BY SETH GORDON
LISTEN UP: Gordon, with George Segal on the set of The Goldbergs, says actors will do whatever they want.
You know who’s the perfect guy to write a column about directing comedies? A documentary filmmaker! Honestly, nobody has any business writing an author-itative column on comedy directing—especially not me. But when I think back to the lessons I didn’t realize I was learning from directing docs, some are surprisingly relevant to studio features. Here’s what I mean:
1. Illusion of control
With a documentary, you start out wondering how you can trick someone into paying for you to explore a meaningless subculture. Soon after they buy the line you’ve been pitching (or you’ve guilted family, friends, or people on Kickstarter into donating $100 here, $10 there), you find yourself in the field chasing the movie you thought you were making, trying desperately to rationalize that what you are getting actually bears scant resemblance to the movie you agreed to make. And you know full well neither have anything to do with the movie you’ll end up with after editing, because everything will eventually get thrown out after your first screening when what you thought made perfect sense is completely confusing to the audience. But don’t worry, no one thought you ever knew what you were doing anyway; your authority was just a temporary agreement to help everyone get through the film a little more efficiently.
2. Actors steal the show
When you’re making a documentary, nobody does what they’re told—especially not the subject. That’s the charm, right? Well, if you’re comfortable with that you’re perfectly suited for a feature film. You really need to know just two things: the textbook definition of narcissistic (and histrionic), personality disorders (pretend I didn’t tell you about those), and most importantly, that your actors will more or less do whatever they want—much like documentary subjects. They’ll go along with you if you actually have a good idea at the time, otherwise they’ll nod and do it again like the first time, just a little faster. The saving grace? Nine times out of ten they make the script better and their instincts are dead on. As a director, if you don’t listen, you do so at your own peril.
3. Inadequate budget
Throughout the history of documentary filmmaking there has never been an adequate budget. Take heart, starving documentarian artists! Studio filmmaking is grossly underfunded too (unless it’s for a sequel to a blockbuster). The big difference is this: On a doc you go where the subject lives; on a studio feature they’ll send you to a rebate state to save the production money. Try not to think about the fact that it actually costs more in the long run, because everything is easier in L.A. It will only make you bitter, and then you’ll miss all the glories of … Baltimore. Not to fret though, because when the limitations of the rebate state and the impossible budget hamper production, there’s always the next item on the list...
Making a documentary is basically one long reshoot. You’re constantly discovering what the movie is while rewriting it as you witness real-time events unfold. That’s perfect preparation for studio filmmaking. When the time and resources provided aren’t adequate to shoot the whole movie properly, reshoots—that wonderful industry standard—will save your ass. Most of the time, reshoots consist of scenes that were cut from the script for budgetary reasons (see number 3 above) but it became clear in editing that the story is incomprehensible without them. When you’re down to the wire, and the need for the movie to make sense is staring you in the face, the studio will usually find the budget—people will call that “additional photography.” In docs, it’s sometimes called “title cards.”
5. There is no number 5.
You may think studio films are more glamorous than documentaries. False. Yes, there is more money, and bigger stars, and more exotic locations (although somehow you can shoot Ann Arbor, Michigan, for just about anywhere). But the job remains the same. It’s not like you’re kicking back in a plush trailer while someone young and attractive feeds you grapes, occasionally wandering onto the set to yell “Action!” No, you’re still on your feet 14-plus hours a day, you’re sleep deprived, you’re somehow always hungry yet constantly eating garbage, and you never get to pee. At the end of the day, the raw talent and skill of your tiny documentary team is the essence of true filmmaking. Those are exactly the kind of folks you’ll be surrounded by every day on your feature. And none of the crew expects glamour or pampering of any kind, and they don’t expect people to constantly applaud their genius. (Although I’ve never seen a crew turn down burgers from the In-N-Out truck.)
7. There’s never enough time
How do you know when to stop making a documentary? When you can’t handle eating ramen anymore, or when it’s certifiably insane to keep going and your spouse tells you that if they have to hear another conversation about (insert doc subject’s obsession here) he or she will leave you. You’ve heard the adage that “films aren’t finished, they’re abandoned?” In the case of studio films, that is forced abandonment in the form of a release date chosen by the distributor. That forces you to prepare yourself mentally to not really be able to finish and to carefully begin compromising, spackling together the load bearing walls (and a few that don’t carry much weight, too) that give the film a semblance of intelligibility. If a release date isn’t what ends post for you, then it’s probably the cost of post itself. Deadlines become your (and your husband or wife’s) best friend.
8. The best stuff is unplanned
While it’s true that a movie is made in prep, the best things—the most realistic moments, the truest performances—are almost always discoveries on the shoot day. The hard-earned lesson for me was to try whenever possible to remember how documentaries unfold, and learn to let go in features, too. Plan everything you can and then be willing to throw it all out when somebody (sometimes your key grip) has a better idea. Those great ideas often can’t be anticipated, and you’ve got to be ready for that, make time for them, and trust that therein lies the gold.
9. Wide release
There’s actually no preparation docs can provide for the last step of the process: the marketing and release of the film by a major studio. It’s the best thing ever. And then you wait as dread fills your stomach while the tracking and reviews begin to roll in and you wonder if they’re running enough TV spots (you never really know), and you hope by the grace of the film gods that a hurricane or earthquake doesn't hit the Coasts on the opening weekend and that all this work and sweat wasn't in vain.
All in all, directing comedies is a lot like directing documentaries. On both, if you surround yourself with the right people, shut up when you should, get out of the way when you can, you'll likely end up with something good. Of course, you will have watched it a thousand times by the end of the process and will never, ever want to see it again.