Here Again – Inspired by a collaborative friendship of 45 years

The Idea for the film Here Today was ignited when Billy Crystal saw his longtime friend and collaborator Alan Zweibel share a hilarious anecdote from his life during a guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, which resulted in the genesis for Zweibel’ short story The Prize, which inspired the film’s screenplay crafted by Billy Crystal and Alan Zweibel.

“When I saw Alan on Letterman, I immediately emailed while he was still talking to Dave,” says Crystal. “I said, ‘This is hilarious. It’s a great way for two people to meet. I don’t know what this is, but this is how this starts, so if you’re interested, let’s start talking.’ And that’s what we did.”

The Prize played out much like it does in the film: “I was the prize of a silent auction for some local theater group in Manhattan,” Zweibel begins. “The prize was having lunch with me. On the appointed day, I asked the winner how much she paid to have lunch with me? And she said 22. And I thought, gee, 2200 dollars, that’s pretty good. And she said, ‘What are you talking about? Not twenty-two hundred. 22 dollars.’ That’s what it took to have lunch with me. The bidding started at 20 dollars and went up in 50 cent increments.”

As if that mortification weren’t enough, things devolved from there. “She ordered a seafood salad about the size of the house that I grew up in,” Zweibel relates, “and as we were talking, she was eating clams and lobster tail and big shrimps, and her face started to contort. Her lips got big and her ears got red – she was having an allergic reaction to the seafood. I was thinking, ‘When does my responsibility end, being the prize of this auction?’”

Turns out, not anytime soon. “I ended up calling an ambulance for her and took her to Lenox Hill Hospital. She didn’t have insurance, so I bought her an epi pen. I injected her in her apartment. What cost her 22 dollars cost me about twelve hundred dollars.”

When Crystal heard the story on Letterman, it immediately struck a chord.

“At the time, I was really looking to do a movie about a relationship between an older man and a younger woman that was about friendship and love, but not in a romantic way,” he recalls. “It was an interesting place to start a story. When I saw that, I said, ‘Oh, this is how they meet.’”

Maybe the roots of the film go back 45 years – the length of Crystal and Zweibel’s friendship, which even predates the first episode of “Saturday Night Live,” where Zweibel was a writer and Crystal was slated to perform before being bumped; Crystal would later join the show in 1984, after Zweibel had left, but the two remained in contact as Crystal went on to superstardom and Zweibel racked up countless awards and honors (including the Thurber Prize for American Humor) for his writing. In 2004, they would collaborate on Crystal’s solo show “700 Sundays,” which was honored with a Tony Award.

The moment the film became a film – when Astute Films producer Fred Bernstein agreed to make the movie.

“I read it on an airplane. I put it down, and as we were landing at the Atlanta airport, the woman next to me asked if I was in the film business,” Bernstein recalls. “I said yes, I was – and she said, ‘Whatever it is, could I buy it?’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Because you laughed out loud at least a dozen times and you cried real tears. I’ve never seen that before.’ I thanked her for sharing that with me, and I walked off the airplane, called Billy’s agent, and made a deal to buy the screenplay before I got off the jetway.

“It confirmed to me something I had felt – the screenplay was an amazing piece of work,” Bernstein continues. “We want to make movies that matter. We don’t forget the fact that the main thing that drives people to go to theaters is entertainment. They’re looking for something that will enhance their life experience – laughter, tears, some meaningful emotion. This movie combined entertainment value with substance, and with talent that you knew could bring it to life. It was a wonderful opportunity for us, and we were thrilled to have the chance to do it.”

For Bernstein – a family man with four children – it was a labor of love, because the way Emma and Charlie’s relationship changes Charlie’s relationship with his kids embodies the kind of film he wants to make and emotional lessons he wants to pass on to his own family. “A lot of us live our lives either in the future or in the past. What they all come to realize is, let’s be present. Let’s enjoy, or understand, or be present in what’s happening now. You gotta let the past go to some degree; you shouldn’t forget it, but it shouldn’t be dominating your life,” he says. “One thing I’ve tried to impart to my own children is the direction you get to your life from your family. They drive you in many ways – embrace it. They’re with you forever, and they can be an enormously positive force in your life if you let them. In this movie, some of that is embracing one another. Recognizing that we all have failings and shortcomings, but we also have a lot to give to one another.”

