Writer-director Craig Mazin had a burgeoning career as a comedy screenwriter in the late ‘90s when he found himself in a room with David Zucker (Airplane!, Naked Gun!), bandying about ideas. Their collaboration led to series redeemers Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4, and sufficiently reared Mazin in the school of parody. This go ‘round, Mazin targets glory instead of gore, poking fun at a different kind of sixth sense. Superhero Movie (written and directed by) is Mazin's latest foray into the world of spoof—puns, farts, fools and all. Hitting theaters March 28, the movie tackles eager film superheroes and legendary comic-book figures. But Mazin's own superhero fandom is a bit more obscure. He talked with Mania this week about the forthcoming Superhero Movie, Lego haiku, telekinetic badasses and the incredible lameness of water.
Mania.com: How did you get involved with parodies?
Craig Mazin: When the Wayans opted not to continue with the Scary Movie series, Bob Weinstein (who runs Dimension) sort of put together his dream team to make the next film. In the course of no more than a day or so, I found myself in a room with David Zucker, Bob Weiss and Pat Proft. Ten months later, we were at the premiere. It was quite a ride.
Mania: You collaborated with parody icon David Zucker on Scary Movie 3 and 4. How did that relationship inform your comedy writing and directing, particularly with Superhero Movie where you pulled double duty as writer-director?
CM: It's a rare thing to learn a genre from the master, but that's the opportunity I had with David. The great thing about David is that he's sort of an eternal student; he's always trying to figure out how to avoid mistakes. I sat with him during Scary Movie 3 and 4, and in addition to the experience of writing the films, I also watched the film actually get made. David's a very generous guy about that. He wants someone sitting there with him, and it was a terrific apprenticeship for me.
Mania: What's the filmmaking process like, trying to mold dozens of superhero themes, characteristics and pop culture references into a coherent, palatable story line?
CM: Frustrating at times. To be honest, the five-movies-into-one mold isn't really my favorite form of the genre. I'm more of a traditionalist. I like Airplane! the best. Oddly, a lot of people on the internet seem to feel that Airplane! is a jumble of dozens of airplane disaster films all rolled into one, but in fact, it's an incredibly specific parody of one film—a movie called Zero Hour!. Other than a couple of brief spoofs of other films (like Saturday Night Fever), Airplane! stays incredibly true to Zero Hour!, even to the point where chunks of dialogue are directly lifted.
So while it was an interesting brain teaser for me as a writer to combine, say, War of the Worlds with The Grudge with Million Dollar Baby with The Village with Saw (let's see...Cindy accidentally gets the Grudge boy killed during a Million Dollar Baby sequence, and the boy turns out to be the stepson of the elder of the Village and the biological son of the Saw Villain who happens to be the alien behind the War of the Worlds invasion...how ‘bout that?), it's not exactly conducive to the kind of parody I enjoy the most. That's why I was happier working on Superhero! (now Superhero Movie)—I was allowed to stick, for the most part, to one coherent storyline.
Mania: Why spoof Superhero movies? In your opinion, what's the easy target there? What's interesting?
CM: I think there are two criteria you need when determining whether or not to spoof a film. Did audiences enjoy the film, and is the film earnest? People want to see spoofs of films they enjoyed. If you spoof a film no one liked, then you're just piling on, and it's mean spirited. More importantly, you can only deflate that which is serious, earnest and perhaps a bit pompous. There's no comic counterpoint if you're spoofing a silly film.
Some superhero films are too absurd to provide that counterpoint. Some aren't. Spider-Man seemed like a perfect choice to us. It's a good film that people love, and it's very, very earnest and sweet and, at times, incredibly serious. Batman Begins gave us another opportunity, as did X-Men.
Mania: How do you balance writing jokes and punch-lines versus timing physical comedy on camera when filming?
CM: There's no balance per se. Everything is about timing. We're always adjusting the timing on the page and on the day of shooting and in the editing room until we seem to get it right...and those early test audiences tell us if we need to readjust or not. Half the battle is figuring out the right setup, and then determining if we have too little or too much setup for any given joke. We've gone from crickets to huge laughs with the slightest adjustment in timing and setup. It's nerve-wracking, to be honest.
Mania: As a first-time director on a film this size how was production different?
CM: Budgets and schedules are tied to the amount and scale of the work you must complete. The truth is that there's probably never enough time or money. The one thing that I did have to get used to was the physical aspect of the job. It's a real marathon, and you're concentrating anywhere from 12 to 17 hours a day, five days a week, week after week.
Mania: You did direct before—The Specials—which, coincidentally, was also a Superhero comedy. How was that different? Did that experience play a part in how you approached Superhero Movie?
CM: Completely different, to the point where the subject matter is almost irrelevant. The Specials was practically a parlor drama. It was entirely about the characters and their relationships, and the comedy was far more satirical and ironic. Superhero Movie is a parody with almost no irony and certainly no true sentiment or larger point. A good parody ought to be like Airplane!—a serious, dramatic story re-imagined with characters who are confused or moronic. That may sound simplistic, but only a confused moron would say “Don't call me Shirley” and be serious about it.
Mania: How was the cast to work with? Any standouts we should keep an eye out for?
CM: Man, was I lucky. Everyone was a joy, and I don't think that always works out that way. Much of the cast is well-known and deservedly so: Leslie Nielsen, Tracy Morgan, Marion Ross, Regina Hall, Christopher McDonald, Brent Spiner, Bob Hayes and others. I'm quite sure we'll be seeing more of our younger cast, including Ryan Hansen, Sara Paxton and, of course, Drake Bell. He's in almost every scene, and he did a fantastic job.
Mania: You're of the Star Wars generation, a movie heralded for its art of storytelling...any storytelling influences there?
CM: I guess. I suppose I'm more influenced by the stories that influenced Star Wars. I'm a big Joseph Campbell nut.
Mania: I heard you built a giant model Star Destroyer by hand...any truth to that?
CM: True! The Lego version! Aaaaand then the desk it was on collapsed and the whole thing was smashed to bits. It’s now a million pieces in a bucket that my son uses as a Lego scrap heap. There's a sad poetry of mortality to it all.
Mania: Favorite superhero and why?
CM: Not sure if you could call him a “hero” per se, but Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen has to be the coolest damned character ever put in a graphic novel...with a nod to Captain Atom, upon whom he's based.
Mania: Great...now more importantly, lamest superhero and why so incredibly lame?
CM: An impossible question. There are literally thousands of miserably pathetic superheroes who never deserved to be inked in the first place. I suppose my vote would have to go to Zan of The Wonder Twins. His sister Jayna could turn into any animal, which is marginally useful. Zan could only metamorphose into some form of water. Steam, ice, or just...water. But not a lot of water. A Zan-sized amount. And while steam sounds kind of cool for a moment, all steam really does is dissipate. Zan was useless, and I'm pretty sure he shot himself in the head in '85. No one misses him. Not even Jayna.