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The Fuzzy End of the Lollipop at LFF

Posted in comedy directors, comedy films by * on October 22, 2012

It is the closing night of the London Film Festival as I write, so I thought it was a fitting time to do a round up of what the experience has been like for me as a first time film director – and a born and bred Londoner – with a film in official selection. Also it turns out I have some time on my hands. Tonight may be the final night and the gala screening of GREAT EXPECTATIONS followed by a star studded closing night party filled with the great and the good of the film industry, however, I find I am not invited to this event (nor was I invited to the opening night party) as I am just a short film director and therefore apparently not important enough to attend.

Does expecting to be a invited make me a pleb who doesn’t know her place? Is saying so as uncouth as going up to Tim Burton and yelling “ARSEHOLE” very loudly in his face? Which is of course what I would do if I ever got into the same room as him – short film makers are renowned for insulting their heroes when they have the chance to meet them – it probably is best to keep us as far away from them as possible. And who needs to feel like they were part of a festival their film has screened at anyway?

It is all very clear. Thinking that the world premiere of my first ever film as a director in my home town meant something and that I should be included in opening and closing events was a foolish notion. Moping about like Cinderella who didn’t get an invite to the ball was overdramatic of me. Thinking that as a director in the festival, regardless of my film’s length that I was the same as all the other directors – a little chip off the same block – was a stupid, idiot notion. Right?

Well definitely the bit about Cinderella, but surely short film makers are the life blood of the industry and if we do not place importance on grassroots filmmakers and bringing though British talent then who is going to be the next generation of filmmakers in this country? Some of the best film makers in the world like Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion started out in shorts and so to treat short films or the filmmakers who make them as unimportant in my opinion is an oversight. Also the BFI is a publically funded organisation so surely they have a responsibility to promote British grassroots filmmakers – surely it shouldn’t be only about the stars and the big names?

I was personally disappointed at the festival not to show my film for the first ever time ever on a bigger screen especially as the short film programmes always sell out very, very fast and are massively oversubscribed. I have previously as a producer had films selected for LFF and in the past have always screened at NFT1 (where the Film London ‘London Calling’ programme screens) and it is a great screen with great projectionists and has always felt like a really special event. This time I got a world premiere out of town at the Brixton Ritzy (on their second, smaller screen) on a day when there were engineering works on the tube and so a supposed sold out screening was full of empty seats due to travel problems. Even my own programmer who was meant to be introducing us couldn’t get there and I would have completely missed it myself if I hadn’t been getting there an hour ahead of time. My print when it screened was also a bit out of focus which really wasn’t ideal. However, on the plus side, for the audience that did make it the film went down really well getting a lot of laughs and two rounds of applause so I feel very proud of my own efforts as a filmmaker and also the amazing work of my incredibly talented cast and crew.

I later found out in passing that a short film buyer had been trying to get to my screening as I had not been able to provide a copy for the screening room (my 35mm print only just made the festival at the last moment due to technical problems) but as they could not get a ticket they had been unable to see my film. What was worse was that in the screening room they do not log requests for a film – it is only logged if someone takes it out and views it – so even if Harvey Weinstein came in to ask for a copy of my film during the festival I will never ever find out who requested it or be able to follow up with a screener.

I was also disappointed as a comedy director that even though the festival was programmed into strands – ‘Thrill’, ‘Laugh’, ‘Dare’ etc. – that only one comedy short was programmed as part of  the ‘Laugh’ strand and that more was not done to showcase short films in all the other strands either. Outside ‘Laugh’ in the shorts programmes four comedies screened in total – though I had to do a lot of research to find that out as they were not listed by genre. Despite having fourteen ‘Laugh’ features there was only one comedy short selected to screen in front of a feature and mentioned in this heavily promoted part of the programme. Why not the four others too? This single comedy short was also by an American male director which meant ‘Laugh’ was programmed 100% films by men – not one single female comedy director in the entire ‘Laugh’ strand. With the exception of the ‘Laugh’ gala SIGHTSEERS none of the other thirteen features were by British directors and given that all the comedies in the shorts programme were in fact by British directors (two female) it seemed a missed opportunity for both Brits as well as women not to showcase and promote one of them. I found this incredibly depressing on both counts.

Lastly I did tweet a few times under LFF# hashtag to do my bit of social media promotion. I also directly tweeted @bfi under the #LFF hashtag to retweet my trailer but they ignored me and did not. Shorts are not important remember dummy!

