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Zak Penn’s Grand Experiment in Comedy

Zak Penn’s Grand Experiment in Comedy

Articles - Directing

Sure Zak Penn can write you a surefire blockbuster. He has proven that time and again with X-Men, Elektra, Fantastic Four, etc. But that’s not all he can do. The Grand, an improvisational comedy set in the world of competitive poker that he wrote and directed, contains neither a superhero nor a highfalutin special effect. But what the film lacks in terms of big-budget luxuries it makes up for with those erstwhile and less marketable traits: Intelligence, wit and originality.

James Menzies (MM): While The Grand is not your directorial debut, it is the first film you have made that assembles such a large and diverse group of talent. What are the challenges of directing the likes of Dennis Farina, Woody Harrelson, Judy Greer and Michael McKeon—all of whom are not only seasoned veterans of television and film, but also stalwart contributors to the comedic genre. Was there trepidation going into this project? Did you ever think, “what makes me qualified to suggest what’s funny to David Cross?”

Zak Penn (ZP): There was some trepidation, but I received a degree, an honorary doctorate actually, in advanced improvisational and alternative comedy from the International Institute of Humor. There were a number of times that David Cross challenged me, but once he saw the certificate, he deferred to my expert opinion. Michael McKeon is a seventh level OT and certified comedy “clear,” and union rules required me to defer to him on matters of improvisation.

MM: You have twice worked with and directed the great auteur, Werner Herzog. What was it like dealing with Herzog, the actor? Did anything rub off on you from a directing standpoint?

ZP: The original plan was to shoot The Grand in the Golden Nugget casino, but Werner convinced me that the film would be better served shooting on a Riverboat Casino, transplanted onto the rapids of the Colorado River. The cast lived in a straw shacks that were set on fire each morning and we ate only what we could kill. Other than that, not really.

MM: The Grand, as well as your earlier work, Incident at Loch Ness, is described as an “improvisational comedy”—which seems to be a fancy term these days for the ever popular “mockumentary.” Is it a common misconception about these types of movies that they are made up as they go along? Does improvisation on a film set ultimately diminish and undermine the role of the writer? How do you regard the term “mockumentary?”

ZP: I’ll try to tackle this one seriously. To me, “mockumentary” implies parody of the documentary form. Incident at Loch Ness certainly qualifies as that. The Grand, however, simply uses doc techniques in what is otherwise an ensemble comedy. As for “made up as they go along,” the nature of improvisation is that the dialogue is being made up, but there is a very detailed outline that lays out all the elements you get from a normal script. I would argue that it less diminishes the writer than it does invites the actors into the writing process. Also, I think it would be very difficult for a director to do something like this unless they are also the writer.

MM: Going back to your screenwriting career: Of all the movies you have written, which is your favorite and why?

ZP: Well, Incident at Loch Ness and The Grand are my favorites, but if you are asking of all the movies I have been only the writer, X-Men 2. If you include movies that I worked on without credit, Men in Black is up there as well, or Rescue Dawn.

MM: What is the most difficult script to write? One that is entirely your own, or one in which you have to edit, omit or even contradict the original thoughts and ideas of another writer?

ZP: The most difficult for me are my own original scripts, because I obsess over every detail and inevitably write countless drafts before submitting them. That said, there is a lot of stress involved on the giant, blockbuster movies. Knowing you have to please many different people all at once, the inherent politics of the situation, create a lot of stresses that have nothing to do with the actual writing.

MM: I’d assume that you write so many superhero scripts not only because you are good at it, but because you love comic books. Does it take a strong affinity for a subject in order to write about it effectively? Is it possible to “phone in” a screenplay and con someone into giving you a lot of money for it?

ZP: I grew up loving comics, and I have rediscovered some of that love for them as an adult. I think I am less a fan of “superheroes” than I am of science-fiction, and if you look at the specific franchises I’ve worked on, you will see that borne out. X-Men, The Hulk and Elektra are three of the least superhero-oriented books in the Marvel universe; they deal less with men who pull on tights to fight crime and more with flawed, persecuted characters with extraordinary abilities.

I suppose at a certain point you can “phone in” a screenplay and still get paid for it, particularly if it is an assignment. But you do so at your peril. People who stop trying, or who look down on the material they rewrite, end up having short careers as working screenwriters. I have not gotten “jaded” as they say; I still look at the opportunity to work on any movie as a tremendously fortunate circumstance, and I try to never take for granted how lucky I am to be doing this and paid for it. I suppose there are one or two times where frustration or lack of inspiration have taken their toll, but that feeling is usually closely followed by being replaced, so I rarely stay in that mindset for long.

MM: What’s up next for you?

ZP: The Incredible Hulk comes out this summer. [And I’m resuming] work on “Section 8,” a TV show I am creating for ABC. After that I have a script I am writing for 20th Century Fox that will probably be announced [shortly]. I haven’t settled yet on what my next directing project will be.

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