In 1980, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, known as the ZAZ, staged their first feature film: “Is there a pilot on the plane? “. A project that was possible thanks to the intervention of Paramount Pictures. We explain the genesis of the film.
Is there a pilot on the plane ? : a cult comedy
Initially, david zucker, Jim Abrahams and jerry zucker, originally from Wisconsin, started out on stage. Quickly, they were entertained and made themselves known thanks to shows combining satirical videos, short films and live sketches. In 1977, the three men star in the film Hamburger Movie Sandwicha comedy by John Landis. But it’s in 1980 that they gain popularitywhen they direct their first feature film: Is there a pilot on the plane ?.
With Is there a pilot on the plane ?, the ZAZ decide to parody the film At zero hour of Hall Bartlett, released in 1957. A work that tells how the crew and passengers of an airplane fall victim to food poisoning mid-flight. The ZAZ choose actors with a predominance of non-comedy like Leslie Nielsen to create an offset, and thus offer a parodic twist on disaster films. The goal is to create a film to die of laughter for the spectators while keeping the curiosity of the critics. Is there a pilot on the plane ? quickly became a cult work, and the ZAZ returned to the stage many times. They notably led the saga Is there a cop to save…, still worn by Leslie Nielsen.
The premise of the film
But the success of Is there a pilot on the plane ? owes a lot to the intervention of Paramount Pictures. To understand how the studio allowed the revelation of the ZAZs, you have to go back to the genesis of the project. During a long interview with AVCLUB in 2015, for the 35th anniversary of the film, the ZAZ returned to the origins of this crazy project. According to David Zucker, the very first draft of the screenplay dates from 1974 or 1975. Jim Abrahams explained that:
Our first version of “Is there a pilot on the plane?” was punctuated with fake advertisements throughout. We weren’t screenwriters at all, we were just guys making jokes. So we copied “At Zero Hour” quite a bit. Then, it was necessary to determine the legal definition of the concept of “parody”. And according to our lawyer, we were still too close to “At zero hour” to enter the parody category. We were doing a remake without wanting to.
At that time, the rights of At zero hour belonged to two major studios: Warner and Paramount. Jerry Zucker explained that:
Warner owned “At Zero Hour”. Then our lawyers discovered that Warner only owned half the rights to the film. The other half belonged to Paramount.
But the project stalled. The ZAZ had no money to produce their parody of To zero hour, nor the agreement of the studios. In the meantime, the ZAZ have decided to shoot in Hamburger Movie Sandwichas Jerry Zucker explains:
We did “Hamburger Film Sandwich”. As soon as we cashed the check, we stopped doing our live shows and bought a little bungalow in Santa Monica to finish the “Is There A Pilot On The Plane?” script.
And that’s when Paramount stepped in.
The ZAZ have completed their scenario of Is there a pilot on the plane ?, and decided to send it everywhere. They passed it on to all the studios, to Warner, to Paramount, etc… And these are Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenbergwho worked at Paramount, which changed the game. David Zucker explained that:
Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg heard about the script. In fact, it was Eisner who called Katzenberg to ask him to get in touch with us, and bring us back to the Paramount office at all costs the following week. And that’s how we ended up at Paramount.
Quickly, Paramount aroused interest in the ZAZ project, and agreed to produce it. But, at the same time, another society, called Avco Embassywas also interested in Is there a pilot on the plane ?. Jim Abrahams explained that:
Bob Rehme, who ran Avco Embassy, was also interested. At the time, he was offering us more money than Paramount. We then decided to turn to him. One weekend, we called Jeffrey Katzenberg to tell him that we were going to choose to work with Avco Embassy. The conversation probably only lasted 5 minutes. But at the end of this interview, he had convinced us to stay at Paramount. And today, we are eternally grateful to him for changing our minds.
David Zucker went one better:
Landing at Paramount turned out to be a great decision. At the time, we were afraid that the studio would try to rewrite or change our film. But instead, they really helped us. Jeffrey Katzenberg helped us rewrite the script. It was Paramount who added all the flashbacks and developed the love story.
Jerry Zucker recalls that at the time, they knew nothing about the production of a film. It was their first steps behind a camera:
We were lucky to have “Zero Hour” as a model. At the time, we didn’t know anything about the structure of a film. We were just funny guys. The folks at Paramount really taught us how to turn plot points into jokes and back again. They highlighted the places where we were taking too much of our time and where we had to make cuts, or vice versa.
Over time, and with the help of Paramount, Is there a pilot on the plane ? became the funny, quirky and irreverent work that we know today.