Summer 2008

The Power of Pranks

The director of Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries likes to keep things loose on the set. Here's how he brings cast and crew together with some well-chosen mischief.


Garry Marshall
PRACTICAL JOKER: Garry Marshall, on location in San Francisco, enlivened
the set of The Princess Diaries with a Christmas parade.

One of the most memorable and talked about moments in Pretty Woman is when Julia Roberts reaches into a jewelry box—and Richard Gere closes the box on her hand. She laughs her $20 million laugh and we cut. This was not actually a scene written into the movie—rather a prank I played on Julia with Richard's help.

Why, you may ask, would I fool around when "time is money?" The reason is simple: while making a film there are, believe it or not, "rotten days," "cranky days," and "stupid absurd days." Days when the actors are sluggish from late-night parties and premieres, or from shooting too many days in a row. And sometimes the crew is tired from too hot, too cold, too rainy or too many long days.

I find the solution to this problem is to do pranks and jokes. Other directors use yelling or pep talks or firing people to shake up a shoot. My sister Penny sometimes uses begging á la "Please, please everybody, act better. I have a stomachache and a headache and I wanna wrap and go home."

Kidding around works best for me. For instance, during Julia's bubble bath scene in Pretty Woman when she went under the soapy water for a few moments, Richard Gere, myself and the entire crew disappeared and were gone when she came up. It was just her in a tub on a ghost ship. And I also started a rumor during that scene that I had put goldfish in the bathtub and everybody, including Julia, was looking for the fish.

Sometimes pranks are predicated on what other shows are working on the same lot. Once on Frankie & Johnny I had Al Pacino open a closed door and enter a room where the entire cast of Star Trek, in full costume, were waiting there to welcome him.

Actually, I pulled off one of my most elaborate pranks on Frankie & Johnny in a scene when Al barged into the ladies bathroom to confront Michelle Pfeiffer. We were shooting the first take, but as he walked in and started his dialogue he went, "Uh oh. Whoa!" I said, "What's the matter, Al?" And he said, "I saw myself in that mirror on the wall." Not quite getting it, I said, "How'd you look?" He said, "I can't act when I see myself in a mirror, it throws me." It was a little five-by-seven mirror in a rundown bowling alley bathroom. But I said, "I'm sorry, go back to your trailer and I'll fix it." After he left I announced that we should scour the Paramount lot and find the biggest mirror they could find to put it on the wall. So everybody started looking. Even crew members who hadn't moved in days ran out to find a mirror. Card games broke up so the crew could go to find a big mirror. A teamster found a gigantic one, and the crackerjack grips and lighting crew replaced the whole bathroom wall with this huge mirror in minutes. Of course, at the same time I had the standby painter take off the other mirror on the first wall and paint over the spot. I am a professional, you know.

So Al returned and stood behind the closed door as Michelle, who was in on the joke, sat patiently on the sink. I yelled "Action!" and Al came roaring onto the set. He's such a pro that he got a line of dialogue out before he went "Ahhhh." He stared at himself full-length, then started laughing as we all joined him. The energy was sky-high that day.

I've done many pranks. On Georgia Rule, Lindsay Lohan was using seven wigs, so in a big scene with Jane Fonda, she opens the door and was greeted by six crew members wearing her wigs. I wore the seventh. On The Princess Diaries, Julie Andrews was stumbling over a line a few times and I had to call lunch. After lunch we tried it again and when she got it perfect I had an eight-piece mariachi band come on the set to salute her success. Hearing Ms. Andrews sing to a mariachi band is quite charming.

Once in awhile we play pranks to get something we need without the actor knowing it. For instance, on The Other Sister Diane Keaton didn't like any crew members hovering and holding light-reflecting white cards near her when she was acting. So the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti and I staged a party scene at a country club in which we placed her near the same three extras through the entire scene. The extras all wore bright white saris that brightened her face without crew members hovering.

One of the best prank instigators is Ellen Schwartz, my assistant director, and it was her idea to stage parades during a shoot. What a waste of time, you say. Not so if it cements a group of artists who don't know one other into a smooth working operation.

Our parades consist of each department—hair and makeup, the electricians, the teamsters, the actors, etc.—all making floats. They would be judged and joke trophies rewarded to the best. We observed when we did this there was no interdepartmental fighting or bickering. They were too busy making floats.

The parades are held on a lunch hour where we're shooting. For the Runaway Bride parade, Julia Roberts and Joan Cusack sat on a float called "Miss Pregnant America." Joan was "Miss Taken" and Julia was "Miss Understood."

For Princess Diaries, we held a Thanksgiving parade where Anne Hathaway wore a table and table setting around her waist as a one-person turkey dinner float.

Our Christmas parade on Princess Diaries was won by the teamsters from the transportation department with a float featuring a 30-foot-high snowman dressed as Santa. Earlier on Runaway Bride, Richard Gere had won a Christmas tree contest by decorating it with various Polaroids from his entire career that had been taken by his hair and makeup artists.

My pranks and parades may have hindered my career in directing heavy dramatic films—I would have loved to do a Silence of the Lambs parade—but, all in all, they helped me and others actually have fun making a movie.

By the way, if you need a prank and parade expert on your next film, hire Ellen Schwartz. She's a respected DGA member.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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