All in all it was still a great honour to be selected for LFF as it is a hugely respected international festival and for that I am extremely grateful. There were also a couple of really useful networking events – an afternoon tea run by the British Council and the Short Filmmakers Breakfast that key BFI film fund executives attended. However, my  experience of the festival was mainly of feeling a little bit unloved and ghettoised as a short filmmaker – as if I existed only at the margins of an elitist event and that for comedy directors it was promoted as an all boys club. Hell, I wasn’t even worth a retweet! Anyway, at least I won’t have a hangover in the morning…

My directorial debut screening at LFF 2012 was a comedy short film called GET LUCKY which starred Ralf Little (THE ROYLE FAMILY/THE CAFE), Isy Suttie (PEEP SHOW/WHITES), Greg Davies (THE INBETWEENERS/CUCKOO) and Tanya Franks (PULLING/THE CUP). For any more information please do get in touch with me at norma@normaburke.co.uk. You can also watch the GET LUCKY trailer here:

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Interview with Dan Mazer, Oscar nominated Screenwriter

The Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund along with Working Title Films are funding a very exciting new comedy writing competition called the Big 5 Comedy Award.  I get the low down on comedy writing from one of the star judges Dan Mazer, Oscar nominated screenwriter of Borat and Bruno

NB: Do you think it is  difficult to make a good comedy film?

DM: The raison d’etre of comedy is to make people laugh and you can’t force people to find something funny. In the cinema it’s either quite evidently funny or not so it is a very hard thing to get right and to find good people for. 

NB: Is that writing it aswell?

DM: Everything starts with the writing. In my experience is what happens is that comedy writers start out to write the funniest script that they can and producers tend to dilute it along the way and put more heart in it or put more story in it or more plot in it and I think there is a real emphasis with producers of comedy to put the comedy second to all those things. 

NB: Do you think of yourself as a writer or a writer/producer or a writer and a producer?

DM: I think of myself foremostly as a writer and I only really only produce the  stuff and hopefully direct the stuff in order to make sure other people don’t fuck it up. I’m envious but also slightly bewildered by writers who are happy to hand it over and say do what you want and make it unrecognizable from what I had in my head. I think if I’ve slaved over a script for x amount of time and it’s something I’m proud of I’m relatively circumspect for them to give that away to someone to fuck up so that’s why I am a writer slash director or producer. 

NB: Was it always your intention to write comedy and what was the first stuff you did?

DM: I was in plays at school and that sort of stuff. I guess I was the funny kid at school – being funny was my thing as opposed to being excellent at rugby. I wasn’t one of those precocious kids who did stand up aged fourteen wearing braces and a hat though. I was a big fan of Ben Elton and I used to go and see a lot of comedy from an early age. When I was at university I was in the Footlights and I had did various Edinburgh shows and toured the country. Straight out of university my intention was to be a stand up but I realised I was never going to make a living at it and coming out of Cambridge with a law degree there was a certain amount of pressure to both from myself and my family to get a proper job and not bum around being a stand up. Also I was working in Planet 24 with fun people, doing fun things and then the job overtook the stand up just because I was getting paid more for it and to be honest I probably wasn’t going to be an earth shattering stand up comedian in any case. 

NB: What was your very first break in TV?

DM: The first show I worked on was The Word. I was a graduate trainee at Planet 24 which at the time made the most cutting edge, provocative and dangerous television and I worked on a show called The Word. I didn’t really write so much as research and produce. My first real writing job was on The Big Breakfast writing for two alien puppets called Zig and Zag and I wrote all their stuff and that was my first comedy thing and then I went to work on Fantasy Football – the Baddiel and Skinner show – on which I wrote and produced.  

NB: What was the first screenplay that you wrote?

DM: Ali G was the first film that I did and that just came along and I certainly hadn’t envisaged working in film before. I didn’t know anyone who had made a film, been in a film, written a film or directed a film. It just seemed so shiny and glamourous and slightly esoteric to me. 

NB: Are TV and film comedy just two completely different things?

DM: They are two completely different things and it is quite hard to make a shift from one to the other and people in film are often quite sniffy about TV. What you hear a lot in British film is we don’t want his to be ‘too TV’ in a slightly pejorative sense. I think that comes because compared to Hollywood visually on camera there is something unglamourous about Britain. When you add that to the fact there isn’t as much money sloshing around than is quite difficult to make a good British film. You’ll make more money writing for TV and you’ll often have a more glamourous, glossy product than you will for film. However, slots on TV are quite hard to come by so a lot of young people I talk to are thinking more about making independent films and controlling their own product and their own destiny as they can’t seem to get a break with commissioners. Sometimes there is more opportunity creatively to succeed in film than there is in TV. 

