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If It Works, It’s Good

If It Works, It’s Good

Alan Metter

 

 

Film Director Alan Metter Gave Rodney Dangerfield Respect “In Back To School’’

 

By Rick Sandack 

 

 

After beating three types of  advanced cancer throughout his life and living well beyond dire medical prognoses, filmmaker ALAN METTER, who came into prominence directing Rodney Dangerfield in the l986 comedy classic, Back to School, called it a wrap. He was 77.

“His astonishing career path was a function of his amazing cleverness and wit,” said longtime friend Lawrence Lieberman of Boston, who befriended Metter during their college fraternity years at the University of Arizona. “Alan could be hysterically funny. The kind of rolling on the ground, laughing so hard you cried kind of funny. He could also suck the air out of a room with dark negativity, but his sense of humor always pulled him back. It was his gift and saving grace.”

Charting the highlights of his impressive career in an online video interview, Metter told Inspicio magazine’s editor-in-chief Ray Elman that the University of Arizona accepted him on the “geographical diversity ticket.” It was his way of saying he didn’t have the grades to go anywhere else, putting a positive spin on his lower academic status saying: “I made the upper half of the class possible.”

Graduating from UA in 1965 with a major in philosophy, he was enamored by l9th century American Pragmatism whose conceptual premise became the motivational foundation throughout his film career summarily stating, “If it works, it’s good.”

“If it works, it’s good” became his go-to mantra in his first feature film, Girls Just Want To Have Fun by casting an unknown ingénue named Sarah Jessica Parker and a young Helen Hunt as the movie’s female leads. It was their debut starring film roles which launched their impressive careers.  “It was a screening room hit,” said Metter, adding, “She just made it work.”

Applying the same pragmatic formula in the l990 film Working Trash, Metter auditioned an unknown Ben Stiller at the request of New York casting director Bonnie Timmerman. “It was initially a woman’s role,” said Metter. But not one to be restricted by gender assignment or stick to the script, he subsequently hired Stiller, simply because he made it work. “He made it even better than I imagined.”

Applying the same pragmatic logic in Back To School he replaced the film’s art director with accomplished production designer David Snyder (Blade Runner), whose imaginative touches like color-waxing sacks of autumn leaves then shipping them to L.A. to be reused when they changed locations from Madison, Wisconsin to Los Angeles, to insure the film’s seamless continuity.

But it was the film’s co-stars Rodney Dangerfield and Sally Kellerman who posed Metter’s biggest hurdle when neither actor wanted to kiss the other on screen. Metter argued that a lack of demonstrated chemistry between the two stars would kill the film’s credibility.  “Rodney pulled me aside while we were setting up and said ‘I ain’t gonna kiss her!’ And Sally pulled me aside and said; ‘Do I have to kiss him? Can’t I just hug him?’ ”

With a definitive no, he calmly explained that showing their sexual attraction for each without a passionate on-screen kiss would destroy credibility with the audience.

“What’s more,” said Metter, “the kiss was critical to paying off what would become one of the films biggest laughs when the scene opened showing two dogs mating in heat, and, in a comic reversal, showing the same two dogs at the end of the scene now engrossed watching Rodney and Sally enmeshed in a dynamic smooch as an obvious prelude to full out sex. “We shot the scene in five takes” said Metter. “Action! They had to hold the kiss and go down on the couch long enough before cutting to the dogs. First take, Rodney is holding Sally like a guy holding a rolled up carpet. He couldn’t have been stiffer. ‘Ok, let’s do it again!’ Second take same thing. ‘Ok, let’s do it again!’ On the fourth take, Sally yells out ‘How do you want us to do it?’ ‘Like you mean it!’ Metter quickly countered. Next take we got it. Sally said ‘That was very good piece of direction.’ ”

Thinking the movie would bomb at the box office after reading New York Times film critic Nina Darnton’s lukewarm review of the film (6/13/1986) and how “Rodney Dangerfield is definitely an acquired taste,” Metter said he was immeasurably relieved when NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Russell Baker resurrected viewer interest by favorably reviewing the movie in his piece titled: Truth in Movies. Baker’s review motivated NY Times chief film critic Vincent Canby to see the movie subsequently, writing his own favorable review detailing why Rodney Dangerfield made the movie great.

L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas concurred with ‘Back’ Gets Laughs, and Respect, Too (6/13/1986), writing: Most comedies these days crassly dodge the consequences of rub-your-face-in-it boorishness and mayhem; but in confronting it, “Back to School” acquires a depth that sets off its zaniness all the more effectively. In Alan Metter, whose only previous feature was “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” he’s found a director with the energy to sustain the film’s vigorous physical comedy and the sensitivity to manage its darkening tone very precisely–and then zip to the movie’s send ‘em,-home-happy finish. Dangerfield seems to be setting the film’s brisk pace and flawless timing himself.”

Back To School went on to become the 6th highest grossing film in l986, costing $11 million and grossing $ll0 million worldwide, propelling Metter’s  career to rarified heights throughout the ’80s and 90s, completing:   The Winds of Whoopie (1983) (TV), Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985), Back to School (1986), Moving (1988), Cold Dog Soup (1990), Working Tra$h (1990) Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), Billboard Dad (1998), The Jersey (1999) (TV), Passport to Paris (1999),The Growing Pains Movie (2000) (TV).