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Fred Bernstein

“You’re here today – that’s what’s thematic about the movie,” says Zweibel. “You don’t know what tomorrow brings. But you’re here today and you make the most of it. This movie is a comedy, but it will also touch hearts and give hope that no matter how many days you have on this planet, you can make the most of it. And one of the ways you can make the most of it is if you have a significant other or others who are there for you, and you can be there for them in return.”

“The challenge of this movie is to be respectful of what Charlie is going through – we have to honor the people, like my aunt, and their families who are dealing with that. And yet there are very funny things around him, and then the movie shifts into a very compassionate third act as the characters discover what’s most important in their lives,” says Crystal. “The book Charlie is trying to write about his late wife, the guilt he has about being in a way part of her death, Emma becoming a motivator to confront the demons of his past and uniting his family with him. The movie’s very rich, it’s very big – big laughs, big emotions.”

For Crystal and Zweibel, the first step in writing together was in finding who these characters are and what would bring them together

They started with the guy, modeling him after a mutual friend and mentor both had admired years before.

“We both focused on Herb Sargent, a former writer at ‘SNL,’” says Crystal. Sargent was, like Zweibel, one of the original writers of “SNL” – but unlike Zweibel, was a man in his fifties, which made him unique on that writing staff. When Crystal joined the show in 1984, Sargent was still there. “I always loved working with Herb, because he was a mentor to a lot of us in a really special way. He was a senior writer, he didn’t say much, but everybody respected him. He was very cool guy that way. So that was the prototype – I could play a senior writer on a show like that.” The character became comedy legend Charlie Burnz, now serving as a mentor and consigliere to the cable sketch comedy show “This Just In.”

For the younger woman, who would become the street singer Emma Payge, Crystal found inspiration in the underground of New York City – not the clubs but the literal underground. “I was in Penn Station and there was a lovely young woman with a band performing in the ticket area,” says Crystal. “It struck me this is who she could be.”

There needed something that drove these two people together. Again, Crystal found inspiration from his life.

“At the time, I was the medical proxy for a very close relative, a book editor who was losing her memory. As she would describe it to me, ‘I’m slowly losing my words.’ And it was heartbreaking,” Crystal recalls. “I thought, if we could handle that in a real comedy, then we’d have a perfect blend of pathos and humanness. The singing character would give up something important to her to take care of him. That was my original idea for finding a relationship that’s about love and friendship in the best way. And we just took off from there.”

Writing together became an unusual process, as Crystal and Zweibel live on different coasts

But they made it work through email. “It was like pen pals – if we’d had a carrier pigeon, we’d have used that, too,” says Crystal.

They would tag-team, says Zweibel. “We would discuss story – ‘you take this scene, I take that scene’ – email each other, embellish each other’s scenes, and see if they work into the story line we were mapping out,” he says.

“It was a unique way to do this, and it just worked for us,” says Crystal. “Periodically we’d get together for a week or so, but we were very rarely in the same room until it was time to really polish it up.”

One other element was clear from the beginning: the director. Crystal would fill that role himself

“The last time I directed was 20 years ago, a movie called 61* about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, a movie I loved making because it touched deeply into my 13-year-old summer. I’ve been offered tons of things to do since then but didn’t connect with anything that I felt I wanted to give so much of myself and a year of my life to do. When we started talking about this, even before we started writing, I said, ‘Alan, I know what this can be, and I want to direct this,’ says Crystal. “As we were writing, we wrote it in a very visual way, as if I was already making a cut of it. And it really helped in the writing and informed it, so when you read the script, it reads like you’re seeing it at the same time.”

Bernstein says it was fascinating to watch Crystal direct. “As a director, he’s incredibly respectful of his actors and gets the best out of them – including himself, I might add. It’s interesting to watch Billy-the-director direct Billy-the-actor. He was always faithful to the screenplay he and Alan wrote, but he allowed his actors an opportunity to add where they found it in their characters – what would their characters do at this point? Is there something to do to enhance it? Not all directors are comfortable doing that, but Billy – having been a performer and a comedic performer in particular – knows that sometimes spontaneity leads to some of the great, magical moments.”