NB: And in terms of TV funny and film funny is there a different comic sensibililty?

DM: There isn’t as much in the cinema that makes me laugh as much as stuff on TV does. It’s much easier to be funnier on TV – you have half an hour and you don’t have any of the strictures of plot and character and narrative that takes you through the hour and a half of a film. In half an hour you can pretty much afford to focus on just being funny and have enough of a plot there to keep your interest but when you’re sitting down in a cinema there’s a very different standard.

NB: Do you think that the internet creates opportunity for film makers?

DM: I think probably 99% of what goes on the interenet is slightly rubbish and I think it is a long leap from internet to film. Where Sacha and I started on The 11’Oclock Show, it’s quite a shortleap from doing something funny on the internet to doing three minutes on a show like that. I think that if someone is bright than there can be opportunities from there to have a sketch show or a topical comedy show perhaps. It’s definitely a new outlet there to be exploited. I mostly watch cats playing the piano and people falling into ice so am not that au fait with what is out there at the moment though.

NB: Do you think your background as a producer is useful to you as a writer?

DM: I think it’s of limited use though It’s good to be aware of practicalities when you’re writing. For example I know that if I write ‘four thousand aliens descend from a crystal spaceship hovering nine miles above Acton’, that has implications in terms of how it gets done. I’m quite a realist in knowing how things gets done and what’s possible in things translating from script to screen. However, being a producer at that time was just to create an opportunity for me to write stuff so I was a producer who wrote a bit and now I’m a writer who produces a bit. I find the producing side a bit dull so I try and dodge that as much as possible. 

NB: Were there any early influences or experiences that perhaps pushed you towards comedy writing?

DM: My dad was fantastically funny and I was raised on Seargant Bilco and The Three Stooges and all those sorts of thing. Comedy was my dad’s thing and he’d joke and all things would be hilarious and that’s probably where i get it from. It was a relatively mundane background, certainly no showbiz in there. The school I went to has this ludicrous comic legacy though. It was called Haberdashers and people like David Baddiel, Matt Lucas and Sacha Baron Cohen all went there. We were all slightly weak Jews and no one really fought as we were all slightly too scared of authority and slightly too weak so we sublimated all of that and instead of hitting each other we would joust verbally. 

NB: What’s your process for writing with Sacha?

DM: Sacha comes up with the character and then we embellish it is really is how its worked with all the Sacha stuff. The original incarnation of Ali G was not what ended up on screen. We sat down with others aswell and honed it and put ideas on it and the same happened with Borat – we started out with the idea of a funny Eastern European character based largely on a voice and a physicality and through the process of writing we added all of the kinks like anti-semitism and his wierd Kazak mythology on top of it. 

NB: The Bruno and Borat projects are quite unique. I read that you wrote pages and pages of script for the potential things that people might say so you would have dozens of options ready. Does stand up help with that type of writing?

DM: The way stand up does help is the emphasis on jokes and what I think is good about Ali G and Borat and Bruno is that we try and make as much of what they say an actual joke rather than a whimsical thought or an amusing comment. The sensibility is almost that the person we’re interviewing provides the feedline and we provide the punch line and an actual joke. It’s using the rhythmns and grammar of stand up and jokes in a slightly new and innovative way. Those projects are effectively us thinking of twenty funny situations and a way to link them together so that is a unique form of writing that doesn’t bear any relation to ‘proper films’.

NB: Do you have an character arc in mind?

DM: We definitely have an overall journey where we know we want Borat or Bruno to go from A to B or to learn XYZ lessons on the way but within that definitely the emphasis is placed on the funny set pieces.

NB: Once you have the set pieces when do you begin writing on the page or what planning out to you do?

DM: You will speak to every writer and each of them will have a different technique, but what I tend to do is start writing really and once I’ve thought of these set pieces in the funny world I’ll do a couple of pages of a relatively putative treatment and think these will be the funny characters and this will be their plot but I won’t plot out scene by scene as I find that as I’m writing new ideas always crop up and change so all that work is effectively wasted. However, I know lots of writers who like to have everything planned before they do it and just follow that template pretty much to the letter. My philosophy is the same with everything like with homework and school where you leave it all the last minute and then panic!

NB: Do you have an editing process then once you have the first draft?