Besides Dangerfield, Metter directed many of America’s best comics, including: Steve Martin in The Winds of Whoopie; George Carlin in Working Tra$sh, a screaming Sam Kinison in Back To School; and Richard Pryor in Moving, which turned out to be an unpleasant ordeal. “I had to tell Richard what to do and he did not like what he had to do, but I had to make him do it anyway, so it was not pleasant for me. But In the end Richard told me it was the best experience he ever had making a movie and that I was up there with the best directors.”

 

Alan Metter Christmas card, 2011. Pope John Paul II greeted by Fidel Castro at Jose Martin International Airport, Havana Cuba. Metter was attending a film festival.

 

 

Born in the small town of Sharon, Massachusetts, where there was no movie theater, Metter recalled how his mother drove him to nearby towns to experience his movie fix. In his teens he remembered being mesmerized watching Splendor in the Grass. The cinematic experience served as a template encapsulating his theory on what makes a good movie.

“The movies I loved most picked me up in the fade in and dropped me off at the fade out and in between those two events I crossed into the story and was totally absorbed by it. No bumps. That’s the game. No bumps.  Smooth editing with nothing to jar me from the story. Giving the audience nothing to think about but the story.”

A convincing story line, creativity, and ingenuity were key to Metter landing his first job after college. “I went to an employment agency, Snelling & Snelling, who sent me to Liberty Mutual Insurance for an opportunity as an underwriter.  The interviewer at Liberty Mutual accurately noted that I had no credentials to be considered as an underwriter, but said he had another opening for a copywriter. I hadn’t done that either, and didn’t have a portfolio, but the interviewer told me to go home and write something that would convince them to hire me. So I wrote my obituary, saying that I lived to be l00 and became extremely wealthy, acquiring works of art on the success of a bestselling book I wrote called ‘The Syntax of Success,” but I never left my position at Liberty Mutual Insurance. My mother worked for a printing company and typeset my obituary in the New York Times distinctive typeface.”

Bingo! Metter was hired immediately and began writing print ads and accidental and dismemberment brochures. After two years he moved to Los Angeles. With a portfolio of his best sample ads, padded with a few from a talented female colleague, he was hired at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, the premier ad agency in the country.  When the Creative Director told him they didn’t have an opening Metter once again displayed his assertiveness, confidently exclaiming “Well make one! What could it cost you?’ He made $6400 his first year at DD & B and worked his way up the corporate ladder writing print, radio and TV spots for Volkswagen, Jack In The Box, and American Airlines before venturing out on his own as a freelance writer.

With no formal film school training, he learned the mechanics of movie making from “The City of Los Angeles Film School” as he called it, eventually employed as United Artists Record’s chief in-house copywriter, producing radio spots for the Electric Light Orchestra and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among numerous groups signed to the label.

Through his association with Nitty Gritty manager, Bill McEuen, a fan of Metter’s work, he successfully collaborated with another of McEuen’s clients, an up and coming comic named Steve Martin.  Filming Martin with a hand held 12 mm camera, the rough footage featuring the comic improvising fake commercials that were aired on Saturday Night Live.

In a l988 Q&A piece in Provincetown Arts magazine, an annual publication also founded by Ray Elman (with the late Chris Busa), Metter shared a Steven Martin moment that became core to his film career.

“Steve has a note from Steven Spielberg framed in his den” said Metter, “and there is a phrase in it that I read one day that really sums up my approach to making films. Spielberg had seen Steve’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and he sent Steve a thank you note for letting him see the picture before it was released. Spielberg wrote ‘It’s so obvious how you and Carl [Reiner] love your audience.’ And that’s my strength, I thought. That I make films for the audience, not just for myself.”

Those were the early days of music videos recalled Metter who entered on the ground floor of an explosive new industry where he wrote, produced and directed promotional music videos for big name artists — including George Harrison, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Chicago, Olivia Newton-John, and Donna Summer — which aired on the fledgling MTV network, targeting the youth demographic that loved rock ‘n’ roll.

A successful track record led to his first meeting and collaboration with comedian Rodney Dangerfield whom Metter directed in Rappin’ Rodney, an award winning music video promoting Dangerfield’s second comedy album.

Film industry higher ups at Orion Pictures took note when Dangerfield suggested they hire Metter to direct Back to School as a last gasp effort before they trashed the project.

Said Metter, “I almost lost Back to School. There was no script that worked until Rodney went to dinner with Harold Ramis who directed him in Caddy Shack (l980) and asked him to write a script. Harold said ‘Ok, I’ll do it,’ and I thought I’m out. Harold will want to direct. So I met with Harold at Ocean Pictures in Santa Monica and he asked me ‘What kind of movie do you want to make?’ And I said, ‘I want to make the movie Rodney goes down in history with.’ And Harold replied: ‘Good answer. I’ll write it.’ ”

Fluctuating between doubt and certainty, Metter said he was constantly hyping Dangerfield throughout the production repeatedly saying “This pictures going to be so big we should buy Orion stock!” Metter didn’t have any money, but Rodney bought a million dollars’ worth.  Metter said, “‘Jesus Rodney I don’t want to be responsible for that!’ The stock doubled and Rodney won again.  He got more respect than you know.”

The same can be said for Alan Metter, whose own unique sense of humor and profound insights on funniness helped make Back To School Rodney’s biggest hit.

 

 

Rick Sandack is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose feature articles have appeared in numerous magazines and major newspapers, nationally & internationally, through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and the New York Times Syndicate.