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WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?

In his first feature film starring role, he jokes, he acts, he sings--well, he hums.

By Steve Biodrowski     February 28, 2000

The '90s was the decade that told us men and women have difficulties in relationships because they're different from each other. Hardly a new concept, but it received a certain intellectual cache thanks to the popular works of Ph.D.'s like Deborah Tannen and John Gray. Tannen's 1990 book, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND: WOMEN AND MEN IN CONVERSATION, postulated that miscommunication resulted between the sexes because men and women act as if from 'different worlds,' their underlying assumptions and interpretations based on what are, in effect, different cultural backgrounds. In 1992, the title of Gray's book, MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS, took the concept a step further, suggesting that the sexes might as well be from different planets. Now, actor-comedian Garry Shandling takes the metaphor and plays it for laughs by making it literal in WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?

In the film, Shandling plays an alien whose planet wants to take over Earth in the most covert way possible: by breeding with its women, fathering children whose population will grow and eventually outnumber humans. To achieve this goal, Shandling's character must learn human dating rituals that will lead to successful procreation. Unfortunately for him, there are many subtleties for which his training did not prepare him, and his most favorable chances for success are with a woman (Annette Bening) who wants to get married. Also starring in the film are John Goodman, as a federal aviation investigator who suspects the truth about the alien, and Ben Kingsley, as the alien planet's leader. Mike Nichols (THE GRADUATE, THE BIRDCAGE) directed, from a screenplay co-written by Shandling. Columbia opens the film Friday, March 3.

Despite the apparent similarity, Shandling denies taking any inspiration from John Gray's work. 'No, it's very important to me for everyone to know that this movie was pitched and conceived in 1993 or 4,' he says. 'I don't know when those books came out, but when they came out, I thought, 'Uh oh, there's a similar idea.' But I've never read them, and there's no connection for me, whatsoever.'

How, then, did he originate the idea for the film? 'I should look up the date myself, because I'm curious,' he said. 'It seems like it was around '94. It was about the second year of THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, and I thought, 'What kind of character do I want to play that would be entirely different?' The alien from another planet jumped right into my mind, because I thought, 'Well, now I can go anywhere with it.' And the story completely unfolded within the next few minutes, which was he comes to Earth and has to meet and impregnate a woman, and that could be funny because you could have funny dating scenes. Then he would meet someone who wants to get married and confronts him about all his issues. I had been in relationships like that, so I understood it. I pitched it to Columbia, and they said, 'Great. Write the script.' Many versions thereafter, we ended up shooting it. The many versions thereafter was because I was doing THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW at the same time, so I could only devote myself during the hiatus to working on the script.'

The premise may sound like a take-off on a bad sci-fi movie from the '50s or '60s (e.g., MARS NEEDS WOMEN), not to mention the comedy EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, but Shandling never saw the latter. 'Everyone said, 'Take a look at it.' But then I didn't look at it. But I liked STAR MAN!' he jokes. Still, the main point for Shandling is that his film is not intended as a genre-parody of the high-concept idea. 'No, it isn't,' he says. 'But Mike Nichols had the idea that perhaps the planet in some way should be an homage to those '50s movies, and I don't know how much he stuck to that idea, and I don't know how he feels about that, but he mentioned that to me at one point. Otherwise, it's purely just supposed to be a very funny new way to look at the conflict in human behavior, not just in male-female relationships but in work relationships, like he has with his co-worker who wants the promotion, and then by the end of the movie, the alien wants the promotion, and he's pretty proud of himself when he gets to be the leader of the planet. So he's becoming human.'

Did Shandling base the scenario on real-life dating experiences? 'Yes, I'm embarrassed to say which of those scenes are identical to ones I've experienced in my life,' he laughs. 'But I did go out with a stewardess once--let's leave it at that. She was this close to saying, 'They're going to tow us in from here.''

Shandling also brought on several other writers to iron out the script. 'They contributed a lot,' he says. 'Working backwards, Peter Tolan, who worked on my series with me, did the last draft with me, and we mostly fixed the third act. My friend ED SOLOMON, who worked with me on IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW, had a particular knack for Annette's character. Michael Leissen, whom I did not know, wrote the first draft with me. It's part of my process to work with certain people who I know have certain strengths, and then I wrote with them, and the script got better and better.'

Although he wrote the lead for himself, he had no other casting ideas in mind during the first draft. However, Annette Bening became attached at an early phase in the development process. 'We had a script reading about 1995, after one of the first drafts, and Annette was there,' Shandling recalls. 'She was so funny, and she said, 'If you ever do this, I'd like to play the part.' No one else's name ever came up, so she was in really from the early stages.'

