“It was a big hook,” smiles director Jay Roach, recalling the all-too-relatable crux of his cringe-heavy hit Meet The Parents, which turns 20 this week.
Released in 2000, Roach’s follow up to 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its 1999 sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me swapped broad humour for something a little more nuanced. With Meet The Parents, he introduced us to Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), a male nurse and all-round good guy who’s pleasantries are pushed to the limit whilst trying to impress the folks of his bride-to-be Pam (Teri Polo).
Over one disastrous weekend, the well-meaning Focker awkwardly mimes milking a cat, passes for a pot-head and spectacularly flunks a lie detector test as he struggles to enter the precious circle of trust set by family patriarch and ex-CIA hardman Jack (Robert De Niro) and his wife Dina (Blythe Danner). Needless to say, things don’t exactly go as planned.
“I tried to not just make a conventional romantic comedy but go a little deeper into anxiety dream territory, which is pretty much how I experience life,” chuckles Roach, reflecting on the deep-set links that drew him to the project, itself an adaptation of a little-known 1992 American indie movie.
“It matched the anxiety I had when I first met my father-in-law who was a psychiatrist and who I always assumed had X-ray vision and was a human lie detector,” he continues. “It was a very personal story for me.”
Real-life aside, Roach’s route to directing what would become the seventh highest grossing movie of 2000 was far from straight forward. After the success of the first Austin Powers, the filmmaker was faced with an array of scripts – with Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg’s Meet The Parents adaptation standing out. However getting it off the ground wasn’t easy.
“There was some hesitation due to my experience level,” he tells us. “I wasn’t aware of the original and didn’t find out it was based on a pre-existing film until about eight weeks before we started shooting,” he adds. “I wasn’t able to convince people to let me do it and in the meantime I sent it to somebody at Spielberg’s company.”
While Roach left to direct 1999’s hockey comedy Mystery, Alaska and a second Austin Powers movie, the folks at Dreamworks took a shine to his pet-project: “Steven spoke up and said ‘I’ll make it’ - so the good news was it was Steven Spielberg, the bad news was I wasn’t going to be involved”.
With the Jaws Director attached, preliminary work began on a very different type of movie: “Spielberg got Jim Carrey,” continues Roach, revealing the star who almost played Greg Focker before production shifted yet again. “Steven admitted to me that he got nervous. He wasn’t sure about making this type of comedy and got cold feet. That left Jim Carrey – and it was Jim who pulled me back in.”
With Carrey also bowing out due to scheduling conflicts, Roach was left ready to helm his third feature but in need of a versatile comedian to lead his script to the screen. “All of the big set pieces, like Jack’s mother’s ashes getting knocked over, the burning of the chuppah and Greg hitting Pam’s sister in the face with the volleyball were all in the script, so it was already a gauntlet for Greg Focker to get through,” says Roach, recalling the shape of the project when he finally started work.
“I’d reached out to Ben (Stiller) and got the sense he wasn’t going to jump in readily - but thankfully I was also chasing Robert De Niro.”
As cinema’s most iconic tough guy, Roach was sure De Niro was the perfect choice to play Pam’s overbearing father. “I told him the story of my own father who had a top secret clearance,” says Roach on how he convinced De Niro to sign on. “My dad was a hunter so when he’d make us go hunting, he’d say ‘I’m watching you’ and put his fingers to his eyes when we were stalking around,” he smiles, revealing the inspiration for Jack’s now-infamous hand gesture.
“I told De Niro all these stories and he enjoyed the idea of playing a character like that, someone who’s professionally paranoid. The thing I love about Jack is that he’s never right about anything,” chuckles Roach. “He thinks he’s this killer spy who can read people better than a mechanical lie detector but he’s really terrible - and Bob liked that.”
With De Niro on board, Stiller followed suit: “Ben was excited about working with Bob. I needed an actor who could play neurotic and sneaky but who also has a big heart and who you could tell just tries too hard,” says Roach, explaining why Stiller was the perfect counterpoint.
“You can tell from the beginning when he proposes to Pam that he’s a good guy, then of course he does some very dark things – like lie about the fact he found Jinxy the cat who was lost and actually paints the tail of another cat and tries to pawn it off as Jinxy,” grins the director, recalling one of the movie’s most infamous moments involving Jack’s precious pet. “I always laugh at how dark he goes but even though he’s doing something relatively despicable, you still root for him.”
However for both director and star, the fear cast by De Niro’s icy glare was all too real: “We both went to dinner with Bob and he started telling us about his research on lie detectors and we were sweating by the end because you could imagine him putting you through the ropes,” he says, recalling a pre-shoot meet up with Stiller and De Niro. “He even tried to get us to play the game of finding the differences between how our physical responses would be if we were telling the truth versus if we were making something up.”
In fact, the idea of directing De Niro in a rare comedic performance all-but terrified Roach: “When I first met Bob I was totally freaked out,” he says candidly. “He was having problems with the script and I couldn’t tell if he liked it enough to do it and he said ‘I trust you. You’re smart - you’ll figure it out.’ I thought ‘Oh no, Robert DeNiro is trusting me to figure it out. What if I don’t?’ I was totally intimidated.”
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Thankfully Roach’s fear – and script issues – were both short-lived. Once on set, De Niro was committed to the film’s comedic moments and welcomed the opportunity to spar with co-stars Stiller and Owen Wilson, who played Pam’s smug ex-fiancé Kevin. “Bob was fantastic at improvising. Ben would often be coming up with crazy, absurd details and Bob was very loose,” remembers Roach.
“You think of him as being an old-pro who might need everything scripted, but not at all. He’s very nimble.” Although, there were some drawbacks: “The problem with Bob is when you get him laughing, as Owen and Ben did in the kitchen scene where they’re talking about the Golden Retriever with the gimp leg,” reveals Roach.
“Bob was laughing so hard. Every time he tried to throw in, he would crack up. There were days where I was like, ‘I dunno if we’re going to get through today because we can’t have them all laughing…’ It’s weird to see Robert De Niro lose track of himself laughing that hard.”
That said, when Roach needed De Niro to get serious, he was – of course – more than capable of delivering the goods, especially during the movie’s iconic polygraph sequence. “Bob came up with all this minutiae, like unfolding his glasses and really making Ben sweat,” smiles Roach, remembering the scene where Greg is placed in the hot-seat and quizzed by Jack.
“The absurdity of all the questions, like ‘do you watch porn?’ That all evolved and became a much bigger deal than it was in the script. I remember taking a photograph of the set and thinking that this was the poster. A guy that would strap his own future son-in-law into a lie detector just to find out if he was worthy for marrying his daughter? It just stood for everything.”
After a brief ratings battle (“We had to find people who actually had the surname ‘Focker’, with that spelling and pronunciation,” laughs Roach) Meet The Parents hit UK screens on December 15, 2000.
Two decades on, it remains a painfully awkward yet universal reminder of the depths we’ll plunge to impress the ones we love. “I can never be grateful enough that this film has had people’s attention for this long,” smiles Roach, reflecting on its longevity.
“People refer to the ‘Meet The Parents’ experience and almost everybody has that at some point. The other thing I hear is that it’s become a holiday favourite and would be played when families get together because there’s so much dysfunction along with the fun stuff,” reveals Roach.
“To be able to laugh at yourself and poke fun at each other in your own family, you can learn to laugh about your own negative tendencies and even feel a little healthier about it. It can make things better.”
Meet The Parents is streaming on NOW TV with a Sky Cinema Pass. Jay Roach’s latest film Bombshell is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.