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The Weird, Grey Area: How to Find Tonal Balance in a Dramedy, by the Writer-Director of MAD

The Weird, Grey Area: How to Find Tonal Balance in a Dramedy, by the Writer-Director of MAD

Directing

“And that’s really the thing, can you make people emotional, make people feel something, maybe even have tears… and get a joke about doing crack in literally the same exact line? If you can do that, you’re in good shape.” – Judd Apatow

That’s Judd Apatow as the inspirational river and “Om” to my Siddhartha. I know a lot of people who have heard me talk for more than thirty seconds about anything related to film probably just collectively groaned at my incessant need to continue to preach from the cinematic church of Apatow. But he really is, along with Alexander Payne and David O. Russell, a master in mining laughs and pathos in equal measure. The above nugget is buried somewhere on the second disc of the Knocked Up DVD. Seemingly tossed off and casual, it’s become a distillation of everything I want my movies to be tonally.

That tonal balance is the bare essence of what a dramedy is supposed to be. It’s also where so many American indies stumble. It’s an elusive mix, and you’ve really got to be ambitious to attempt it. And to pull it off, it’s imperative that you need to hate yourself at least a decent amount. I wish I was being funny in that assessment, but I assure you that a practical explanation of “why” will crop up in this article at some point. Also, I use “quotations” a lot (and parentheses), so please bear with me.

MADSTILLS3

Maryann Plunkett as Mel in Mad

When I mention “dramedy,” I’m talking about a true brass-ring effort – something that both leaves your sides aching from laughing, and is more than substantial enough to satisfy an audience’s need for emotional connection to the material. To me, you can’t do any better in film than to make your audience feel things so contradictory that they often threaten to cancel each other out. That might be cinematic magic at the height of its power.

I went into the making of my debut feature film MAD with the idea that if I could pull off a dramedy, where the laughs are as big as the heart, and the various elements never outright clash, everything I did in my career from there on out would be a breeze. Over nearly two and a half years, and probably 20 pounds in “nervous-eating weight” later, the film premiered at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. While I can’t claim to, or even want to, fully understand exactly how all the pieces came together to form a cohesive wholesome of it is just instinctual on the part of my team and I, and that’s hard to quantifyI can give you an insight into the process that went into trying to tame the tonal beast that we birthed.

The term “dramedy” is thrown around with abandon and attributed to films that I don’t think fit my idea of what constitutes one. You arrive at dramedy when all other categorizations are insufficient. If you can classify it as a comedy first with some drama, then it’s not a dramedy. If you can classify it as a drama first, with some comedy, then that also is not a dramedy. A dramedy exists in this weird grey area where it needs to be both of those things at once, and neither at the same time. This is something my editor (Ben Measor—hire him yesterday) and I talked at length about as we would go back and forth on the kind of film we were cutting. It was a conversation that yielded no easy answers.

On one hand, MAD could be argued as being too goofy to be a drama, with absurdly cutting one liners and undisciplined, off-the-wall asides flying around all over the place. On the other hand, it’s very serious in how it approaches mental illness and complicated familial trauma. The thing is, though, neither idea overpowers the other. Somehow, they coexist, at least somewhat harmoniously. How did we pull it off? I’ll always recall one particular scene as a microcosm of our tone on the whole, and how and why it somehow, someway works in spite of the volatile alchemy of elements at play.

When I sit down and write, my default mode is to write in a character-driven manner, meaning that everything I dosometimes consciouslyis an extension of character. I’m trying to stay true to character motivations as a way to propel plot. I write meandering, almost unnecessary scenes simply to further illustrate the characters and who they are. Because of this, my scripts run long. I overwrite conversations between characters, and overstuff one-liners, and sometimes I’m not sure how much of it will even make it up on screenbut I do it in service of the characters, and I make sure to shoot all of it. I was almost sure a particular scene would not make it to the final cut. At a quick glance, this scene had no business being in a film like this; it’s boorish and foul, and the central comic idea revolves around dumb dick jokes. It’s in direct conflict with the principles at the emotional core of the project. In other words: it was a stupid digression that had the potential to slap the emotional sophistication we were striving for in the face.

In the film, Casey, played by Eilis Cahill, joins a weekly writers group as a way to try to wrangle some misguided direction into her life. The problem is, she’s also a cam girl by night, making rent money by being an object of sexuality. This being her life, and the writing group exercise being to “write about what you know,” Casey finds herself grossly embarrassed and victimized by the current circumstances that envelop her as she overshares (in a “fictional” diary entry she thinks is poignant but is awful) about a recent one-night-stand.

Now, again, a lot of the laughs come from material that could be considered low-brow and lewd, but it ultimately works. It works so well that people often name it among their favorites scenes, which considering the inherent subject material of the film (a mother and her daughters argue a lot about how hurt they feel), I never thought could even be feasible. But because the function of the scene is so deeply rooted in character, and understanding and illuminating Casey’s insecurity about her current lot in life, the audience seems to go along with the momentary diversion. They accept that seeming tonal contradiction. Staying focused on your characters and what makes them tick will make a lot of perceived problem areas forgivable.

If I would have capped my page count, there is no way this scene would exist. I hear a lot about page count, but I feel it’s counterintuitive. MAD was 110 pages. We had a rough cut of close to two hours. The final film: 83 minutes. You can’t be scared to test the boundaries of tone, because if you are, it’s likely that you’ll end up with a film that feels too middle-of-the road or vanilla. You have to shove every last thing you think could possibly even remotely work into your script, and then you have to be okay with it feeling a little messy on the page. This “texture” and your “voice” will give it a slightly dangerous, distinguishably raw personality where you can’t afford a sick camera package or steadicam rig for that 10-minute-long tracking shot you’ve been planning since seeing Children of Men. Your producers may hate you, but what you’re doing is covering your bases since nailing a tone as shifty as that in a dramedy isn’t an exact science. You should invariably want more, then from that, figure out what you needtrimming the stuff that feels instinctively wrong. You will need to see this play out on screen, as it’s very difficult to gauge how it all plays off against each other on the page, or even on set. Since you should be focusing on character, you need to hire adventurous actors and trust them to “go there.” They need to be fearless, and they can’t be afraid to look stupid. Neither can you. Make that stupidity a virtue. I can’t stress how important trust in your collaboration with them is.

A lot of what I’m trying to develop process-wise is predicated on being OK with throwing material at the wall to see what sticks. Once I have a few drafts where I kind of vomit everything onto the page as a way to express my ideas as clearly, and in as much detail as possible, I bring actors in to start workshopping. I love this part of the process, and am thankful that on MAD my leads (Jennifer Lafleur, Eilis Cahill, Maryann Plunkett, and Mark Reeball aces) were willing to take the leap with me. These workshop sessions are essentially a couple days of loose read-throughs where we would talk about character in depth and improvise on the script as a way to see if any new or interesting directions crop up. I recorded these sessions, and then went off on my own again and rewrote based on the notes, scaling back and adding new material. After another five or so drafts, we did another workshop about a month out from production, which informed my last couple of drafts. The hope behind this, is that you gather more material to shoot, and tailor your characters to your actors. The key is a comfortable fit. 

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