Extemporized screenplays such as “Borat,” or those built through improv like “Another Year,” occasionally garner Oscar love. But the Writers Guild has been more enthusiastic about that style, nominating numerous entries with an impromptu feel, including “Best in Show,” “The Hangover” and (out of the Judd Apatow stable) “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and this year’s “Bridesmaids.”
Apatow credits “the enormous number of comedy writers in the guild, many more than in the Motion Picture Academy. People who’ve written comedy for television understand what we’re doing.”
It’s called “behavioral comedy,” says “Bridesmaids” helmer Paul Feig. TV’s pioneering handheld “The Office,” and loose, naturalistic features like “Waiting for Guffman,” whetted audience appetites for more reality and fewer gags.
“Jokes in themselves distance the audience from the reality, because they demand a response,” Feig says. “And if they don’t destroy, you tend to mistrust the people who made the movie.
“Look at the first ‘Austin Powers,’ which sold itself on those giant set-pieces and big gags. But what’s the funniest part of that? Dr. Evil and his son, that ‘Don’t talk’ goofing … the realistic playfulness where they’re just screwing around. Or if not, they feel like they are.”
On the set, Apatow declares, “The rule is we might do the scene, but if at any moment any actor gets an idea, we encourage him to toss the script. … A lot of the great moments have come from improvisations that were necessary for the actors to surprise each other.” The resulting string of hits has established a distinctive Apatow style that is close to being its own genre.
“These days, people very much want honesty,” Feig says. “You’ve really got to let the actors make the words fit out of their mouths,” a process that begins with structure. Yes, there’s some improvisation in “Bridesmaids,” “but we had a roadmap.”
One of the people who drew that roadmap, the pic’s star and co-writer Kristen Wiig, says, “It’s so hard to look at the final product and think what percentage was improvised and written, but we wrote everything out.”
Meaning, as writing partner Annie Mumolo puts it: “We had a shooting script which was the tightest version, and we always shot that first.”
But previous drafts yielded comedic fodder, which sometimes became laff gold. Wiig and Rose Byrne’s “dueling toasts” sequence, Apatow says, came out of riffing on a score of suggestions.
On the set of “50/50,” reports WGA nominee Will Reiser: “As long as we got what was on the page, we gave the actors the freedom to feel loose.” An extended sequence of aged cancer patients discussing old-time radio, he says, “is completely improvised and one of my favorite scenes.”
Many writers’ fave scenes were born of improv. A rambling Paul Reiser “Diner” speech opened Apatow’s adolescent eyes to “how truthful and natural comedy could be.” And Mumolo has never forgotten Bill Murray’s “Caddyshack” description of golfing with the Dalai Lama.
“I think I heard somewhere that it was improvised. I hope so. That’d make me so happy!”
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