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Penny Marshall: Director In A 'Flash'

October 28, 1986|NANCY MILLS

Penny Marshall says she dithered for years over feature-film directing possibilities. "I need an enormous amount of encouragement to do anything, even to go out to dinner," she said.

She finally made the leap when she received a desperate call from 20th Century Fox last fall. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" had been shooting for a week, but director Howard Zieff was leaving the production. Could Marshall take over immediately?

"I didn't have time to think, 'Should I or shouldn't I?' " Marshall said. "They wanted me. I go where I'm wanted. I said, 'OK, I'll just jump right in here.' I have the Lone Ranger Syndrome. I tend to work best under pressure. My problems come when it's quiet."

After 11 months of no sleep--to hear her tell it, anyway--Marshall has decided that "directing is a dog's life." However, she's also discovered that directing is addictive, and she is already talking about a second feature.

Marshall, who would rather crack a wry joke than do anything, almost directed two earlier features: Paramount's "The Joy of Sex" ("I didn't have time, because I was in the middle of 'Laverne & Shirley' ") and Tri-Star's "Peggy Sue Got Married" with Debra Winger ("That didn't happen due to other problems--creative differences, as they say.")

"Peggy Sue," directed by Francis Coppola and starring Kathleen Turner, was released recently.

Marshall said she was offered other scripts that didn't appeal to her. "When I'd get to the place where it said, '. . . and then they put underpants on their heads,' I would lose interest," she said with a laugh.

Marshall was neither desperate to direct a feature film nor keen to find another TV series after "Laverne & Shirley."

"Maybe if I'd been a man, I'd have been more ambitious," she quipped. "I'm just a girl. I took three years off. I traveled around and got lazy. I was just doing nothing but relaxing."

She had bought an apartment in New York and was about to invest in furniture when the "Jumpin' Jack" offer came. "I thought I'd die the first two weeks," she said, remembering the 5 a.m. wake-up calls. "I'd have to go to work with my hair still wet and it would dry all cockeyed.

"The second day of shooting, I looked so terrible Whoopi said, 'Come with me.' We were both in makeup chairs when the producer came in and said, 'What are you doing?' "

Marshall, who avoids interviews when she can, seems uninterested in self-promotion. "I don't know if this comes from insecurity or shyness," she said. "I know my brother (producer/director Garry Marshall) wanted to write and be an entertainer. For me, getting into show business was not a rational decision. I sort of backed into it.

"The same with directing. When I was doing 'Laverne & Shirley,' David Lander and Michael McKean (who played Lenny and Squiggy, respectively) wanted me to direct an episode in which they had big parts. No one seemed to object. I didn't do that many episodes. Then I directed a pilot ("Working Stiffs" with Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton), that sold."

Marshall has a self-deprecating style of humor. But when she must, she can discard the funny-girl mask. "I was scared stiff," she said of her feature film debut. "I learned a lot, and I did need to learn. They were nice to let me learn. It was like cramming four years of college into one semester.

"I used to smile"--four little words that, in her view, sum up the difficulties of directing. "I'm not a secure person. I was afraid to wield power. I didn't think I knew enough to wield it. I kept saying, 'I want to lie down. I'm only a girl.' "

Girl or not, every night after shooting ended, Marshall holed up in her office with the film's director of photography. Together they meticulously planned out the next day's shooting schedule. Then she made lists of technical terms she didn't know. She barely slept.

And worst of all, "I had cramps on the set," she said. "That wasn't too pleasant. At one point, I said, 'I'd much rather act.' Actors get treated a lot better. Actors get babied."

However, being the director means you can bring in friends to act, she quickly discovered. She gave tiny roles to her brother and her 21-year-old daughter, Tracy Reiner, from her former marriage to director Rob Reiner.

As director, she could insert some of her own humor into the script. For instance, it was her idea to hijack Whoopi Goldberg in a telephone booth. "Although directing this movie was a real hard experience, in retrospect I can always laugh at something."

Marshall giggled over her memory of the night actor Jeroen Krabbe was due to arrive from Amsterdam to play the role of Van Meter, a spy. "No one knew whether he spoke English," she said. "It was cold out, so I was wearing this raccoon hat with a nose and ears.

"Here's this man getting off a plane and meeting this girl director he's never heard of who's wearing a raccoon hat and saying, 'Hello, do you speak English? Oh, good. Here're some pages. Learn them.' "

What are Marshall's plans, now that "Jumpin' Jack Flash" has opened--and taken in $15.6 million in 2 1/2 weeks?

"My sister called me the other day and asked me to direct a pilot. She's an independent producer at Taft Entertainment. I said. 'I'll give you a list of names. I have to sleep.' "

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