As a kid, when I started making my own films, I dabbled strictly in comedy. My theory was that, at my age and with my resources, anything I did was going to come out funny anyway, so I might as well do it on purpose. I used to be proud of having such a self-aware notion at such an early age, but eventually realized I chose this particular course of action cause I was scared to get made fun of and it probably stunted my artistic growth. So I worked hard for many years at being funny. It doesn’t take a lot to make your mom and dad laugh at a video of you acting like a buffoon and, in retrospect, I probably should have tried playing tougher crowds.
My comic genius was on display in my many short films. It’s funny cause it looks like peeing.
But by the time Dennis and I decided to tackle our very first serious short, The Projection Booth, we really felt pretty secure about our ability to be funny. However, dealing with all the seriousness, suspense, scariness and characters with emotions of this new project was naturally a little bit daunting. We tried to infuse the script with what little humor we felt we could sneak into such a dark story without making it undark, secretly hoping that if our scariness sucked we might win people over with a handful of sporadic Jokes. We may not know how to do scary, suspense – we may not even know how to do emotions – but Dear God, we know Jokes.
But as we started shooting, we began to notice our jokes never quite worked. Now, I’m not a very educated man, and most of what I know doesn’t come from schooling and book-learning, but I think the technical term for what we experienced with our The Projection Booth Jokes is “they totally sucked.” At the time, we thought the culprit was our inexperienced cast and crew and the fact that the story was so dark, it didn’t want no jokes.
So, when we decided on doing The Legend of Grassman, our agreement was to do something scary, but much lighter, with jokes whizzing about every which way. “What a relief,” I thought, “Scary and suspenseful is hard to do, but Jokesmithing runs in our blood! What a raucous good time we will have!”
We got the whole cast together for a read-through and we were thrilled at the laughter that was coming from everyone in all the spots where we wanted laughter. I remember this one scene in particular where Kyle the half-assed not quite with-it expedition leader (played by Stephan Meyer) hands out walkie-talkies to the group of Bigfoot researchers, and in a very Barney Fife-esque manner, explains the proper protocol for radio usage and admits that he’s a little nervous that they don’t have the proper FCC license. So Catch the Bigfoot skeptic who got dragged along (played by Dennis) starts making fun of him about it, and then that carries over unexpectedly into the next scene. (Audience: OMG! He’s still making fun of him?!!! LOL!!!). In the business, we call that funny banter.
And it was a true story. It happened to Dennis on a trip to West Virginia with some friends who apparently really uptight about walkie-talkie usage. Ripped from life. We like that. We like to make personal films here. Still, we were a little worried that it wouldn’t come off, since none of our banter on The Projection Booth worked. But when at the read-through, when we got to that scene, uproarious laughter appeared. Did someone say Jokesmithing? This gave us a lot of confidence going into the shoot, which was cool cause the shoot itself didn’t go well.
But what fun we had that day!
It rained on us. At first, we just pretended it wasn’t raining on us and continued with the scene, until it became so obvious that it was raining on us that we gave up. I’d have liked the scene to take place in the rain, because William Wellman and Akira Kurosawa do rain scenes and it makes things look cool for some reason. I don’t know why – rain isn’t particularly exciting in real life, but watch the Seven Samurai and tell me Samurai don’t look more badass fighting in the rain than they do in no precipitation. Anyway, we couldn’t do that for story reasons. (Later, I attempted to shoot a different scene in the rain to get that badass Samurai look, but nature refused.)
You can even die with your ass hanging out and you will STILL look badass.
The result of this is that the scene had to be shot in tiny bits over the course of several different days. And, as it is with any shoestring budget film, we couldn’t get whole cast together all the time, so an actor would be often be doing the scene with no one playing opposite.
Additionally, I was trying out a new way of shooting. The Rodriguez says, “Figure out what shots you need to make the scene work and only do those. Don’t waste your time going through the scene over and over from different angles. You have no money. You ain’t got time for that shit.” I’m paraphrasing.
Over the course of the production, I alternated between this style and shooting the full scene from different angles, depending on what I thought was best for the scene and the actors in the scene (as well as incorporating a third method that I call the to-hell-with-the-script-I’m-making-it-up-as-I-go technique – which actually works a lot better than it sounds like it would.)
