“Never think of somebody else when you write.” The Farrelly Brothers
The Farrelly brothers on flushing out clichés, tabling scripts, and the purpose of humor.
By Daniel Argent.
This article was first published in Creative Screenwriting Volume 8, #6, 2001.
The Farrelly brothers have created their own niche in screenwriting. Their mix of sweet if befuddled heroes, almost-anything-goes humor, and the fluids, sounds, eruptions and ejaculations of the human body combine to form a very specific subgenre of comedy. Not bad for two guys who, as Peter Farrelly points out, were “never good at anything. We weren’t good as students, we weren’t good out of school, we were terrible salesmen.”
A post-college epiphany led Peter to Columbia University’s writing program, where he met future writing partner Bennett Yellin. Peter and Yellin moved to Los Angeles in 1985, and their first script turned them into working screenwriters. They used Bobby Farrelly as a punch-up man for their scripts, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Peter’s younger brother (by seventeen months) left Rhode Island—where he’d filled up his non-writing hours with entrepreneurial projects like the Sun Spot, the world’s first round beach towel—for Hollywood.
The trio wrote Dumb & Dumber in 1990; the film was finally produced in 1994 with first-timer Peter in the director’s chair. The Farrelly brothers then developed a two-year release pattern: Kingpin (written by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan, which they directed in 1996); There’s Something About Mary (1998); and Me, Myself and Irene (2000).
With Shallow Hal the brothers took the next step, moving from gag-centric humor and toward more character-based laughs. The story, conceived by friend and former roommate Sean Moynihan, tells of an average-looking man who unsuccessfully chases beautiful women. “What I find interesting,” said Bobby, “is that Sean, who is legally blind, wrote a screenplay about inner beauty.” With guidance and assistance from Peter Farrelly, Moynihan created the script that would eventually become Shallow Hal.
Creative Screenwriting conducted separate interviews with the Farrellys, which have been merged together for this article. Bobby’s interview was completed in early September 2001, with Peter’s interview coming a week later. In between those two calls came the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Farrellys had flown from Boston to Los Angeles on the morning of Monday, September 10. If they had flown out a day later, they would have been on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. As soon as Peter and Bobby heard about the attacks, they rented a car and embarked on a four-day cross-country road trip to return to their wives and children. In the shadow of such a horrific event, it was sometimes uncomfortable discussing how to make people laugh, but this odd, sad turn of events gave Peter reason to reflect on the healing power of comedy in times of tragedy.
How did you get involved with Shallow Hal, and what kind of work did you do on the script?
Peter: Sean Moynihan came to me with the idea. We worked out the story together while he was writing it, then he handed it over to me and Bobby. It was Sean’s idea, but I was with him from the start.
Bobby: Sean wrote a beautiful script. The problem with it was that there were a bunch of clichés in it. When Pete and I write our own scripts, it takes us four or five drafts to flush out our own clichés. Any time you see something you’re familiar with you think, “How can else can you get the same thing without going down a road that’s been gone down so many times that the audience knows what’s going to happen?” So we attempted to flush out a lot of the clichés in Sean’s script.
For example, in the original draft Hal went to a fortune teller to find out what was going to become of him and the fortune teller ended up putting a spell on him where he sees people at a different level. That’s a big part of the story, and we thought it was flawed. It’s magical, and it’s a leap of faith for you to believe that could happen. To have that leap of faith is risky in a story that is otherwise pretty much reality based. Whether or not people would go with that, we just weren’t sure.
What we ended up doing is that Hal gets stuck in an elevator with Tony Robbins, who gets Hal to change the way his mind works. I thought, “I don’t know if Tony Robbins could actually do this, but it’s sort of believable that he could.” So we got away from a cliché, and we made something that’s fresh and original. Tony Robbins is a real guy, and maybe if you spent a whole day with him he could get you to change the way you see things.
Comedy scripts often get tabled, and I’m sure Shallow Hal was no exception. Could you walk through the process of tabling Hal?
Bobby: I never really understood if this was something the Writers Guild was totally against or not, but before we go to bat with a movie, we’re going to sit down and table that script with ten of the smartest and funniest guys that we know. We’re going to go through it and read each line. Any time anyone has a way of making it better, we’re going to listen to him. If a guy says, “My bullshit meter’s going off,” we’re going to listen. We’ve done that on every movie.
