Should burgeoning directors and writers chase Bridesmaids? This was one of several topics broached at Saturday’s Directors Guild panel “Make ‘Em Laugh: Game Changing Comedy Direction” featuring host Shawn Levy and laugh-meisters Garry Marshall, Rob Reiner and Amy Heckerling, who regaled the crowd with their cinematic bag of gags. Anthony D’Alessandro was there:
As comedy tastes have ebbed and flowed in Hollywood, with the latest penchant being raunchy female fare, these trendsetters have stuck to their sense of humor throughout the years: Heckering continues to make young-adult comedies (her latest is the vampire knock-up Vamps), Reiner prefers projects for the 50+ crowd (next year’s Summer at Dog Dave’s) while Marshall still cashes in on pretty people romantic comedies for the masses (this December’s New Year’s Eve and last year’s Valentine’s Day which grossed $217 million worldwide).
“If you believe in it (your comedy script) and you’re passionate about it, stay with it. You can’t figure out what others (studios) want to make,” advised Reiner on whether filmmakers should ride the current R-rated comedy bandwagon. Reiner recalled a time during the ’80s, when a Paramount studio exec sincerely goaded him to pitch his dream project; that she seemed truly interested in producing the types of movies he wanted to direct. “I told them I wanted to make The Princess Bride, and she answered ‘Oh, well, not that!’”
Reiner pointed out that he makes “character movies. Studios aren’t interested in those. They want explosions and special effects.” After turning 60, it was important for him as a filmmaker to focus on those life issues he was facing, hence his switch from provocative dramas like A Few Good Men ($141.3 million domestic B.O.) to such geriatric fare as The Bucket List ($93.5 million) and Flipped ($1.8 million). As a result, his budgets shrank, leaving no room for rehearsal time with his actors; a luxury he afforded on Stand by Me. “If you cast it right with professional actors like Morgan Freeman, you don’t have to worry about rehearsal,” said Reiner.
Heckerling, who weathered both indie and studio dilemmas with her Michelle Pfeiffer-Paul Rudd romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, believes that prospective screenwriters and directors should be open to the types of comedies development executives and agents are requesting.
“As a female, sometimes it’s a little harder and the studios aren’t going to let you go around and do what you want,” said the Fast Times at Ridgemont High director who was put off by the town’s predilection for revenge comedies during the ’80s, “The first script I wrote and the studios dropped was a comedy about two women. I was passionate and at a certain point I said to myself, ‘What good is being passionate in a crappy apartment in Hollywood?’ You want to get in the f***ing game so figure out what they’re doing and make it work for you.”
A domestic distributor hasn’t been announced yet for Heckerling’s Vamps, however Graham King’s Parlay Films has been handling foreign sales rights.
“It’s a give and take business,” said Marshall, “After I did Pretty Woman, I could do whatever I wanted for three pictures. Francis Ford Coppola once said, ‘If you make one big hit, you get four more tries.’ 15 years later, when asked the same question, he said ‘You get 10 more tries.’ You have to adjust (to the current comedy vogue), but if you’re miserable, it’s not a good way to direct.”
Levy and Marshall pointed out that the whole craze for R-rated comedies, which have made $1.4 billion alone this summer, is part of an evolution for the genre. “In The Hangover, they’re doing the Three Stooges, but they make one of them a dentist instead of a schmuck,” observed Marshall, “You can’t just have all funny, you need warmth so that they (moviegoers) talk about it in the lobby.”
All of them welcomed the input of test screenings as a vital time to learn whether their jokes fly onscreen. Marshall explained that his sister Penny isn’t allowed to attend her own test screenings anymore after revealing herself to an audience member: “A lady (after watching one of Penny’s films) repeatedly said ‘I didn’t get they were in Pittsburgh.’ Penny shouted at her ‘Three times we said they were in Pittsburgh!’”
Having launched such marquee talent as Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Rudd, Heckerling chalked her discoveries up to “sometimes you stick your foot in the river, and they’re there.” For Reiner, it’s about having a solid relationship with casting directors like Jane Jenkins who knows how to read his mind. On witnessing 13-year old River Phoenix’s early chops, Reiner exclaimed, “I felt it when he walked into the room.” For Marshall, he credits talent reps for passionately pushing their clients. When Julia Roberts auditioned for Pretty Woman, Marshall wasn’t immediately blown away until he later put her into a screened improv session with Charles Grodin, where she “stood toe to toe with him.”
Above all, a big component of a comedy director’s job is “sucking up to the star,” quipped Marshall. “Actors have their own troubles.”
“Always let them think they came up with the idea. With Jackie Gleason (on 1986’s Nothing in Common), I was giving him a direction and said, ‘Well you lost your job. Remember those pens you had? You’re on a boat. What would you do with them?’ Jackie responded, ‘Well I could throw them overboard.’ And I exclaimed excitingly ‘What a good idea! Throw them overboard!’ Jackie then asked ‘What good idea am I going to get tomorrow?’”