Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal takes his hit show to Russia in this hilarious new documentary, in theaters Friday.
Documentaries aren't supposed to be this funny, but director Philip Rosenthal's latest project Exporting Raymond packs more laughs per second than any other comedy released so far this year. The movie chronicles Phil's journey to translate his hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond for Russian audiences. Of course, hijinks ensue as Rosenthal finds himself hitting one cultural roadblock after another.
We recently caught up with Philip Rosenthal, who is also the star of Exporting Raymond, to chat with him about this unique experience. Here is our conversation.
Because this is a documentary, you have no idea how funny this is going to be at the end of the day. What gave you faith that chronicling this particular adventure would bore such magnificent fruit?
Philip Rosenthal: Honestly, you don't know. You have to have a certain amount of luck. As it was explained to me, the characters and situations over there in Russia could be very interesting, maybe even funny. Look, I had no idea how funny my parents would be...
Why did you want to bring your parents into this experience? I know you based some of your Everybody Loves Raymond characters on them. Were you hoping to give fans insight into this aspect of the show?
Philip Rosenthal: You are exactly right. I wanted to do that. Plus, they had been to Moscow. I thought this was a good way to kill two birds at once. You get to see the type of humor that I relish, and you get to see some insight into Moscow before I go. From the experts, my parents!
Were they ever apprehensive about appearing on screen? Or was this something they had been begging you to do for a while?
Philip Rosenthal: Were they begging me to be in the movie? No! No, no, no! It was the opposite. I did put my dad into the show once, with Ray's dad. He played one of Peter Boyle's friends, because they deserved each other. But they certainly did not beg me. I asked if they would do this, and there was some trepidation. A camera crew came into the house where they've lived for forty years, and they ran a microphone up the inside front of my mother's blouse, and strapped a battery pack to her bottom. Same with my dad. He says, "This is crazy!" Then two big guys with cameras and lights come into the house. Then another guy with a boom mic comes in. Within five minutes, my parents are fighting as though no one is there. At first, my mother had a problem with the microphone going up her shirt, but within five minutes of filming, they forgot about the cameras. They literally forgot all of this stuff was there. They just started fighting. That's what the Russians were like, too. That is what everyone is like. Listen, I couldn't think about those cameras, even though I am directing the movie. My big direction was, "Lets bring two cameras!" Which is unusual for a documentary. Documentaries usually only bring along one camera. They would film you talking to me, then they would come around to me, to get my fake reaction shot later. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to cheat. I wanted everything to be real. Because I felt that the movie needed to be about my reaction to them, and their reaction to me. The way to get that in real time is to shoot with two cameras.
And its interesting that you bring up the realism on display. There is an argument that some of this stuff was scripted. That certain portions of this may not be real...
Philip Rosenthal: That is funny that they are saying that, because every moment of this film is real. (Laughs) The people who are saying that I made portions of this up? They don't know what they are talking about. I brought two cameras so I wouldn't make it up. Look, my whole theory here is that real life is funny. That is my whole concept of comedy. Its what I tried to imply to the Russians. It would be crazy for me to fake anything. I wouldn't want to do that. So I didn't. Everything you are seeing on screen is real, and it really happened that way. As for me, I had to forget that the cameras were rolling, because I had a real job to do. I was trying to impart my knowledge of Everybody Loves Raymond to the Russians, so that I could help them with there version. Its not that they wanted it so much, but that's what I was trying to do.
I've never seen any of the other incarnations of Everybody Loves Raymond, but I have seen the Mexican version of Married...With Children that gets pumped in from the Spanish channel, and it is fascinating to watch, simply because I know the original so well. This is a concept that has been around forever. Why has it taken so long for someone to show us how a show gets translated into another language, for an entirely different culture?
Philip Rosenthal: Sony invented the business. The sitcom didn't exist in Russia until they brought The Nanny over there. The initial idea for the movie was; Sony suggested to me that maybe I should go over there and observe how it's done. Then come back and write a fictional feature film about a showrunner who brings his TV show over to try and get it translated. I said, "That could be great. But if this situation exists for real, and the people that you are telling me about really exist, why not bring a camera crew over there and film what really happens.
And as we see in the film, its quite the experience. What is going on in your head when we see some of these faces that you make throughout the movie?
Philip Rosenthal: I have to say, in all honesty, the face you see me making is what I'm thinking. Absolutely. None of those faces are faked in the movie. What I think my face is saying is, "I am saying rational things, I think. Why am I getting irrational back?" By the way, you could see this same face in many Hollywood offices that I have been in.
You are doing quite a bit in this film. You star in it, you wrote it, directed it. Yet, at the same time, you are doing this very specific job of having to be in Russia and figure out how this show will translate to their audiences. That is a lot of stuff going on all at once..
