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Posts Tagged ‘Ernst Lubitsch’

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. Read More »

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Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy

June 28, 2012 | by

In April The Believer declared Nora Ephron “the original Tina Fey.” This week, an obituary on The Daily Beast said that she was bigger than Twain. Both superlatives gloss over the fact that Ephron’s work was widely reviled (a Village Voice review of Bewitched even argued that “the Ephrons should have to sharecrop, for all the good they've done for the culture”) and that, even for Ephron devotees, part of the charm of seeing her latest flick was wondering whether it’d be typical Burbank dung (Mixed Nuts! Michael!) or a piece of deathless Hollywood legend.

Ephron kept dice in her purse, was willing to “teach almost anyone how to play craps at a moment’s notice,” and her writing had a gambler’s unevenness. The rambling digressiveness, along with the faint datedness, of her worldview only intensified your shock when Ephron arrived, seemingly by accident, at an incisive thought. Here she is in her 1983 roman à clef Heartburn, recounting a speech she often made while preparing Lillian Hellman’s pot roast recipe:

I have no problem with her political persona, or with her insistence on making herself the centerpiece of most of the historical conflicts of the twentieth century; but it seems to me that she invented a romantic fantasy about her involvement with Dashiell Hammett that is every bit as unrealistic as the Doris Day movies feminists prefer to blame for society’s unrealistic notions about romance … it occurred to me as I delivered [the speech] yet another time that I had always zipped through that part of the speech as if I had somehow managed to be invulnerable to the fantasy, as if I had somehow managed to escape from or rise above it simply as a result of having figured it out. I think you often have that sense when you write—that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it.

As someone who was corn-fed on her movies as a child, the passage seems eerily prophetic. Seeing Ephron gab about “unrealistic notions about romance” in 1983 is rather like hearing those reports that the young L. Ron Hubbard told friends, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion”—and it hints at the nagging contradictions of Nora Ephron’s life.

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