Prince of parody plays it straight

July 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's not like he always wanted to film a battle or anything.

"I never, ever wanted to film a battle," says Jerry Zucker, the

director of "First Knight," which contains one of the best battles ever filmed. "It's just that the story called for a battle and so I tried to come up with a concept. What was new, what was different, what hadn't been tried? So I came up with: Armor glinting in moonlight. And that was it."

For Zucker, "Camelot" was an exceedingly odd choice. No specialist in medieval lore or epic costume pictures, he's more known for sending up such highly formalized genres than for doing them literally. He and brother David and pal Jim Abrahams basically reinvented movie comedy with a series of hyper-successful films like "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun," which extended the notion of movie parody into an art form, while making everybody connected with them filthy rich. Then he segued into high romance with "Ghost," still the fourth highest grossing movie in the world.

"I like immediate response from the audience," says Zucker. "That's what I loved about the comedies and what I loved about 'Ghost.' I hate it when people come out of a movie and say, 'Boy, that was realistic.' Who cares if it's realistic? I'd rather they be up or excited in some way. I'll never do a slice-of-life movie."

His experience parodying other genres is helpful in playing it straight, says Zucker.

"In the comedies, you really push the line and get right to the limit. So I know what's too far. I'm very clear about that and know just how far I can go before it starts being funny. In that sense, doing the comedies helped a lot."

Zucker never set out to do an Arthurian legend.

"The truth is, we bought a spec script, which told the story of the famous triangle from Lancelot's point of view. I thought it was very interesting but my first thought was to do it as producer and let someone else direct.

"But I couldn't find anyone to direct," he says. "So I started working with various writers in it, and finally Bill Nicholson [who wrote 'Shadowlands'] came aboard and he added the element of Lancelot's being kind of a drifter. And suddenly it got very interesting, and I couldn't imagine giving it to anyone else!"

Zucker, 45, whose voice still crackles with boyish enthusiasm and who frequently breaks off into peals of laughter over the course of a long phone chat, is serious about one thing -- that is, his right to change the story of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere.

"At first it bothered me, but then I realized there is no real Arthur text. In one book I consulted, there were over 200 different Arthur legends, many of them contradictory. But they did have one thing in common: They all had, in some form, the story of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. So I figured as long as we were sticking close to that, we were still in Arthur territory."

Zucker never set out to be the guardian of the flame of classical romance, either.

"I was surprised as anyone when it turned out [in 'Ghost'] I had a gift for it. I was just looking for a script that excited me. I don't think in terms of genres. But after 'Ghost' I found out I really enjoyed the romance.

"To me 'romance' is about real connections between people, rather than on relying on pretty faces. Romance works much better if it sticks to the cat and mouse game between men and women instead of actually getting into the sex. I have problems with consummation . . . uh, in movies, not in life! Anyhow, I have problems with consummation on screen. There's just so many ways you can shoot it that aren't pornographic and they've been done over and over. And, when you get them into bed, the tension is over, it's finished. That's why in most movies, there's a letdown once the consummation has been achieved."

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