Billy Crystal and Bette Midler have known each other for nearly 40 years but they’ve never worked together professionally until now. The two co-star in “Parental Guidance,” a comedy in which they play a husband and wife who are called upon to take care of their three young grandchildren for a few days while their kids are away on a working vacation.
The idea for this family comedy stems from a real-world experience when Crystal and his wife of 43 years, Janice, found themselves watching their first grandchild for a few days while their daughter and son-in-law were away.
“It was a lot of fun,” Crystal recalls, “ but after a few days I was pretty exhausted.”
Crystal thought the idea would be a funny basis for a movie, and he was off. Joe Syracuse and Lisa Addario were recruited to write the screenplay and veteran comedy director Andy Fickman (“Race to Witch Mountain,” “The Game Plan”) was pulled in to helm.
Crystal plays Artie, an announcer for a minor league baseball team in Fresno. That is, until he is unceremoniously canned by his much younger boss. Soon afterward, he gets a call from his daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei) in Atlanta, who needs a babysitter for a few days while she and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) are away.
As the “other grandparents,” Artie and his wife Diane (Midler) aren’t up on the latest parenting techniques, which involve a lot of high-tech gadgetry and schedules. Intergenerational mayhem ensues. The children are played by Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf.
Crystal and Midler spent some time talking about their holiday movie, which Crystal also produced. Of course, with these two titans of improv, a lot of bantering and playful grousing about technology, commenced.
Q: How was it finally getting a chance to work together?
Crystal: We all had a great time. The funny thing is we are attached in an interesting way. We’ve known each other for so long, but I can’t say we were great friends. We would see each other occasionally. We always had so much fun, and we seemed so compatible. I think in many ways our careers kind of have a similar feel to them. I mean when I did “Soap,” I wore a lot of the outfits that she wore. (Midler laughs.) And so when this came about, it just felt natural. When (director) Andy Fickman and I knew we were making it, we talked about who is going to be Diane? And so we went to Bette. We had a dinner meeting the next night. As soon as she sat down, it was like we were married. She ate off my plate. She wouldn’t let me drive. Stuff like that. It felt great.
Q: How was it working with Marisa Tomei, who plays your daughter?
Crystal: Marisa and I had met in 1991 when she came in to read with me on “Mr. Saturday Night,” to play my wife. She was an amazing actress, but just too young for that particular part opposite me. So when we called her for this, the first thing she said was, “What, now I’m too old?”
Q: There’s a cute scene where you two sing and dance together. So Billy, how was it singing with the Divine Miss M?
Crystal: Great. We sang for the kids. During the course of the shoot, we would sing for the kids to keep them occupied sometimes, because they get a little bored or their minds would wander. We were in the subway in Atlanta that had great echo. There’s a lot of tile. So we just started singing. What was it?
Midler: “Poison Ivy.”
Crystal: Right, “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” those kind of great old songs. I turned to her and said, “We’ve got to find a place to sing together in the movie.” She didn’t want to do it right away because (to Midler) you were worried about (people thinking) oh it’s Bette Midler time.
Midler: I thought it would break from the truth of the character, what little what shreds of truth there were. (She smiles.) But we had a great time.
Q: How did you like working in Atlanta?
Midler: We were supposed to be shooting in the summer, and they pushed (the production schedule) back. So we were shooting in winter, so we were all really cold the whole time. We were wearing these light summer clothes. One of the challenges was to keep warm. And then we had tornado—a tornado watch—so we had episodes where we had to be out at night in the rain. It was challenging, but it was always so much fun because of Andy and, of course, Billy.
Q: What did you like about working with Andy Fickman?
Midler: He is a really cheerful soul. He has a very upbeat spirit, and he’s known for wrangling kids and making these wonderful movies for and with children. So we were really lucky to get him. He runs a really happy upbeat kind of a set, and that’s so rare in our business. It’s usually like. “Oh God please don’t make me leave the trailer,” and this wasn’t like that. It was like “Let me at it.” It was great. I really enjoyed it.
Q: How was it working with the kids?
