Emmy award-winning producer/director Phil Rosenthal is the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the best loved and most successful sitcoms in television history. The show ran for nine seasons, won numerous awards, and lives on today in syndication. It’s no wonder the Russians wanted to create their own version of this American television classic.
When Rosenthal was asked to travel to Russia to advise its people how best to adapt his show to their culture, he never anticipated the challenges he would face. In Exporting Raymond, his film documenting the experience, we are given a first hand look at how how difficult translating certain truths to another culture can be. I recently spoke with Rosenthal on the challenges and rewards of exporting Everybody Loves Raymond to the Russians. He had flown in to New York from Los Angeles the night before and was not overjoyed with the weather. “It’s freezing,” he said. “It’s like Russia cold.”
What inspired you to make the documentary?
It was actually the president of Sony’s idea. His name is Michael Lynton. He called me up to his office and told me that Sony actually [introduced] the sitcom in Russia. They never had sitcoms before. Sony brought that show The Nanny over there. They translated The Nanny and it became a big success. Then they started doing other shows. But he said that they do things so differently. How would I like to go over there and observe how they work with the Russians and then come back and write a feature fictional comedy movie about a creator of a show who goes to Russia to have his show translated? He thought that would make a good comedy.
And I said, “Well, it might but if this situation really exists and the people you’re telling me about really exist, why not just bring a camera crew over there and film what would really happen?” He said, “Oh, I love that idea. Could you be the guy?” And like an idiot I said yes! Then I had to go and do my show.
You and the Russians were not on the same page, initially.
That’s right. From the very first meeting.
Had the show been adapted by other countries before this?
No, this was the first time. Now Poland wants it. Poland’s doing it. Israel is doing it. Egypt has it. The Netherlands has it. They want to do it in England, in India. They’re telling me that Raymond may be, probably will be, the most produced show in the world. It’s crazy.
Everybody Loves Raymond is a show based on certain truths of everyday life but those truths are different all over the world.
Well, here’s the thing. There are certain specifics that are different, meaning how we dress, what we like to eat. But we always maintain, and this is kind of the point of the movie, it’s nothing new to say that I think we’re all the same. I think if we’re married, we have a relationship with our significant other. If we have a brother or sister, there’s a sibling relationship. You might have a sibling rivalry that could be relateable to people. And certainly if we’re alive we all have had parents.
So we like to think even though we were very specific in our relationships, just the fact that not everything was sweet and nice all the time would get a reaction from people who had similar circumstances at home, meaning they didn’t always get along with their parents or maybe the mother was a little overbearing or too over protective or favored one son over the other. Maybe Dad just wanted to be left alone. Everybody has different type of parents, even in America. But there are certain truths you relate to because even if it’s not your exact circumstance, you can relate to it because it seems believable to you.
The documentary was funny enough where it could have been a sitcom. Were any of the people in the film actors brought in to enhance the story?
That’s a great question. Believe it or not, every single moment of that movie is 100 percent real. Everything is as it happened. We didn’t change anything. In fact, I brought two cameras with me so we wouldn’t have to redo a scene. In other words, if we filmed something we had the coverage already so that we wouldn’t have to go back and re-film it and therefore create it artificially. I think I have 800 hours of footage.
I thought for sure the Russian family was made up of actors.
Oh, no. Not at all. The scene where we drank a lot of vodka?
Yeah, where you talked over Skype to your parents?
You thought they were fake? That’s hilarious. No they’re my real parents. That’s really what happened. You get lucky, you know? First of all, I’m lucky to have them as parents. They were always very supportive and wonderful. Also, I got so much material out of them. From the TV show and then to see them on camera. Who knew that they were brilliant comedy performers?
You seem very much like the Ray Barone character.
Yes. Watching you on the documentary, definitely. Your mannerisms and speech. It seems you took from what you knew.
Exactly right. It also helped that both Ray [Romano] and I were from Queens, New York. So we speak the same language. I don’t know why. We come from the same town and there are similarities. It’s in the water. So I guess we were somewhat similar. We had very different upbringings yet we spent so much time together that we kind of rubbed off on each other.
Did you foresee that the process of making this documentary would be as challenging as it turned out to be?
Yes, it was definitely challenging. What you see is what you get. It was as it is. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea that at the very first meeting that the costume lady would raise her hand and say, “I think the show should be used to teach the Russian population about fashion.”
I thought that was funny.
Yeah, I thought it was funny too. I thought it was odd and yet I didn’t say anything, really. I questioned it but I didn’t say, “No we’re doing it my way,” because I was in a foreign country and I thought well, maybe in Russia the costume lady gets to say what the show should be. Then later, when we got a new costume lady, she was completely different, completely understanding that the costumes serve the scenes of the show. This is supposed to be a middle class family who wear middle class clothes. Debra [Raymond’s wife] is not going to be vacuuming in evening clothes.
Did the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond see the Russian version of the show?
They did and they saw Exporting Raymond too and nobody laughed harder than they did because of how I was suffering. Here, because I created the show and I ran the show, I was the boss. I had 150 people working [for me] and what I said was the last word. The cast was surprised to find that that wasn’t necessarily the case in a foreign country. Especially since they invited me over there for my advice on how to make the show.
It was culture shock, wasn’t it?
Yeah, culture shock but also you have to be open and willing to listen to other people, as well. Even if they seem very different of even the opposite of all your beliefs.
How long did the film take to complete?
I was there for a month and then the production shut down. I came back ten months later for another month. So it was over the course of almost a year but filming was two months.
Did you ever feel frustrated enough to tell the Russians to run with it and that you were going home?
Yeah, you know I thought about that. I thought about just going home. But then I thought I wouldn’t learn anything. I learned a lesson there. I thought maybe I should just stick with it, suffer through it and see if maybe something good could come of it. I don’t want to give away the end of the movie but I certainly learned a lot.
Exporting Raymond premiered on HBO on February 16 and will air at various times throughout the month. Check the HBO website for details.