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Notes on Comedy, My Own and Others’

June 24, 2013 | by

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Although we associate comedy with spontaneity, the comedies I’ve made to date—including this new one, I’m So Excited!—are rehearsed exhaustively during preproduction and afterward during shooting. Spontaneity is always the product of rehearsal.

A script isn’t finished until the film has opened. I rehearse a script as if it was a play. As it happens, both Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I’m So Excited! are play-like, in the sense that the action takes place mainly on one set. I rehearse them like plays, but I don’t film them like plays (actually, I’ve never directed a play, so I don’t know what it’s like). They’re very verbal comedies: the action lies basically in the words and in the openness of the characters.

I usually improvise a lot in rehearsals, then I rewrite the scenes and rehearse them again, and so on, to the point of obsession. With improvisations, the scenes usually grow longer, but it’s the best way I know to find nuances and parallel situations that I would never discover if we stuck rigidly to the script. After stretching the scenes out and blowing them up, I rewrite them again, trying to synthesize what has been improvised. And then we rehearse again. Some of the actors, especially Carlos Areces, can’t bear you to cut a single one of their jokes, even if it has come up while the scene is looking for itself and hasn’t yet gelled. Everything that comes up and involves his character belongs to him. If it were up to him, the film would last three hours. (At times I shoot two versions of the same scene, and I admit that at times I edit the “improvised” one.) Lola Dueñas is another one who immediately appropriates all the antics that occur to me during the first rehearsals. Afterward, it’s heartrending to tell her that it was just a game, a way of stretching, of being crazy, of probing, of losing all sense of the ridiculous—above all losing respect for the script—and that it was all just an exercise. When Lola sees me improvising a scene with her character, however exaggerated it may be, if she likes it, she grabs on to it and it’s impossible to convince her that I was just fooling around. I admit that at times she’s managed to get her own way. When I had the idea for the mise-en-scène of the first time she goes into a trance in the cockpit, looking for sensations while groping the two pilots’ bodies, all those involved laughed, but I never thought about editing the scene like that—and yet that’s how it turned out in the film. After much insistence, Lola asked me at least to look at how she did it and then decide. The point was, I had to give her the chance to play the scene that way. She did it, and after seeing it, I had no choice but to include it. Lola is capable of breathing such truth into the most insane situations that she manages to make any craziness plausible.

Theater-style rehearsals are aimed at achieving another key element in comedy: the rhythm, the timing. Timing in comedy is not like rational time. When the actor gives his reply, he hasn’t had the physical or mental time to assimilate the previous line, but he has to deliver his reply at full speed. No one is going to wonder if he’s understood what was being said to him. If the audience does wonder, it’s a bad sign. Within comedy, the style that teaches you about rhythm (as do all of Woody Allen’s films, but I think that’s because the New York director is in a hurry) is screwball, the crazy American comedy. Think of Midnight (Mitchell Leisen), The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor), Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks), Ninotchka (Billy Wilder), The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges), To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch), Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen), Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges), or in general any comedy where the comeback is delivered by Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, or Katherine Hepburn. (Marilyn is a goddess of the genre but she had her own rhythm, a lethal rhythm. Seductresses in general need that rhythm in order to seduce. Marlene Dietrich, even when directed by Lubitsch, never managed to talk quickly. These are the exceptions. Beautiful stars, male or female, aren’t usually good comic actors. Let’s add Sophia Loren and Penélope Cruz to the list of exceptions. Both are gorgeous and they can also talk at breakneck speed. Then again, one passes as a Neapolitan and the other is from Alcobendas.) But, for example, Claudette Colbert can talk a blue streak, and Ginger Rogers and also Katherine Hepburn, who is very beautiful to contemporary eyes but was odd for the canons of the time.

Timing. Rapid-fire dialogue. Rehearsals. Otherwise, even though the situations are funny, and the actors excellent and with resources, the film becomes long and so do the scenes. I don’t want to point the finger, but one example of this problem is Bridesmaids. The director lets the actresses improvise until they come up with the right joke. You shouldn’t improvise in front of the camera. It should happen long beforehand. To crown it all, both the editor and the director are in love with the actresses and the material shot. The result is an attractive film, but one that lasts 125 minutes; it is saved because Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are wonderful comedians. Another golden rule: comedies shouldn’t last more than an hour and a half. Think about it: our favorites usually last between seventy-five and ninety minutes.

The rhythm of my comedies depends on the actors and the editing. There are schools that favor this rhythm and schools that are an attack against it. Among the former, it helps to have a lot of experience in genre films (vampires, zombies, diabolical possessions, aliens, robots, espionage, etc.) or a background in cabaret. These are the two best schools. I use cabaret loosely, in both a Mediterranean and an Anglo-Saxon way. To me, for example, Saturday Night Live, for decades the cradle of the best American comics, is cabaret, whereas The Actor’s Studio, for all the respect and admiration it deserves, seems to me just the opposite. Brando as a comic actor? No. And he tried it. He even sang and danced in Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), stiff as a board. Brando was too self-aware. I don’t know whether Montgomery Clift ever tried his hand at comedy, but I can’t imagine him in a comic part. Or James Dean. Or Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t debate the greatness of Daniel Day-Lewis (or any of them), but no matter how thin he may be, he can’t manage to give the slightest sensation of lightness. Once again, Marilyn Monroe is the exception that proves the rule. Adopted by the Strasbergs, she managed to overcome the weight of the Method.

