If BMX bikers don’t break too many skate ramps and the Burlington Mall continues to cooperate, you will, in January, get to see Kevin James jump in a tanning bed and battle a bra-buyer in Victoria’s Secret.
Built on a stretch of Massachusetts highway, the Burlington Mall includes a Cheesecake Factory, a FYE, and department stores with perfume counters that smell a little too sweet. On the ground floor, through this maze of average-Americana, is a bustle of pure-Hollywood activity: tall lights hang between shops and producers shout orders.
It’s mid-afternoon and we me and three other journalists relax on comfortable leather sofas with Steve Carr, the director of James’ new comedy, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. While the director cracks jokes with Mike Vallely, a champion skateboarder who plays the baddest of the bad guys, the busyness of the adjacent set is obvious. After a few minutes, Carr silences his buzzing cell phone and grumbles, “I have to go tell people what to do,” and strides a few steps over to where Kevin James, face sticky with bruise-makeup, is tumbling into a bank built for the film. Mall-goers lean over the second floor railing, watching.
James, the comedian well-known for his starring seasons on “The King of Queens” (not to mention scene-stealing turns in Hitch and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), is an enthusiastic foreground presence in every facet of the film: he’s producing it, he wrote it, he grew a moustache for it, he plays the title role in it, and when we arrive on the set he’s deep into filming the climax, stopping for a breather to chat with press (Read the full interview here).
“It honestly came from me first saying I wanted to do a ‘CHiPs’ type of thing, being in a cop uniform and having authority and trying to be a bad ass,” James says. “I had driven a segway for a promo for ‘King of Queens,’ and I thought it was the funniest (vehicle) I had ever seen.”
That was the kernel he and co-writers Nick Bakay and Steve Pink expanded on while writing what James and Carr call “a ‘Die Hard’ in a mall.”
“I liked the concept,” says Carr, who took advantage of his music video experience to implement slick camera work. “There are a lot of action movies with very little comedy. It (used to be) a combination of the two. I thought this would be an opportunity to make the kind of movie I grew up watching.”
From what we could glean, the film is set in New Jersey on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping day of the year). James stars as a Jersey State Trooper reject who takes his mall job way too seriously especially when uber-athletic robbers invade it and hold his daughter (Raini Rodriguez) hostage in the mall’s bank.
“Ugly Betty’s” Jayma Mays co-stars as Paul Blart’s love interest, the owner of a hair-extensions kiosk called Un-be-weavable. She wears rotating wigs and tells us, “you don’t know what my real hair color is for a while.” Between shots, Mays lounges in slippers, sipping iced coffee and praising the canolli in Boston’s North End. Her favorite scene?
“There’s a part where Kevin’s character comes and picks me up on a segway, and we ride tandem on it, floating through the mall,” she grins. “It takes me back to all these romantic comedies that I loved.”
As Mays, trailed by the crew, heads back into the bank, a segway rolls in front of Macys. James is still on set, watching. According to co-stars, he hangs around even when he’s not being filmed.
James devoted his energy to Paul Blart: Mall Cop well before the cameras rolled, visiting malls and interviewing real security guards. He was also on hand to approve the Boston-based shooting location (the city has developed major tax incentives, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop is one of several movies currently filming). This includes the Roxbury street that doubles as Paul Blart’s neighborhood. Most of the film, however, takes place in the mall. Production Designer Perry Blake scoured several locations to find a mall that was middle-of-the-road.
“We wanted a place that would remind viewers of their mall,” he said. Blake follows a similar principal when designing sets, a job he, after studying architecture at Harvard and working for Frank Gehry, fell into when he was hired to work on a commercial for Adam Sandler (Sandler is a producer on the film). Sandler then hired Blake for his first film, Billy Madison. They have continued to work together on projects ranging from The Wedding Singer to You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
“I work hard not to take away the focus from the humor,” Blake says. “You have to stay grounded in reality because the movies are so funny themselves.”
