“Comedy at its best is completely not shown.”
Paul Feig – creator of cult favorite Freaks and Geeks, writer/director of the new female-driven Ghostbusters and Spy movies, and director of Hollywood’s critical and box office darling Bridesmaids – caught up with Saturday Night Live veteran Michael Che at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in order to demystify the art of writing and directing comedy.
Our own Courtney Thérond was in attendance, and we’ve since synthesized, organized, and presented the best of the best insights that Feig shared during his Director’s Series panel.
If you’re curious about how to approach comedy and develop great characters, then we encourage you to mine Feig’s words of wisdom below!
I. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, Improvise.
Paul Feig got his start doing stand-up comedy and discussed how it has helped him in his career as a writer and director. “I put my movies together the exact same way I used to do my set,” he said. Like in stand-up, one of the most important things to ensure when shooting is to have enough material in case something doesn’t work in post. Being able to trade out material and have alternative joke options is essential to assembling the film in the editing room.
To that end, Feig likes to come to set prepared with alternative ideas and jokes for the shoot. The key, regardless of budget, is to be organized in order to have time to play. Just nailing the script isn’t going to cut it. The tighter the budget, the more organized you need to be in order to have options.
He relies heavily on test audiences throughout post, making sure to put cuts in front of an audience before he falls in love with any particular jokes. “The DGA gives you like 10 weeks to do your director’s cut before the studio gets to see it,” Feig shared. “So generally you just kind of spend 10 weeks finishing a cut of your movie. I’ve found over the years I can’t do that because if I sit with something for 10 weeks, I’m in love with every cut, every frame of it. I’ll try to get it in front of a test audience as soon as I can, usually 4 weeks in, so you’re not in love with it.” That way he can remove what doesn’t work and find which alternative takes are a better fit for the final product. Being too precious about the material compromises the film.
In order to have enough options, Feig likes to keep things fresh and make room for improv and “the lightning in a bottle aspect of comedy” on set. He holds a rehearsal a month or so before a shoot so that there’s still time to rewrite anything that doesn’t work in a reading. Overworking dialogue can flatten the energy of a scene, so he rolls from the first take.
II. Strong Characters -> Strong Story -> Strong Comedy
He also said, “I love to hire people who have relationships as their characters do on the screen… It’s so funny because they’re in the moment, so [there’s] just that chemistry and that energy.” That allows him to avoid the “expositional lines like, ‘Oh, I’ve known you for 20 years.’” On a related note, Feig does not announce when something “is funny”, instead trusting the audience and the actors to connect the dots themselves. “My favorite is always somebody who goes, ‘I’ve got the funniest story to tell you.’ Why would you ever do that?” Just tell the story.
Comedy needs to feel natural. When done right, it looks easy, and that’s one reason why it’s often overlooked by critics and awards. People don’t see how hard it is to do well. “Comedy at its best is completely not shown. I think the worst thing that can happen to a filmmaker is when they want to win awards because you start serving many different masters. Just try to make the best thing you do and if it comes, it comes.” Che posited that the real reward in comedy is making people laugh, anyway: “Even bigger than the Oscar, is making people laugh. “
Che asked Feig if there’s a difference writing comedy versus writing dramedy, but Feig said, “When you look at the story, I don’t face it any different way. I always say whenever I’m writing a comedy we’re basically writing a drama and we’re going to kind of bring the funny up. I find that you have to organically plot that way. You have to have a strong story. You have to have real stakes.”
In order to create a strong story, the audience needs to be invested in the characters. Feig had a great metaphor for why we need to care, especially in a comedy. He said, “One, you’re at a restaurant with all your friends you’ve known forever. You guys are just cracking each other up. You’re having the greatest time. Everybody’s making everyone laugh with personal stories. Scenario number two. You’re seated at the table next to those people and you’re by yourself and you’re just like, ‘What the fuck? Who are these people? So not funny. That story’s not funny. These people are so obnoxious.’ It’s because you have no investment in those people, so what you have to do out of the gate is you have to make the audience be best friends with the characters in your movie.”
If the audience cares about the characters, then they’re worried about them and the story needs to raise the stakes, because being worried is part of what makes the comedy stronger. A comedy doesn’t work when it’s only jokes. “I need a story to propel me forward and I need a story so I care about the characters.”
III. Trust the Material and Your Collaborators
Che asked Feig about being known for writing strong female leads and whether it’s different than writing for men. Feig said, “I’m never so bold as to say, ‘Oh, I know how to write women.’ I feel more comfortable writing women but I don’t ever say I can write the perfect woman’s part.” He relies on women in his life for feedback on the scripts. Once the project is in the pre-production stage, he allows the actresses to play with the characters.
It goes back to working with talented people. The lack of good roles for women is what inspired Feig to create more. “Women just had such terrible roles… [There are] just all these funny women and not enough roles for them.”
Che asked about the backlash from Ghostbusters and Feig said that as a people pleaser, that was hard to deal with. “Before Ghostbusters I had this really lovely relationship with the Internet.” To which Che pointed out how bizarre the argument is: “It’s a movie about ghostbusters. Okay, it’s four women fighting ghosts. Women? That’s not realistic. They’re fighting ghosts. It’s just bizarre.”
Despite some of the anger about recasting Ghostbusters as women, Feig said he’s learned to ignore the noise and focus on making the best movie possible. “Honestly, you go into it so pure of spirit. We’re just so excited and just wanted to make everyone happy.”
Feig’s parting words of wisdom were to trust the material and to trust your collaborators. “We as creators have something in our head that we see, something that we write. To us that’s the perfect thing and then as you start to do it however, if you’re making a film, and you’re compromising and people won’t do this and that and things just aren’t working out and you’re going, ‘Oh God. It’s getting compromised. It’s getting compromised. It’s getting worse. It’s getting worse. It should have been so great.’ I just have to force myself to remember that nobody knew what was in my head. Nobody saw what I saw. Because of that you just have to take what’s there and try to make it as best as you can, have to make it as close to that vision as you can. Sometimes I found I’m hanging onto a vision that’s over here and I’ve got all these amazingly talented people over here and it’s going this direction because that’s the direction it should be going. And to get in the way of that is just ridiculous.”
And if you think comedy is easy, “Just go to any stand-up open mic night and see how hard it is for people to be truly funny.” It’s a great exercise for any aspiring comedy writer or director!
Michael Koehler, with
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