BILGE EBIRI: THE NEW GUY IN COMEDY

What cinematic comic inspirations were you tapping into for the creation of New Guy?
All sorts, really. For some reason, whatever I write, I always feel like I’m writing a Buster Keaton comedy. I’m just a huge fan of deadpan silent humor, and for some reason, keep going back to it again and again when I write a script. This is all intuitive, though; I never mean for it to end up that way. I’m convinced that one day I’m going to sit down to write some searing World War Two epic and wind up with some elaborate 20 minute slapstick comic set piece in the middle of it.

That said, one of the biggest influences on New Guy (and anybody who sees it will recognize it) is Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” which is a great portrait of office life. My film is much more surreal and darker, I think, and “Office Space” has this breezy charm that suits it perfectly. But in the way that it focuses on little quotidian office details, and heightens their oppressiveness, I think “Office Space” was definitely an influence.

Another style of comedy that I have really enjoyed, ever since I was a kid, is the surrealism of Luis Bunuel. Of course, I’m convinced Banal himself was borrowing a lot from the silent comedians, but his ability to present totally incongruous elements in unlikely places and situations made quite an impact on me at a very young age (like 11 or 12 — I started young on Bunuel). And I love that notion of presenting strange elements when you’re least expecting it. There’s a scene in New Guy when a character is sitting in an office, waiting to speak to the boss, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a toy car — a gigantic toy car — drives by. We don’t see anybody controlling it. The boss barely acknowledges its presence. That struck me as a moment where I was channeling those early days and nights spent watching like “The Phantom of Liberty” or “The Milky Way,” and it’s definitely not the only one. In fact, the surrealism eventually pretty much completely overtakes New Guy.

In shooting the film, how much improvisation did you encourage and allow?
I like improvisation, to a certain extent. There were a couple of scenes where I specifically had characters improvise dialogue, and I even stated it in the script, and when I auditioned actors I had them improvise, on the spot. That said, I’m not crazy about *editing* scenes with improvisation. It’s a very hard thing to cut in the editing room, and I prefer that it be done in very controlled situations. I do like the idea of working through a scene with actors, improvising moments and gestures and dialogue in rehearsal, and then shooting it. But when you’re working on obscenely tight schedules and going at lightning speed, it’s incredibly hard to stop everything so you can “explore” the scene. That’s probably my biggest regret about the whole experience — not having more days to shoot. And improvisation is pretty much one of the first things to go when you’ve got no time.

That said, all comedy is, on some level, improv. Maybe you improvised it back when you were writing the script and suddenly came up with a great gag. Or maybe it’s just some silly thing that happened to the actor while you were rolling and decided to keep in. But the essence of comedy is its spontaneity. (That’s why timing is so important.)

From my own perspective, I find that a great deal of indie comedies are fairly unfunny. Come to think of it, so are a great many Hollywood comedies. Would you be in agreement on that? And if so, what do you think are the problems that keep the truly funny stuff out of movies today?
There are probably many reasons for it. In the case of Hollywood, the main reason is probably the lack of spontaneity. When you spend $60 million on a movie and spend 2 years making it, and have armies of lawyers and assistants all over the place, it’s hard to recapture the necessary energy, and even if you do, it’s damn near impossible to be consistent about it. It’s also probably a certain desire to please everybody. No good gag will appeal to everybody. You just have to be willing to put what you think is funny out there and hope that enough other people laugh at it. Comedy is the hardest thing to script, and it’s the hardest thing to plan and premeditate. And Hollywood movies are all about premeditation and planning. Which is ironic because they’re the ones with the resources to wing it — here we are bemoaning our tight schedules and our inability to improvise and try different things and be spontaneous, and the guys with the time and money to do so are out there killing all their spontaneity and trampling on any sense of discovery, because “too much is at stake”.

As for Indies, I think that very often indie films look down on funny. They like “quirky”; they like “oddball”; but just straight out goofy funny is something they’re not keen on. Mind you, this is more the case with Anted. When you get into no-budget weirdo movie zone, you can find some really funny stuff…not necessarily always intentionally, alas. I think the fact that comedy isn’t seen as a director’s medium is the reason you don’t see too many indie directors attempting it. How can you prove yourself if all you seem to be doing is sitting back and letting your actors take center stage (which is, of course, *not* all you’re doing, but try explaining that to some guy who wants to be the next Scarcest)? Think of “Dr. Strange love” — it’s one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest films, but when people think of it, they think of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott and Slim Pickens. Sure, they know it’s a Kubrick film, but it’s the actors that stand out. But it was the success of that film that allowed Kubrick to make “2001.” I’m sure Kubrick worked just as hard on “Dr. Strange love” as he did on “2001,” but it’s the latter film that people associate with directorial vision and Grand Statements. But “Dr. Strange love” is just as profound — if not more so. It just happens to also be hilarious.

That said, I don’t necessarily agree that there aren’t any good comedies out there. There aren’t *a lot*, and what there is can often be compromised by all sorts of other things. I actually think a guy like Adam Sandler is a very gifted comic; but the bigger he gets, the more extraneous stuff makes its way into his films. A similar thing might happen to Will Ferrell, who’s a comic genius but who has become such a big star that I worry what his next films will be like. There are some really great comic actors out there (Steve Harvey, Steve Zahn, and Ron Livingston come to mind), and I think that if they have the ability to work with strong directors who can collaborate closely with them, they’ll put out great work.

Get the rest of the interview in part four of BILGE EBIRI: THE NEW GUY IN COMEDY>>>




Posted on May 3, 2004 in Interviews by
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