Interview: 'Exporting Raymond' director Phil Rosenthal
"Everybody Loves Raymond" was a sitcom, not a documentary, but showrunner Phil Rosenthal always wanted the show to have some level of truth. The characters were modeled on a mix of Rosenthal and Ray Romano's families, and Rosenthal tried to run the writers' room the way Carl Reiner did on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," kicking off each Monday meeting by asking the staff what happened with their families over the weekend. More often than not, real life provided the spine of the next episode's plot.
Now real life and "Raymond" have intersected in a different way with "Exporting Raymond," a documentary that Rosenthal directed and is the star of, about his misadventures in trying to help a team of Russian TV writers adapt his sitcom for their country. The film, which will begin a limited theatrical release on Friday (the official website has a list of theaters), is part travelogue, part culture-clash nightmare, as Rosenthal struggles to convince his new Russian colleagues - most of them with no sitcom experience whatsoever - that perhaps he knows more than they do about how to make the show (now called "Everybody Loves Kostya") work.
I interviewed Rosenthal a lot during the "Raymond" years, and we got on the phone last week to talk a bit about the origins and experience of "Exporting Raymond."
I remember back when I think you did (a small role in) “Spanglish” you were still somewhat nervous about appearing on-camera. Since then you’ve done it off and on. You were on “30 Rock” (recently), and you're in pretty much every frame of this movie. Is that something you’ve become more comfortable with?
You know, I guess so. I mean, I couldn’t really focus on performing, right? I wasn’t performing in this movie. I had a job to do, which is to help those Russians. So I kind of directed the movie by saying, "Let’s bring 2 cameras so that we don’t miss anything," which is in of itself unusual for a documentary. Because usually most documentaries are filmed with one camera, and they’d film you talking to me and then they’d come around behind you and get my fake reaction to you which would be cut in later. So I wouldn’t want to do that. I thought the movie seems to want to be about my reaction to these people and their reaction to me. So let’s not fake anything. Let’s not cheat anything and let’s get our coverage as we’re doing it so that it’s real, 'cause that would be the best thing. We don’t want to miss anything. And so once I made that decision I didn’t think about being in the movie, I had a job to do. And I didn’t think about it again until I got it to editing and I was presented with 200 hours of footage that I had to whittle down to 85 minutes.
Well when you first got the call that Russia was going to try to do this, at what point did you say, "All right, there’s a movie here"?
It actually started as a movie. Here’s what happened: the head of Sony called me into his office and he said, "Sony created the sitcom in Russia." The sitcom is a form that we know did not exist in Russia until Sony brought “The Nanny” over a few years ago and had them translate the American scripts of “The Nanny” into Russian and then cast Russian actors and did it in Russia. And it became a huge hit. But he told me about the Russians working on the TV shows there, and they come from all these disparate backgrounds, never having had a sitcom before. So they came from the world of soap operas. I said, "Why soap operas?" They said, "Because soap operas are also a half-hour." And then from the variety shows, sketch shows and even the world of science since this was a new frontier for them. So the head of Sony asked me, "How would you like to go over there, observe how we work over there, and come back and write a fictional feature film about a show runner who has a show translated over there?" And I said, "Oh, that can be good but if the situation exists and the people really exist, why not take a camera crew and film what really happens?" And he said, "I love that idea. Would you be the guy?" So like an idiot, I said yes.
Interesting. So it was not a case of the Russians specifically being interested in "Raymond," it was "We need material for a movie."
Well the first thing is they had to be interested in "Raymond" otherwise no movie, right? So first we had to see if they were interested. But I mean, it took them 2 years. Not only to see if they were interested but also to get all the rights together because Sony never had anything to do with the TV show, so they were now going to share in the International rights of the show, so that takes a lot of lawyers to talk, right?
That’s very complicated.
So obviously you were going to be the central figure in this film. Did you always think it would be a good idea for you to also be the one making the film?
You know, I never thought about it. I thought, yes, I wanted to make a movie. I thought that when he said "You be the guy," I thought he meant make the movie. Yes, I want to make that movie. He said, "Yeah make that movie but be in the movie. Do your show over there." So I said, okay. I actually wanted to make the movie more than I wanted to be in it.
So what were you expecting when you went over there?
I thought it would be interesting sort of like a sociological experiment in trying to translate something that was successful here over here. Especially since so much of the humor came from real life and they hadn’t done a show like that before. One of the first that they told me when I got to Russia was, "Real life is terrible. Why would we put that on television?"
There’s some scenes like that early on - you run into the costume designer, for instance, and she wants to glam things up. At what point did you realize, "All right, these people’s frame of reference is completely alien to mine"?
