ANN ARBOR - "You're all film buffs, so you know Woody Allen. Well, this is my "Take the Money and Run and I hope in 10 years I'll be able to show you 'Annie Hall.'"
The lecturer, standing before a capacity crowd of students at the University of Michigan recently was comedienne (now film-maker) Joan Rivers. The occasion was a preview screening of "Rabbit Test," Rivers' debut as a director. Since the film's initial release next February will be in college towns, the idea was to see how college students would react to it. ("She's interested in your response in a question and answer period after the screening," said the posters.)
Visiting celebrities are now foreign to this campus Jerry Ford, accompanied by security guards, drops by to guest-teach a class now and then. Rivers, on the other hand is a star, by gum, so the (free) tickets moved fast.
"I heard she's really tiny. That's what somebody told me," said a coed elbowing her way to a seat in the third row about 20 minutes before the film began. "Are you gonna ask any questions?" said her friend. "I'm gonna ask how Edgar is," "are you serious?"
"Rabbit Test," written by Rivers and Jay Redack, tells of the tribulations of the world's first pregnant man and is billed as "an off-the-wall, hilarious, outrageous new movie guaranteed to insult everyone." Our hero, Lionel (Billy Crystal), who teaches a night school citizenship class to foreigners, is impregnated by a tart in the back room of a USO dance hall, and after being diagnosed by a crazy obstetrician (Paul Lynde), he takes refuge with a band of gypsies (headed by Imogene Coca).He also falls in love and is knighted by the Queen of England, who carries a snapshot of Nat King Cole in her purse.
Today's collegiates are difinitely into if zaniness, if this crowd's enthusiastic reaction is any test. And Rivers couldn't have been happier: "We've shown the movie four times in sneak previews," she told the audience after the screening, "and we found it divides agewise. I don't understand. People of a certain age group started to find it very offensive, and when we went through audience cards, everybody young loved it."
True, one young lady raised her hand to say she was "very insulted" by the movie. Said Rivers: "Then I'm very sorry. Tell me what insulted you." "Everything." Rivers: "Then, I'm very sorry and I'm glad you saw it for free." This interchange prompted a reply from another student: I just wanna say, I thought it was great." Loud cheering from much of the audience.
Many of the questions asked - how much improvision did you allow? How did you prepare for the film? How is it possible to make a feature film so cheaply ($977,000)? - centered on finances.
"You can do anything you want to do, if you don't go to a major studio," she said. "Major studios add a tremendous amoung of cost. Everybody has a big suite of offices. I wrote a script once for Bette Midler and the studio wanted to spend so damned much money on the offices and the script and the limousiness. Nobody can talk except over a lunch, you know what I mean? The movie became prohibitive.
"This film we did out of our garage. We had like a gardener's cottage. We edited at home. Everybody worked for scale. We sent them scripts and said, 'If you think it's funny pick a part.' My little girl is in it three times - different outfits and hairdos. We did it with no frills. I didn't have a secretary, I didn't have an assistant. And you always hear those stories about Cecil B. De Mille - people walking around carrying his chair behind him. Well, I carried my own damned chair."
Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenberg raised the money for the film themselves: "We had 216 dinners. Do you know what I sam saying? People in the shoe business, people who sell plastic, and you've got to talk with them like you really care. We'd have them over to the house for dinner, and we got so sophisticated that we would know after hors d'oeuvres whether we were getting the money or not."
Asked how she prepared for her first film, she said, "Film-making is very hard. Boy, you get in an editing room and if you haven't shot it, it's too late. I read every book on film-making there is and just did my homework and walked onto the set with an all-male crew." (Hisses from some females in the audience.) "Yeah, not next time but I had no choice. But, boy, you had to know what you're doing. The first time I said, 'Action,' and they obeyed, I went into shock."
Did she have trouble, somebody asked gaining the respect of the crew at the beginning? "Being a woman, I had trouble gaining respect the first day or two. I had a very macho crew; a lotta guys with tattoos that went hunting and killing. It took a lotta cursing the first couple of days. They'd think, 'She curses, she tougn.' After that it was fine."