PRODUCTION TIPS: Pedro Almodovar's 4 Pointers on Directing Comedies

Film fans are no stranger to the works of Pedro Almodovar.  He has established himself among the greats with his signature style composed of flairs for whimsical irreverence and melodramatic colors taken to a hysterical artistic level.  Although they might not seem to, they possess a certain gravitas because as ridiculous as the characters seem to act and are, they're still grounded with a sensual spirit and authentic emotions.

Upon the release of his newest comedy in 20 years, I'm So Excited!, Almodovar wrote notes for The Paris Review (but first published by El País) on his process of making comedies and I distilled 4 points of advice filmmakers can use in making theirs.

EVEN COMEDY THAT SEEMS SPONTANEOUS REQUIRES REHEARSAL. "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."

SUCCESSFUL IMPROVISATION REQUIRES REHEARSALS AND REWRITING THEN REPEATING THOSE 2 STEPS AGAIN AND AGAIN. "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."

STUDY SCREWBALL COMEDIES TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO DEVELOP THE TIMING AND RHYTHM YOUR MOVIE NEEDS."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.)"

IN SUM, GENRE FILMS AND CABARET, ALONG WITH ACTING AND EDITING, ARE THE KEYS TO THE RHYTHM NEEDED FOR A COMEDY.  "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."

Click here for the full article including how he improvised with actors, Carlos Areces and Lola Dueñas; what he thinks hurts Bridesmaids; the Mediterranean style of acting; and, the incomparable comedic effectiveness of the great actors and actresses of the 30s and 40s.

I'm So Excited! will be coming to a theater near you soon. Check the trailer here.

BONUS: Q&A with Pedro Almodovar on the making of I'm So Excited! and the music including why he chose the title song for the film.  Of particular interest, he discusses the the length of rehearsal and some of the other points he mentioned in his notes above (starting at 8:18 until 9:50).


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