He’s a troll. Short and stocky with a bitter, twisted temperament. He’s traded insults with Batman, given smoking tips to Method Man and played ball with Michael Jordan. Actor-director Danny DeVito has his hands in a lot, everything from producing to acting to set design. In his newest film, Death to Smoochy, DeVito directs, produces and still finds time to play an agent determined to kill a cuddly pink rhino.
Sick and twisted maybe, but ever calculating. As DeVito revealed in a recent Hatchet interview, he may be a nut, but he’s a nut with confidence – at least when it comes to keeping afloat in the business after 20 years.
“There’s always the possibility that you’ll wane,” DeVito said. “My whole philosophy has been to take it moment to moment. I kind of focus at the task at hand and the other stuff just falls into place.”
For the moment DeVito is deeply immersed in the world of Smoochy. He directed and starred in the film alongside Robin Williams, Jon Stewart and Edward Nortan. Putting the group together was a challenge for DeVito.
“You have to go and hunt down the actors, which is very much like it sounds,” DeVito said. “I went to them and lured them into this movie.”
The star talent was drawn to Smoochy by its exciting plot, which pits all odds against an idealistic children’s show host. The actors were also excited by the freedom that DeVito’s direction affords.
“I was always trying to push the actors, make them have a few kicks,” said DeVito. “It’s always exciting directing movies when you have guys who are very prone to improvise and constantly trying to have a lot of fun.”
But not everyone can handle the freedom.
“The only person you have to be careful with is Robin (Williams), because he just goes.” said DeVito.
Danny DeVito, showing reserve? It’s a strange concept, considering the man has been associated with films such as Pulp Fiction and the dark Batman Returns. DeVito contends that he does censor himself, even if it’s just a little.
“I do pull back in my movies, even if it doesn’t seem like it,” he said. “I try to be funny with the things I do. I try not to do anything that will make people feel bad, unless they deserve it.”
In Smoochy, DeVito was forced to grapple with a number of moral concerns, as he sought a balance between comedy and good taste. In one scene DeVito subjects an audience of children to sudden exposure to a bag a penis-shaped cookies.
“I wanted to prepare them, but I didn’t want to blow the surprise. I was hoping, personally, that they would be really shocked and surprised on film,” DeVito said.
The cookies, a twisted prank by enemies of Smoochy’s show, are only one of many times when DeVito felt he was edging close to the boundaries of good taste.
“Sometimes you have to go really close, and sometimes you’re foot slips over that edge.”
DeVito, proprietor of his own company Jersey Films, is unique in his freedom from the bureaucratic restraint of the movie industry.
“I created Jersey films when there were a lot of people tampering with movies,” he said. “With Jersey you’re allowed to let the director fulfill their vision.”
Sometimes the vision is the murder of a children’s character, other times, as in How High, it’s getting two rappers really stoned and having them traipse around the Ivy League. As DeVito describes it, it’s all about being eclectic.
“We’re trying to do diverse films,” DeVito said. “We did a documentary about the Sex Pistols, Erin Brockovich and then we did How High. We’re trying to mix it up, do comedies and dramas and everything.”
Acting and directing is a dream for DeVito. After years in the business, he said he is starting to really get a grip on it. As he described, it took him a while to gain his confidence in the business.
“It was acting first,” he said. “I wasn’t a likely candidate. Some people encouraged me, but a lot of people were like ‘forget about it, man.'”
With success, DeVito’s real challenge is to keep his schedule balanced.
“It is stressful. And I’m a kid who didn’t like to get up early for school,” DeVito said. “But when you find that job that’s perfect. It’s just great to get up in the morning.”
For the future, DeVito promises to continue to surprise and delight. As far as staying original, he says he has developed a new system, which guarantees big results.
“I make sure they’ve never done it on ‘South Park,'” he said. “That’s my only real reference these days.”
This article appeared in the April 8, 2002 issue of the Hatchet.