She’s Funny That Way: Peter Bogdanovich
Peter Bogdanovich on screwball comedies, strong female characters, and how to pace your script.
By Holly Grigg-Spall.
Peter Bogdanovich, writer-director of classics such as The Last Picture Show, Saint Jack, and What’s Up Doc? returns to feature films with She’s Funny That Way, a screwball comedy starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and a whole host of A-listers including Quentin Tarantino in a cameo role. The New York-shot movie was executive produced by Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. It’s a refreshingly charming and witty movie with great performances across the board. Creative Screenwriting was delighted to speak to Peter Bogdanovich about his film.
What inspired you to write this script?
We started out with two things – the idea of “squirrels to the nuts” – that phrase – I always thought it was funny (and it was going to be the title for a while) and the idea of someone paying an escort to stop being an escort, because I’d done that in Singapore, when I was making a movie in 1978 called Saint Jack, based on a novel by Paul Theroux. The novel is about an American pimp, so we, by necessity, met with a lot of escorts and madams and so on. A couple of the girls I became particularly sympathetic with. They wanted to go home and so I said I would give them some extra money, besides their salary for the movie, so they could go home and stop doing the escort business. They both went home – one to Bangkok and the other to Malaysia. I always thought it would be interesting to make a movie about a guy who pays an escort to not be an escort, and complications ensue.
How did you start the writing process?
We didn’t actually sit down and write the script to start, we used a tape recorder. Myself and my co-writer Louise Stratten (my wife at the time) would both speak into it. My assistant would type it up and then we’d fix it. We worked out the whole plot first and put it on 4×6 index cards in sequence. We pinned it to a bulletin board, these 30 cards. It was funny because we were moving from one place to the other at the time – we had a friend we were staying with in the Hamptons, and another friend we were staying with in town – so we carried this bulletin board around with these cards on it. Then we finally sat down and started recording one card at a time. We talked the dialogue out. If she didn’t like something, she would just hold her nose. That’s how we did it. She’d say something that was funny, but it wasn’t phrased exactly right. I’d see the humor, but I’d come up with a line and then she’d say, “That’s it!” She often had the idea for the joke, but wasn’t quite phrasing it right. Or sometimes she corrected me.
You wrote it with a very different cast in mind, right?
We wrote it for John Ritter and Cybil Shepherd and Louise was going to play the escort, yes.
I can’t really imagine the film without Owen Wilson. Here’s a guy doing some pretty morally questionable things – like talking to his kids at the same time he’s ordering an escort on another line – and yet, he’s so likeable that he sells it.
It’s funny you mention that scene because I thought long and hard about whether we should cut between the wife and kids and then the escort. I decided not to, because I felt if we saw the wife and kids before the trist with the escort that the audience would not like him. I also thought seeing Owen doing the whole thing with no cuts would be fun for the audience – seeing him dealing with the two phones and two conversations. The power of personality makes it a charming scene. Think how James Cagney play a psychopathic maniac in White Heat, but you like him, because he’s James Cagney. There’s an ambiguity to the whole story – he is helping those women, but he’s also cheating on his wife. It’s not cut and dry. You could argue with yourself for an hour about that one.
You used to interview a lot of great filmmakers; what questions did you ask on the writing side that got you great responses?
I would always ask how they first started writing a script. Hitchcock would like to work with the writer, blocking out the entire story, then the writer would go work on the dialogue and come back. They blocked it out so that he knew what the picture was before the writer did the dialogue. I have done that too – basically getting the sequences done before you start writing the dialogue. Somebody like Howard Hawks, for example, would have a very thoroughly written screenplay, but then he would change it on the set. He would sit down with a yellow legal pad and re-write the scene and then he’d say “You say this, and you say this.” He’d change the whole scene just before shooting. I’ve done that too. Not on every scene. On They All Laughed many of the scenes were written just before they shot them. Sometimes we didn’t have a scene written, we only knew what was going to happen. Sometimes that helps keep it fresh if the actor doesn’t know the dialogue yet and finds out right then. The script might say “They walk across the street” and then we decide what they say right before we shoot it.
The film is very inspired by movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s eras – the screwball comedies. If someone had never seen any of the movies from that time, which would you recommend?
