Summer 2012

Put Me In, Coach

The director of Mean Girls and Mr. Popper’s Penguins explains how playing sports prepared him for the toughest game of all—directing comedy.

Mark Waters

DGA Quarterly Summer 2011 Funny Business Mark Waters
  CALLING THE PLAY: Waters, working with Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey on
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, changes his coaching style depending on his team. (Photo: Everett)

I love sports. When I’m not playing, I’m watching, reading, or otherwise obsessing about them. This probably stems from growing up in Indiana, where if you didn’t at least attempt to play basketball you were considered of dubious moral character.

My high school hoops background has definitely seeped into my career. When I’m directing actors, I often find myself slipping in sports metaphors, like: “Don’t go for the punch line here, just put it up on a T-ball stand so she can hit it out of the park.” Or working with a group: “Everybody stay in your zone until this line, then pounce on him like you’re rushing the passer.” This often leads to blank stares when I’m working with non-athletic thespians who politely say, “Um … okay. Can we just do another take?”

Nevertheless, I believe that many things I learned from sports have really helped me as a director. As a matter of fact, my first inkling that I might have a yen for directing came when I realized I enjoyed creating plays for my various sports teams more than I actually liked playing the game. When my football coach actually ran one of my maneuvers—a gratuitously complex fullback screen—and it resulted in a touchdown, I had the gut feeling that maybe I wasn’t cut out for blocking steroid-inflated defensive ends or fighting for rebounds with power forwards a half foot taller than me. Maybe I’d have more fun getting to be the one calling the shots from the safety of the sidelines.

Similarly, when I used to be a stage actor, I would often find myself in the middle of a show thinking, ‘If I take two steps downstage right now, it will make for a better stage picture.’ Just as I knew I was not cut out for being crushed on the gridiron, I knew that full-immersion, Brando-style acting would never be for me. It was time to trade in Yorick’s skull for a monocle and riding crop and fulfill my true destiny—directing.

So let me play out my team-sports-as-film-school analogy a bit further. I’ve found that three of the most important parts of sports are also the most important aspects of directing comedy. They are: Speed, Competition and Body Hits.

SPEED: Drama is played at the pace of chess … or billiards … or poker. Engrossing? Sure. But comedy is played at the jubilant, high-octane speed of sports like basketball or hockey. Some Like It Hot, Raising Arizona, The Hangover—these are movies that keep you falling forward, where you don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, just like watching the Los Angeles Clippers fast-break their way back from a 24-point deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA playoffs. Mean Girls was a 148-page script but a 97-minute movie, and I told my actors that the audience could listen way faster than they could talk. I even instructed Rachel McAdams to not let anyone finish their sentences around her, to cut people off on their last lines. This made everyone in her scenes scramble to get a word in edgewise. And for me, all of those deleted seconds added up to one thing: a “W.”

COMPETITION: The first thing you learn in any acting class is that the basis of a good scene is two people with conflicting objectives. The character who is willing to push hardest and furthest to achieve their goal is going to “win.” Comedy invites you to elevate this competition to its extreme. Consider Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne’s dueling toasts in Bridesmaids; or Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen’s “swordfights” in Talladega Nights. One of the beauties of Tina Fey’s script for Mean Girls was the one-upping between McAdams’ and Lindsay Lohan’s characters that builds to one of the most fun things I have ever staged—a schoolwide girl-on-girl brawl. Which brings us to our next category…

BODY HITS: Some of the most exciting moments in all of sports are when players literally slam together—a kamikaze head-first slide to knock the ball out of a catcher’s hand; a safety cold-cocking a wide receiver in the end zone. These are the kind of plays that make you gasp and shriek (either in delight or agony, depending on who you’re rooting for). This same philosophy makes for some of the biggest physical comedy laughs, and always has. In my own movies, I think of having McAdams get creamed by a bus in Mean Girls; pummeling Jim Carrey with a penguin-created tidal wave in Mr. Popper’s Penguins; or, purifying things down to the very basics by getting Lindsay and Jamie Lee Curtis to do an ill-conceived belly slam in Freaky Friday as an unsuccessful attempt at switching their bodies back.

DGA Quarterly Summer 2011 Funny Business Mark Waters
ROOKIE: Waters says directing Lindsay Lohan on Mean Girls was like coaching a prodigiously
talented young athlete before she went to the pros. (Photo: Everett)

So it’s no surprise that many of my favorite experiences working with actors have been with the ones who have some serious athletic experience. Matthew McConaughey, who was raised on Texas football, was a lot like this on Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and insisted that everyone refer to each other by their last names, as in ‘McConaughey, get in there!’ I’ve employed this technique ever since when dealing with actors who won’t come out of their trailer. Using people’s last names (and a very loud whistle) gives you surprising power—and results.

But the most important connection between sports and directing is that very close parallel between director and actor, and player and coach. I find my ‘coaching’ style changes depending on the level of the player I’m working with. Directing child actors is like coaching a high school team—sometimes you need to patiently teach fundamental skills, and sometimes you need to rally them with a ‘Win one for the Gipper!’ speech. Directing Lohan I felt like John Calipari at the University of Kentucky, getting to coach a prodigiously talented young person before she was one-and-done and off to the pros.

Working with someone like Carrey is more like Phil Jackson coaching Kobe Bryant. I can’t be shouting, ‘You must religiously follow my ingeniously designed plays!’ Instead you create a situation where the actor can play their game, but offer up opportunities they might have missed.

The fact is, the bloated aspects of big studio filmmaking are very much like the flashy excesses of professional sports. A lot of money, men and machines are used to shine big lights onto what is essentially a very simple, fun game. When you strip away all the cameras, C-stands and producers from a Hollywood set, you’re left with a small group of players who are just trying to bring a scene to life, to make it honest, and make it funny. And the great thing about directing—unlike sports—is that if I end up blowing the play, I can always get a fresh set of downs by simply reloading the camera.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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