INTERVIEW - PHIL ROSENTHAL
Sitting across from the man who created and executive produced Everybody Loves Raymond you get the initial sense that this man could easily snap his fingers and make anything happen. Based on the success of Raymond and how well America responded to a sitcom that destroyed in its first run and is decimating in their reruns with how often people are watching them you ought to be afraid of a man who figured out the secret sauce. But, honestly, there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
I met Phil Rosenthal in a hotel restaurant early in the morning and had a sensible meal of eggs and toast. Politely, he asked if I wanted anything to eat during the time I talked to him. I was caught off guard by the niceties. Aren’t grizzled guys like him, men who have been in the trenches with the snakes and backstabbers so legendary in show business, supposed to be bitter, jaded, captains of industry who are now able to light cigars with dollar bills? Phil very well could and get away with it but I couldn’t have been ready to talk to someone so genuinely grounded in a reality that even us little people have to live in you quickly understand why Raymond survived as a series for as long as it did.
Phil Rosenthal gets it when it comes to life. He appreciates what it took to get him to where he is today and why Raymond still strikes a comedic chord with those who like to watch Ray Romano get into wacky situations with his wife and family. It’s not high art but it’s what he knows and he knows how to sell it. That’s what makes EXPORTING RAYMOND an engaging documentary. Opening today, the film looks at what it takes to translate Raymond into a different language, a different society. That place happens to be Russia and when it comes to Russian society the literal production that goes into translating the American series for Russian viewers it isn’t easy. There are elements of universality that Rosenthal knows that have to be in this iteration, of course, but there was no way to anticipate the level of insanity that he endures from the writing, to the actors, the producers, or anything tangentially involved with the making of this program. The film shows how blurry the lines can get with scripted comedy and the hilarity that can ensue with those who just don’t know better.
ROSENTHAL: You are doing me a great service by even talking to me, you are helping the movie, so I’m happy.
CS: It’s a great film.
ROSENTHAL: You were there [at the screening]?
CS: Yes, I was.
ROSENTHAL: Oh great. I’m glad. That was such a nice screening too. I have to say, we’ve had a lot of nice screenings. People seem to respond.
You go into these things and it’s very rare that one of these small movies, maybe once or twice a year now, something like The Kids are Alright or you go back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that starts very small and nobody expects anything of it, and the reason we try to promote it and do all this work for it is that maybe there is a chance you can be one of the two movies that cross over from just a little art film indie house thing into maybe something bigger.
CS: Did you go in there thinking that or did it just start as a germ saying, “You know what, I ought to turn the production diary I’m keeping into a full blown production”?
ROSENTHAL: I was. I was writing email to my friends and failed. Just writing about what happened to me. I’m away. “How are you…Here’s what’s happening with me….” And soon I was getting emails back from people saying, “Ha, ha, keep writing…it’s so hilarious how you are suffering.”
So I kept writing. I wasn’t self-conscious about it. I wasn’t trying to manipulate the truth or anything. Everything you see in the movie is 100% real – no fakery and I was just writing the events of the day down. I guess it’s colored by my personality in the writing as it would be when anybody writes and sure enough, when I was going through the 200 hours of footage that I have trying to whittle it down to 85 minutes, these emails became the framework of the film – the outline of the movie. I didn’t stick to them exactly but it gave me a direction for the story which every movie has to have whether it’s a documentary or feature. It doesn’t matter. You got to tell a story and stuff has to happen. That in a documentary you have to be lucky, so I was very, very lucky.
First, I’m lucky to have those parents. Think about the luck involved there. Not just that they are who they are but, for example, that they would turn on the computer and that would happen in the first scene they were in. They didn’t even know how to get to their slide show of Russia I was sending. They couldn’t even work the computer. So that seems to be…I was laughing so hard in that scene because we have just turned on the cameras…I couldn’t believe I was getting something already that I could use. That’s why I’m laughing because I couldn’t believe it and seems to me to be very, very relatable to anyone with parents at the computer.
And then the luck that it would come up again in conversation with that other Russian family and that they would suggest Skyping my family and that my parents would be up in New York. Think about that. That they had to be up. Again, nothing manipulated, nothing planned, that they would even know how to turn on the thing for Skype, that they would hit a button and something could go wrong and they would fight exactly like they do in the beginning of the movie. It’s just a perfect comedic callback that only occurs in fictional films and the best ones where they have a good setup and a good callback. You just couldn’t write it. So that’s what I mean by luck in these situations.
CS: And the personalities that come out as well. Your driver in Russia – you can almost see caricatures – like you made them up somehow.
ROSENTHAL: But you couldn’t. You couldn’t. They are too good. In other words you believe them. There’s no, you smell a rat here. They are real. There is no fake stuff. By the way, my whole direction of the movie was let’s take two cameras so we don’t fake anything. Because I knew before I went over I think this is going to be how I react to them and how they react to me. What else would it be? So, I would tell the camera guys one of you film who’s talking and one of you film who’s reacting.
