The idea for Zohan, a kick-ass Israeli soldier who gives up the counter-terrorism game in order to pursue his dream of being a hairdresser, first came to Adam Sandler many years ago, and he immediately saw the best way to develop the character into a screenplay. He would work with two good friends: his fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumnus (and original head writer for Conan O'Brien and creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and "TV Funhouse") Robert Smigel, and his onetime roommate (and now comedy heavyweight) Judd Apatow.
You Don't Mess with the Zohan represents familiar ground for the writers. "My interest in writing about Israelis started at 'Saturday Night Live,'" says Smigel, who was a sketch writer on the show for a number of years. "Oddly enough, the very first sketch that Adam was ever in was 'The Sabra Shopping Network,' a sketch I wrote about Israelis."
You Don't Mess with the Zohan also represents a return to Sandler's roots - playing an outlandish, wild, broadly drawn character, as he did both on "SNL" and early in his film career. "Adam's audience has gotten used to seeing him play characters closer to himself," adds Smigel. "But even though Zohan can do no-arm pushups, he's still goofy and vulnerable like Adam."
According to director Dennis Dugan, You Don't Mess with the Zohan pits The Zohan against an equally large and imposing opposite, who happens to be a terrorist: The Phantom, played by John Turturro. "Ali and Frazier, the Celtics and the Lakers, the Yankees and Boston, The Zohan and Phantom," says Dugan. "It's the fiercest rivalry."
Though its basis is one of the most vexing problems on the world stage, the filmmakers' primary goal was to bring the comedy. Still, Rob Schneider, a near-and-dear member of the Happy Madison family who joins the cast as Salim, a Palestinian cab driver, says that it's possible that comedy is the only way to approach an unapproachable problem. "Comedy brings people together," he says. "The Zohan is ridiculous - so ridiculous that, I hope, everybody takes a step back and laughs together."
The film also features a host of hilarious cameos from friends old and new. Dave Matthews - of his eponymous band - and Kevin James reunite with Sandler after taking on cameo and starring roles, respectively, in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Michael Buffer, the "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" announcer, takes on a featured role in the film. And Mariah Carey, the best-selling female artist of all time, who earlier this year made history with the most #1 singles by a solo artist, appears as herself (and the idol of both Israeli and Arab fans). Carey's song "I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time," the third single from her album "E=MC2," is also featured in the film.
But the cameos don't stop there. Among other surprises, the film also features Kevin Nealon, John McEnroe, Charlotte Rae, who was Mrs. Garrett on 'The Facts of Life,' and Academy president Sid Ganis. "We may not get any Oscar nominations now, only because Sid has to appear neutral," says Smigel.
Melding the serious and the ridiculous is director Dennis Dugan, who has previously helmed the Sandler hits Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, as well as the Happy Madison project The Benchwarmers, in addition to many other films and television programs.
"My job is to tee up the ball so that Sandler can smack it," Dugan says. "We have a similar sensibility. I try to get his vision for the film and I work with all the departments to figure out the best way to facilitate it. Now that we've done five movies together, I know what he wants; it's easier to know than to try to predict."
"When I was 12, I didn't have half as much energy as Dennis Dugan has now," Smigel says. "He's unbelievable. He shared a secret with me that it's deliberate - he knows that if he drags, everyone else will drag, too. He's got to set the example. Plus, he made me laugh every day on the set. It doesn't pay as well, but I'd like to see him emcee at a comedy club."
"I was an actor for a long time, so my theory is that the more comfortable I make the actors, many of whom are actors/comedians, the more I make them feel at home and the funnier they'll be," Dugan says. "So no matter how tired I am or how long the hours are, I always pretend that I'm not tired and I pretend I'm not mad and I pretend I'm not cranky. That way, the actors feel like the set is a cool place where they can work, be safe, and be free. Everything I do is oriented toward that, because eventually it all comes down to what happens when you say, 'Action.'"
