What’s on Second?: Interview with ‘Second Act’ Director Peter Segal

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Peter Segal has directed comedies starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Anger Management with Jack Nicholson, Get Smart with Steve Carell and Dwayne Johnson, The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, Grudge Match with Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

His new comedy, Second Act from STX Entertainment, comes out December 21 and stars Jennifer Lopez as a down-on-her-luck woman who accidentally lands a top executive job after her best friend creates a fake resumé for her.

Segal spoke to Boxoffice about directing Lopez (his first female lead), scouting at the World Trade Center on the anniversary of 9/11, and recording the score in the same studio where Prince recorded Purple Rain.

For the past three consecutive years, a Star Wars movie opened on the same December weekend that Second Act is about to open. How glad are you that isn’t happening this year?

[Laughs] I had a movie open against a Star Wars second weekend, The Longest Yard [which debuted on Memorial Day Weekend 2005, against Revenge of the Sith]. There was a feeling like, “Maybe we could open against Star Wars on its second weekend.” I was like, “I don’t know, it’s still Star Wars. I wouldn’t do that.” And they crushed us.

But here’s the great thing about the movie business. When there are enough good movies to go see, there’s enough pie for everyone to eat. The Longest Yard opened in third place with $58 million. Madagascar opened number two with $61 million. Opening in third place with $58 million, I would take that any day!

All of your previous films have starred men. What was the biggest surprise or challenge directing a woman in the lead role?

It was really nice. It was one of the reasons why I chose to do Second Act. This movie harkens back to a kind of movie I grew up with, the Mike Nichols and Nora Ephron era, that just aren’t being made anymore. I have two things that are my criteria for choosing a movie. First of all, how it hits me when I read the script. I read it as Joe Popcorn, I don’t read it as a filmmaker. It’s content plus star. I thought the story, with Jennifer Lopez—who had not done a movie like this in a while—was irresistible.

Especially at the time of the year when it’s the Oscar movies and the huge blockbusters, a lot of times there’s a dark heavy tone to the awards-bait movies. Or it’s a CG environment. This is a simple, lighthearted story that has some resonance and some heart, with a few surprises. You don’t see many movies like this being made. So I jumped at the chance. An opportunity to do something that wasn’t necessarily in a male-dominated world was a great challenge for me.

What’s your funniest story from the set?

Leah Remini’s relationship offscreen with Jennifer—they’re best friends. When I went to Jennifer’s apartment to do a read through of the script, they were like two sisters. There is a physicality—where Leah pokes Jennifer to get a rise out of her, and Jennifer tells her to shut up. It feels like dinner at my kitchen table with my family. There’s no pretense; they’re just best buds and they’ll tell each other like it is. It was hilarious.

I said to Leah, who hasn’t been in a lot of movies, “On the set, you have carte blanche any time you want to riff. As long as I get one scripted for the edit room, so my editor doesn’t strangle me, go with your gut. If you want to throw some things at Jen, do it.” I looked at Jennifer and said, “Are you OK with that?” She said, “Are you kidding? Bring it.”

Well, they did. There’s this thing that Leah does with Jennifer where whenever Jennifer is apprehensive about going onstage, Leah says, “Who’s the champ? You’re the champ. Come on.” After she did this one scene a couple times, she broke into this thing that was not on paper, was not in the script: “Who’s the champ? Who’s the champ?” And she started slapping Jennifer’s face to get her going. Jennifer slapped her back. They both stayed in character and the scene went on. I was dying. That was gold.

Talk about filming this boat-racing scene.

That scene was hard fought in pre-production, a crew racing-scene in sculls on Oyster Bay, frigid waters. The studio was apprehensive, as they should have been, because anything you do on water takes a lot of time, it’s costly, it’s slow. Cold and comedy don’t usually go together. We had to rig this contraption to get the cameras and sound people in sync with the boat. Also these sculls are inches wide.

We had half actors and half legitimate crew racers. We had to have these outriggers so our actors wouldn’t capsize the boat during a take. We told the real guys, “Don’t actually tip your oars in the water, because you’re going to torque the frame of this Kon-Tiki contraption that’s spread out like 50 feet on either side.” Well, they couldn’t resist because they’re like greyhounds. When I yelled action, a few of them started to dip their oars into the water. The thing started breaking apart. All I could see was TMZ saying, “Seagull kills Lopez on first day of filming.”

You recorded the score in the same studio where Prince recorded Purple Rain?

That was a surprise. I hadn’t realized that. Mike Andrews was our composer. This was the most stripped-down score that I’d ever been a part of. There was no big orchestra. Usually I’m recording with most of the L.A. Philharmonic on the venerable Sony or Warner Bros. soundstage. This was done at Sunset Sound. There we were doing this in this small, very ’70s building. You can still smell the weed in the fibers of the walls.

My daughter actually recorded some vocals for the soundtrack. She went into this booth. Someone leaned to me and said, “You know, that booth your daughter’s in, that’s where Prince recorded Purple Rain.” As a matter of fact, he spent the night on a couch, I guess, getting into character. He slept in that studio to be ready for recording the next day. We looked it up and there was a picture of Prince in that exact same room. There is massive history at Sunset Sound, of which I was completely ignorant.

You and Jennifer Lopez are both from New York City, where this film takes place. How did that affect your approach to directing it?

I was born and raised in Manhattan, Upper West Side. My dad worked for MGM [as head of publicity] and my grandparents came through Ellis Island. That is my hometown. We filmed a lot of Second Act in 4 World Trade, which was one of the buildings destroyed on 9/11 and it’s one of the brand-new skyscrapers. I was down by the memorial on 9/11 [in 2017]; we happened to be there for scouting.

But I was scouting Anger Management in 2001 and was at Ground Zero with the debris about six weeks after it happened. This was the first time I had actually been back [since then]. When I’d looked at the rubble, I thought it was going to take years to remove it. It looked so insurmountable and devastating. I had no idea how human beings who’d built those towers and all those buildings around it were going to be able to clear out this part of the city. So when I was standing there scouting Second Act many years later and looking at this spectacular, beautiful, and emotionally devastating memorial, especially on that day of remembrance? It was very cathartic for me.

Do you see this as a universal story that happens to take place in New York City? Or given the whole Madison Avenue plot, do you see it as an only-in-New-York story?

Certain stories are identified by their location. I know that 50 First Dates [directed by Segal] would not be 50 First Dates without Hawaii. It became a “character” in the movie. While many movies have used New York as a backdrop or been a love letter to the city, it’s always been a bucket list for me—having been born and raised in this city—to do the same thing. To tell a story entirely in Manhattan or in the five boroughs. I finally got an opportunity.

I have staged New York, as have many people: partially in Los Angeles, partially in other cities. You might get a few days to get some shots in the city, but Second Act was a very rare opportunity to do an entire shoot in the city. OK, if I’m going to have this opportunity for my 10th film, because I treat every movie like it could be my last, I’m going to go out with a bang. We literally shot from 30 Rock to Grand Central Station to Central Park to the Highline to the World Trade to SoHo. Everywhere I dreamed of shooting, even the Museum of Natural History. I put everything I could imagine, from my soul and roots in that city, into this movie.