In the "Line-o-Rama" bonus on the just-released Bridesmaids DVD, a bonanza of alternate takery, there's one sequence where Melissa McCarthy improvises variations on the same brief line, over and over again, trying out a different gag every time. How many takes? Reader, I counted them: there are forty-eight.
The last question asked in the Q & A of my Screenwriting Expo seminar on "Comedy Craft for the Contemporary Romantic Comedy" came out of discussing Bridesmaids, which I'd worked on as a story analyst at Universal. I'd shown some clips from it and mentioned the screenplay's long (3-4 years) gestation, noting how co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo had been in the enviable position of writing and rewriting on the studio's dime, under the guidance of producer Judd Apatow.
"How do you get into a great situation like that?" the woman in the back wanted to know. "Well," I said, "You might start by being a talented comedic actress who's got a gig on Saturday Night Live..." And we wrapped things up on that wry, we-should-all-be-so-lucky note.
The Bridesmaids out-takes and deleted scenes tell an intriguing tale, one that suggests luck isn't necessarily the point. The DVD extras present ample evidence of something I recently discussed in an on-line interview about the movie's development: the idea that honoring any and all ideas, when you're writing a movie, is in fact a great idea.
According to interviews, Wiig & Mumulo wrote their first draft in six days. But the script got rewritten a dozen times-plus, and all of those in-between drafts embodied the spirit of "Hey, let's try this!" With Apatow, director Paul Feig, and a passel of (uncredited) talented joke-punchers on tap, there was plenty of inspirational mentorship in the mix. But writing team's fearlessness was key. They'd write a draft with one very elaborate ending painstakingly constructed on the page... and then write another which threw that ending out.
Wiig & Mumulo's clear intention was to find the funniest - which often meant the most honest and real - truths about their characters. And this being an Apatow production, the process didn't stop with a final draft. Well-known for encouraging improv, Apatow and Feig encouraged their writer-star and her supports to keep going as the cameras rolled.
Here is my point. We may not all have a studio, an 800-pound comedy-genius gorilla, a canny director and a cast of seasoned comic actor-writers on hand as a support system while we write, let alone the kind of comedy training and improv background that Wiig brought to this party. But what we do have, all of us writers, are the two most important tools: imagination and time. Use 'em.
And then use 'em again... and again... and again.
All too often when I do consults or see students' screenplay work, I encounter writers who are standing with their feet in screenplay cement. They're married to this plot beat, wedded to this character choice, ball-and-chained to one particular execution of a sequence. Why? What's to be lost by cutting that shit loose? There's absolutely no harm in trying to go a different way. You can always go back to what you had. And often what you gain by suspending your own judgment, and taking a leap into the unknown is, well, everything.
You don't need a producer's permission to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. You don't need a studio's backing to do a table read with some actors and encourage them to do improvs on your material (though you may need a lawyer if you steal too much). You don't need anyone's help to write a draft of a scene, set it aside, and instead of revising what you just wrote, write the same scene from scratch with a wholly different approach.
Imagination. Time. The courage to let go of whatever you've got so far, and let whatever's left inside you rip.
Do try this at home.