The other key part of writing was finding the balance between the comedy and the drama

“It wasn’t hard,” says Zweibel. “I think we both knew when we were going too far one way or another. We would hold each other in check and go, ‘No, we went too far there, back back back back back, on both the comedy and the drama.”

It’s the kind of shorthand that gets built over decades. “We’ve been friends for 45 years and we see the world in a similar way,” says Crystal. “We’re very good counterbalances for each other.”

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To play Emma Payge opposite Crystal’s Charlie Burnz, the filmmakers turned to Tiffany Haddish – an inspiration that struck, again, thanks to “Saturday Night Live” – this time, the comedian’s first hosting duties. Crystal saw the episode and Zweibel agreed – she’d be perfect. They reached out and got an immediate yes. “I’m only looking for roles that inspire me, drama or comedy,” she says. “As long as it makes me feel something, then I’m interested. I was especially drawn in by the fact that Billy’s character, Charlie, is losing his memory. I have a family member going through that right now, and I think that’s something powerful that needs to be talked about.”

For Haddish, the movie has a lot to say about family – and how we care for the people who mean the most to us, whether they’re related by blood or not. “I would love this movie to inspire people to share their story – do a memory book or write something so there can be a history or documentation of what we’ve all done, or funny moments they’ve shared,” says Haddish. “And it doesn’t have to be a family member. If someone is important to you, you can love them and look out for them like they are.”

“Billy and I hit it off the first time we met. When we’d talk on the phone from time to time, it was always funny and great conversation,” says Haddish. But then, that’s not surprising. “I have good chemistry with most human beings, because I treat people the way I want to be treated. Billy is a regular person – I understand his method and where he’s coming from. He’s very traditional, and that keeps me feeling safe, because I know what to expect. I enjoy him very much.”

Crystal says that the off-screen chemistry mirrored the relationship on-screen. “Our styles are different, our humor is different, and that plays wonderfully against each other,” he says. “Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed with terrific partners in acting. We’ve celebrated our differences and I’m a good counterpuncher. When I act with her, I love to be able to react. That’s where I can be effective in giving her the space she needs to be who she is and maintaining my own.”

Part of those differences came into play as Haddish would ad-lib – which, she says, Crystal-the-director managed beautifully. “I’d get on Billy’s nerves because I like to tag something, add a little extra something,” Haddish laughs. “Sometimes that was cool, and sometimes it was, ‘Let’s stick to the script here.’ There’s a story that needs to be told and any director has a vision of how they want it to be told. Sometimes Billy did it to me when I wasn’t expecting it. It’s fun when we got to play – Billy’s like a dad in that way.”

The Writing Team

Tony and Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, writer, and director BILLY CRYSTAL (Charlie Burnz / Director / Co-writer / Producer) is known to audiences around the world as the star of such feature films as When Harry Met Sally…, City Slickers, and Analyze This; as a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”; and as the acclaimed nine-time host of the Academy Awards®.

Crystal landed his first major television role in 1977 on the comedy series “Soap,” playing Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on TV. In 1984, he hosted “Saturday Night Live” and a few months later joined the regular cast. His best-known “SNL” creation was Fernando, an unctuous talk-show host whose tagline, “You look mahvelous!” entered the popular lexicon.

In 2017, he completed a 30-city North American tour, which garnered rave reviews in every market. The previous year, Crystal embarked on a hugely successful and critically acclaimed 13-day tour in six major cities of Australia and New Zealand.

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In 2015, Crystal made his return to series television opposite Josh Gad in the FX series “The Comedians.” Crystal portrayed a superstar veteran comedian who is reluctantly paired with Gad, an edgier up-and-coming star, in an unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at a late-night sketch comedy show where egos and generations collide.

