“Little Fockers,” the third in the franchise about a Jewish nurse (Ben Stiller) with a formidable non-Jewish father-in-law (Robert De Niro) opens Dec. 22, again starring Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as Gaylord “Greg” Focker’s over-the-top parents. The reviews so far have been less-than-stellar, but the franchise—which began with “Meet the Parents” in 2000, followed by “Meet the Fockers” (2004)—has struck a chord with viewers if not always critics, earning around a billion dollars worldwide. Here are excerpts from conversations with some of the artists behind the series.
John Hamburg, a screenwriter on all three films:
JJ: What was the premise for this movie?
JH: It’s been five or six years since we last saw Greg Focker, and now he has more responsibility; he has twin children, and he is struggling with being a good father and provider. Robert De Niro’s character, Jack Byrnes, the ex-CIA agent, is also getting older and feeling his mortality, having had a heart attack, which causes him to think about his “successor” in the family. And that led us to the concept of “ The Godfocker” – the successor to Jack’s “throne” or this throne he thinks he’s created—which gave us the spine of the story.
JJ: You’ve said you’ve used some of your own family dynamics in these films. How do Greg’s parents, Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) remind you of your own parents?
JH: I’m Jewish, obviously, and at my family’s Passover seders or when we get together for break-the-fast, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. There’s a lot of talking; people get into fights over minor things, but there’s a lot of love behind all of it—which I think every culture shares, by the way. It’s just maybe sometimes Jews wear that on their sleeve a little bit more.
JJ: What about the embarrassment factor between the Focker son and parents?
JH: Roz Focker has a sex [advice] television program, and she tells stories about her son on the show. And my mom has had a radio talk show in New York for more than 30 years, “The Joan Hamburg Show.” She doesn’t talk about sex, so she’s not Roz Focker. But she does use her family as sort of characters on the show. So I grew up with my mom using part of our lives publicly, and then I’ve spent my entire career getting back at her by putting all these things into the movies I’ve done.
JJ: What kind of stories has your mother told about you?
JH: On her show she’s been pretty discreet about me, but the one thing I got a lot of feedback on was, she told the story of how when I was a kid, I had lice, and I had such thick, curly hair that we couldn’t get them out. So we went to a barber and just had him basically shave my head which, when you’re a kid growing up in the ‘80s, nobody had shaved heads. And then I’d run into people and they’d go, “Hey, we heard about your head lice!”
JJ: In “Meet the Fockers,” Greg’s parents have constructed a kind of altar to their son they call the “Wall of Gaylord.”
JH: It’s all very loving, but I remember my parents framed the vest that I wore during my bar mitzvah. I wore a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit, and a few years later, my mom had it framed, so you see this little pin striped vest, and you know, that’s not going to go for a lot of money on ebay. But they obviously thought it was worthy of framing. That idea is reflected in the “Wall of Gaylord,” which includes Greg’s ninth place ribbon for something or another.
JJ: In the new film, Robert De Niro’s character is obsessed with geneology.
JH: One of my favorite moments is when Jack says to Greg, “I’ve traced my family back to 1643. I couldn’t do that with your family, what with all those wandering peddlers and nameless peasants.”
JJ: And when the extended family celebrates “Christmakah,” Roz and Bernie surprise Jack with a yarmulke and their own geneology research.
JH: SPOILER ALERT: We had this idea that they trace his lineage all the way back and discover he’s one-twenty-third Jewish, which just seemed like a very funny idea to us. Jack is not anti-Semitic; he always ultimately embraces the Fockers, but there is a kind of discomfort with just the fact that they are different from him, no matter what the ethnicity.
JJ: Why do you think Ben Stiller has become such a comic icon?
JH: Ben has this incredible relateability and an incredible ability to allow the audience to feel his pain. Or his joy and his triumphs. But usually in our comedies, it’s a lot of pain.
Jane Rosenthal, producer, all three films
On why the franchise has been so successful: The characters are relateable because they are going through things that are universal. You go home to meet your girlfriend’s parents; then they go and meet your parents, and then you’re trying to put two sets of families in one room. Much of everything we’ve done in all three of these movies is based on our own stories. We’ve all brought a little bit to the table.
Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”), director, “Little Fockers”
On how he relates to the characters: My father-in-law is very mellow, but when I had to meet my wife’s family for the first time 11 years ago, there were seven older brothers who at various times had intimidated or physically threatened various boyfriends she had brought home. For some reason, I got along well with all of them. They were all there, and we immediately played a game of tackle football.
SPOILER ALERT: On how Robert De Niro’s character accepts his Jewish ancestry: I think he takes that as a compliment – at the same time he’s not accepting it.
You can read more about the franchise in our feature on Jay Roach, who directed the first two films and served as a producer on the third.