Sam: “A real, honest-to-goodness, made-in-America romantic comedy.”
Nicholas Brooks discusses modern romantic comedies, the most difficult step in the writing process, and what makes a good story.
By Brock Swinson.
Nicholas Brooks’ Sam is a love story that exists within a juxtaposition. Sam Wellman, played by Brock Harris, is a New York alpha male who is suddenly transformed into a woman (Natalie Knepp), and learns something of what it means to be female.
Over the years, Brooks learned editing and consulting from his work on various motion pictures, including such films as Dirty Dancing and Young Guns. Outside of the film industry, he has written advertisements, worked within film financing, and owned a computer game company.
After twenty-five years of working as a story editor in his iconic father’s company, Brooksfilms, Nicholas Brooks delivered the script for Sam with the aid of John A. Gallagher (Blue Moon, Men Lie).
You’ve spent some time as a story editor and consultant; what made you want to tell this story?
I think Sam originally arose out of the natural curiosity that each of us feels for members of the opposite sex. The natural, age-old question: “what’s it like…to be a man, to be a woman?” These days that curiosity has expanded to include issues like lesbian and gay relationships as well as transgender issues.
Sam cooked in my brain for about two years before I sat down to pen the screenplay with co-screenwriter John Gallagher in the Fall of 2008.
Before writing the film, I met with a couple of female friends and asked them a thousand questions about what it was like to be a woman. They were incredibly frank with me, and I appreciate their having shared their thoughts and experiences with me more than I can say. It definitely helped to give the script a little more insight and depth and humor than it would otherwise have had.
What were some of your cinematic influences for this film?
Your second question is a very natural ‘part 2’ to your first! If there was another push behind the creation of Sam, it was the demise of the American romantic comedy. By the time we wrote Sam, the big studios no longer saw romantic comedies as being profitable – especially in foreign (non-English speaking) markets.
Over a period of three decades (the 80’s through about 2005 or 2006), romantic comedies went from being a staple of American filmmaking, to being lovely, precious rarities, to being…well…dead, at least as far as new productions were concerned. And while the label ‘romantic comedy’ is sometimes still used, such films are almost always (OK – I’ll be more honest – always) neither romantic nor comedic.
The studios that used to thrill and move and charm us with beautifully scripted stories – starring Gable and Lombard, Hepburn and Tracy, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan – now bludgeon us with food fights and fart jokes. Delicious three course dinners served on real china, replaced by grey, tasteless little patties stuffed into Styrofoam containers. John and I realized that if we were ever going to see a real, honest-to-goodness, made-in-America romantic comedy, we’d have to make our own.
Stylistically, Sam owes its flavor to a mélange of great American romantic comedies. John was and is a film scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood – the films of Capra, Cukor, La Cava, Wellman, and the like. I had a good grasp of films of a more recent vintage: Robbie Reiner, Woody, and…of course…my Dad (Mel Brooks).
My work as a story editor for Brooksfilms, as well as the lessons I learned ‘at my Dad’s knee’ imparted a keen appreciation for the complexities and nuances of great comedies. I always had a pretty good sense of humor, but working with my Dad gave me a much better understanding of how to structurally engineer a script, ensuring that each element of story and character was properly supported.
Some specific films that influenced the writing of Sam include: Serendipity (2001), writer Mark Klein, director Peter Chelsom; The Cutting Edge, (1992) a truly beautiful movie scripted by Tony Gilroy and directed by Paul Michael Glazer; The Sure Thing (1985) – penned by Steve Bloom and Jonathon Roberts, directed by Robbie Reiner; Susan Slept Here, (1954) – directed by Frank Tashlin, scripted by Alex Gottleib; The Women (1939) – directed by George Cukor, screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin (based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce – btw, F. Scott Fitzgerald is listed as one of two uncredited writers – I am sure there is a story here!); My Man Godfrey (1936) – directed by Gregory La Cava, scripted by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch (based on his novel, there are other uncredited writers as well). I can name more, but these are the principle sources, stylistically, for Sam.
What is the most difficult step in the writing process and how does directing influence your writing?
For me, the most difficult step in the writing process is moving from a loose collection of story and character notes into the real bones of story structure – the defining of a distinct beginning, middle and end.