You can look at a script so many times that you don’t see an inherent flaw because you’re too attached to it. You bring someone else in and he’s read it once and he says, “I don’t like this character, or this scene,” and it’s like, “Wow, that’s something that we need to step back and evaluate.” Rather than put your dukes up and say, “Oh no, you’re wrong and we’re right,” you really need to flush it out. Maybe there’s something to what he’s saying. And a lot of times you say, “I understand where you’re coming from, but we’re going to do it anyway.”
On Shallow Hal, one of the guys we brought in was Jeff Ross. A guy we respect tremendously as a comedian, very funny, a sharp mind, and just a good guy. When he says something, you better listen. Well, he said that he didn’t agree about Tony Robbins as the story device to replace the fortuneteller. We thought this was a way to strengthen the script, but we also knew we better hear him out. We talked about it for an hour and everybody gave their opinions. There was a sizable chunk of the guys who didn’t like the Tony Robbins character. They felt that was like breaking frame. But ultimately we thought, we gotta trust our own opinion here. We didn’t come up with anything better as we were sitting around the table, and we liked it, so we’re comfortable with it. So we went ahead. But it is something we had to consider. Because Jeff’s other five ideas were on the mark.
You’ve said that when you strip away the vomit and semen jokes, your scripts are really just saccharin stories about a guy going after the girl he’s in love with. With Irene and Hal, it seems like you’re moving toward a stronger emotional arc for your characters in these last couple films. Is that intentional?
Peter: My goal always has been to write a comedy that could also make people feel something emotionally. All our comedies have a touch of, I’ll say, substance to them—and I’ll underline “a touch.” We’ve never really gotten heavy.
But even Dumb & Dumber, which is a very broad comedy, has that moment at the beginning where Jim Carrey is trying to talk Jeff Daniels into going to Aspen. Jim looks out the window and says, “I have nobody, I have nothing” and he plays it straight and he works up a tear. Our feeling is that you need three-dimensional characters for our type of comedy to work, because if you don’t, you’ll get bored and the movie will die halfway in.
There was actually a big battle between us and New Line Cinema about that very line, which was only maybe a thirty-second scene. They said, “What are you doing? This is a comedy, nobody wants that.” We fought them vehemently; we felt it was necessary. Because in practically the next scene, Jim’s selling a dead bird to a blind kid in a wheelchair. And you better love this guy, if you’re going to get away with that kind of stuff. I’d always wanted to get to a point where we could do a movie that’s got huge laughs, and could also make people feel something, and maybe even get a little emotional. I hope that this is that kind of movie.
Bobby: We’ve always tried to have that emotional arc, but people have always concentrated on these bodily fluid gags. We do put that in, so it’s natural that they do talk about it. But to me those big gags have always camouflaged the fact that there is a sweet story there. I don’t think we’d be comfortable telling a sweet story without any laughs to it. It’s not our style.
So you wouldn’t do a romantic drama?
Peter: I can see us doing more dramatic things, but I don’t see us ever doing a drama that doesn’t have laughs in it. That’s just not our world. We just drove across country during a low point in American history, and we had a lot of laughs. Now we also had some tears in there. But even at the low point in life, fortunately for us, we’re able to laugh at times. So I don’t see us ever doing a drama that would be a straight drama.
Bobby: Our strength is coming up with things that make people laugh. And particularly, I think, to make them laugh when they don’t know what they’re supposed to feel. Make them feel slightly uncomfortable. And go from there to making them laugh.
Speaking of which, you get a lot of grief for your disabled characters. But it seems that you write them as regular people who just happen to be albino or in a wheelchair. Much of the time the humor is a reflection of the other characters, not the disabled person.
Bobby: We catch a lot of flack. Almost always we catch flack before anyone has read the script or seen the movie, like with Me, Myself and Irene and the split personality. With this movie, I’m sure a lot of people are going to say, “Now they’re picking on fat people.” We’re not. It’s just the opposite: we love our characters. They have their flaws, but beyond the flaws they have a lot of humanity in them. A lot of people are uncomfortable just having disabled people in movies unless they’re perfect. That’s really not the case with people with disabilities—they’re just regular people. They’re just like us, and they’re all around us. So why can’t they be in a story?