Crystal: I knew Josh (Rush). When we had our first reading of the script at Fox two years ago, Josh came in to audition—he plays (middle child) Turner—and there’s “the shot heard around the world” (speech) he has to do. It’s something that I particularly love so I put it in the script. Then I thought: where are we going to find someone to do this? Then he came in and I tried to explain it to him. But already had heard it on YouTube. And he nailed it. He just did it for me in the office, and I was like, “Oh my God.” And then he said, “Would you like to hear it in Spanish?” So then he did it in Spanish.
Q: What about the other kids?
Crystal: We found Kyle (Harrison Breitkopf) in a commercial that was sent to us from Canada. He’s a five-year-old going on 35.
Midler: He’s now seven.
Crystal: He has the ability to hear (good comedy) and spit it right back at you. For instance, when I’m trying to get him out of the car seat, Andy and I would give him lines, just different one liners, and he’d just look at it and got it. He would just do them. And then I suggested one, and he looked at me and went “I don’t think so.”
Q: Your children live in a very high-tech house in this movie. Are there any gadgets you cannot live without?
Midler: My phone is both the devil’s playground and a horror show too. You have to keep up, and there are new apps every day. It drives you nuts, but some of it is quite interesting. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but I don’t use everything that is available on the computer. I just take classes. My husband teaches me but he sits (all hunched over) so I can’t really see what his hands are doing. So I say, “Move, so I can see what you’re doing.” And he says, “Command T. Command Q. Command X.” But I can’t see what he’s doing. Plus, the passwords drive me nuts. I don’t get it, but I think it’s unbelievable the stuff it can do.
Crystal: (Deadpan) I still have a phone that you have to do this (making a dialing motion).
Q: Billy, there’s a funny scene where you’re talking to your boss about Facebook and Twitter. Have you ever had conversations like that with a younger person?
Crystal: That scene where I get fired was all improvised. I couldn’t keep a straight face with that young guy (Corey James Wright), who was holding this smart phone. I said to him, “Talk to me about that. Ask me a million questions about it. Just kill me about Facebook, kill me about Twitter, kill me about hash tags, kill me about everything,” and it turned out to be really funny. It places (my character) Artie in a world that he can’t possibly live in. So that was it. The thing about these things (he says, holding up his smart phone) I just got one, and it’s great because you know as a parent and a grandparent, it’s a great thing to have. I can do stuff on it, but I hate seeing families in restaurants where no one is talking. The little kids are like this (he mimes looking down and texting). They text the waiter what they want, and nobody talks. They look so sad. The art of conversation is gone.
Midler: It’s true.
Crystal (to Midler): And the art of penmanship is gone.
Midler: Oh my God, they stopped teaching cursive. I almost died. When I read that I said, “What is wrong with these people?” Truly, I think (a smart phone is) an instrument. It’s a tool like any other great tool, but it can’t take over your life.
Crystal: It’s not good for your eyes either, and so on. It’s straining. What kills me besides the family lack of interaction now is people walking around town looking down and assuming you’re going to stop your car or avoid them. We are a world looking down, and I think it’s really dangerous.
Q: Do you have any dreams that have not yet come true?
Crystal: Not yet. I’m shocked that I’ve done as many things as I’ve done. I’m so grateful for having a long career, and I hope it gets longer. I never take anything for granted. I’m so fortunate and lucky in my life. I met somebody I fell in love with when I was 18. We’ll be married 43 years. I have two great kids, three grandchildren, and another one on the way. (“Parental Guidance”) was a dream of mine to get made, and we wrestled it to the ground and finally got it made. Every dream I’ve ever had is great, but for me, even at the age of 64, I love having dreams. So I keep dreaming, whatever the next thing is going to be I hope that it comes true, but if I stop now I’ve had a lot of good dreams.
Q: Is the any parental guidance that has stuck with you for your entire life?
Midler: I didn’t get any guidance, except be a nurse or be a teacher. Don’t go into show business. Those were the only jobs available to women in those days, and the actresses were like tramps and all that kind of thing. My dad was very conservative.
Crystal: My dad died when I was 15, so my mom worked a lot, way too much. When I was about 21, just about getting out of college at NYU, (the Vietnam War) was raging, and I’m a frustrated musician a little bit, and she said, “You know you should really take clarinet lessons, so in case you get drafted you can play in the band in the army”. Today would be her 97th birthday. So I was just thinking about that. That’s a good omen.