Saturday at this year's AFF kicked off with the hangover from hell for pretty much everyone and - thankfully - a panel on improv comedy. I've been doing courses in L.A. on both improv and comedy sketch writing, so this session was right up my street.
The panel members were (Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and creator of Freaks and Geeks), TV and film comedy writer Jeff Lowell, writer/comedian Dan French and producer Kent Alterman.
Paul Feig admitted that he likes to cast actors from an improv background, maintaining that the difference between those who can improvise and those who can't can be like night and day. Most of the cast in Bridesmaids were improv vets, leading to a lot of cross-shooting so that all the off-the-cuff stuff could be captured. You have to have the confidence (as director) to roll with the material that comes up in the rehearsal room.
However - the panel agreed that the movie has to work even if none of the cast are comfortable improvising. It's just the icing on the cake.
As to "what is improv really about?", they agreed that it was not about being the funniest person in the room, but about finding the truth in the comedy. And this means trusting your fellow improvisers.
Jeff Powell made an important point, which is that there must be some structure. You can't just arrive on a set and plan to improvise something in a vague way. For example, there's no script on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But they have a detailed outline to base the comedy on. Without a plan, your cast and your story will descend into chaos.
If you're writing for people who are not actors (or who aren't GOOD actors), find out where their natural strengths are and concentrate on those. Temper the script to them.
In terms of improv techniques for writers, ask yourself, "If this is true for my character, what else is true?". Heighten their situation as much as you can. See if you can find what the most insane thing is that could happen next.
Another tip - and I've already found this to be true in sketch writing - is be specific in improv. Don't say hot sauce, make it Chipotle hot sauce (or some other particular brand). And don't be afraid of using words that "sound" funny to enhance your comedy. People really react to these.
Paul Feig admitted that using improv had really freed him up. He said he used to be a writer who went crazy when someone wanted to change his scripts, but now he was much more relaxed about it. Also a piece of gossip - he's cast internet star Spoken Reasons in his new movie The Heat (which looks BRILLIANT btw)...
The other panel I found really useful on Saturday was "Heroes and Villains", with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses), Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married) and Paul Feig again. That guy got around!
Here was some of their chat on what makes good heroes and villains. I should say that this was a really great session, partly because Jenny Lumet in particular is whip-smart and super well-informed. She knows her Shakespeare, Milton etc. so she was able to talk about even unlikely characters like Tony Montana in relation to them!
Underdogs are great. Paul Feig said he loved The Avengers but couldn't relate to the characters because they're all uber-heroes. Jenny Lumet said she likes people who have convinced themselves that they are telling the truth, who may be at their least heroic. Aline McKenna's opinion was that Bridesmaids made it okay for female characters to be flawed. Kristen Wiig's character is a loser who continues to make bad choices throughout the story, yet she's the heroine!
On the other hand, what if the story had been told from Melissa McCarthy's point of view? It's often worth taking your secondary characters and trying to imagine how they would see the story.
Lumet - The Godfather is full of anti-heroes. And Hercules - the original Greek myth is much better, because he's doing all his trials to atone for horrible crimes he's committed.
Feig - As George Bernard Shaw said, "All men mean well". Even someone like Tony Montana in Scarface has an initially laudable goal, to live the American dream.
Lumet - What if Juliet did not kill herself after she finds Romeo dead? Would this change how we view her? And are we closer to Iago than Othello, because we understand his impulses, what drives him? Tony Montana wants what he sees on TV. And so do we, so we know why he makes the choices he does. It's great to watch this character grow from a small boy and embark on this journey that's ultimately going to lead to his downfall.
McKenna - In the Seventies, it was de-rigeur to have an anti-hero main character, even in pretty pedestrian movies. Whereas in later movies like Pretty Woman, they try to sugarcoat as much as possible that she's a hooker! Now, it's starting to come back around, especially on TV where you have great anti-hero leads on shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
McKenna - Miranda Priestly (Streep's character in Devil Wears Prada) is genuinely perplexed about why other people are "so incompetent". She feels besieged. Like, she's excellent at what she does, so why can't everyone else be, too? The fact that she doesn't see herself as a bad guy means that she never becomes a cartoony villain.
Feig - Similarly, in Bridesmaids Rose Byrne's character is operating from the best place. She's trying to save her friend's wedding from this crazy head bridesmaid!
Lumet - Your bad guy should see himself as a hero. That's what makes a great villain. With a movie like Scarface, Tony Montana IS his own antagonist. Sure, he has outside forces attacking him, but it's mainly him. By the end of the movie, he's achieved what he wanted, but at what cost?
So basically - have a flawed hero and make sure your villain sees themselves as the one in the right! (The latter point in particular makes huge sense to me, and I'll be using it in each and every script from now on...)
That was Saturday in terms of panels. There were more parties to go to, more people to talk to and more beer with my name on it.
Every time I go to AFF, I'm struck by how many clever, witty and creative people are beavering away all over the world, all the time, working on scripts that may never get made, specs that might never get sold. As someone said, it's like training to be a doctor, with no expectation that you'll ever be able to practice.
But once a year, the writer is king - and that's what makes Austin THE go-to festival. I was talking to another writer at one point and asked him what sort of stuff he writes. He listed off a bunch of movies - at which stage I realised that I was talking not to another rookie writer, but to the guy behind Red, Battleship and Whiteout. You have to be careful at this festival!
Back tomorrow with a round-up of Sunday....