As a group [Bobby, Peter and Bennett], you guys wrote fifteen scripts before Dumb & Dumber hit. But on all your projects after that, you’ve taken an existing script and rewritten it. What’s the attraction for rewriting? And are you burned out on writing originals?
Bobby: I think rewriting is what we do best. We can see potential in a script that’s not quite there, but it’s got a good idea. We can see clearly what we would do differently. That’s a huge starting point, rather than coming up with an original idea. If we have an original idea, we’d love to do that, too. But there’s always people throwing scripts at us, so you end up seeing one [where you go], “Hmmm, Pete, this is one that’s got a lot of promise. If you and I buckle down on it, we could make something of it for ourselves.”
It almost sounds like you’re thinking, “I wish we’d thought of this.”
Bobby: Yeah [laughs]. If a guy’s inspired enough to sit down and write a 120- page script—every writer knows how hard that is, and how much time and energy it takes—well, there must be something there that’s driving the guy or girl. In their hearts they feel that they’ve got a good story. And a lot of times, they’re right! A lot of times we’ll see a little bit of inspiration in a script that we feel we can run with.
You guys worked on the script of Kingpin but didn’t get screen credit for your work. You also table scripts, and those round-table writers don’t get screen credit for their contributions. What are your feelings on the WGA rules for limiting the number of writers credited on a script?
Peter: I have mixed feelings about the Writers Guild. I’m a strong union guy, and I’m extremely grateful that the Writers Guild exists. All writers should be. But I’m appalled that they don’t credit all writers who work on a movie. It’s just awful. The reality is, many movies have five, six, seven writers. And the Writers Guild feels that only the writers who do the most should be credited, which is a very bad idea. Particularly because the guy who delivers the donuts to the set is getting credit at the end of the movie.
I’m not saying you should take away the importance of those writers who are credited because they did 52%, but if someone did 48% they should certainly be [credited] on that movie. My suggestion—and many people have suggested this—is that you say “Screenplay by Blah and Blah” [in the title credits] and at the end of the movie you list “Additional Writers.” If you write one word on a movie as a paid writer, you should receive a writing credit.
It’s criminal that people routinely write 30% and 40% of a movie and are uncredited. Particularly since good writing is all about honesty. It’s just dishonest to say that two people wrote this movie when six did—it’s not the truth. And I find that offensive to all writers.
Kingpin was a bad experience, because we felt we’d done enough to be credited. But forget that. We do tables. The fact is, that’s how movies are made. If it takes ten minds to make a movie better, we’ll use those minds. It’s upsetting to me that at the end of the movie, I can’t credit the guys who contributed so much. If they have to be listed at the back, at least they’re up there. They can tell their grandchildren, “I worked on that movie” and they can prove it.
The Writers Guild’s fear is that by having additional writers listed, it takes away from the stature of the credited writers, the guys who did the most. But it doesn’t. All it does is add to the stature of the additional writers. And it helps everybody in the Writers Guild. It just disappoints me that they would lie. They’re not being completely truthful, and the truth is always right.
I understand that Bennett Yellin split from the writing team in ’92 because he was tired of writing scripts that were never produced.
Peter: Yeah, he got burned out. We were doing it for seven years, and although we were making a living, it reached a point where it wasn’t satisfying for him. Bob and I always sensed that each script got us closer to getting one made. There were times when you looked at some of the crap they made during those years and you shook your head, “Why are they making those things and not our movies?” I’d call home and my father would say, “What the hell is going on? Why aren’t you getting your movies made?” And I’d always say, “Pop, you gotta just be patient. Our time will come.”
I had faith that, eventually, things would look up. But on the other hand, my whole self-worth didn’t depend on whether or not I had a movie. I was riding high on the thought of being a paid screenwriter and writing books on the side. I was running around and having a lot of fun. People ask us, “It must have been hell, nine years in LA without a movie getting made.” It really wasn’t. In fact, I was as happy then as I am now.
You’ve said, “I’m a big believer that you don’t wait for happiness.”
