Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jonah Weiner

The Judd Apatow paradox

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Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann

I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with a film editor that didn’t fascinate me from beginning to end, and Jonah Weiner’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of Brent White—Judd Apatow’s editor of choice—is no exception. Film editors need to think more intensely and exclusively about problems of structure than any other creative professional, and they represent a relatively neglected source of insights into storytelling of all kinds. Here are a few choice tidbits:

There are moments where [Will Ferrell] is thinking what the joke is, then he knows what the joke is, and then he’s saying the joke. Making the leap from one to two to three. What I’m doing is tightening up that leap for him: improving the rhythm, boom-boom-boom.

I reverse-engineer the scene to make sure I can get to the joke. Then it becomes bridge-building. How do I get to this thing from this other thing I like?

[Apatow will sometimes] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.

Weiner’s piece happened to appear only a few weeks after Stephen Rodrick of The New Yorker published a similar profile of Allison Jones, Apatow’s casting director, and it’s hard not to take them as two halves of a whole. Jones initiates the process that White completes, looking, as the article notes, for “comedic actors who, more than just delivering jokes, [can] improvise and riff on their lines, creating something altogether different from what was on the page.” (As Apatow puts it: “Allison doesn’t just find us actors; she finds us people we want to work with the rest of our lives.”) White then sifts through that mountain of material—which can be something like two million feet of film for an Apatow movie, an amount once reserved for the likes of Stanley Kubrick—to pick out the strongest pieces and fit them into some kind of coherent shape. It’s an approach that has been enormously influential on everything from a single-camera sitcom like Parks & Recreation, which allows actors to improvise freely without the pressure of a live audience, to a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, which indulges Jonah Hill’s riffs almost to a fault. And although it’s been enabled by the revolution in digital video and editing, which allows miles of footage to be shot without bankrupting the production, it also requires geniuses like Jones and White who can facilitate the process on both ends.

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

Yet as much as I admire what Jones, White, and the rest have done, I’m also a little skeptical. There’s no avoiding the fact that the Apatow approach has suffered from diminishing returns: if I had to list The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This is 40 in order of quality, I’d end up ranking them by release date. From one minute to another, each can be hilarious, but when your comedic philosophy is predicated on keeping the camera rolling until something good happens, there’s an unavoidable loss of momentum. The greatest comedies are the ones that just won’t stop building; Apatow’s style has a way of dissipating its own energy from one scene to the next, precisely because each moment has to be built up from scratch. A Frat Pack comedy may objectively have more jokes per minute than Some Like It Hot or Annie Hall, but they start to feel like the comedic equivalent of empty calories, leaving you diverted but unsatisfied, and less energized by the end than exhausted. The fact that Anchorman 2 exists in two versions, with the same basic structure but hundreds of different jokes, can be taken, if you’re in a generous mood, as a testament to the comic fertility of the talents involved—but it can also start to look like evidence of how arbitrary each joke was in the first place. If one funny line can be removed and another inserted seamlessly in its place, it reminds us that neither really had to be there at all.

But if I’m being hard on Apatow and his collaborators, it’s because their approach holds such promise—if properly reined in. Comedy depends on a kind of controlled anarchy; when the balance slips too much to the side of control, as in the lesser works of the Coen Brothers, the result can seem arch and airless. And at their best, Apatow’s films have an unpredictable, jazzy charge. But a few constraints, properly placed, can allow that freedom to truly blossom. A movie like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye can’t be accused of sticking too much to the script: perhaps five minutes total is devoted to the plot, and much of the rest consists of the characters simply hanging around. Yet it uses the original Chandler novel, and the structure provided by Leigh Brackett’s screenplay, as a low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing moving at a steady but leisurely clip. As a result, it feels relaxed in a way that Apatow’s movies don’t. The latter may seem loose and shaggy, but they’re also characterized by an underlying tension, almost a desperation, to avoid going for more than a few seconds without a laugh, and it cancels out much of the gain in spontaneity. It promises us that we’ll be hanging out for two hours with a bunch of fun people, but it leaves us feeling pummeled. By freeing itself from the script, it turns itself, paradoxically, into a movie that can’t stop moving. The great comedies of the past could live in the spaces between jokes; the modern version has to be funny or die.

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