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Behind the Scenes of ‘Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian’

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, and a few other familiar faces return for Night at the Ben Stiller and Amy Adams

Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the sequel to the 2006 blockbuster. As in the first N

Ben Stiller as Larry and Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart.

© 20th Century Foxight at the Museum movie, this sequel finds museum exhibits coming to life after dark thanks to a mysterious and powerful Egyptian tablet. But unlike the first movie, the tablet’s Egyptian owner isn’t Ahkmenrah, a good guy who wants to help his fellow museum dwellers. No, the tablet with magical powers in Battle of the Smithsonian is owned by Kahmunrah, the older, egotistical brother of Akhmenrah who wants to use its power to bring forth his army by opening up a gate to the underworld. And, of course, it’s up to Larry (now a successful entrepreneur) to help his old friends by stopping Kahmunrah’s evil plan.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Museum was, according to 20th Century Fox, the first film to be allowed to shoot in the Smithsonian and so it was only fitting the cast and behind the scenes team gathered in Washington, DC, to talk about the movie. Joining returning cast members Stiller, Wilson and Robins for a press conference to chat up the film were Night at the Museum newcomers Hank Azaria and Amy Adams, as well as Night at the Museum 1 and 2 director Shawn Levy and writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Press Conference

Ben, did you think about your own rise to success when you were approached him the second time?

Ben Stiller: “Well, I thought that it would be something that would be different than the first movie. Really, I thought it was important to have a way into the second movie that was different than the first movie, because we had already done the idea of everything coming to life and Larry being amazed by it, and the guy sort of had nothing to do with his life, and the night guard becoming the thing he was happy doing. So to start the second movie, I felt we had have a new idea – the idea of being successful and then in some way that not making him happy. The idea of what he thought would make him happy, not make him happy? I just felt like it was a new idea to start the movie off, and that was really the idea behind that.”

Amy, your portrayal of Amelia Earhart is very spunky. How much of that is based on the research you did on her versus your own personal interpretation of the woman who flew across the Atlantic?

Amy Adams: “You know, we wanted that spirit of adventure in Amelia, definitely – so did Ben. Somebody who could hold their own in a man’s world, someone who wasn’t going to take that, and she became such a fine, spunky character to such a foil to Ben. I followed the script and followed history and put them together in one way or another for the movie.”

Shawn, what do you think this movie teaches not only kids, but their parents?

Shawn Levy: “Well, we certainly never set out to with any purely moralistic or educational agendas. But for me, what I did was going off with what Ben was saying, I think it was astounding when I realized that the title of Amelia Earhart’s autobiography, one of her memoirs, was The Fun of It. And I kind of couldn’t believe it when I stumbled on that title because it encapsulated the theme of the movie, which I don’t think is necessarily limited to kids, which is the blessing of doing something you love with people you love and respect, and getting – frankly, like most of us that are here – to go to work every day and do something that you enjoy. I think that’s a fantastic lesson, and certainly a great aspiration to young people.”

Ricky, you play the stuffy, bumbling director. Who was the inspiration for that?

Ricky Gervais: “I like playing awkward sort of putzes. The most fun for a comedian, the kind of character to play, is a man without a sense of humor because it’s already funny, because you know this man wants to be respected and articulate and all those things. But he just hasn’t got the tools.”

Should people consider The Smithsonian stodgy?

Ricky Gervais: “I don’t think any form of learning is stodgy. I’m fascinated with both natural history and science, technology  and all those things. I think the reason I made him flawed and have a huge sort of blind spot is because that’s funny. The relationship with him and Larry’s really sweet because I think Larry likes him really because he likes [him struggling] but he knows that he’s not a bad person. And I like both endings of the films, where there is sort of an acknowledgment. But I play a many who is so out of touch with his feelings, he’s just such…It’s that English person who can’t say anything nice. That’s very sweet as well.”

Hank, where did you get your inspiration for your statue persona and how did you come up with all those voices that are so different than your villain voic?

