Danny DeVito and Barry Sonnenfeld: how we made Get Shorty

‘Gene Hackman was scary as hell. At the premiere, he pulled me aside and said: “I didn’t think you had a clue what you were doing!”’

Barry Sonnenfeld, director

My wife and I were about to take our first cruise and I needed a book. I hadn’t read any Elmore Leonard novels but Get Shorty was about Hollywood so I thought it’d be interesting. I bought it and loved it. A few years previously I had shot Throw Momma from the Train with Danny DeVito and I called him and he said: “I’ll buy it, you direct it and I’ll produce and star in it.” I saw Danny as Chili Palmer because, for me, the strength of Chili and the strength of Danny is self-confidence.

It took for ever to get made. We were turned down by every studio, including Danny’s. No one wanted to do an Elmore Leonard book because previously they had all failed at the box office, and no one wanted to do an “inside Hollywood” movie either.

Elmore had nothing to do with the screenplay. He never even asked to read it. He came to set for just one day, only because I invited him, and couldn’t believe there was a chair that said “Elmore Leonard”.

Barry Sonnenfeld on set.
Barry Sonnenfeld on set. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

It didn’t work out with Danny playing Chili. Thank God he played the role he was born to play, which was Shorty. John Travolta [who played Chili Palmer] turned the movie down twice until Quentin Tarantino intervened. Tarantino had dated one of Get Shorty’s producers, who gave him the script. He called John and said: “This is not the movie you pass on.” Travolta said he didn’t get it, but Quentin said: “Trust me and do it.” John was perfect as Chili Palmer. He is one of the greatest actors with a walk. Whether it’s Saturday Night Fever or Pulp Fiction, his walk exudes confidence.

Gene Hackman [as Harry Zimm] never tried to be funny. He was scary as hell to work with – he’s very intimidating and suffers no fools. After the New York premiere he pulled me aside and said: “I wanted you to know, the entire time I was working with you I didn’t think you had a fucking clue what you were doing.” I said: “OK, thanks Gene.” He said: “That’s not my point.” I said: “Oh there’s more?” He said: “I’m so mad at myself because if I had realised you knew what you were doing, I could’ve done so much better!”

Danny DeVito, actor

I directed Throw Momma from the Train and Barry Sonnenfeld was my cinematographer. We got along really well. Afterwards I started my production company, and said to him: “Let’s look for something for you to direct.” Barry called one day and said: “I’m at an airport and I bought an Elmore Leonard book called Get Shorty. I’ve just started it but I love it and think it’s the one.” I had so much faith in him that right away I got a guy on the phone, made a deal and got an option on the book. I had somebody go out and get a copy of it so I could take a look because I hadn’t read it.

Barry wanted me to play Chili Palmer but I said no. I liked Martin Weir [“Shorty”]. With Martin, I tried to be full of myself. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to playing myself in a movie – I also have pictures of myself all over my house. No, that’s not true, I’m kidding. I didn’t base Martin on anybody, it was just what it was in the script, which was really well written by Scott Frank. It was good fun.

Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito.
Large and little … Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Alamy

Barry wanted Gene Hackman to play Harry Zimm. It just so happened that his agent was my agent so I called him up. But there was a night scene in the movie and he said he didn’t work at night. I said: “It’s only one scene. We’ll do it real quick and get you out by midnight.” He said “No, I don’t work at night.” It was a dealbreaker. Barry insisted it had to be a night scene, and I eventually convinced Gene to do it but he said: “You only get one night.”

During that night shoot I was hanging out with Hackman a lot because I didn’t want him to get squirrelly and leave. I think we went over midnight but he was a good guy and stuck it out. Several weeks later, I went to the editing room with Barry. I said: “Where’s the night scene?” He says: “Oh, it didn’t work so I cut it out.” I said: “You motherfucker …”

Interviews by Simon Bland

The GuardianTramp

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