In any case, going back to the subject of men and comedy, in the golden era of screwball, the thirties and forties, even if you weren’t a great comic actor or you couldn’t be compared with the Absolute King, Cary Grant, if you had a good script and were good-looking, and fell into the hands of Ernst Lubitsch, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, or Howard Hawks, you could pass yourself off with dignity as a comic actor. Not just Joel McCrea and Gary Cooper—even the excessively macho types like Clark Gable, James Stewart, and John Wayne emerged unharmed, quite attractive and very well dressed in legendary comedies. Then once you lost the freshness of your early twenties, you could let yourself go, get on a horse, well armed, and become a legend of the West.

Another special case is actors or actresses with charm. Audrey Hepburn is the epitome of charm, along with Shirley MacLaine. Both were a genre in themselves. And Cary Grant, always. And Rex Harrison and his wife Kay Kendall. A comic actor can use charm and class. Or prominent teeth, as, for example, Carol Burnett or Marta Fernández Muro, or simply by being English: Maggie Smith. Or verging on being a clown (Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball, Lina Morgan). Or a regular guy, like Jack Lemmon, or just ugly and sarcastic: Walter Matthau. Having an odd, almost shrill voice also helps and works very well in this genre. Think of Judy Holliday, Gracita Morales, Verónica Forqué. I should name a French comedian … Here’s one, Arletty, a woman who was several decades ahead of her time in her acting style, direct and contemporary. The above mentioned characteristics would be of no use if they weren’t accompanied by loads of talent, as is the case with all of them.

Some ladies and men of film noir managed, thanks to good scripts and a sense of rhythm, to be really funny. The prize goes to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And Myrna Loy with William Powell in the very funny Thin Man series. They stretched the characters created by Dashiell Hammett into six feature films, always overflowing with charm, style, and wit. This brings us to another of the essential keys that a comedy must respect: couples.

When the miracle of chemistry between two or more actors arises, everything must be put at its service. In comedy, as in other genres, the chemistry between couples is sacred and has produced results that have made history in this notable hundred-year-old art. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, Rafaela Aparicio and Florinda Chico, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, Carole Lombard and any other actor they put beside her, Fernán Gómez and Analía Gadé, Loren and Mastroianni, Vittorio de Sica and all his partners, Tony Leblanc and Conchita Velasco, López Vázquez accompanied by Gracita Morales, Alfredo Landa, Manuel Alexandre, or any actor of their generation, Maria Luisa Ponte, Laly Soldevila also with any actor or actress, Luis Ciges, alone or in the company of others, Tota Alba, Trini Alonso, Pajares and Esteso, Edgard Neville and Conchita Montes, Martes and Trece, Tip and Coll and so many others. I didn’t intend to include Spanish actors so that there should be no comparative insults, but I couldn’t help it. There are many more than those mentioned.

I’m a great admirer of the Spanish school of acting, and the Mediterranean school in general. I wouldn’t include them in the screwball style: in the thirties and forties Spain wasn’t in any condition to make crazy comedies; our tragic reality only allowed for cinematic escapism via quaint, traditional, very honorable comedies. But the Mediterranean school has its own identity in the way it tackles all the genres, and it is very different from the British or American schools, or the French (which obviously I don’t include even though geographically it is Mediterranean).

In the Mediterranean school, what dominates is the characters’ passion, carnality, and openness, as if the characters didn’t respect themselves or others. This quality suits comedy very well. The women and men are made of flesh and blood, they haven’t been to the hairdresser, and they shout a lot, they lose control, it seems they’re going to devour each other, even though afterwards everything is resolved as it should be, in bed. They are less elegant than the Saxons, but sexier. This closeness to the earth and reality allows the Mediterranean school to talk about social problems with great humor, laughing at life’s limitations—or tragedies, depending on the era—and letting light and laughter break through the blackness. A maestro, unclassifiable and unique, who worked with the greatest local exponents of this way of acting was Luis García Berlanga.

Light and artifice. The kind of comedy that inspired I’m So Excited! is stylistically very artificial, the lighting and the settings crackle with pastel colors, underscored by red, that deliberately avoid realism and naturalism. Humor shouldn’t worry about political correctness. On the contrary, taboo and humor are two antagonistic concepts. Comedy of any kind allows you to tackle all subjects, even the most shocking. In 1940, the genius Charlie Chaplin dared to make Nazism the subject of a delicious comedy. I can’t think of a more terrifying subject than Nazism. Could Monty Pythons, Mae West, or Saturday Night Live ever have been politically correct? No.

I’m So Excited! is about to land on our screens. I have to thank all the actors for their blind, total commitment. Now we just have to wait for someone to laugh, or smile, or leave the cinema in a better mood than when they entered. After all, that’s what comedy is all about, and that’s no small thing.

This piece originally appeared in El País.  

2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Frances Uku (@missuku) | June 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Any actor should be so lucky as to find herself on an Almodóvar set! A thousand thanks, Paris Review, for this masterclass.

  2. Bob Lince | June 25, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Much thanks to Pedro Almodóvar for this, although I wish he had mentioned the great Vittorio Gassman.

    And I recommend to him the strangely misused, or rather unused, talents of Cyndi Lauper whose almost Gracie Allen-like qualities seem to be unrecognized by this generation of film makers.

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