If the scene is going long, one of you pull back and get a master so we can see the whole situation and when there’s down time you get your wide shots or maybe you take some people off and interview them without me so they are not self-conscious that it’s me doing it. So I really wasn’t directing while I was there. That was my whole direction. Then I had to be me. Then I had to go and I wasn’t necessarily conscious of being in a movie, I had a job to do and I knew that if I was trying to manipulate things. I wouldn’t, first of all, doing my job and, second, of all, I’d be lousy for the movie. Who wants to see something put on? I think we all know the movies where we smell that.
CS: Of course. Especially in reality television, Housewives or Jersey Shore. You wanted genuineness and, in the film, it seems so genuine. It one of your classic “I don’t speak your language, you don’t speak mine – we’re going to collide together and see what happens” kind of schtick. But, instead of being a cultural exchange, it’s business. So there’s the business aspect, there’s the technical aspect and then there’s the comedy that needs to be translated. Making comedy work in someone else’s language seems daunting.
ROSENTHAL: By the way, it’s hard to make it work in our language. There’s so many people that don’t share our sense of humor. Right? And I think it’s the sense of humor that connects up deeply. It’s why we marry who we marry. I really believe that. Because, once the lust is gone what are you left with on your date? The sense of humor with the other person. I really believe that’s what we connect to. I don’t think enough is given to that. I would like humor to get a little more respect in this society.
CS: I agree.
ROSENTHAL: Yes? For example: 1982, I think it was, two movies were vying for best picture – Ghandi and Tootsie. What movie stays? What movie won?
CS: Right, and I think it speaks to the same point that culturally we just don’t value it enough and somehow it is a lesser art form that you are able to make someone laugh.
ROSENTHAL: It’s the kiddie table. That’s how Woody Allen puts it. There are plenty of film festivals that would not consider us just because of the subject matter and tone.
ROSENTHAL: Yeah. So next time I have to have some Nazis kill some dolphins in my next documentary.
CS: Right - or have someone with physical ailments or mental issues.
CS: How was that going into a situation where – and I was reminded when Ricky Gervais took The Office and brought it over here and the difficulties he had the first season, working through the issues of getting into a good rhythm - but it all streamlined out in subsequent seasons.
CS: How was it going there thinking “I now have to translate this to a different language” or was there some universality you felt going in there knowing what you needed to do. Or did you know was there a different sensibility in Russia when it comes to comedy?
ROSENTHAL: Yes, because of the shows that came before me. Now, remember, the sitcom is new in Russia. It’s like the wild, wild west over there. They didn’t have the sitcom as a form until Sony brought The Nanny over there a few years ago. Just simply imagine it just didn’t exist. They had sketch shows and they had night time soaps and they thought the sitcom was a combination of the two. Why should they think anything else? So they brought over people from soap operas to work on it because why? They are also a half hour. You know half hours. And then sketch. And The Nanny was perfect because it’s a sketch. It’s a broad comedy. Married with Children came next. A big hit. A sketch – very broad. It didn’t have to take place in the real world.
Now here I come with my whole philosophy that things in real life are funny and to the Russians they are saying, “What are you talking about? Real life is terrible. Why would we want that and what are you making such a big deal over a suitcase? This is really stupid.” But I have to tell you I was thinking, honestly, how am I going to get through to these Russians that if I thought for one more second I’d say wait a minute, I had this same conversation in LA with people who didn’t get it.
ROSENTHAL: Of course! Otherwise the airwaves would be filled with more of my kind of show than those kinds of shows. It’s the business that’s universal.
CS: That’s what I’m getting towards. That the whole infrastructure – you are not only executive producer, you are also a writer, a performer - is something you’re able to navigate. You can balance between the business side and creative side. I’m reminded of the Jerry Weintraub documentary that was just released on HBO as it deals with his legacy in Hollywood.
ROSENTHAL: I’d like to see that.
CS: It was great because you see how serendipitous it all is. The business side of having to create an infrastructure where you have that pressure to exert and say why that suitcase needs to be there. Did you go in there, for lack of a better word, to help build that sort of exterior foundation to help these Russians become self sufficient?
ROSENTHAL: Yes. Sony does have people that are stationed there. Americans, ex-comedy writers from TV shows, not necessarily mine but I’m hoping we don’t give away the end of the movie by saying whether the show went or not because that’s my only story tension. But the main job is to be a diplomat and to just help them. They have to make it their show just like Americans had to make The Office (even though it’s the same damn language), they had to make it theirs. I joked last night that I would probably have the exact same situation if I tried to do the southern version of Everybody Loves Raymond. If I went to Birmingham, Alabama. Right? And we’re all Americans but it would be a completely different show.
But underneath I would try to get at the same stuff. Because underneath, under the shell that we all have, the external thing that we present to the world whether we are tough or crazy, underneath I think we are all the same. Wives tell us what to do.
Leave a Reply