Peter: I never did. When I was writing these screenplays and working on my book, I was living the dream. I admit there was a part of me that was frustrated that I wasn’t getting movies made, but everybody has frustrations in life. I was well paid and I was writing and very happy. I felt like I was always on the verge. Though it can be frustrating to be like that, it can also be exhilarating.
You had nine years of getting paid to write scripts and yet not getting anything produced. What did those years teach you about writing and Hollywood?
Peter: For the first five years, we were writing what we felt the producers and the studios wanted. We were writing scripts that felt like movies that were getting made at the time. Or, writing what the studio and producers asked us to write. And we were making those scripts pretty darn funny. Many times we’d hand in a screenplay and the studio execs would call us up raving, “This is phenomenal, we love it, it’s perfect,” yet they wouldn’t make our scripts.
And finally I realized, “Why don’t we write what we think is funny?” The first time we did that, where we just threw caution to the wind, was Dumb & Dumber. When we handed it in everybody looked at it and said, “That’s funny, but there’s no way you can make that. You got a guy taking a dump, you got too many stupid things.”
And for four years it didn’t get made. But the bottom line is, when it did, it was different from what was out there at the time. So you gotta just write what makes you happy. Also, you gotta bust your ass on that script. You have to write a tremendous script, a great, great script. And when you’re done with it, when it’s as good as it can be, when you think, “This is just unbelievably good”—make it way better. People get by on a script and say, “This is good” and they send it off. We don’t do that. When our script’s good, we put it down and we think about it and we say, “Okay, now let’s make it phenomenal.” That’s the key.
Me, Myself and Irene wasn’t phenomenal. It was good, and we were satisfied. We were probably a little cocky, because we were coming off Mary and we were thinking, “We’re pretty damn good, and this is from us so it must be great.” And later you realize, “Wait a second, we busted our ass on those other scripts, and we probably didn’t try as hard on that one.”
The creative talents whom you admire—Tarantino, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Zucker brothers, Jim Brooks—are all people with very individual styles.
Peter: I like guys who are honest and original. I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. When we were rewriting Mary, we were halfway in and we hit a wall where it just seemed so predictable: “Well, of course he’s going to go find her, and how satisfying is that?” Somebody told me to rent the movie Bottle Rocket, and it blew my mind. Brilliant. They could have done a movie about their robbery spree. But they didn’t. What they did, I’m guessing, is start writing a screenplay about these robbers, and the characters stopped at this motel and the maid appeared and they’re writing away, and suddenly they were open to the story veering off in that direction.
That’s what good writing is: you must be open to all possibilities. Suddenly it struck me that, as we were writing Mary, we only had one option, which was that the guy ends up with Mary. And that was just not right. You have to have many things that could happen. Because if you know on page forty that he’s going to end up with Mary, then the movie’s over!
Suddenly we looked at it from a different angle, and we were including as an option that Ted doesn’t end up with Mary. That in fact it could be the character of the private eye, or it could be her friend, even Woogie. Anything could happen. By opening our minds, and keeping all possibilities open, the movie got a lot better. If you think you know where you’re going the whole time, you’re not letting God do His work.
Is that God in the specific sense or the general?
Peter: Whatever the thing is that gives us inspiration. I’ve said this about me and Bobby a lot of times: everything we tried, failed. And yet, we’ve succeeded at writing. It’s not because we’re smarter than other people, and we’re certainly not more talented than everyone else. But what we do is, we recognize our limitations, and reach out for inspiration. We’re open to it.
A lot of people write, and somebody will say something really funny, but it’s not in the direction that they’re going and everybody laughs and they say, “That’s good, but let’s go where we were going.” Well, when we do that we say, “Whoa, that’s funny. Let’s look at that direction.” Anything’s possible. You must keep yourself wide open to ideas. And these ideas, I don’t know where they come from. But they don’t come from us.
Be open. Don’t go in thinking you know what you want to write. Let anything happen that wants to happen. A lot of times you open those doors and you go down a road and you hit a dead end and you back up. But if you don’t look down that road, you don’t know what’s there.