A movie about an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian terrorist coming together? It's not as crazy as it sounds, says director Dennis Dugan. "The people living in conflict in the Middle East are the same people living in one neighborhood in New York - except that while there may be rivalries in Gaza, they don't hate each other in Brooklyn. Everybody just gets along," he notes. "They treat each other more as people than as rival factions. You Don't Mess with the Zohan is a comedic way of sort of getting at the West Side Story aspect of life."
Amazingly enough, Smigel notes, the story of the movie was reflected on the set. "One of the great things on the set - and we didn't do this intentionally - was that we had many scenes that involved all the Arab guys and the Israeli guys in the same scene, meaning they were all called to the set together," says Smigel. "Everyone would be eating lunch together. They had a lot of passionate discussions, but it was very friendly, very healthy, very open-minded. It was really cool to see - some of the guys have said to me that it's the most they've every talked to an Arab or an Israeli before."
One key to bringing You Don't Mess with the Zohan to the screen was to hire the best and funniest actors from Israel and the Arab world to bring to life the supporting roles. "We have an entire squad of people - not just the usual suspects from Happy Madison," says Dugan. "We went from Israel to Palestine to New York to Anaheim, all over Los Angeles, to find people from the Middle East - Israelis and Arabs alike - to be in the movie. I think we read every SAG and non-SAG acting aspirant for this movie. With 175 roles in the movie, we had to do that."
"Toward the end of the shoot, I heard from some of the actors that they'd grown up hating or mistrusting all Israelis or all Arabs - until they came here," Smigel adds. "They actually said the shoot was a life-altering experience. Even though we make the point in the movie, I think it was a shock to everyone to see how much they all had in common. Look, it's not like we think we're solving anything with this film; we just wanted to be funny. But even for me, as a Jew, it was very interesting to feel as close to the Arabs on the set as I did to the Israelis."
To play Oori, who becomes Zohan's guide to all things American, the filmmakers found Ido Mosseri, who has been an actor in his native Israel since he was eight years old. "I've always dreamt about Hollywood, but it was something I didn't think would really happen. Being in an American movie with Adam Sandler is more than a dream for me."
"It was a great acting school for me to watch Adam work," he says. "He's so kind and giving, and he's a very fun man to be with - he's like a child sometimes. It's important to love what you do and I can see all the time how Adam loves his work - and how he enjoys it and how much he wants everyone else to feel the same way."
"I'm always happy for the opportunity to work with Arab actors," Mosseri adds. "On the Zohan set, I think the first time the Arab and the Israeli actors met each other, I think we immediately became friends - we have a lot in common. Each of us comes from his own place and his own opinions and his own background. The most important thing that we were sitting together and listening to each other and wanting to learn about the other. So I felt privileged that we had the opportunity to play together, to talk together, to get to know each other. We became real friends."
About Mosseri, Smigel says, "When I was writing the Israeli characters as horndogs, I worried if it was too much of a stereotype. Fortunately, Ido fulfilled all my dreams. At one point on the set he was raving about Tel Aviv, the scene there, and how I had to visit. Then he paused and asked me if I was married, and I said yes. He said, 'Well… maybe you don't need to visit.'"
Sayed Badreya plays Hamdi, a Palestinian cab driver who works with Rob Schneider's character, Salim, and Daoud Heidami's character, Nasi. Badreya is an Egyptian-American who came to the U.S. in 1979 to attend NYU Film School. He remembers, "I'm a product of war and peace. When I was a little boy during the war, I always hid in movie theaters, watching American movies. So I fell in love with America before I knew what America is, because of the movies. When Sadat made peace with Israel, I had the opportunity to come to America to study film."
He says that sometimes, the motion picture industry can be tough on Arab actors. "When I first came here in 1979 and first sought acting jobs, the only roles available were roles as terrorists. I was young and fit and too good looking to be a terrorist, so I couldn't get a job," he jokes. "I grew my beard, put on weight, and got a job right away. Since then, for 20 years, I've had one line in every movie I've been in: 'In the name of Allah, I kill you all.'"
Daoud Heidami plays Nasi - like Salim and Hamdi, a Palestinian cab driver in New York. Heidami was born in Bethlehem to a Palestinian father and mother. His family moved to Houston, Texas when he was four.