My Dad once told me that every good movie is comprised of five or six key moments – five or six ‘crescendos.’ Our job, as writers, is to link them in such a way that they form a cohesive, self-supporting whole. I always start with five or six such high-points in my fevered brain. Then I try to sort out which of them comes before the others – that’s the marrow of the skeleton. I begin to build story around each of them, seeing how they converge.
I confess, with a little shame, that I love the earlier phases of writing – the dreaming up of raw, exciting moments, the birthing of characters. I get itchy and cranky in the later phases, when it comes to fitting all the gears into the Swiss watch of the story such that everything moves properly and in phase. It’s always later in the process that I find all kinds of cool ‘important’ things to do – play video games, answer emails – instead of knuckling down and writing.
But somehow, eventually, it all gets done.
What makes a good story?
Good stories are always built on good characters! One of the reasons why TV has so powerfully eclipsed movies as a vehicle and venue of creativity is because TV – the good stuff (Fargo, Better Call Saul, The Man in the High Castle, etc.) – really gets this, while most mainstream movies are increasingly veering towards stunts and effects to grab audiences.
I recently went to see a big budgeted film – one I admit I didn’t hate (though I can’t say I loved it either). What struck me was the nearly half-hour of previews, every one of which was a blunderbuss of noise and effects – more thrill ride than story. That, and the fact that you can pause a movie or TV show on your home screen, steer me powerfully in the direction of watching stuff on my home screen.
Good stories are always carefully crafted layers – of information, of motives. Any good story is a bit of a mystery (even a good comedy), as we are led from one informational stratum into another. The best writing draws you in such that you don’t quite realize just how engaged you are. There is a naturalness to the flow of events that is both entrancing and subtle.
It’s really hard to do that, but when it’s done right, as with any art, it’s wondrous and beautiful to behold. The problem with most movies – and, yes, some TV – today is that it is so formulaic, so structurally leaden, that audiences simply cannot suspend disbelief. They see everything coming from a mile away.
And, let’s face it, when you have two giant robots smashing each other in the face, how much real character and story is there gonna be? It’s product, rather than story. Sadly, that’s what it’s designed to be.
Anything else you would like to share about the film?
It’s interesting to write and direct a film. It extends the writing process throughout the cycle of production and post work. Obviously, the screenplay is very important, and my cast and crew worked really hard to shoot the film as it was written.
Some directors like to think of a screenplay as the loosest sort of skeleton on which to hang a film. They veer – sometimes a little drunkenly – away from the text, tossing out pages as though they were so much plastic sandwich wrapping. God Bless such men and women – they have a certain talent. But that is definitely not how I approach filmmaking.
The fact that I was directing the film I had written gave me the impetus not only to protect the script, but to enhance it, hone it, fully flower it. This occurred in the shooting, as the actors and I worked together to draw out the best in each gesture, each line, as well as in the editing room, where my incredible editor Kala Mandrake and I worked together to sculpt the story into its tightest, most efficient form.
Thus, some screenplay pages did end up on the cutting room floor – not because I was having some convulsive, hysterical flash of inspiration on the set. Rather, because certain scenes in Sam, initially shot as written, were revealed not to be the most efficient form of the story.
Whenever I think of editing Sam – or any film – I think of something that Michelangelo once said about his sculptures. When asked how he made a statue, he said that he just kept chipping away at all the stone that wasn’t the statue (and I know I am paraphrasing heavily here). Editing is sort of like that. You just keep refining the movie until everything that’s not it – that’s not essential – is gone. I know it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the heart of it, at least for me.
Overall, I like Sam. It’s a sweet little picture that makes me – and a few other people (my Dad among them) laugh, maybe tear up a little too. It’s my first film so there was a lot of on the job learning. If I had to shoot it again, I’d obviously do some things slightly differently (maybe cut a couple more pages of script before the shoot, maybe add a day or two to the shooting schedule). But overall, it’s not a bad a little picture – and I am the first one to admit I have no objectivity about this.
Maybe I’m reaching here, but I do think it satisfies two key requirements of a romantic comedy. There’s romance. And there’s comedy.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out our interview with Nicholas’s father, Mel Brooks on Screenwriting.
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