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Taking care of Max, 99 and the shoe phone

June 20, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer
  • TV writers Tom Astle, left, and Matt Ember wrote the script for "Get Smart."
TV writers Tom Astle, left, and Matt Ember wrote the script for "Get… (Laurie Ember )

At A time when the quality of television programming is luring big-screen writers to the small screen, career TV writers Matt Ember ("The Drew Carey Show") and Tom J. Astle ("Adventures in Wonderland") decided to write a movie.

It wasn't a calculated decision to go against the flow. Ember just had an idea and couldn't face writing such a big project by himself. He asked Astle, a friend since they had worked together a decade earlier on the ABC sitcom "Brother's Keeper," to come along for the ride. The result, 2006's "Failure to Launch," turned into a launching pad of its own for the pair whose second film, an adaptation of the '60s-era TV series "Get Smart," will open today.

The idea of making a big-screen version of the classic spy farce had been knocking around Hollywood for years. Ember and Astle pitched Warner Bros. a new and different approach: an origin story. "It's the story of how [Smart] became great. It's like, how does one become a Batman?" Astle said.

When they first heard they had been picked to adapt the show for a summer movie -- and that Steve Carell was already attached to play Maxwell Smart -- they were ecstatic. They were surprised to hear, however, that Carell was on the long list of people who had to sign off on their script.

"Attached," they learned, is not the same as "committed." "What it means is, 'I will do it if the script is good,' " Ember said.

Over soft drinks at Jerry's Deli in Studio City, Ember, 46, and Astle, 48 ("That's 112 in Hollywood years"), appeared boyishly exuberant that they even got the job. The hardest part, they said, was dealing with die-hard fans of the series.

As soon as friends found out that they were writing an adaptation of the series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, they immediately started showering them with questions such as, "Are you going to have the shoe phone?"

"They remembered tons of details about the series even though it was 40 years old. That's when we realized this is a lot bigger than just a great job. This is a responsibility," Ember said.

While aiming to update their script with post-Sept. 11 references, they were sure to include most of the classic catchphrases: "Would you believe?" "Sorry about that, Chief." Along with the shoe phone, they crammed in as many signature gadgets as they could, including the always malfunctioning Cone of Silence, which here gets an upgrade.

They aimed to make the PG-13 film relatable to men in their 40s, who would sympathize with Smart wanting to do what he really wants: be a field agent rather than a desk jockey.

Since Hollywood executives can't seem to pair an older actress with an older actor, they had to add a back story to explain why Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 looks so much younger than Smart. Their idea? She had radical plastic surgery to disguise herself, and had a few years shaved off while she was at it.

Ember and Astle had mixed reactions to the early reviews, which themselves have been mixed: The positives say the film rises above the usually mediocre TV knockoff genre, citing Carell's irresistible and bankable charm. On the other hand, an early review in the trades called the film "formulaic."

"Well, it's a Hollywood movie," Ember said. "Max will succeed in his mission and he will get the girl. Movies that don't end happily are called 'foreign films.' I love them too. But that's not what we do."

Besides, after two decades, Ember said he's learned that the key to successful comedy writing isn't the writing at all. It's hiring great, funny actors.

No matter what, he said, "we're going to look like geniuses."


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