The first one would be Howard Hawk’s 20th Century with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Very funny. Brilliant script. John Barrymore gives such an extraordinary performance that Orson Welles told me that after seeing that performance both he and Lawrence Olivier – whenever they were doing comedy -they were doing John Barrymore in 20th Century. Then, It Happened One Night, of course. The Awful Truth. The Lady Eve. The Palm Beach Story. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Those are some of the basics.
How do you work with actors on the rhythm of that screwball style dialogue that is so rapid fire, often at cross-purposes, with them often speaking over each other?
You push them and tell them you want it faster. Everyone understands when they need to pick up the pace, do it faster. Jennifer (Aniston) was a little thrown by that at first. She had long speeches and she wanted to take her time with them. I said, no, just do it like this woman has diarrhea of the mouth. She doesn’t think, this character, she just talks. She got it, then.
What’s your take on the difference between screwball style comedy writing and contemporary comedy writing like, say, a Judd Apatow movie?
I don’t go to see too many of those, because I saw Knocked Up which I thought was ridiculous – she would never go with that guy, even if she was dead drunk. It’s a movie by people, I guess, who have wish fulfillment issues. A lot of the comedies are based on body fluid jokes or jokes about sperm in your hair. I’m not keen on that kind of comedy.
It’s interesting to compare how they present the female characters too, isn’t it?
The female characters in the ‘30s movies are very strong. You have to remember that in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and even the ‘40s, women were much more central to movies than they are now. During the studio system women characters were as important, if not more important, than the male characters. In fact the first stars of pictures were women – Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford. All through the ‘30s women got top billing in comedies. It’s Katherine Hepburn and then Cary Grant in Holiday. That changed in the ‘50s and then it was gone by the ‘60s. One of the things that’s wrong with today’s pictures is there are too many guys and not enough girls. There were more female screenwriters then, too, than there are now.
How did you come by Imogen Poots for the escort role?
They gave me a list of girls all around the same age for this. I met most of them in LA. Imogen was in Atlanta shooting a picture. I went to New York and met her there. We met at the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, one of the few places that hasn’t been ruined over there. She came to see me and, well, she was British, but since the British are brilliant actors and very well trained, I knew she could play it. What interested me was that she was very quirky, she had an unusual quality when she talked. It wasn’t put on. It wasn’t something she was trying to impress me with. She wasn’t trying to be quirky, she just was, a bit of an oddball. I liked that. I thought that would make the escort a more interesting character. Within 15 minutes I told her she’d got the part.
How did the script evolve over time?
There was originally a lot more physical comedy in there and that was removed, which made it less screwball. Part of what screwball comedy was, was that the leading characters would do the physical humor, as opposed to the secondary characters. We took it out because although John Ritter was very good at that, Owen was less comfortable with it. I don’t see it as a romantic comedy though, it’s still a screwball comedy – for one thing, no one ends up with anybody!
Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson were involved in producing this movie. Did they give you any script pointers?
They read and liked the script. Louise suggested we ask them to executive produce the film. They leant their names to it. Having Wes and Noah gave us a boost up with the agency and having the agency gave us a sort of legitimacy in terms of trying to get money and actors. They call me Pop, I call them my Sons. Occasionally they will show me one of their films and I make some suggestions. I remember seeing The Life Aquatic and I told Wes to slow down the first reel. I gave Noah similar advice with one of his films. We have a tendency to shoot something and then you get bored with it, because you know it. You decide you ought to speed it up, and you end up going too fast. Years ago when I made They All Laughed I asked Frank Capra for his advice. He said, “It’s a pretty good picture kid, but your first reel is too fast.” He was right. You can lose an audience in the first reel if it’s too fast. It’s so fast they don’t know what’s happening. I remember when I was doing the documentary on Tom Petty and it ended up being about 4 hours, at one time it was 5 hours and Tom said, “It’s getting a bit long, Pete.” I agreed, it was too long, but I said, “If we can get people on our wavelength, it doesn’t matter how long it is, and if we can’t get them on our wavelength, it doesn’t matter how short it is.” He said, “That’s true.” So, we got it to where we didn’t lose them. It’s about 3 hours and 58 minutes. It’s a little longer than Gone With The Wind, but there’s a lot of music. I learned a lot from doing that in terms of pacing.