Well there’s a good place, and that actually happened in the first meeting. Here I am telling everyone, "I’d like it to look relateable to your Russian audience, so I think it should look like a typical Russian family lives in this apartment," just making it as relateable as it can be. This beautiful woman raises her hand and she’s all glammed up in the back of the room. And she says, "I think the show should be used to teach the Russian’s about fashion." And I thought that was odd. And she went on to say that it’ll be very boring if they don’t glam it up and she demonstrated to me by dressing up one of the actresses for a screen test in a beautiful cashmere sweater and very nice slacks and beautiful shoes and jewelry and she’s cleaning the house in the scene. And I said, "She’s cleaning." And she said, "Yes but she’s on television." And I said, "Yes, but she doesn’t know she’s on television. She thinks she’s cleaning."
What were your emotions as you were there for awhile and you kept hitting your head up against a wall with these people who just didn't get it?
Well at first I was very nervous because a friend of mine had warned me that I needed kidnap and ransom insurance. So as you can imagine you’re nervous to go to a place where that’s a necessity. But that fear of getting kidnapped was replaced by the fear of what they were doing to my show. And after a few weeks of that I started to hope for kidnapping.
Although I have to say, for you as the guy trying to translate the show to Russia a lot of this was bad, but for you as the guy making the movie, a lot of this was good. How did you balance the 2 impulses?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I was honestly not thinking about the movie very much. I was thinking, "I really, truly am frustrated because I would like the show to work because I think and believe that it is universal." You know because you covered the show, we didn’t do any topical jokes, right? â€¨
We wanted to make it as relateable as could be, and 90% of everything you saw on the show happened to me or to Ray or to one of the other writers. We were writing about our real life and I just couldn’t accept the fact of what they were telling me: That in Russia real life is not good enough. That there’s nothing funny about it and I just couldn’t believe it. I knew that we would have an ending for our story because eventually the show was going to get made and it was either going to succeed or not succeed. And I don’t want to give away to your readers what happens at the end, because that’s the end of the movie.
But I just hoped against hope despite what all the signals were, despite what they were telling me about how "Raymond is not a typical Russian man, so people won’t like him because he’s not macho enough." And, "This guy who’s always bossed around by the women, we're not like that." I just didn’t believe what they were saying. I think, "Maybe you want to act that way. Maybe that's the version of the show you want to present to the world, but underneath that show when you go home, your wife tells you want to do." I don’t care who you are or where you are.
Well those exchanges you had with those writers was interesting because, as you said, the stuff on the show came out of, your life, Ray’s life, everybody else’s lives and got put into the show, but that was your cultural frame of reference. And now you’re dealing with people with their own experiences and their own cultural frames of reference trying to adapt your lives to Russia. I mean, that’s got to be sort of a tricky thing for them to do.
Well yeah. Absolutely.
But could you see their point at times?
I honestly went in thinking that the show had some universal truth about it. That we do fight with our wives. That there are mothers who love their kids too much. That brothers are jealous of each other. You’re expecting me to believe they don’t have that in Russia?
But there’s a point towards the end of the movie where, without giving away what happened, you say in a voice-over that at a certain point you had to accept that this was no longer your show and that it was their show.
What was it that allowed you to do that?
I think I was beaten down... But yes, at the end of the day they do have to make it theirs. That I understand. I just wanted my one rule to hopefully get through which was, "Could it happen?" You know, “The Nanny” it wasn’t dependent on whether this could happen. It was a fantasy. “Married with Children” is more cartoony, so they had successes with those shows. This was going to be the first show where "Could this happen?" even was a question.
By the time you were done in Russia, did you ever develop a comfort level with the place itself?
I liked the food very much. And it was all brilliantly designed to go with Vodka. I guess I drank a lot of Vodka. I mean there’s one scene in particular where you see how much I’m drinking. People ask me, "How you were able to do that?" And I have an answer. It’s that I’m a real man.
In hindsight is there anything in this process you wish you had done differently in dealing with these people?
In hindsight, you know what to expect right? So maybe you can prepare for it. You can prepare for the shots that are going to happen to you. So in hindsight had I known everything, what would I have done differently? I don’t know. Just I could have been better mentally and emotionally prepared for what was going to happen. The movie certainly wouldn’t have been as good.
The meeting you have with the head of comedy at the network, can you compare that to your average meeting with someone at CBS or some of the other networks in America you’ve dealt with?
That’s a great point, because as annoyed as I was in that meeting, I wanted to shake my fist and say “those Russians” but of course it’s not those Russians, it’s those executives, right? So I can tell you, there’s many of heads of comedy that are as humorless in this country, right? We know them and I don’t know why this is it that heads of comedy by their very nature are not the funniest people you’ve met.
Has this given you any sort of more resolve for whenever you try your next TV project? "Well, if I can deal with the Russians, I can deal with anything."
Absolutely, yes. It has given me that and I know now to bring a big bottle of Vodka with me.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com