Interview of the week: Penny Marshall

Subscribe | UPI Odd Newsletter

NEW YORK, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Film director Penny Marshall -- who possesses a nasal, unclear voice her comedian friends love to imitate -- recently revealed to reporters how she developed her distinctive way of speaking.

"My mother was nuts," explained the 59-year-old Bronx native. "She was very funny. We got our sense of humor from her. My father had no sense of humor and they yelled at each other. See, they didn't get divorced because they believed juvenile delinquency came from broken homes, so they damaged us in other ways. They'd be yelling, so when we were younger, we talked underneath them and, thus, we all mumble."


Director of the hit movies "A League of Their Own," "Big" and "Awakenings," Marshall said she has never done the commentary for her movies when they came out on DVD because "I hate my voice so much."


She added: "My brother (Garry) loves to talk... I'm a little shyer than that."

Garry, who created the TV sit-com "Laverne & Shirley," which launched his younger sister's career, also directed the hit movies "The Princess Diaries," "Pretty Woman," "Runaway Bride" and "Overboard."

Asked if she and her famous sibling speak a language of their own, Marshall joked: "Can anyone understand us? No. We could have entire conversations without saying a noun. OK?"

She gave this as an example of a typical encounter with her brother:

"But you know--"

"I know how he is--"

"Yeah, but still I--"

"So, you have to once in awhile--"

"Yeah, but still I want to do this--"

"So, you do the next thing--"

"You know what we always said? We know how to have a perfect conversation with each other," she concluded.

By all accounts, Marshall's legendary sense of humor and affable demeanor help make the sets of her movies a pleasant, creative workplace for actors.

Those qualities also help her solve whatever little problems might arise during the filmmaking process. For instance, her latest project, "Riding in Cars with Boys," starring Drew Barrymore, Lorraine Bracco and Steve Zahn, spans more than 20 years -- a challenge for any director trying to get the costumes, scenery and props to change with the times. Since the story is about a teen-age girl who gets pregnant and marries the baby's loser father, the film also had to show all of the main characters aging appropriately through the years.


"We tried to shoot in order, is what we did, so that we didn't have to change the cars and things and everything else every minute -- because every year is another thing happening and so, it's too hard to go from 1965 to 1972 in one day. ... The hair alone! And the kids change.

That was the hardest thing about editing this film. Usually, I can mix and match. 'OK they're in baseball uniforms. I can put that over here,' but in this I can't... The kids change. I can get away with the hair, but kids! They're different (actors playing the) children. And their teeth fall out!"

She added that when one of the young actors lost a tooth during filming she had to have him fitted with a fake one, for the sake of continuity in the movie.

"My dentist was on set wearing a crew jacket," she said.

Marshall also recalled how Barrymore had to leave the set several times during production to promote last year's blockbuster, "Charlie's Angels," which she produced and starred in.

The director said she understood Barrymore's other obligations, but noted "there's not a lot to do without her" since she's in almost every scene. Marshall said the cast and crew tried to film what they could without her, including a scene where Barrymore is supposed to be giving her young son a bath. Marshall said she stood in for the much younger actress, but not to worry because the audience can't see much of her.


"The arm in the bathtub is my hand," she proudly declared.

Like her brother, Marshall first made her name in TV comedy, then went on to direct sweet, funny feature length comic dramas.

Asked if she minded when critics call her latest effort a "chick flick," Marshall replied: "Nothing offends me any more, but I don't think (it is a chick flick.) I think it's a family flick. I think mothers and fathers should go see this I think teenagers should go see it. Yeah, it stars a girl and it's about friendship.

But there have been many men who have gone to see it and get moved when Ray (Barrymore's husband in the film) has to say goodbye to Jason or a father who is worried about his teen-age daughter or about family and coming to the realization you must take responsibility for the mistakes you make in life and not blame your parents forever. And, so, I don't think 'chick flick'... I don't know what that means. Was 'A League' a chick flick 'cause it was all girls? I don't know what they are. I just make 'em."

Another challenge Marshall faced in making "Riding in Cars with Boys" was casting usual perky and nice Barrymore as the lead.


"What I had to see was she willing to take the risk of not being liked," Marshall said. "Because this is a flawed character. This is not a sweet girl. She is driven and self-centered. And, so, I had to see if she could do that and take the risk of doing that and not being liked in certain scenes, and she was."

Indeed. Some critics have said Barrymore delivers the performance of her career in the role.

Barrymore's character may be flawed, but Marshall seems sympathetic toward her and careful not to show her in too harsh a light. The same goes for Zahn, who plays Barrymore's drug-addict husband in the movie.

"There are no villains," Marshall said.

"This is about flawed characters. It's not evil. (Zahn's character Ray) is a screw-up. He loves his kid. He loves her. He just can't handle it. He's got a problem. (Barrymore's character) doesn't know how to be a mother. No one knows how to be a mother, to be perfectly honest ... And kids will hate you at some point in their life. They must. Especially in that teen-age period when they have to cut that string. Especially when a girl is pregnant and resenting her parents at the same time is a difficult time because she needs them."


Marshall pointed out that she has to inject humor into her movies, no matter how serious the subject matter she addresses.

"You can't be relentlessly dramatic," she explained.

"'Awakenings' was a drama, but I had laughs in it. That's just me. I have to find the funny thing in a situation."

"Riding in Cars with Boys" is in theaters now.

Latest Headlines