Tom J. Astle

Matt Ember
“[Screenwriting] is a tough business, and you’re going to have to be persistent, but someone’s gonna have to help you open a door once in a while and that’s where the luck comes in. That really is the bottom line. You have to be lucky.” – Matt Ember
Better Lucky than Smart
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The new film version of the classic '60s small screen spy-medy Get Smart gives fresh worth to that shopworn saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” While the original show, created by comedy luminaries Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was driven largely by keen jesting in the face of taut national paranoia during the Cold War, the new adaptation, written by Matt Ember and Tom J. Astle finds itself, some 40 years later, making fun in the midst of an era of high national anxiety at the hands of global terrorism.

As the screenwriting duo explains, the show may be four decades old, but the timing for its feature adaptation could not be more ideal.

Essentially, if you exchange the standoff with the U.S.S.R. for our current, post-9/11 staring contest with extremist baddies and put Steve Carell in the shoe phone once so famously laced up by Don Adams, this old chestnut is as timely as today's paper. But Ember and Astle, who were huge fans of the original show as kids, are also quick to assert the notion that there is no replacing Don Adams or the original -- this reconfiguration just takes the old show lovingly into the present day. The two veteran TV writers, who have only worked together on three feature scripts, including Smart, spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about their relatively newfound partnership, who types and who paces, and the process of transposing one of their all-time favorite TV shows to the big screen.

How much did you guys want to capture what the original TV show did here and how much did you want to grow the idea for a new era and the big screen?

Tom J Astle: We wanted to do both.

Photo: © 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Steve Carell in Get Smart.
Matt Ember: Yeah, I think the simplest answer is that we were huge fans of the show - we are old enough to remember when it was on the air for the first time, not just in reruns on TV Land. We wanted to capture everything we could about the show and yet set it in the present time and have Steve Carell do it his way and not try and imitate Don Adams, which would have never worked.

Tom J. Astle: I never missed that show when I was a kid and I think if you're going to redo Get Smart, there's no point in doing it unless you're going to do the Cone of Silence and the shoe phone and, “Sorry about that, Chief” and the other catch phrases and gadgets and characters. If you're going to use this property appropriately then you're going to use all that -- that's how we started out, as fans really.

So it sounds like the only real departure here, if you could call it that, is recognizing that you had to let Steve Carell be Steve Carell?

Matt Ember: That was Steve's original thought -- he didn't want to do an impression… Those shoes are just too big to fill. That's an iconic performance with a truly unique actor in Don Adams. You can't just do what he did.

It seems like this whole world transposes surprisingly well into today's world.

Tom J. Astle: We actually think it's the perfect time to make this movie...

Matt Ember:...because of the paranoia that exists today, which is not unlike the paranoia of the '60s and the Cold War.

Tom J. Astle: And this show was successful back then certainly because of the writing and acting and the myriad things it takes to make a hit, but among all those things, I think it touched on the fear that was out there in the world at that time.

Do you guys take on different roles duty-wise during the writing process?

Matt Ember: Tom does all the typing, and I do all the pacing.

Tom J. Astle: I do all the typing, but Matt rides his bike over to my house -- we have a very low carbon footprint -- and we do all the writing together. We never break up scenes or anything like that.

So you haven't found over the course of these three scripts you've done together that one guy is good at a certain type of humor or one guy seems to have more of a knack for plotting?

Tom J. Astle: The animal jokes are pretty much all me, but in terms of one guy being a character guy and one guy being a joke guy, that isn't the case with us. I think it's because when we worked in television for lo those many years, we were lone writers, so we're very accustomed to doing everything.

That touches on two things -- writing in a duo versus writing solo and writing features instead of television. Was there any pain in these transitions?

Matt Ember: First of all, because we come from sitcoms, where so much of the writing is done in a writers' room, we're used to talking over people and the collaborating thing…

Tom J. Astle: …we're very used to interrupting people and to being interrupted. It's just a very small version of a writers' room -- it's just two people.

What about the feature format?

Matt Ember: There's a lot of differences between a TV script and a feature script, but the process is pretty much the same.

Tom J. Astle: It's just like a longer car drive; you have to pace yourself and realize that you're not going to be able to pound out the whole thing in three or four days. You set goals for yourself and you work a pretty set schedule -- we punch the clock pretty regularly.

You both have strong and varied experience in television. Did that prove helpful with this material, as it was adapted from the small screen?

Matt Ember: I don't know if it helped us with this particular project. I think the experience of having worked in television for a lot of years and getting used the idea that there is no time for writer's block and you have to get the work done. If you don't have an idea at the moment, you just have to come up with one. That has been really helpful for us as feature writers.

Tom J. Astle: [Television] basically beats the idea of writer's block out of you because you can't have it if there are actors waiting on a stage.

This business is going through lots of changes -- I'm curious if you would you encourage or dissuade someone from pursuing a career in screenwriting these days. Is there any single thing you would want an aspirant screenwriter to know?

Matt Ember: I wouldn't encourage or discourage - if you really want to do it, than you're going to do it no matter what anybody says, so that's the good news. But what I would definitely encourage is...

Tom J. Astle: I would encourage you to be lucky...

Matt to be lucky. It's really important.

Tom J. Astle: Yeah, that's really good. It's worked for us on a number of occasions.

Matt Ember: It's a tough business, and you're going to have to be persistent, but someone's gonna have to help you open a door once in a while and that's where the luck comes in. That really is the bottom line. You have to be lucky.

Tom J. Astle: I don't think the movie and TV business has ever been an easy business to break into or to stay in. I think it's always been hard.

Is there one salient bit...?

Tom J. Astle: Yeah, get used to rewriting.

Matt Ember: Yeah, don't be attached to your work. Get used to rewriting and be willing to change things.