But for this scene, I was using the Rodriguez-say-your-line-into-the-camera-and-move-on technique, which is also known in some circles as Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park-Style. As an actor, Dennis didn’t like it very much. He felt the actors couldn’t get into a rhythm this way. Very true, but I’m saving time, here, and with a cast of nonprofessional actors, there was a good chance we’d never get into a rhythm. Besides, it’s not as if I was setting myself up to lose an argument or anything. (Foreshadowing.)
Upon editing the walkie-talkie scene together and it watching it as part of the first (very) rough cut, I couldn’t help but notice that Catch, making fun of Kyle’s self-importance was kind of like wacky Groucho Marx playing opposite serious socialite Margaret Dumont or Hawkeye & Trapper John from M*A*S*H playing opposite somebody from M*A*S*H. Down with authority! ANARCHY THROUGH JOKES, BABY!!! Except we weren’t funny. Our banter sucked.
The banter sucked? How? But, what? We did a read-through. I was as confounded as the Grinch after he spends all night stealing the all the Whos’ Christmas presents only to find out that nobody cares. Was it because of the intermittent jig-saw style of shooting? We ended up having to do that a lot on this film and that would suck if it all sucked. And worse yet, it would mean Dennis had been right about something.
And then I, after watching this show, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? Our Jokes are our strong-point. Our Jokes are our craft. Our Jokes at the read-through all got a laugh. And I puzzled and puzzled ’till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn’t before. What if Jokes, I thought, don’t come from a store? What if Jokes, perhaps, should be carefully designed to help define the various character archetypes we’re attempting to present in the film and be included in a scene only if they move the story forward?
We were supposed to know this already, but when this scene was written, the character Catch was actually Catch the skeptical camera operator who thinks this Bigfoot stuff is nonsense and is only along on the expedition cause he’s getting paid to be there. He was delivering these lines to Gavin, the very serious nerdy Bigfoot hunter. By the time we began shooting, the character had evolved into Catch the skeptical tracker who thinks this Bigfoot stuff is nonsense, but is only along on the expedition so he can watch over his sister’s step kid. Furthermore, the Margaret Dumont for Catch’s Groucho had been changed from Gavin to Kyle, who aside from our Grassman, is probably the film’s biggest agent of chaos. In short, he’s kind of a cross between the early Tex Avery/Bob Clampett Daffy Duck and the later Fritz Freleng/Chuck Jones Daffy Duck.
You can’t pit Bugs Bunny against Tex Avery Daffy Duck. It doesn’t work. Early Daffy Duck is too crazy. What the hell is Bugs Bunny going to do to against a manically insane Daffy Duck?
He’s not even funny.
In addition, Catch had gone from being the pain-in-the-ass of the expedition to a responsible adult-like father figure. While Groucho did, in fact, play Zeppo’s father in Horsefeathers – which was probably my second favorite of all their films – but that’s not quite the type of father figure we needed for this film. I don’t really like the Marx brothers movies after Zeppo left. I don’t get it. It seems to go against all logic.
One of the consistencies through all the drafts was the character Catch the skeptic who was a bit of an asshole. He was still a skeptical asshole, and that blinded us to the fact that the character had actually changed quite a bit. Assholes have nuance. The incident really made us focus on doing Jokes that really express who our characters are. This was a much more convenient explanation for the suckiness of the walkie-talkie scene than to blame it on my shooting style which Dennis objected to, so I went with it. He never argued with it, but I may have just confused him with too many Marx Brothers references. I didn’t even like A Night at the Opera as much as I thought I would. It lacks the insanity that made Duck Soup so good and the brothers seem hampered by this new concept of having to make sense.
Alfred Hitchcock said that confusion on the part of the audience during a suspense scene will completely kill the suspense they are supposed to be feeling. It’s very important in those scenes for the audience to be able to easily distinguish one character from another and understand the geography of a scene and any pertinent information about what is going on because the minute they become confused, they are taken out of the story and are suddenly just sitting in a dark room watching moving pictures of actors doing stuff that makes no sense. I guess the same is true of comedy or probably any other emotional reaction the filmmaker hopes to get out of a scene (unless confusion is the desired goal). Filmmakers, in the end, really have no power to make people cry or laugh or scared or angry. They can dream up fanciful worlds full of cool spaceships, lightsabers, and talking pigs, but they have no power to make them real. Those powers come from the audience.
And yes, I capitalize the word “Jokes.”