Crystal’s many feature film credits include the buddy cop comedy Running Scared (1986), Rob Reiner’s comic fairy tale The Princess Bride (1987), and Danny DeVito’s dark comedy Throw Momma from the Train (1987). But his breakthrough role came in 1989 when he starred opposite Meg Ryan in Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, which became a romantic touchstone for a generation of moviegoers. Other iconic titles include Mr. Saturday Night (1992) and America’s Sweethearts (2001). He also starred opposite Bette Midler and Maria Tomei in the 2012 Christmas family comedy Parental Guidance, which he also produced. In addition, he is the voice of one-eyed Mike Wazowski in Disney•Pixar’s animated global blockbusters Monsters Inc. (2001)and its prequel Monsters University (2013). Crystal can most recently be seen starring in the friendship comedy Standing Up, Falling Down (2020) opposite Ben Schwartz.

As a director, Crystal was nominated for both an Emmy® and a Directors Guild Award for his direction of the 2001 HBO movie 61*, which told the dramatic story of the 1961 race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record.

In addition to hosting the Oscars®nine times—most recently in 2012—Crystal has also hosted the GRAMMY® Awards three times. His work as a host, writer, and producer on the televised awards shows has earned him 18 Emmy® nominations and five wins. Crystal won a sixth Emmy® for his 1989 HBO comedy special “Billy Crystal: Midnight Train to Moscow.” Other HBO specials include “On Location,” “A Comic’s Line,” and “Don’t Get Me Started.”

The recipient of the 2007 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Crystal has written five books, including Absolutely Mahvelous (1986) and 700 Sundays (2005), and two children’s books, I Already Know I Love You (2004) and Grandpa’s Little One (2006).

Crystal co-wrote, produced, and starred along Kevin Kline and Annette Bening in “Have a Nice Day,” a play that was recorded live at The Minetta Lane Theatre. It was released on Audible on November 2, 2018 and became an instant best-seller. In 2013, he wrote the New York Times best-selling memoir Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? Crystal offers his heartfelt and humorous observations on aging. The audiobook version debuted at number one on iTunes and was nominated for a Grammy Award for the Best Spoken Word Album and won the Audiobook of the Year at the 2014 Audies Gala.

Crystal made his Broadway debut in 2004 with the original production of his one-man show “700 Sundays,” for which he won a Tony Award. The Broadway production was taped in front of a live audience for an HBO special that aired in April of 2014, which garnered four Emmy® nominations and was released on DVD that fall. Next on the horizon, Crystal is developing a Broadway musical adaption of the 1992 classic film Mr. Saturday Night.

He lives in Los Angeles and New York with Janice, his wife of 50 years.

An original writer for “Saturday Night Live” and an Emmy® and Writers Guild Award winner Alan Zweibel (Co-writer / Inspired by the Short Story by / Producer) has established himself as one of the most iconic comedy writers in television for his work on such shows as “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” (which he co-created and produced), “The Late Show With David Letterman,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Zweibel’s critically acclaimed and bestselling cultural memoir Laugh Lines:My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnierwas recently released in paperback.

Zweibel has written eleven books, including the 2006 Thurber Prize-winning novel The Other Shulman, the popular children’s book Our Tree Named Steve, and A Field Guide to the Jewish People, which he co-wrote with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach.

A frequent guest on all of the late-night talk shows, Zweibel’s theatrical contributions include his collaboration with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award®-winning play “700 Sundays,” Martin Short’s Broadway hit “Fame Becomes Me,” and six off-Broadway plays, including “Bunny Bunny – Gilda Radner: A Sort of Romantic Comedy,” which he adapted from his bestselling book.

Zweibel’s humor has also appeared in such diverse publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Op-Ed page, The Huffington Post and MAD Magazine. He has also penned a bestselling ebook titled “From My Bottom Drawer.”

The co-writer of the screenplays for the films Dragnet, North, and The Story of Us, Zweibel has received an honorary Ph.D. from the State University of New York. Honoring the diversity of his body of work, in 2010 the Writers Guild of America, East bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to the talk shows, Zweibel has also appeared in episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Law & Order and has been featured in the documentaries The Last Laugh about humor and the Holocaust; Judd Apatow’s Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling on HBO; Gilbert, about the life of Gilbert Gottfried; and the Emmy®-nominated CNN documentary he executive produced with his wife Robin, titled Love, Gilda.