What do you view as the essential ingredients for a successful comedy film?
The comedy I like almost always involves actors playing off other actors. I believe the best kind of comedy is not self-aware. I always thought people like the Coen Brothers and Monty Python were, in a way, the future of comedy. At times they were very subtle but not afraid to stoop to dick and fart jokes. Though I think, especially in the case of the Coen Brothers films, their characters are almost never in on the joke. Much like a comic whom laughs too much at his own routine, I believe that putting too much emphasis on comedy or obviousness of a punch line ruins comedy.
Sometimes the jokes I thought would be the funniest in my films were awful. So we cut them out. I believe you can never be afraid to cut out what is most precious to you. For filmmakers it’s hard to “Kill the baby,” a phrase my fellow filmmaker and friend Mike Mongillo (“The Wind”) uses. Meaning it may be the best thing you ever wrote but if it doesn’t work on film it needs to go. It’s hard to see clearly by yourself, so luckily my partners Mike Aransky and Phil Guerette are there to filter out the crap.
I think that a decent story line is pretty important in comedy. Simplicity is always good as you can be freed to concentrate on comedic moments. But I guess my view of comedy is twisted. When I watched The Shawshank Redemption I laughed several times; sure I know it’s a serious film, but comedy works very effectively sandwiched between dramatic situations and I think that, similar to drama, if you don’t buy into a situation truly good comedy won’t exist.
How much improvising do you allow in your films?
We had some improv in our films. I think some people assume that if moments are created or something extra happens during the film process that it’s improv. Putting a script to film is constant improv. Ninety percent of the time scenes won’t be how you imagined them, but it is what indie filmmakers get used to. Did we improve dialogue? Yeah, in a few scenes.
But improv can derail the plot lines, confuse characters, and make the film long winded. I think dialogue needs to be adapted by the person who’s playing the role. Changing words, using different phrases and making improvements is important to take the stiffness out of it all. If that can be counted as improv, I am totally into it.
In collaborating with Philip Guerette and Mike Aransky, how much give-and-take goes into preparing the scripts? And who ultimately decides what is funny and what is not? And how many drafts of the scripts do you create before the film is finished?
The scripts come very slow. I write down ideas on scraps of paper until I get a few hundred or so, and all the while I try to piece together the plot in my head. Then I write over about a six-month period until I get a first draft. I show it to Mike and Phil. Mostly they concentrate on what they don’t like about it. I have five or so other people look over it. I leave it alone for a month. Then I tear it apart and re-write it over and over. I’ve done five drafts of my last script and we will still tweak it during rehearsal. Ultimately Phil and Mike decide what’s not funny in scripts. What ruins comedy are bad jokes, lines or skits and they can spot those quickly. So they’re good editors in that sense. We do have an equal share in what stays and goes, but since I create nearly all of it, I guess you could say I determine what the script will be and they determine what it won’t be. We’re all pretty reasonable though.
You’ve worked with a lot of new actors in your films, many making their film debuts. How do you determine who is right for the comic parts in your films?
Some of the actors from our films were our friends and they understood our sense of humor. We shy away from those whom don’t get the material even if they are solid actors. This I think is very important. Especially in inexperienced actors we look for personalities that match the characters; it’s a way to secure consistent performances. With experienced actors we tell them what we want then we just let them go. A good actor knows the character and probably works best when left alone. I feel my job is to tell them about the character and what’s happening to them, not how to speak a certain line.
Get the rest of the interview in part three of THOMAS EDWARD SEYMOUR: LAUGH, DAMN IT, LAUGH!>>>
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