In the original Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro got a lot of comedy mileage out of the awkward moments between two in-laws, as well as the mutual acrimony that develops with one outrageous disaster after another.
When the sequel Meet the Fockers came along, they added an extra dimension by bringing in Greg Focker’s parents, played by Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, to delightfully cringe-worthy effect.
Now in the third film in the series, Little Fockers, Stiller and De Niro’s dynamic has changed as he has earned the old man’s respect after siring two children with his daughter. Of course in this series, there’s no place to go but down, and Stiller’s character fumbles one thing after another in his quest to be anointed Godfocker to his family.
Stiller and De Niro sat down in New York to discuss the new entry!
CS: Would you say this film is a roadmap for marriages that have bumps and curves down the road?
Ben Stiller: I feel like it definitely related to reality. We tried to take all of our experiences and have them be a part of what the story was. That’s the idea of the movie, how do we tell a new story with these characters and where would they be 10 years down the road, and how the kids affect the marriage? That was the core of the movie, and we wanted it to be organic and that there was a reason to tell the story. Just life, and all the elements of life.
Robert De Niro: I would say that’s why people like the film, hopefully this one too, because of the story, the situation, the family dynamic. It’s like going into territory you have to deal with. Part of you is saying, “Why am I here?” But you have to be there. I think anybody can relate to that.
CS: This is the third go-around. What do you guys look forward to the most when you start a new “Fockers” movie? Is it new characters, seeing old friends? What gets you the most excited?
Stiller: For me it’s definitely getting to work with all the actors again. Getting the script to a place where it felt like this was a new situation. Jack and Greg’s relationship has evolved, you see a new dynamic where Greg has gotten a little more confident in himself, then having to deal with this situation of Jack losing confidence in him and where he’s at and how he reacts differently. Just being able to see that play out. Also being able to come back and work with these actors, this team, I really enjoy these people. It’s always fun to have a chance to work with Bob.
De Niro: We have fun, I enjoy it a lot. When you’re doing comedy I have less restrictions or constrictions. You can cut something out or the director will say to try something else, you can be broad, there’s more room for just having fun.
CS: With the fight scene how much of that did you guys actually do and how much fun was it to punch each other in the face?
Stiller: We did a fair amount, but obviously it’s a movie fight. The ballpit stuff was all real. It’s a very strange environment to be smothered in, a ballpit. They’re not very hygienic, ballpits are all giant Petri dishes. That stuff was all fun, and the bouncy house was challenging. I pulled a muscle, I’m not gonna say which muscle. (laughs)
De Niro: I dunno if it’s in the movie but we did a takeoff on “The Wrestler” where I had to go down, and when you hit the bouncy floor it’s harder than it seems and you have to watch your back. So I did it from the short distance and the stunt guy
Stiller: Yeah, it’s hard to get your equilibrium. Those are environments made for children, not older gentlemen like ourselves.
CS: It’s so nice to see Harvey Keitel in this movie. What was that scene like to do?
De Niro: It seemed like a good thing for Harvey to be in it, everyone was okay with it. When you have different people with different working styles sometimes you have to get around that stuff and Harvey is one of my oldest, dearest friends. We had to get all that working, but it was good. It was terrific.
CS: What’s it like coming back to Broadway and what that particular play means to your career and to your family?
Stiller: There’s a real history with my family, “House of Blue Leaves,” ’cause my mother was in the original production in 1969. That’s where I first met the playwright, John Guare, and then it was the first job I ever got in ’85 or ’86, playing the son in the play. Now to come back and play the father its kind of come full circle. With my relationship with John I’m really looking forward to it. It’s something I never really thought about doing until the idea got presented to me. I really am a fan of the director, David Cromer, and I’m excited to delve into it.
CS: How would you describe yourself as a son-in-law or father-in-law?
Stiller: I think I try to be my best possible self with my father-in-law, and I think I’m okay at it, but it’s definitely one of those relationships where you’re constantly aware of the dynamic that’s there. We’re pretty friendly. I think if you’re a good husband that makes you a good son-in-law.
De Niro: I feel the same way. I’m not like the character, I’m less stern about those things, but I’m still watchful. (laughs) Just making sure everything’s okay.
CS: What’s the most painful thing you’ve done in a comedy?
Stiller: Like physical pain? Whatever you’re doing whenever you do it you do it and you don’t think about it. In a movie sometimes there’s a feeling that it isn’t real ’cause it’s in a movie, even though it is real, it’s happening to you. I can’t think of anything physically painful. There’s been some lonely moments. A couple of scenes in “There’s Something About Mary” where I was like, “Wow, I’m just here doing this by myself.” I remember one scene in particular…
De Niro: Was that the one in the bathroom? (laughs)
Stiller: Yeah, thanks for reminding me. (laughs) I’m doing the scene, and all of the sudden nobody was around and from far away I hear, (quiet) “Action.”
CS: What do you think of the qualities laid out to be the Godfocker and are those qualities you would look for in a son-in-law? Is being a man just providing security and a house for your children or is there more to it?
De Niro: All kidding aside, those things are important for the security of your kids. There’s an element of truth to that. When you meet the parents I haven’t told my children this, but I would if I could think of it, just look at the parents of the person you’re with and know that you’re not only getting into them but how they behave and how you have to interact with them hopefully for the rest of your life. You’re not just marrying the person, you’re attaching yourself to the family, for better or for worse, which is kind of interesting.
Stiller: All those things he says in the movie are all the things you have to do to be an adult or a responsible grown-up. Those are things that are what you have to do when you get older, especially if you have a family, like it or not. It can be a little daunting, but it’s also part of growing up too.
CS: What sort of new dynamic was director Paul Weitz able to bring to the film while still maintaining what Jay Roach had developed on the previous two?
De Niro: Paul has his own feelings about things. He was good. It’s a hard thing to take over something like this, to stay within certain confines, service the material. It is like a franchise, it’s that kind of exercise. But at the end of the day it’s important that those things are kept going.
Stiller: Paul is a parent and really good writer too, so he brought this sense of his experience with his own kids and the marriage, and he was aware of the dynamics and doesn’t just go for jokes. I think he saw it in that way and was really cognizant of the Jack and Greg relationship. The other thing is just having somebody outside the whole thing and having their point of view which was really refreshing.
Little Fockers arrives in theaters on Wednesday, December 22.