Kristine Kazias at the CFC was kind enough to invite me to Paul Feig's master class at the Just For Laughs Comedy Conference yesterday. Paul Feig created FREAKS AND GEEKS and directed BRIDESMAIDS, among other things, so I suppose he knows a thing or two about comedy. Some of the points I found most interesting:
He doesn't try to finish a script before casting. "We get the moves down," then they cast. He feels you can't really write a character until you know who's going to play them. Also, "if someone comes in and is brilliant, but wrong for the part, we change the part." (Note: he almost always says "we.")
He writes audition sides. For many parts, there may not be enough lines to really give them something to audition with. So he writes a scene where the character gets a few meaty speeches. Then he gives an "adjustment" to see what the actor does with direction. And then he has someone run an improv with the actor.
He thinks joke comedy is old hat. He likes "behavioral" comedy. People are used to seeing real people be ridiculous onscreen from reality TV and YouTube. So when you get 8 year olds talking like 40 year olds, it's alienating. Comedy should come from the character and the situation, not the line. This is a constant battle with studio execs, who complain that his scripts don't read funny. And it's a battle with writers, who like to write lines that read funny, especially when they're going to be read by 8 year olds.
He likes to let actors improv on set. That means he cross shoots -- he has cameras on both actors -- otherwise it's too hard to cut together. He'll get the take he wants, and then tell them to "take a take" and do what they want. (Obviously this is easier on a 40 day schedule than a 15 day one.)
He warns that sometimes people audition well in the room, but don't look good on screen, while other times an actor doesn't read well in the room, but "the camera makes sense of their face."
He suggests keeping a comedy script as simple as possible -- "just enough story to keep it going forward." If people get confused, they stop laughing. That's why "I don't understand this" is almost always a valid note, while "I would have done this differently" almost never is.
On BRIDESMAIDS, they did 8 screenings. They'll do a "p" or polished screening -- their best cut. They'll also do an "e" or experimental screening, where they try stuff out. Sometimes there's stuff that doesn't seem like it will work that absolutely "destroys" in front of an audience. The see the movie in terms of "pods." They mix and match various cuts of the pods to see what works best overall.
They always sit in front at screenings, so they can hear the laughter clearly. They also record the screening, so they can sync it up and watch it in the edit room. That way you don't have to remember what worked and what didn't. You can hear it in the editing room.
He says even a comedy has to come out of your own experience. Otherwise you just recycle other movies. "You fail when you chase" the audience. You don't want to try to be commercial as such: "Commercial means people want to see it."
Pretty fun stuff -- all in just an hour. Thanks for organizing this, Kathryn Emslie and her fearless CFC crew!