Recently I connected with a local filmmaker and shared a few short screenplays I have written. I wrote these with the intention of getting a local director interested in making one of these projects. Why not me? At the time I felt that trying to direct something with (gasp) actors would be too difficult and challenging – in part because my main role presently is watching my children.
In my discussions with this filmmaker about the shared scripts and filmmaking in general both of us came to a similar conclusion: while the serious, dramatic, films are interesting and appealing what we’d both like to make is a comedy. Being the writer of the pair I was then tasked with coming up with something comedic to make.
Flash forward a few months and no screenplay is finished. Why is this? In part it is because I have been attempting to complete other projects, continue the work I do with a non-profit and that day to day life with two young children is challenging. The truth though is that writing comedy is hard.
Why is it hard? First, the expectations. When people list great movies, when they list their favorite movies, usually (if they are thinking of posterity or the other people in the room) they do not mention comedies. Why is this? Why are comedies dismissed as not being great films? As being important films?
I do not have a good answer. I do know that there is a film that tackles this very subject and it does it better than I ever will – Sullivan’s Travels. If you have not seen this film you should. It’s interesting, it’s funny and it has a fairly important message. If I had to try and convey the message it is this: most people have fairly unpleasant or depressing lives, so when you try and make your important, realistic film, that makes the audience suffer as the protagonist suffers – they don’t enjoy the film. Most people want to watch a movie for some form of enjoyment.
Michael Moore said something about this in his article “13 Rules for Making Documentary Films”
And the audience, the people who’ve worked hard all week — it’s Friday night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think — but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.
The awards season is pretty much here again and with it the usual nonsense of each site or magazine publishing variations of the same stories about the same films and people. And each one is about an important movie or an important actor and the incredible important film they are in. Which is not to diminish films that have something they wish to say – I enjoy films with purpose greatly. I do, however, question the need to make films that torture the audience.
What annoys me is how there are entire genres that are dismissed out of hand when it comes time to hand out praise. Not that awards are a reason to make art. Not that praise from critics or even the general public are a reason to make art. But given that filmmaking is largely a business, whether some of us would like to admit this or not, if you wish to continue making films they have to be successful. If you wish to be given the opportunity to make films in the first place you have to sell others on the idea that the finished product will be successful.
Which is why when you look at what Blumhouse has done and how they are thriving, regardless of what you think about the films they make, you have to applaud them for figuring things out and making it work. The movies they release make money, which allows them to keep making movies. The same can be said for Tyler Perry (and of course other people and production companies). I mention these two as they have been successful financially but less so with critics and award committees.
Coming back to comedy all I can say is it is a challenge. Filmmakers and actors like Judd Apatow. Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler and Taika Waititi all are struggling to connect with audiences. What worked before no longer seems to be working. I’m not sure if, in part, this is due to the flood of short form content on social media that is largely comedic. Feature length films and sitcoms are entirely different animals that fulfill different needs. I know there a plenty of sitcoms that are airing and are successful. I’m not sure if the people watching those are bothering with the films being released. Why is this?
I don’t think anyone really knows. What I do know is that sitting down and trying to write a funny scene is much harder for me than trying to write a dramatic one. Creating characters who are struggling to get through a funeral is an easier task then writing a humorous cooking scene between a mother and teenage daughter. It is an interesting situation to find myself in and I can’t help but wonder if it is a personal limitation or if comedy really is that much harder to do.