At an early screening of “Bombshell,” which chronicles the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, director Jay Roach was nervous. Writer-producer Charles Randolph says it was because of the audible audience reaction: “It’s just too much laughing!”
For many of this year’s prominent Oscar contenders for best picture, one of the most important questions is how well they balance the serious themes being explored with a natural instinct to, in the immortal words of Donald O’Conner in “Singin’ in the Rain”: “Make ’em laugh.”
“I think we’re conditioned to think that Oscar movies are serious and heavy,” says “Hustlers” producer Jessica Elbaum. But from the witty dialogue of “Parasite,” to Adam Sandler’s brash and hilarious performance in “Uncut Gems,” to “Dolemite Is My Name’s” loving tribute to low-budget filmmaking, comedic elements have worked their way into many 2019 favorites.
Fox Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit” represents a perfect example, as its World War II setting makes it Academy-friendly but it takes a risk with its tale of a 10-year-old German boy whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler, played by writer-director Taika Waititi with exaggerated goofiness.
Producer Carthew Neal, who previously worked with Waititi on “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” says he was never nervous about the premise, because “I completely have trust in Taika in being able to do that to get that right. If I hadn’t seen some of his previous works, I might have felt more fearful, but he has really juggled that balance of pathos and humor a number of times. … Everything we’ve done before was leading towards this film.”
However, “Jojo Rabbit” did go through a series of test screenings, from informal edit suite sessions to full theaters, which helped the team modulate the film, especially the scenes featuring Hitler.
“Taika makes his film for audiences,” Neal says. “That’s partly why he’s testing them. He respects the audience and wants them to have a really amazing experience and be taken somewhere special.”
“Bombshell” also went through serious testing with a variety of audiences, according to Randolph, because of Roach’s history of directing straight comedies. “It’s crazy. He shows terrifyingly early cuts to friends and family, and by family, we’re talking about 75 people in a room. And then he stands up and holds a focus group himself.”
While Roach has plenty of dramatic experience as a director, “Bombshell” does include a cast, which beyond stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow, is packed with well-known comedy stars such as Richard Kind, whose first appearances as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is the film’s “biggest consistent laugh,” Randolph says.
There’s also “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon as a fictional Fox News employee who is hiding her true self at the office. Randolph says it was the first time he wrote a character specifically for an actor (she was originally even named “Kate,” until McKinnon asked that it be changed).
“No one’s going to break our hearts like someone who makes us laugh, and I knew I had very little real estate for that character,” he says. “But you totally believe it because of who Kate is.”
A film that didn’t have the luxury of testing was A24’s “The Farewell.” Based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s life, the story focuses on a Chinese family that is lying to the matriarch about her cancer diagnosis. Production wrapped in August 2018, says producer Dani Melia, and after that, it was a rush to submit to the Sundance Film Festival.
The first time Melia and the rest of the team saw the film with an audience of more than 20 was when it made its Sundance debut at the Eccles Theater (capacity: 1,270 seats). “I can’t think of a time I was as nervous as before that first screening,” she says.
During the premiere, an early line in the film — “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die” — got a huge laugh from the crowd, which shocked the entire team.
“I had no idea this was a funny moment,” she says. “You don’t know sometimes how it’s going to play in a big room until you’re in that room.”
The balance of drama and comedy found in Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” was a credit to the cast, according to Elbaum. Initially, she says, she didn’t realize how funny the film could be until she saw the chemistry among Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu and the other women who conspire to drug and rip off unknowing wealthy men.
“The environment that [Scafaria] created lent itself to the girls being able to try stuff, and you genuinely bought them as friends,” Elbaum says.
But David Heyman knew from the beginning that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” both of which he produced, wouldn’t lack for comedy. But that was because of the specificity of the scripts, both of which he describes as “incredibly vivid, alive works in themselves.” While the two films — one depicting an era of Hollywood on the brink of change, the other chronicling the end of a modern-day marriage — are very different in how they use comedy, “both directors are going for the truth and authenticity of each moment. It’s not about a gag.”
Heyman isn’t surprised that so many of this year’s Oscars contenders have this degree of humor, because historically the Academy has shown its appreciation for films by innately funny directors including Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.
And while many do acknowledge that comedies might be underestimated, Melia says, “a lot of the films that are working so well this year are films that defy traditional constructs of genre.”
So, while Roach might have been worried about his laughing audiences, Randolph believes the bias against comedy no longer exists in full.
“We’ve just blown up the genres over the last decade. I feel like that traditional comedy versus drama split in people’s heads has gone away. The comedy buys you the drama — and the drama justifies the comedy.”