Heidami says that it's entirely believable that Nasi would join his friend Salim on the wild goose chase to catch Zohan. "In the Middle Eastern culture, it's like everybody is cousins - even if you're not really related," he says. "So if my 'cousin' calls me and says he needs help, I go. Everyone's family when you need a favor."
Working on the film and with Happy Madison, Heidami notes, "They created a unique environment where it felt safe as an actor to play and explore on set, to take risks. And that safe environment extended beyond the set, too. We would talk during our lunch breaks and get to know each other. Little by little, this lead to discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. It was great - everyone was very passionate, everyone had an idea and people listened to each other. The Israeli actors would listen to my stories about growing up in Bethlehem, and I would listen to theirs. That has a lot to do with the environment that Adam set up."
Schneider adds, "It went so smoothly. It was beautiful, which gives me hope. All we're trying to do with this movie is make people laugh, but if we can do that, then maybe it will have some impact - just because we're trying to be respectful to both sides and funny."
CASTING THE FILM
When Adam Sandler decided to take on the role of the Zohan, he committed himself to the role. "Sandler worked very, very, very hard. He worked out with a Navy SEAL for four months," says Smigel. "Lifting weights, running miles, doing sit-ups, no snacks. I've never seen him happier."
Sandler also worked on his Israeli accent. He had help from the script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, who hails from Israel. She assisted Sandler with pronunciation and word usage. In addition, she was a helpful person to have around. "Sometimes, Adam would ask Ronit if she knew the Hebrew word for something," Dugan says. "If it was a word that sounded funny to us, Adam would use it."
Another Sandler adviser was Eytan Ben-David, who - in life-imitates-art fashion - is a former Israeli army soldier who now works in a hair salon in Los Angeles. Ben-David met with Sandler and gave him tips on how a hairdresser acts, how to hold the scissors, and hairdresser lingo.
That said, bringing The Zohan to life wasn't all hairspray and conditioner. Sandler also got into fantastic shape to play the counter-terrorism agent. The other key adviser to Sandler was stunt coordinator Scott Rogers, veteran of Spider-Man 2 and 3 and Sky High. As Dugan explains, Scott would be in charge of showing off The Zohan's extraordinary abilities. "We wanted to make all the stunts look as fresh and as original as possible," says Dugan. "We didn't want the stunts to be comedic, Jackie Chan-style stunts, but real, brutal, scary, and as terrifying as possible - and wherever possible, to show the Zohan doing it."
Smigel says he knows what really attracted Sandler to the part. "I think he wanted to get it done while he was still young enough to look reasonably good with his shirt off," he says.
Rob Schneider, who has been a loyal part of Sandler's films from the very beginning, adds, "Adam really did his research, but he found something that was very approachable. I don't think anybody in the world could have played this part except Adam Sandler. There's a real joy to his performance - you get to see him having the time of his life."
John Turturro says, "I'm always happy to have the opportunity to work with Adam and the Happy Madison guys. Adam goes out of his way to make sure everybody is happy and that the set is a good place to work. Plus, it's nice to cut loose and have some fun."
Turturro, who previously starred opposite Sandler in Mr. Deeds and Anger Management, plays Phantom. Turturro explains, "Phantom is Zohan's antagonist. He calls me a terrorist, but he sees himself as the freedom fighter for the Arabic side against Zohan and the Israeli side."
After the big battle in which Zohan fakes his own death, Phantom - who thinks he's finally offed his nemesis - celebrates his success… but as Turturro explains, that's not the end of Phantom's story. "Zohan is faking his death, but little does he realize that Phantom also has his own dreams of not fighting anymore. If Zohan is the Jewish James Bond, Phantom is an Arabic Eminem. He has gold teeth, he always wears shades, and he has his own chain of Muchentuchen restaurants. Basically - and ironically for a guy named Phantom - he's living off his fame not only as a freedom fighter of the people, but as the man who got the Zohan."
To research his role and work on his accent, Turturro called on a friend. "I've had a chance to read up and I've had a couple of the Arab actors help me with the accent. I have a good friend, Tony Shalhoub, whose family is from Lebanon. He's always introducing me to a lot of the things that go on in that part of the world that are not really seen. This might be a silly comedy, but it's still an opportunity to learn something new."
