I was kindly invited to Etan Cohen's "Master Class" at the JFL, presented by the CFC and the Greenberg Fund. Etan Cohen, of course, is the screenwriter of, among other things, TROPIC THUNDER (with Ben Stiller), MEN IN BLACK 3, and a whole slew of BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD episodes.
A few random takeaways from Etan's conversation with critic Richard Crouse:
- Etan sold his first script to Beavis & Butthead while he was at the Harvard Lampoon. So, if possible, go to Harvard and get on the Lampoon.
- The Lampoon's style, Etan says, is sort of "anti-humor." If someone's laughing, you've sold out. He says that putting Robert Downey, Jr.'s character in blackface in TROPIC THUNDER was sort of the "platonically perfectly offensive" concept that the Lampoon would have appreciated; it came out of the question, "What is the most deeply wrong thing someone could do to win an Oscar"?
- It's a lot of fun to write with the actual actors in mind. If you don't have actors already cast, consider writing for someone in particular anyway. [As I've noted elsewhere recently
, this is dangerous if your lines don't read as distinctively as they would if the actor were reading them. Make sure you've really recreated the voice of Will Smith, etc.]
- When there are a lot of stakeholders (as there are with a big budget movie like MIB3), check in with all of them to make sure they're all on board with the movie you're writing. Otherwise you'll wind up having to do it all over again.
[On smaller budget movies, I think you have two choices, I think. Either write for the person who hired you, so they'll hire you again; or write for the director. On most movies, the director is going to keep developing the script until he likes it. If you want to be the last guy writing, and you do, then make the director happy.]
- On MIB3, he was working from 6 am to 4 am some days. He did not explain how this is possible without really good vitamins.
- They had a writing room on MIB3, 'cause it's much harder to write comedy solo. "It helps to have someone laughing."
- On MIB3, he watched a lot of Clint Eastwood movies as inspiration. On a movie like MIB3 or TROPIC THUNDER, the plot is a straight procedural. The comedy comes out of the main characters' reactions to the awkward situations. Everyone else is playing it straight.
- The hardest part of writing MIB3 was the middle. They had the ending and the beginning all along. They wound up taking a three month hiatus while the middle part was reworked -- re-engineered, in fact, from the ending.
Tragically, he did not have an opportunity to explain how he came to be a Yiddish major, and how that could have influenced his comedy stylings.