When we were writing Hal, at one point Sean said to me, “I don’t know, man, my grandmother’s going to see this movie.” I stopped right there and said, “Don’t ever, ever say anything like that again. You can never think of somebody else when you write.” That is the kiss of death. And that’s what too many people do. Because they’re afraid of what people will think.
It’s a little egocentric, but you can’t be afraid. Writing is all about honesty. When you read something great, it’s because it’s the truth. You recognize good writing when you recognize the truth. You can’t be truthful if you have prudish tendencies, or if you’re afraid of what people will think. It’s all about honesty. And for that I thank my parents. They were always open: you can say whatever the hell you want to say. We weren’t afraid.
It’s great to have that kind of relationship with your parents.
Peter: Yeah. I’m glad my parents lived to see this. Because for the first 25–30 years it was just one disappointment after another for them. But they never gave up hope. They would always say, “You can do something. You can do something good.” But they didn’t know what it was, and that scared them.
When did you know what it was?
Peter: I was twenty-three and I remember thinking, “Is this it? Is this where I’m at? I’m a salesman?” And I wasn’t a good salesman, I was bad, the worst in my office. Yet I knew I was capable of something. I thought, “Maybe if you wrote down what has happened to you in the last few years, there’ll be a sign of what you should be doing, what you’re good at.”
I would take long drives up in Maine, New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, by myself. Things would be running through my head, things that had happened to me in my teenage years, and I started writing them down. I found myself really liking the process of writing. I couldn’t wait to get out of work to write— I’d sneak away from work to write. It was just a journal, I didn’t know where I was going with it. And then I woke up one day and realized, “Wait a second, this is what I like! I like writing!”
The problem was, I was twenty-three, I hadn’t written a word, I was considered dumb by all, and the idea of announcing to everybody that now I was going to be a writer was just too embarrassing. So I stuck with my job for another year and a half, while trying to get down something substantial.
Eventually I had to ’fess up that that’s what I wanted to do. And it was met with ridicule by many people. But my parents were extremely supportive. They were thrilled with it! Because it was the first time in my life I’d ever come out and said, “I want to do something.” They said, “Go for it! You’ll probably do well!” And I never looked back from that point.
Luckily, it’s worked out. I don’t want to get preachy. I remember feeling many times, particularly in the beginning (1982–83), all I had was prayer. I’d pray when I woke up in the morning, I’d pray when I went to bed at night. I’d pray, “Jesus, God, please help me. I’m going for it. I need help.” And everything worked out. It made me very fond of God.
Was this when you didn’t know what you wanted to do with your life, or when you were first getting into writing?
Peter: Everything. I asked for direction, “God, what do I do with my life?” Some people I know, they don’t believe in God. They have that right. And some people have no reason to believe in God, they haven’t felt God. But I tell people who don’t believe, “Listen, pray for one month. And ask for something.” I think people don’t ask Him for enough. I did ask. I asked for specific things. And I got them. I can’t write it off as luck. It was such a shot in the dark. And yet it all worked out. And the only thing I can account for is a strong belief in God, that He was there or somebody, something was there— [stops himself]. I’ve gotten preachy enough, I’m going to end it right there.
In these tragic times, what is comedy’s purpose?
Peter: Comedy is a funny thing, no pun intended. It can be helpful in times of crisis, like right now, or it can be painful. Bobby and I were talking today, when do you think you’ll hear the first World Trade Center joke? I hope not for a long, long time. There’s inappropriate comedy, and there’s comedy that relieves the pressures of everyday life. What we’re going through now is beyond everyday life. This is the biggest, most viewed human tragedy in world history. The world watched as the towers were hit by planes and then dissolved in front of our eyes, and instantly thousands of lives were lost. It’s unprecedented. I think right now, collectively, all humans are in shock. I think it’s even shocking to the people on the other side.
In answer to your question—in an odd way, it’s a great time for comedy. I don’t think the human mind can take what’s been happening. Put it this way: when Ben Stiller’s new movie opens, I’m running right out. Because I need two hours off. That is exactly what the doctor ordered right now. Comedy serves the same purpose as sports does for many Americans— a break from reality. We’ve lost that this week, with all the focusing on this unbelievably overwhelming disaster of mythic proportions. If ever there was a good time for people to go out and watch a comedy, it’s now. For therapeutic purposes.