Wedding Crashers alum Keir O’Donnell, who plays James’ less-than-eager partner, can vouch for the humor. The actor, clad completely in black, meets us after a day of shooting, ready to head to the hotel bar – called, ironically, “The Alibi” – and order the drink he’s dubbed ‘Road Warrior.’ It’s really a Shirley Temple. (Bartenders at The Alibi have created a special “Mall Cop” drink, but O’Donnell has heard it has “a dash of cayenne or something,” and grimaces when asked about it.)
“I thought, it’s going to be hard to keep a straight face,” says O’Donnell of working with James. “During my screen test he rode in on a segway.” Both O’Donnell and Mays met with James for ‘chemistry reads,’ and, like Mays, O’Donnell is given a segway tour of the mall, introducing both the characters and the viewers to locations they’ll revisit during the final showdown between the villains and Paul Blart. Keep your eyes peeled for a tanning salon.
“Kevin is amazing at improv,” O’Donnell says. “I’m just reacting. It’s been a really enjoyably easy experience so far.”
The novelty of “Mall Cop,” as Blake tells it, is the team of fearless athlete robbers who will take over the mall, undermining Blart’s questionable authority. Rather than hire a team of character actors and pair them with like-bodied stuntmen, producers opted to cast stuntmen who could act. The villains are named after reindeer, and, since the film takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the décor of the mall has been altered accordingly, bikinis swapped for winters coats. Below a startlingly bright Santa’s Village, which Blake designed, are white “snow drifts” that double as ramps from which the villains DMX bikers, free runners/parkour practitioners, gymnasts, and skateboarders race and leap.
“We basically went over the top,” Blake says. “All of them are doing their own thing as they’re chasing. In Santa’s Village we have a scene where the free runners, the Parkour people, they have to get down really quickly. So we made the roof really sturdy so they could jump from the second level (of the mall): slide, spin, jump off of it, and get down onto the ground. We tailored it for that scene.”
Each of the athletes appear in their first major film role. They’ve been given the freedom to develop their stunts during the chase sequences; the script, according to Blake, says only: “they all took off and shredded the mall.”
“It’s kind of like being a hot shot, I guess,” says Australian skater/radio personality Jason Ellis, accepting a bottle from a member of the crew. “I do a radio show as well, so they put the radio show upstairs in the mall. And they bring me downstairs from time to time to show my mean face and skate after someone or smash something.”
With his shaved head and plastering of tattoos, Ellis looks as tough as they come, particularly while dragging Blart’s daughter into the bank. But off-camera he chugs water, shows off pictures of his kids, and insists that his year-old radio show – a few fans of which have followed him to Burlington from Albany – will make him the next Howard Stern.
Natascha Hopkins, the gymnast/actress who brushed up her free running skills to play Vixen, is the only female member of the criminal crew. Hopkins has appeared on “Heroes” and in several other films, but this is her first major role. As she demonstrates a series of awe- inspiring flips, mall workers holding up samples of face cream gape.
Her partner, Victor Lopez, started out as a stunt man and, after practicing Parkour, ended up free running for Madonna and impressing the “Mall Cop” casting crew. He insists that Parkour is only ten percent airborne. “It’s about moving through your environment with style. Why walk down stairs when you can jump over them?” BMX-er Mike Escamilla, who had a role in XXX (“I played an uncool version of myself, which is not cool”) admits to filling up on mall food, buying stacks of DVDs when he’s not filming, and hating alcohol. He, too, orders Road Warriors (i.e. Shirley Temples).
Finally there’s champion skateboarder and musician (in the band Revolution Mother) Mike Vallely, who plays the criminal ringleader, Rudolph.
“They had to find the most bad-ass skateboarders on the planet,” says Vallely, a voracious reader and father of two who wears his blond hair long and scraggly. “I was at the top of that list.”
Vallely has the biggest action sequence of the bunch, battling James throughout the mall. In what he describes as an undoubtedly riveting climax, Rudolph will leap from floor to floor as he chases Paul Blart. Then, in a never-before-done skating move, he’ll jump on and break into a moving elevator.
“It’s a whole new challenge,” Vallely says. “I’m not just skateboarding. I play a character that is somewhat integral. This is the first time I feel, as athletes, we’ve really been taken in.”
Be sure to read our full on-set interview with Kevin James here!
Paul Blart: Mall Cop opens in theaters on January 16.