Monday, August 3, 2009

Pros can break the rules - Funny People

I've talked before on this blog about the importance of keeping your script under 120 pages, and how lately, 105-115 pages is the new maximum range. There are always a lot of amateur writers who get defensive when told about these and other maxims. With an air of both paranoia and indignation, they sharply ask, "So if my script is 121 pages long, some idiot is gonna throw it in the trash without reading it? Bullshit! No one does that to Frank Darabount! And haven't you ever heard of Lord of the Rings! That script was long and it broke your rules about not writing sequels at the same time, so HA!"

Hey dummy, come closer... I wanna whisper something to you. No, that's all right. Just a little closer...


Listen to me... You are not Frank Darabount. Once you've made money for the studio you can bend all the rules you like. But right now, you are Joe Nobody Baby Writer. You are plankton. you are the pre-frosh in the fraternity that is Hollywood. I'm trying to help you out here.

When you're writing on spec, consider that 115 page barrier a line that you cross at your own peril. Most of the time, it'll even force you to write a better script. If you're coming up with 130 pages for your buddy comedy, odds are you haven't yet had to cut out some of your weaker jokes. Or perhaps you've got too many extraneous subplots going on. The fatter your script, the better chance you lack a central focus.

I've had to give many a writer these sorts of notes when they've broken the "unspoken rules" and its uncanny how the more argumentative a writer is to these notes, the worse their writing is. It's a sign of laziness - they're determined to reassure themselves that the note-giver knows nothing because then that means they don't have to rewrite. Usually, bad attitude=bad writer.

This is not to say that there aren't good writers who disagree with these points, but they also understand why this note is given, and accept it's a reality they have to deal with. They work on surviving within those constraints without compromising their script.

Why am I saying all this now? Because I just sat through Funny People - a 146 minute Judd Apatow comedy. I like most of Judd's movies. I think he's got some fun concepts, he knows how to create memorable characters, and usually there's a lot of heart to his work. Still, I usually walk out of his films thinking, "That felt about 20 minutes too long." This time I felt that he ran about 45 minutes long.

It has some nice moments, and there were some strong scenes where I really connected with the characters. Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances in a long time as a comedian who is diagnosed with a terminal disease and given low odds of beating it. The first 90 minutes or so is about how he deals with that - realizing that he isn't close to anyone in his life. The only person he tells is an aspiring comedian played by Seth Rogan, who he hires as his assistant. The movie is strong when it pursues that thru-line.

Then, about an hour and a half into the movie, the story changes gears. Viewers of the trailer won't be shocked by this story turn, but I'll still endeavor to be discreet. It's a fair turn, and the plot continues to follow through on elements set up earlier, but once this happens the film becomes an entirely different movie. It's less about the relationship between Sandler and Rogan, and more about the relationship between Sandler and a now-married old flame played by Mrs. Judd Apatow aka Leslie Mann.

Had this not been the work of a man who wrote and directed the $109 million grossing The 40 Year-Old Virgin and the nearly $150 million Knocked Up, it's fair to say that studio execs would have given this script's wandering narrative and large page-count a bit more scrutiny. Considering that the film's opening was something of a disappointment, it might not be a stretch to say that Apatow might not be given quite so much freedom on his next project. At the very least, I can see execs forcing him to turn in tighter running times, and scapegoating Funny People's length for the poor box office returns.

But remember that you - Joe Nobody Baby Writer - are NOT Judd Apatow. If you're writing a comedy, keep it around 105 pages.


  1. I completely agree about length. When I'm selecting which scripts to read, I generally look for something under 110 -- especially if it's a comedy. There are very few movies out there that are over 2 hours, and chances are, a new writer isn't going to be writing Oscar bait or Titanic-like blockbusters.

  2. The main reason I didn't want to see Funny People is less about length and more about it looking like a movie about stand-up comedians. I don't enjoy completely self-indulgent work. But your explanation actually makes me interested.

    Honestly, though, I don't know of any story made over 120 minutes that HAD to be that long.

  3. Really, Emily? I honestly don't mean any offense, but maybe you should watch more movies.

    Each of these are over 120 minutes
    LA Confidential
    Pulp Fiction
    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    The Godfather 1 and 2
    Apocalypse Now
    The Matrix
    Boogie Nights
    There Will Be Blood
    No Country For Old Men
    Batman Begins
    The Dark Knight
    The Prestige
    Schindler's List
    Saving Private Ryan
    Wild Bunch
    Seven Samurai
    Fight Club

    These are titles from one shelf of my DVD's.

    Did they have to be that long? Maybe not. You could've cut out some of the brilliance to make it more watchable for modern day audiences unable to sit still.

    But you could say the same about many books. Do they really have to be over 300 pages? Should any song really be over 4 minutes long?

    I say yes. For those people that can't handle it, rent the movie and fast forward any scenes that look dull to you.

  4. I'll again cite Roger Ebert: "No good movie is too long. No bad movie is too short."

  5. Does anyone know where can I find the script of Apatow's Funny People? I'm making the romanian subtitles and I really need it! Please, help!!!