Shandling had been friends with the Oscar-nominated actress for several years. 'I met Annette in Hawaii about ten or eleven years ago,' he recalls. 'She had just done THE GRIFTERS, but it hadn't been released yet. I was in Hawaii with some friends and she was in Hawaii with some friends, and we all got together to have dinner--I think even Robin Williams was one of the people there, and we all happened to be there at Christmas time. She was exciting because she's just gotten the part in BUGSY opposite Warren Beatty, and we all sort of kidded her and said, 'Look out! Look out!' She said, 'No, I can take care of myself!' And she did! I did not know Warren at that point. Then maybe three or four years later, Warren was casting LOVE AFFAIR, and he and Glenn Carron, who was directing, knew of me through THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, and wanted to cast me. We just hit it off, and I did the movie. So we all became friends. It's very familial; I have that kind of relationship. I also know his sister, because I opened for Shirley MacLaine once in Vegas in the '80s. And now,' Shandling adds with a laugh, 'we've done TOWN AND COUNTRY, and I think we're getting ready to shoot some new scenes in March!' (Shandling is referring to the film he shot with Beatty well over a year ago, which has been sitting on a shelf since then while the studio decides what to do with it.)

The plot of the film (which is, after all, about procreation) necessitated a few nude scenes for the actor. 'I've looked at those nude scenes of me, over and over and over again--I really can't get enough of them,' says Shandling. 'And I find that only I know that I actually had no makeup at all--on my butt. On my face, it was caked on and sprayed on by the paint crew.' Many of those scenes were with Bening, so the obvious question is: what was Warren Beatty's reaction? 'He saw the nude scenes,' recalls Shandling. 'He said, 'May I ask you some advice, because she seems happier, more pleased with your sexual practices than mine. So we've looked at those, and I've made some diagrams that have been very helpful to him. I think I know what pleases Annette.'

Much of the humor of those sequences derives from a quirk of alien physiognomy. The invading planet is populated entirely by men who procreate through cloning, their genetalia having been lost through generations of evolution. Therefore, in order to succeed in his mission, Shandling's alien has been equipped with--well, an artificial member. The audience never sees it, but we do hear it--humming! This running gag may be more than a bit too silly for a film that tries to be a satirical look at relationships between men and women. Where did Shandling come up with the idea? 'Well, my penis hums,' he says with a straight face. 'But to be perfectly frank--and I haven't said this before--it purrs like a little kitten when it gets excited. But it doesn't clean itself, so that's where the analogy breaks down.' Then, presumably more seriously: 'I knew that there had to be, as there always is in this kind of movie, a discerning feature that makes him an alien, so I wanted to come up with a funny one. I thought, something about his penis, and I came up with humming. I thought it was going to be too broad a concept, quite frankly, and all through the drafts I kept questioning it, thinking, 'Can this really work? Is it too odd? Will it be too difficult to track? Why isn't everybody saying, 'Why is that humming'' So we just said, 'Well, let's shoot it and see how it comes out, and see if it stays in.' Then everybody just seemed to think it was funny and somehow appropriate to the movie.'

Although Shandling conceived the project, co-wrote the script, and acted as one of the film's producers, he wanted to focus on his performance during the actual shooting, so he was more than happy to turn over the reigns of responsibility to director Mike Nichols. 'When I came off LARRY SANDERS, I wanted to find somebody to direct this movie, like Mike--exactly like Mike. Mike's name was the first one I had in my mind, but I never thought we'd end up getting him to direct. I wanted somebody to be able to completely take the responsibility off of my shoulders--he produced the movie as well, and directed the movie, so he was in control of the vision, and he had a vision of the movie--he loved the script. It allowed me to concentrate as an actor. He really is a disciplinarian when it comes to making sure that we all played, including myself, the emotional track of the characters, and stayed real and let the humor come out of the circumstances. So that was really good for me, and I learned a lot. It's just what I wanted to do; it was a good experience.'

Part of that experience involved filming the script as written, instead of ad-libbing for extra laughs. 'It seemed to me that we stuck pretty much to the script,' says Shandling. Regarding a comment by Bening that she fought to keep material, Shandling says, 'I think Annette liked so much of the script, but it had to be tightened occasionally, and Mike would make suggestions about tightening the script down. So we had to lose and shorten some of the scenes. Otherwise, we really stuck to the script pretty closely--more closely than I'm even used to, because I like to improvise some, but Mike, as I said, is a disciplinarian, and he said, 'Stick to the script.''

This approach had its benefits. For instance, the straight-faced performance of co-star Ben Kingsley--an Oscar-winning actor not known for comedy--turns out to be surprisingly amusing. With his head shaved bald and his evil demeanor, he comes across like James Bond's Ernst Stavro Blofeld by way of Austin Powers' Dr Evil. (Somebody cast him as the next Bond villain, please!) Says Shandling, 'Ben Kingsley's so funny in this movie, it makes me wonder why GHANDI wasn't funny. I thought if Ben had been given freedom, those starvation scenes could have been a riot.'

With a starring role in a feature film under his belt, does Shandling now see himself moving away from his successful career in television in favor of making more movies? 'I can see myself continuing to write and make movies, because I have two or three ideas; I'm in negotiations now for two of them.' he says. 'If that were to work out, that would be great and so be it. I also have television ideas, and I may create one show. I don't know how to fit all of that in right now, so I have to see how it unfolds. I'm curious myself.'

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