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Programmer Roundtable: <br>Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Strange?

Tribeca Short Film Programmer Maggie Kim moderates a panel discussion with five of this year’s makers of short films, who talk about what it takes to lighten up and create a comedic short.

There are six programs of shorts at the year's Tribeca Film Festival, including 46 short films. In this first installment of our Programmer Roundtable series, moderated by Tribeca Short Film Programmer Maggie Kim, five of this year’s makers of short films talk about what it takes to “lighten up” and create a comedic short.

Maggie Kim [Tribeca Short Film Programmer]: Why did you decide to create a funny/lighthearted short rather than a serious dramatic short?

Dan Wilson [Director, Section 44]: You thought my film was a comedy??? I like short films that have a definitive twist/punch line or reveal. Comedy is one of the best ways to achieve that. It's also probably the hardest.

The Confession

Thomas Hefferon [Director, The Confession]:
I received this email joke from an old friend, and it was basically the bones of the short film. After I read it, I sat there and thought, "Hmmmmm, that would make a great film with a bit of development." While I love drama, I think making people laugh is a great thing, and I saw a universal truth and humor in the joke that I felt could be expanded and fleshed out.

Shelly Kling-Yosef [Director, Gefilte Fish]: My life was quite sad when I started looking for an idea for a short film. I had to do something that would cheer me up and get me out of the real world.

Cecile Vernant [Director, Wu]: Because comedy has a unique power to emphasize dramatic matters. And to avoid depression... I always put drama in comedy and comedy in drama. I don't want to make movies for people to hang themselves when they get home. Wu is a dramatic movie—a tragic comedy to be precise—but made out of comedy gender codes.

Alonso Ruizpalacios [Director, Café Paraiso]: I didn't set out trying to make a funny short. I’ve never understood why people are so keen to separate comedy from drama and tragedy, when they’re inseparable in everyday life. A lot of people warned us against taking this subject matter [immigration] lightly. But I think it was precisely the right time to talk about this from a different angle. Using comedy gives you a license to switch viewpoints and say brutal truths about everyone without being judgmental. It is humanizing.

Maggie Kim: What did you think about most when editing the film?

Dan Wilson: My usual answer would be, “What's for lunch?” but with Section 44 “@!$$@! @!!?!!!!!” sums it up. Principal photography was such a disaster that I had to throw away my oh-so-pretty shot list and improvise my way through to have any chance of getting it in the can.

Gefilte Fish

Shelly Kling-Yosef:
I thought a lot about rhythm, timing, and music. When you deal with humor, if a moment is too long it could take the punch out of the scene, if a scene is too long it stops being funny. And the music is very important and must be accurate—it can actually turn a funny scene into a vague one.

Cecile Vernant: Editing is one of my favorite moments. It's when you write again, and it's the moment you can transcend or kill your movie. My editor (Franck Nakache) and I knew each other for years—he has edited all my shorts, so he knows me by heart. He has the same movie I have in my head and then we "discover" it with all the rushes in the editing room. And we buy coffee! A lot of coffee.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: One of my main concerns was not to kill the actors’ timing and their delivery but still make it well-paced. And on the first pre-production meeting I told everyone I wanted to create these three Dantesque spaces, where the kitchen would be hell, the toilet a sort of limbo-land and the diner area, paradise. That's what I strived for in the cinematography, the production design, the music and sound design and of course, the editing.

Maggie Kim: Can you talk a little about casting the short?

Shelly Kling-Yosef: Originally for the role of the fish seller in the supermarket scene, I cast an actor who stood me up on the morning of the shoot. I had no choice but to ask Ben Zion Gesler—who really works as the fish seller there—to do the part. Apparently he used to be a theater director in Russia before immigrated to Israel. He took the part very seriously, and did a great job, much better and much more authentic then any actor who would have played it instead. I also think a comic sense is something that either an actor has or not, and you can feel it immediately.

Café Paraiso

Alonso Ruizpalacios:
I would like to say that I found Tenoch (the leading actor) in the corner of a greasy industrial kitchen of Mexico City, or dragging himself across the Río Bravo on a stormy night or some clichéd romantic story like that… But the truth is I found him in a casting agency! Tenoch has a strong gaze that is a testimony of the tough neighborhood he comes from, but also a special gentleness and vulnerability that I think is essential for an actor. He’s one of those rare talents of the new generation of Mexican actors who is completely raw and spontaneous. He has no formal training, but he makes up for it by going at it head-on.

Maggie Kim: What is one part of the short that you can see over and over again and still laugh?

Dan Wilson: Philip Philmar's performance. He doesn't speak a word but he says so much.

Section 44

Thomas Hefferon:
I absolutely love the delivery of the final line in the film. The entire film builds towards this one point and every time I watch it, I hear this collective inhalation of breaths around me as everyone strains to listen, rapidly followed by a huge amount of laughter immediately afterwards.

Cecile Vernant: The yogurt burp in voiceover. When we recorded it, we were laughing to tears. And each time I see it in a room, it surprises me.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: The truth is when I see the film now it's because it is screening somewhere, so my main focus is the audience reactions. Fortunately the short has been traveling all over the world for the last year, so I keep mental notes of which countries react to which bits. It's an interesting exercise.

Maggie Kim: What are some of the challenges doing a comedic short vs. doing a dramatic short?

Thomas Hefferon: While all films have certain similarities, the biggest challenge with comedy is timing. If the timing is off for a cut or an actor's timing is off on the delivery of a line, the humor falls flat and besides not being funny can actually be annoying.

Shelly Kling-Yosef: I think that when dealing with drama, there is less feeling of taking a risk; one can read the text and know if something works or not. In the case of a comedy it's much more about intuition, and the result depends a lot on the actors. I can direct the scene—work with the actors on timing and details—but it's impossible to explain how to make a scene in a funny way. I had to leave a lot of space for improvisation and freedom for the actors.


Cecile Vernant: For me there is no difference. Because I am a former actress, I "act" the lines when I write and I want to know everything about the characters. Thus, the rhythm, the silences etc. are dictated by the writing; everything is in the script. Apart from that, as for comedy and drama, the challenge is to grasp the audience and not let them go in other places.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Making people laugh requires you to laugh at yourself mercilessly first. Only then can you laugh at others because you have nothing to lose. And also there's the question of timing. It is very rigorous in comedy. (I know it's a cliché, but it's true.) I'm very obsessive about the actor's timing. I make them do it over and over, trying longer and shorter pauses until it feels right.

Dan Wilson: Being funny. This is much harder than thinking you are funny. The challenge was to make the misdirection work; I wanted to take the audience on a ride that was worth going on.

See all these short films at TFF 2009!

Gefilte Fish will screen as part of the Shorts: Wake-up Call program.

Section 44 will screen as part of the Shorts: Wake-up Call program.

The Confession will screen as part of the Shorts: Truth or Consequences program.

Wu will screen as part of the Shorts: Wake-up Call program.

Café Paraiso will screen as part of the Shorts: Means to an End program.

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