Schneider says, "If you're working with John Turturro, you have to be on your game. He's very unpredictable, a good physical comedian, and a marvelous actor - in fact, he's one of the few guys who are good at both dramatic acting and comedy acting."
Emmanuelle Chriqui, who recently rose to fame with a recurring role on the HBO hit "Entourage," takes on the role of Dalia, a Palestinian immigrant to New York. She owns the hair salon and gives Zohan his first job in the U.S. "She gives him a chance even though at first she thinks it's a really bad idea. He ends up helping her and making her business flourish."
Chriqui, who claims French and Moroccan heritage, says that she looked to the influence of her mother to play Dalia. "My mother was a very fiery, unbelievable Moroccan woman, so I tapped into that energy to play a strong Palestinian woman. Even though Morocco's in North Africa, the customs are very similar to those throughout the Arab world."
Though Chriqui is the one woman among the boys' club on the set of Zohan, she held her own. "It's a recurring theme in my life to be the one girl among a lot of guys," she says. "But when the guys are as funny as Sandler, it's not so bad."
Like the other actors, Chriqui spent time with a dialogue coach to master her character's accent. "The Palestinian actors on the set told me that I had a pretty good Palestinian accent, which I was very glad to hear. I worked hard to get it right."
Chriqui was also gratified by the chance to explore Dalia's amazing wardrobe. "At first, we considered a very ethnic look for Dalia - dripping in gold and scarves, that kind of thing. But as we got into it, we realized that Dalia's got a ton of energy: she's edgy, she's funky, and she's strong. It takes a lot of guts for someone to immigrate to America and be running a business just four or five years later. Ellen Lutter was a great collaborator, helping to infuse the energy of New York City into the character through her clothing."
Rob Schneider is along for the ride in an unpredictable and wild role. "I play Salim, a Palestinian cab driver who came to New York to fulfill his dreams," he explains. "He has some residual bitterness - he's harbored a grudge ever since, as a young man, a goat that he was very fond of was taken from him by Zohan. That stuck with him, so when he sees Zohan in New York, he's shocked by it and plans his revenge."
Schneider adds, "He's not just a cabdriver. He's also a Spiegel catalog salesman. Salim's got about three jobs going simultaneously. He's taking fares and making sales on the cell phone while he drives."
Smigel says that Salim is a guy who never got a chance to show the world what he could do. "He's just an innocent cab driver forced to work 14 hour shifts to get by. He finally sees his chance at some fame when he recognizes Zohan. He's jealous of Phantom, who's totally blinged-out. He wants revenge on Zohan, but he also knows capturing Zohan would be a coup, and he wants his little slice of glory."
"I was very flattered that Robert Smigel wrote this part for me," says Schneider. "It reminded me of our best 'Saturday Night Live' days - he handed me a great character and I knew that I had to knock it out of the park. It's pressure, sure, but it's the best kind of pressure."
To get Salim's accent right, Schneider had the help of a couple of coaches. "I talked with Dr. Salame, a Palestinian physician in Milwaukee. Dr. Salame was nice enough to help me out and put all my lines on tape - and then he did it all in Arabic too."
Memorizing the lines and the accent - that was the easy part. The hard part was staying on his toes. Schneider says, "Adam likes to adlib. So I had all my lines completely down, with the accent - I've got it on paper, spelled out phonetically - and then Adam starts to adlib and I'm like, 'Ohhhh.' Fortunately, we had Palestinian actors on the set - I would go up to Ahmed Ahmed and ask him, 'How would you say this?' Between him, Daoud, and Sayed, we were like the Arabic Bowery Boys. It was a lot of fun."
Daoud Heidami, one of the Palestinian actors who worked closely with Schneider, says, "I grew up watching Rob, so when I found out I was going to have the opportunity to work with him, I was really excited. It was exciting to watch and work with him. He's helpful and encouraging in a lot of ways - he always has such a great energy that it's really easy to work off of him."
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