DM: I get the first draft done and then I’ll read that myself and go back in and edit and do a little self polish on that which will get it down a few pages but whoever I’m handing it to the film company or the producer or director it will probably be a bit long and I’ll let them make the more difficult decision for me in terms of what should go and what shouldn’t as after 8-10 weeks of writing at that point you’re in need of a bit of oxygen from somebody else that they can breathe into it and a fresh set of eyes. 

NB: How has sitting in the editing suite influenced your writing?

DM: I remember starting off when we did our first script for the Ali G film Richard Curtis had a look over it and said okay film all this but I’m telling you this, this, this this and this won’t end up in the film. We looked and thought all those bits were really funny and great and when we had finished we looked back at the film and he was absolutely right so there is just a sense that you get once you’ve been through the process of making a few films of what is extraneous. Even though you have an hour and  a half it all has to be pretty tight and relevant and as you’re watching a movie there really isn’t any room for a little detour on a flight of fancy because you are so easily put off the scent – so going through the process definitely gives you a discipline of what is and isn’t relevant. 

NB: For a first time writer how can you bring that discipline to your work?

DM: Find somebody who isn’t a first time writer with a bit of experience to guide you through that process whether that is another writer or your producer. The easiest thing in the world is to put a line through something so there’s no harm I don’t tend to think in handing in a really long first draft or your first attempt being really just too long as someone will just put a line though it. So find people whose judgement you trust and think you can rely on and let them help you. 

NB: You are currently signed up to be a judge on the Big 5 comedy scriptwriting competition where the winning short film will be made. What opportunity does that give to one lucky writer and what advice would you give them?

DM: The opportunities that arise from it are brilliant. I don’t think writing a short film will help you in terms of technique to write a feature but what it will do is open doors and get you access to people. For an individual that’s a really good thing to do but the world at large doesn’t really care about shorts. No one knows who has won the Oscar for short film but lots of those people then go on to great things. Most short films revolve around one concept or idea – they are a bit like modern art. It’s one idea that you stretch out to ten minutes and it’s funny in that way but I don’t think most good short ideas will go on to be features – they stand alone. 

You should set out to make the best film you can and use it as a calling card and I think focus on it for being what it is rather than the potential to be a bigger movie. Also suck up all the knowledge you can. Just being on set will teach you a million things about how it is made and directed, how your words translate from the page to the screen. All of that is the same for a short as a feature. Go into the edit as we were talking about before and see what is extraneous and works in terms of jokes and where the economy comes from – that is the same as a short as a feature – working out where a scene should end or whether you have written one joke too many in a run or whether you haven’t  thought of a good enough punch line. Or watching with an audience. there is nothing in the world that tells you more about what your script than seeing an audiences reaction. And that is the difficulty and beauty of comedy – people are either laughing or they’re not. You can’t hide behind anything so there is nothing more shaming or exhilarating than the first time you show something and the nerves are just extraordinary because you know they are supposed to laugh at a certain point and if they don’t you’re failed. If they’re not laughing it’s brutal. For anything I’ve ever made I’ve always showed longish cuts or rough cuts to an audience because you can’t be arrogant or egotistical as a comedy writer – you have to know when things aren’t working. Sometimes you have to kill your babies. Sometimes my favourite jokes have absolutely died and much as I’ve loved them if people aren’t laughing you can’t be self indulgent and keep them. So listen to the audience and to what they’re telling you. Even when you’re on set listen to what the crew think of a joke – note that down if the crew like it – that means something.

Just the very act, the process, the priviledge that you the words that you wrote on a page are now real that can tell you more than anything and it is a real priviledge as most words don’t make it further than the page – most of my words don’t make it further than the page. That is the same for everyone whether a first timer or Stephen Spielberg. The fact that you are going through that process lifts you above most people and makes you priviledged and you should suck all of that up. 

NB: Do you have to be very strict at ideas stage?

DM: You have to be rigorous with yourself and really ask yourself if something is truly funny. Then you have to trust your judgement. Your most important critic is yourself and you have to take ego out of it and believe in your heart of hearts that it is funny. Just imagine having to read it in front of people. Imagine actors reading it and just think would I be happy to sit in a room and hear this or would it be slightly embarrassing. The brutality of an audience whether it’s stand up or watching your film or at a read through – there is nothing quite as lonely as that silence after a joke has failed. It’s horrible and so you should do everything in your power to avoid that. For quality control when I’m writing I think will I be proud if people say that line aloud. 

(c) Norma Burke

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