BY NICHOLAS STOLLER
WHAT'S SO FUNNY: Nicholas Stoller looks like a director, which he says,
other than getting alternate takes, is the most important part of the job.
(Photo Credit: Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures)
I have made two comedy films, one of which is opening this summer. Therefore, it is clearly time for me to offer advice to the membership of the DGA. Some would call this hubris. Others might ask, "What kind of asshole would use the word hubris?" Still others might say, "I am going to stop reading this article right now." To all three sets of people, I respond simply, "Listen and learn, eager students. Listen and learn."
Here are the things that confuse me about directing:
• Number of extras required
• What all those lens numbers mean
• Lenses in general
• Why it takes so long to light when I can see with my eyes quite clearly the thing we're going to shoot
• Why my DP always seems so mad at me
• What DP stands for
• How my life path has resulted in me, a Jewish nerd, having dinner with Sean Combs at Nobu
Here are the two points I am quite clear on:
• Point One: Always get alternate takes
• Point Two: Make sure to get a set photo of you looking into the camera at some point, even if the only time you are looking into the camera is when that photo is taken.
To elaborate on Point One:
Alts: They are the lifeblood of comedy. When you get into the editing room, you have no idea what joke or riff will work. I would most humbly disagree with noted critic Pauline Kael who called alts "the resort of lazy directors who don't want to make an artistic choice."
For example, in my first film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
— which I know you have all seen and remember frame for frame — the scene where Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), in a garish Hawaiian shirt, meets his ex-girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) in the lobby of the Hawaiian hotel, the dialogue was scripted like so:
SARAH MARSHALL: What're you doing here?
PETER BRETTER: I just came here to show you my shirt.
After shooting this a couple times, my producer, Rodney Rothman, pitched a line that both Jason and I thought was "too broad." After lambasting Rodney for his "incredibly hacky idea" that "didn't deserve to be written on a piece of used toilet paper," I shot it anyway because I wasn't paying for the film stock, Universal was. That line went like this:
SARAH MARSHALL: What're you doing here?
PETER BRETTER: I came here to murder you!
That line ended up being the only laugh in the whole scene.
Putting aside the comedy for a second, when you improv a scene or a piece of a scene, it puts the actors off their game, and makes them exist more in the moment — you know, all that actor-y shit. Using improv and alts can actually help make the emotional/serious/pussy parts of the film feel more real.
So I did some research and have discovered alts are a time-honored tradition. All the greats of our industry—your Marty Scorseses, your Steven Spielbergs, your Roman Polanskis—have shot alts as well.
Jonathan Demme — The Silence of the Lambs
In place of Hannibal Lecter's line: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." They actually also shot the following alt:
HANNIBAL: A fatted goose once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Demme wanted to preserve the option that Hannibal wasn't a cannibal; he was just kind of fancy.
George Lucas — Star Wars
DARTH VADER: I am your father.
LUKE SKYWALKER: No. No. That's not true. That's impossible!
DARTH VADER: Search your feelings; you know it to be true. Also you know this to be true…having sex feels like warm apple pie.
LUKE SKYWALKER: That's, like, super embarrassing.
Luke Skywalker, while uncomfortable, is clearly considering testing out his father's theory.
TUNING UP: One of these guys plays a rock star in Get Him to
the Greek. Is it Stoller (left) or Russell Brand?
Robert Zemeckis — Back to the Future
The ending of the sci-fi comedy classic went like this:
MARTY MCFLY: Doc, we better back up. We don't have enough road to get up to 88.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
Due to potential constraints in their VFX budget, Bobby Zemeckis also shot this response from Doc in which the DeLorean is powered not by plutonium, but by something else:
MARTY MCFLY: Doc, we better get Crystal Pepsi. We don't have enough delicious, ice cold Crystal Pepsi to go back in time.
DR. EMMETT BROWN: Crystal Pepsi? Where we're going, we don't need Crystal Pepsi. Although as a side note, Crystal Pepsi has a refreshing crispness other colas can't match.
Due to that brand's brief shelf life, they ended up going with what was in the film.
James Cameron — Titanic
In place of the now infamous line: "I'm the king of the world," they also got the following alt:
JACK DAWSON: Am I securely lashed to this mast?
This shouldn't be a surprise. Jimmy Cameron's use of alts goes back to the early days of his career. Consider this line:
TERMINATOR: I'll be back.
For which he also shot the following alt:
TERMINATOR: Hold that thought.
John Hughes — The Breakfast Club
The final lines of the film included some rather significant alts:
BRIAN JOHNSON: You see us as you want to see us...in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...
ANDREW CLARK: …and an athlete…
ALLISON REYNOLDS: …and a basket case…
CLAIRE STANDISH: …a princess…
WEREWOLF: …and a werewolf…
PRINCESS GERALDINE: …and an actual princess, not just a metaphorical princess…
EDWARD CULLEN: …and a sexy young vampire…
DANGER MOUSE: …and a cartoon mouse…
NEYTIRI: …and a Na'vi…
GEORGE WASHINGTON: …and a founding father…
ROBOT: …and a robot who wishes he could feel…
BONOBO MONKEY: …ooh ooh ah ah…
TINY TIM: …and, last but not least, a tiny boy with a big heart.
BRIAN JOHNSON: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club
Paul Thomas Anderson — There Will Be Blood
DANIEL PLAINVIEW: I drink your milk-shake!
This was actually the alt. The original dialogue made sense and was about oil.
So there you have it: alts throughout cinematic history. And yes, if you were wondering, the films listed in this article are the only ones I've ever seen. Although to be honest, I never saw There Will Be Blood because it looked complicated and is apparently longer than 85 minutes. And I've heard it's in black and white.
Now, to elaborate on Point Two: When that photo is taken of you while looking into the camera, make sure that 1. the camera is attached to some sort of crane 2. you're wearing a giant Terry Malick-style sun hat and 3. you're pointing into the middle distance.