Hank Azaria: “That was done on the fly. We really just kept those in while we were shootin

We didn’t know that they were going to end up in the film. Lincoln was hard because you want to not diminish him and yet you want to try and be funny. We went through a lot of versions of that. And I still wanted to keep doing them, but they cut me off.”

Shawn Levy: “Hank would still be laying down new Lincoln voices if I allowed it.”

Hank Azaria: “I really would still be because I wanted another four cracks at it. I couldn’t stop.”

Shawn Levy: “In truth, Hank really did those voices as a favor for me so that I could edit the scene. The intention always was to hire other voices. In fact, I did go out and hire other voices but no other voice, no other actor was working quite as great as Hank’s was, so they stayed until the end.”

Owen Wilson and Hank Azaria

Owen Wilson and Hank Azaria in ‘Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.’

© 20th Century Fox

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Press Conference

Was there anything you wanted to take home from the Smithsonian?

Ben Stiller: “I really enjoyed everything at the Air and Space Museum. That was just really fun to be around all that stuff. The real stuff, like the real Spirit of St. Louis. We got to walk around the back one day and there is an incredible model airplane collection back there that nobody sees. I mean, there are hundreds of model airplanes, detailed out. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s kind of amazing.”

There are so many cool props and costumes in this movie. Were any of you able to take any home? Owen, were you able to keep a figurine of yourself? Or Robin, what about the horse?

Robin Williams: “It’s so nice to try and take a horse home. ‘Sir, you have to put that in a carry on bag.’ Even the horse said, ‘I don’t want to go home.’ That’s not right.”

Owen Wilson: “No, I didn’t get to keep a figurine. I just saw the figurine for the first time last night. But the boots that I wore I was able to take those home. They’re actually the same boots that I wore in Shanghai Noon so it was kind of funny.”

Ricky Gervais: “The only thing that I wanted to take home was the American flag because I love America.”

Robin Williams: “You really want to be a citizen, don’t you? Ricky’s available for adoption. Madonna refused. ‘Please help right now. A lovely English man to adopt, call now. Angelina, our lines are open.'”

To the writers, how did the decision come about to use the Wright Brothers?

Thomas Lennon: “We wrote 16 pages of material for the Wright Brothers in a separate adventure that they have.”

Robert Ben Garant: “A dream ballet sort of thing.”

Thomas Lennon: “Sort of a dream ballet. It basically revealed the puzzle to Larry and Amelia but that got cut.”

Robert Ben Garant: “We’re hoping that they do like the X-Men spinoff of the Wright Brothers.”

Thomas Lennon: “Some kind of origin story of the Wright Brothers and see how they started on bikes and stuff like that. So look for that next summer.”

How did you get permission to film at the Smithsonian?

Shawn Levy: “You say exactly that, ‘I won’t break anything.’ But I think it did help immensely that our first movie was well-known enough that A) that the people knew, the Smithsonian knew that we were going to treat it respectfully and with humor and wit and definite reverence as well. And also the fact that it was the first movie to actually increase attendance at the New York Museum, I guess. I was told that [attendance went up] close to 20% after Night at the Museum came out. When I met with the Smithsonian, they knew that our first movie had actually increased museum attendance, and I think that anything that can kind of capitalize interest in these institutions is a good thing. It was very welcoming from the get-go.”

How much of the film was actually shot in Washington or on soundstages? What was your experience like in D.C.?

Ben Stiller: “Well, we were here for the first week of shooting, right? So we shot here as much as we could get away with shooting without disrupting everything. Shooting in the Air and Space Museum, the real one, was really important in establishing the scale of it because it’s just so huge. And we went back and built sets that were pretty immense in Vancouver, but nothing close to what the real size of the museum is here. But I was really happy to be here that first week because it just helped to ground us in what it really is, get connected with that just to be able to see the real stuff.”

Shawn Levy: “Yeah, the memorable thing for me, there were a couple of nights, one, where Amy, Ben and I had some time off and it was like three in the morning and we were waiting for stuff to get lit. So then Ben, Amy and I got to walk around the Air and Space Museum, alone, in the middle of the night. And it was silent and dark and both spooky but completely cool. And that was definitely a memory that I’ll always have.”