Philip Rosenthal: I will tell you what...I forgot about directing this movie. My big direction, as I said, was simple. "Let's bring two cameras." That was it. I never thought of myself as the star of this. I was a guy with a job to do, and they would have to film me doing that. I never thought about directing the movie, writing any part of the narration, or the parts that connected the dots. Until I was in editing. I had two hundred hours of footage to go through. Now you are the filmmaker. Right? Now is when you put on those writing and directing hats. When I was actually in Russia, I was only thinking about the job you see me doing in the movie.
Did you have a script supervisor with you, who was keeping notes on which moments you might want to use once you got into that editing room?
Philip Rosenthal: Here is what I did, and I didn't realize this would turn out to be so valuable. At the end of almost every night, I would write an email home, to my friends and my family, to tell them what I was up to. What I was doing. And the craziness that was happening. I started getting emails back, "Ha ha! Keep writing! It is so hilarious how you are suffering." So I kept an email journal of what was going on. These emails actually became the structure of the film. I gave them to the editor, and said, "Look for these moments. You are going to have to go through all of the footage anyway, but lets make a rough assemblage of these things." They did. Then they started going through that rough cut. If some of that weren't good enough, they would search through the other hundred and fifty hours to find something that worked.
Would you ever publish those emails as a companion piece to the film?
Philip Rosenthal: I don't mind doing that. I might actually do that. I might have a book in me. Also, the story about trying to get this thing distributed is a whole other book, and might be crazier than anything that happened in Russia.
Are you more understanding of Russian humor after this? Or is it all still so completely foreign?
Philip Rosenthal: Its always going to be a little bit different for me. The part that is important is that I don't need to understand it all. It's their show. They have to do it the way they want to do it. There is a scene in the movie, where I still don't understand why I wasn't able to convey what I meant. It's when I am with the writers, and I am explaining this part in the script when Ray says, "What do you mean Deborah? You don't have to wo..." And he stops himself from saying the word 'work' to his wife. We all know that if he finishes that word 'work', he will get killed by his wife. Right? Well, they said, "That doesn't make sense, in Russian, to stop the word in the middle." I said, "Its not supposed to make sense. He stops in the middle of the word, because if he finishes the word, she will kill him." They couldn't get that. They couldn't understand that concept. And I couldn't explain it. It makes me very frustrated to this day that I couldn't make myself clear on that point. It seemed to change with the wind. I wouldn't ever image that the joke that they get stuck on is the one where you stop the word in the middle. That's funny, because you don't want to finish the word, because it may get you in trouble. That's a joke they don't get, so at that point, anything goes. Right?
What about the scene where we see that guy playing the enema bags? It's such a funny moment, but we're never quite sure if he sees the humor in what he is doing...
Philip Rosenthal: Oh, no! I think he sees the humor in it. I think he believes that this is a great act that he does. It's funny and musical, and it takes talent. It's just not something we would ever think to do. Play enema bags.
So far, Exporting Raymond has garnered praise for being one of the best comedies of the year, and it's a documentary. Does that surprise you?
Philip Rosenthal: Its great. I love it. To me, it's not even a documentary. We are calling it a real comedy. That's what it is. It plays like a comedy, doesn't it? I think it's funnier because it's real.
Throughout this process, one of the toughest aspects of translating Everybody Loves Raymond was finding the perfect star to replace Ray Romano...
Philip Rosenthal: Yes. Ray Romano happened to come with Everybody Loves Raymond. But imagine if you wrote a script, then had to go cast a lead. That is always hard to find. It's hard to find in any language. My objection over the guy they picked wasn't that he was not funny, or a bad actor...He wasn't right for the part in my opinion. He didn't have to be exactly like Ray Romano. He just had to be believable in the role. Like with Brad Garrett, you would think that was hard, but I think they did a good job finding an equivalent for him in Russia. I think they did a good job for every other character, except the lead in the show.
Are you going to continue taking Raymond to other countries? Will we see a continuation of that process?
Philip Rosenthal: The show is going to be in other countries, and I am not going. I had enough. It would take some convincing. I will never say never, because I will leave open the possibility that a country with food that I like to eat will do it.
What country would that be?
Philip Rosenthal: I hear Italy has some good food. I hear France is nice.
Do you think you will head up your own reality program after this? As you clearly are the star of the show here.
Philip Rosenthal: That never occurred to me. With this, out of the two hundred hours that you don't see, there are maybe a few extra minutes of DVD extras. Other than that, those two hundred hours have been cut down to 85 minutes. Because those two hundred hours that are not in the movie are not worth being in the movie. As for a show? No one is offering yet. But if someone made the offer, I would consider it. This movie is not an easy sell. It is a documentary. Most people hear that word and they run screaming, because it sounds like medicine. All I want to do is let people know that it's a funny movie. It doesn't matter what you call it. Are you laughing? Or are you not laughing? That is the bottom line. The poster was shot in my garage. The movie was edited in my garage. It is a very homespun thing. It's a small thing. We are hoping to be one of the two or three small movies that do break out once a year.
I think you have a chance!
Philip Rosenthal: Ah. Thanks!