Shawn Levy: Five tips for directing comedians
The ''Date Night'' director shares his wisdom
1. Build a quirky house.
My backyard has a huge sycamore tree that grows right up through the balcony of my home. The builders, some 50 years ago, were wise to recognize that that tree was too awesome and too beautiful to chop down or ignore. When you direct a big-time, supertalented comedian, think sycamore; build the movie around the tree.
2. Don’t be a dictator.
No comedy ever got funnier by handcuffing the comedians’ talent. On Date Night, I had two of the best comedic actors around. In addition to being funny as hell, Steve and Tina are smart, intuitive, and insightful actors. In prep, in principal photography, and even in post, my actors were — as they always are when you’re dealing with formidable talents — my creative partners, my teammates. This collaborative process not only benefits the movie, it also makes work a helluva lot more fun.
3. Think Apocalypse Now.
Remember the line ”Never get out of the boat!”? Well, on a comedy set, it’s ”Never cut!” If you can help it, that is. Comedic actors like to rev it up, find a rhythm, get a head of steam, and see where it leads them (which is often to the funniest, freshest places). Every time you cut, it’s like letting the air out of the balloon. Makeup touches, chitchat, technical talk, whatever — it all lets the air out of the tire, and you’re therefore asking your actors to rev it up all over again. If you can help it, stay rolling.
4. Don’t ask your performers to save a scene through improv.
Improv can make a scene better — like, way, way better, believe me — but you can’t lean on ad-libs to find or save a scene that’s mediocre on the page. On the first Night at the Museum, we had a scene where Ben Stiller was conversing with miniature Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan. Stiller came to me, unsatisfied with the scene, and unsure whether it was soundly built yet. I flew into DEFCON 1, rewriting the scene half a dozen times from the set while on the phone with my cadre of come-through writers. Together, we revised the scene for 48 hours, until Ben and I both felt satisfied. The shooting day came, and Ben proceeded to improvise 75 percent of the scene with his fellow actors. And while it was tempting to view the whole crazy last-minute rewrite panic as a hollow exercise, I realized that the only reason Ben, Owen, and Steve felt loose enough to go off-road was because they had a good, strong scene to begin with.
5. Laugh a lot.
Off camera, I mean. If you find something funny, laugh. Ruin the take if you need to. (I have!) These performers, whether comedic or not, but especially comedic, are putting themselves out there for you, for us. Reward that ballsiness by validating their work. If the s—t is funny, let them hear it. Give them the love. They’ll give it back.