Amy Adams: “We shot the Lincoln Memorial too at night. It was a full moon over the whole National Mall. It was just gorgeous. It was really amazing.”

What was the most difficult part of making this movie?

Shawn Levy: “Most people ask about the visual effects of the movie, but to me, the best part of the movie is the cast and the performances. I can’t think of a comedy that’s assembled this level of ensemble, so one of the biggest challenges is when you have a scene with Robin, Ricky or Hank or Ben, or everyone up here, and add to that Bill Hader and Jonah Hill and Steve Coogan, and people that aren’t here today, there was a lot of improvisation. And any time you do a complicated movie, you plans things pretty meticulously, and almost every day we would throw out a plan, because the actors came up with stuff that we couldn’t have anticipated.”

“But I would say wrestling these very, very long improvisation scenes down to some kind of useful shape was challenging. I think a great example is Ben and Hank, the whole ‘Don’t Cross that Line’ scene. That scene is 100% improvised. I mean, we had a script, we shot a couple of takes, and before we moved on, I said, ‘You know what guys, do one without the script,’ and they just made that up for about five minutes and it’s in the movie.”

Owen, you had so many special effects to work with. Were you actually physically present with the other actors when you were doing your part? How do you create such a big character in such a small guy?

Owen Wilson: “I was just saying how we were never together. I never saw Ben either. Coogan was there for most of the matte stuff. Yeah, Jedediah doesn’t see himself as a miniature little cowboy. He sees himself as kind of bigger than life. It was just kind of easy to play a character that you never had to worry about Shawn saying, ‘Give me less.’ It couldn’t be too over the top.”

Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais

Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais in ‘Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.’

© 20th Century Fox

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Press Conference

Was the scene with Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader something you always planned on using?

Shawn Levy: “Yeah, that was something that Tom and Ben wrote in the very, very first draft. And honestly, I read it and I was like, ‘This is awesome, but there is no possible way that they are going to get Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader in our movie.’ I thought it was a complete fantasy.”

Robert Ben Garant: “Because they won’t work together.”

Shawn Levy: “I had to shoot them on a split screen because there were issues. I still watch that scene and I can’t believe they said yes.”

Ben Stiller: “They’re not real people.”

Shawn Levy: “You know it’s summer when your fantasies die.”

Ben Stiller: “Wasn’t the Darth Vader thing because didn’t George Lucas have to say it was okay?”

Shawn Levy: “Oh yeah, we weren’t cheating. We definitely had to go to the top of the food chain with both Sesame Street and George Lucas and they said yes. It was always this hilarious scene and we always knew that Darth Vader was going to try his choking jester from Star Wars, but then Hank riffed all that stuff about asthmatic and the cape, ‘Are we going to the opera,’ that was all Hank’s.”

Ben Stiller: “Did George Lucas have to approve that? Did he see the final version? Has he seen this?”

Shawn Levy: “I don’t know if George Lucas… I’m told that he hasn’t.”

Ricky Gervais; “I don’t think you got permission. I think there’s a lawsuit coming.”

Shawn Levy: “This is getting very uncomfortable.”

Ben Stiller: “The asthmatic thing was not in the script probably that he approved, right?”

Shawn Levy: “Correct.”

Ricky Gervais: “And he’s got a new character called Asthma in Star Wars.”

Ben Stiller: “Princess Asthma.”

Hank Azaria: “All the Jar Jar Binks stuff got cut.”

How did you address social things like when the Tuskegee Airman thank Amelia Earhart?

Robert Ben Garant: “I think one thing that is really great about these movies being in museums is that all the characters are such archetypical characters. They are all somebody who not only was a literally important figure, but they symbolize a big giant idea. And I think that helps the actors fill those roles and improvise because the character is such a clear, big, representative force that the characters can make their own. And they exaggerate how much they could improvise. Most of this stuff we wrote.”


August 16, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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