girls Production –apparently, I was the All Boy at All Girls Productions. I was there for a couple of movies, and so I really had the benefit of working firsthand with her. But both of them, their style of comedy and the heart that they bring to it had definitely big influences on me as a director.
How did you bring in his Billy Crystal-ness and her Bette Midler-ness into the story that you were telling?
They're great actors, to start with, and I think that's always a plus. Neither of them had really been forefront on the big screen anytime recently. They'd done some smaller cameos – they've both been working: Bette was on stage in Vegas, and Billy was on stage with his one-man show. But I think there was something magical about the two of them having never worked together, so on top of them stepping back into this world, putting two legends together and letting them find that rhythm really was exciting.
So those personas that are what we hope to get out of a Bette Midler movie, what we hope to get out of a Billy Crystal movie, became very natural. And I think just the two of them were helping feed the other one, and it was fresh to them because they have never worked with each other and have such similar sensibilities. The very first time I had a meeting with them, we had a dinner, and five minutes into the meeting, they were finishing each other's sentences. They were cutting each other off. They were like an old married couple.
Billy's comedic voice comes through in his dialogue. How much did you let him spin something or tweak it a little bit so it's Billy Crystal-esque?
I'm a big believer as a director that we write dialogue in a little bit of a vacuum, and then you ask the actor to try to make it their own, so that always helps. This story originally had come from an actual event that had happened with Billy, so Billy is not only is the producer, but kind of created the original story. But really, when you get on set, you start rehearsing that scene, and you've got all your actors. You have Marisa Tomei and Billy and Bette, and they start talking. They all have a good ear in which they can say “I don't know if I'd say it that way. I think I'd say it this way.” As a director, you're connecting these actors for a reason, and – unless it’s not appropriate to the character – you don't really want to put shackles on them. You really want to allow that creative freedom to come out.
There's a scene where Bette and Billy get their little song-and-dance number. How did that come about?
Early on we were joking around, like “You’re going to have Bette Midler – wonder if they'll ever do a song?” What we didn't want to do was make people feel an unnatural reason to do it, and as we were developing the script and starting to work on the movie and really getting into production, what we realized was there wasn't enough of a moment for them to connect, and this felt like a really sweet moment. And funny enough, you go to someone like Bette – Grammy Award-winning artist – and certainly she's going to have her thoughts about singing. But then you go to Billy, who's got so much life in him, but then there's that paralyzed moment of, like, “Really? I'm singing with the Grammy Award-winning Bette Midler? Is there anybody else on the crew I could be singing a duet with so I look maybe slightly better?”
Bette, while we were shooting, would always be singing songs from the 50s, mainly with the kids, teaching them songs. Then we realized that was partially what she and Billy's characters probably would have connected with, the 50s and 60s, and that was the song that was one of the songs that they had really liked and thought it was fun to sing. Next thing you knew, we made a makeshift recording studio the night before in the house, and we just started working through it the next day. And everybody enjoyed seeing it.
Tell me about putting Maria Tomei into that mix. She, too, also knows big-style comedy (and won an Oscar for it), but isn't playing big comedy in this one.
The crazy chemistry of casting this when you're trying to find a child of two famous people – who IS that? And we kept doing the DNA of, if Billy Crystal and Bette Midler had a child, who would that child be? And for the sake of our movie, can they be strong enough to stand up against them? And you start going through a certain age group. You start going through their ability for comedy, their ability for drama. It's not so much that her character drives the comedy in this one, while there's certainly comedic elements, but there's a lot of other things happening.
And Marisa was truly kind of at the top of our list, and we were going through casting and did that typical let’s have a meeting with her. Billy and I had a meeting with Marisa, and they knew each other a little bit and had talked in the past. She started talking about the character, and before we knew it, we were having a two-hour conversation, all of us, about relationships with our own parents and she came aboard. And she was great because she could hold her own against Billy and Bette from the very beginning. We got very lucky, having Marisa.
Is there an untapped audience for fans of these superstars of a fairly recent era that isn’t getting served in the big franchise, big blockbuster mentality of studio films right now?
Yeah, I really hope so. When I started telling people that this was the cast, I can't tell you how many people would say to me how much they love Billy and how much they loved Bette, and then start telling me their favorite movies. And that list: you think about Bette and you think about ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’ and ‘Ruthless People’ and ‘Big Business,’ and ‘Outrageous Fortune,’ and ‘Beaches’ and ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘The Rose.’ All of a sudden, like that list is deep – and the same with Billy. I feel like whether it’s nostalgic or not, talent is talent. I'm hoping that audiences who don't know them, from a younger standpoint, discover them, and for audiences more nostalgic who grew up loving those movies, I hope it's a nice holiday treat for them.