It's been 22 years since actor-writer-stand-up comedian Paul Mazursky slipped behind the camera and directed his first movie, the comedy discourse on sexual freedom among confused adults in the '60s, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." What was satire then seems like parody now, but that's just one of the risks of being a Johnny-on-the-spot chronicler of social mores, which has become Mazursky's imprimatur as a filmmaker.
The great majority of Mazursky's 14 feature films have attempted to probe relationships between men and women in a changing society, usually married couples--and that includes his latest, "Scenes From a Mall."
Starring Woody Allen and Bette Middler, "Scenes" is a moody comedy about a yuppie couple who spend a day at the Beverly Center revealing infidelities, fighting, making love (in a theater during the assassination scene of "Salaam Bombay," to give you some idea) and generally trying to weather a storm of their own making.
Mazursky, who has often used his own life experiences in his movies, says that despite his many trips to the Beverly Center with his wife, there's nothing autobiographical this time out.
"I've done a lot of films about marriage," said the 59-year-old Mazursky, as he wrapped up a few interviews before leaving on a trip to Katmandu. "And everyone thinks these films are all my story but they're not."
Mazursky says one of the joys of his last film, the highly acclaimed "Enemies, a Love Story," was the fact that it was so clearly non-autobiographical (it was adapted from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story).
"Oddly enough, it was almost easier (to do) than this film," he says. "I never felt while I was making it that anyone was going to say to me 'Why do you make all these movies about yourself?' I don't, but marriage is an institution I know a lot about because I've been married for more than 30 years and I find it a fascinating subject."
He also finds Los Angeles a fascinating place, so much so he has used it as the major setting for five of his films--"Bob & Carol," "Alex in Wonderland," "Blume in Love" and his 1986 hit "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"--before doing "Scenes." In a way, the Beverly Center serves the same purpose here as the hands-on-let-it-all-hang-out encounter group did in "Bob & Carol" all those years ago. It's a metaphor for the way we live and what's on our minds.
"I made a movie in a mall and the mall is a character in the movie," Mazursky says. "(Allen and Midler) wouldn't have that argument in an ordinary store . . . but in a mall you feel free to do anything you want to do, because nobody is watching, nobody is listening, nobody cares, not really."
If Mazursky is fielding questions about how much of his life is in "Scenes," he's fielding even more about the casting of, and working with, notoriously independent Woody Allen. Allen has appeared in very few films directed by someone other than himself and starred in only two--Herbert Ross's "Play It Again, Sam" and Martin Ritt's "The Front." And he hates L.A. Why did Allen agree to do this film?
"I wish I had a newsworthy story," Mazursky says with a laugh. "All that happened is that after I wrote the script (with Roger Simon, his co-writer for "Enemies"), we started having the usual casting conversations with Disney. You say: 'Should it be William Hurt or Kevin Kline or Richard Dreyfus?' and you go through the names.
"Then one day, I said, 'What if it was Woody? Woody and Bette? wouldn't that be a weird combination?' They went crazy."
Mazursky knew Midler well--they revived each other's careers with "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"--but he had only met Allen once, briefly, at the wrap party for his 1978 Oscar-nominated movie "An Unmarried Woman."
"I just sent him a script on a Friday, he read it on Saturday and his agent called me on Monday and said: 'Woody wants to do it. Here's his number. Give him a call,' " Mazursky says. "I called and he said he'd love to do it. . . . I went (to New York) and talked to him for an hour. . . . I then told Woody we should agree on the woman. I said 'Bette,' we talked about it, and he said 'Fine' . . . that is it."
Allen only agreed to be in it, he didn't agree to talk about it, so Mazursky's version of the story is all anyone will hear, but the answer to the most obvious question about Allen--why he would agree to spend the time it takes to shoot a movie in the town he loathes so much--is an easy one to answer. He didn't. The film was shot in a mall in Connecticut and the recognizable parts of the Beverly Center were shot on a two-story set in the Astoria Studios in New York.
"It would have been a lot easier to make the film in Los Angeles," Mazursky says, "but that was the deal from the beginning, that Woody wouldn't have to work here."
Allen did spend three days in Los Angeles, for opening scenes in the Hollywood Hills and one shot where he and Midler drive up to the Beverly Center. Otherwise, it was in the Stamford, Conn., mall--chosen because it was designed by the same architect who did the Beverly Center--and the lavish two-story Beverly Center replica at Astoria.
"It was the biggest set ever built in New York," Mazursky says, crediting the accuracy of the "look" to his long-time friend and associate, the film's co-producer and production designer Pato Guzman, who died Jan. 2. Mazursky dedicated the film to him.
Mazursky says Allen hated his costumes, which look like off-the-rack sportswear to a Southern California eye, but the actor was easy to direct and, in spite of his usual serious demeanor, "couldn't stop laughing" during filming.
Next for Mazursky? Plans are in the works to make "Moscow on the Moscow" next year, a sequel to his 1984 hit "Moscow on the Hudson," in which his Soviet defector (played in the original by Robin Williams, who might reprise the part) returns to his home after a decade in New York City.
Foremost in Mazursky's mind these days, however, is his next project, which will start in September, like "Moscow" a Columbia project. "It's called 'The Pickle,' " he says with a laugh. "A comedy I wrote myself. It's a story about a director who finds himself directing a teen-age movie about a flying cucumber.
"I'll be honest with you. I'm really looking forward to making a movie about a flying cucumber, I can't wait . . . it's a chance to do something very different."