Screenwriters, novelists and storytellers of all kind take note: Peter Farrelly has some wisdom to share with you, both about how he approaches writing a screenplay but also how he pitches projects to studios. He’ll also tell you, like everyone should, that making films is hard. Because it is. Very.
This was a very interesting interview, with some insights into Farrelly’s way of working, as well as some specific little bits about Dumb and Dumber To, There’s Something About Mary and Ricky Stanicky, which will very possibly reunite the Farrelly Bros. and Jim Carrey once again.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Bobby was absent after a hockey accident. Hopefully he’s feeling a lot better now.
Let’s start with some of the basics. Talk to me about your process of designing the shots, and how you block scenes out with the actors.
I let the actors find their marks. I don’t want to hold them down. Actors get claustrophobic and they start thinking too much about acting if they can’t move around and go where they want to go. So what we’ll do is set up a shot in a room, do the master with the camera off over there in the corner, and we’ll rehearse that. In the middle of the scene, the guy may get up and walk over to the window. I want him to be able to go where he wants to go. Then we’ll light to fit that.
There’s a part of me that always wants to say “Is there some chance you could stay in that chair because it would make things a lot faster here and we have a lot to do today?” but I never do. I let them go where they want to go. Some actors, if you didn’t let them do that, they wouldn’t be the actors that they are. They need to be able to move, think, walk, do whatever. But your hope is that once you light the scene, they stick to that. Sometimes, all of a sudden when you’ve lit the scene one way the guy gets up and goes somewhere else. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” But that’s my process – working to help the actor feel as comfortable as possible.
This is all unless, of course, the actor goes over to the window and I have to say “You can’t go there because you’d see something out the window that your character is supposed to not see.” If common sense prohibits it, then we’d stop them.
It would seem, or one would guess, that somebody like Jim Carrey is not so easy to nail down to repeated takes. He will, I’d guess, be unpredictable even after you’ve fixed the lighting.
Yes but no. He’ll do different takes, and do different things, but he’ll generally stay in the same vicinity because he knows wandering off is going to fuck things up. If he goes this way and then that way, we’ve then got to shoot the other characters’ eyelines looking both ways and that slows everything down. He’s professional, he knows that. What he does do, though, is that he’ll give us different takes – one energetic, one down, one broad, one small, one’s real, one’s big. He gives you so many options.
And Jeff Daniels is like a tennis player. No matter what shot you hit at him, he’ll be there, and he loves that Jim goes in different directions. Some actors don’t, and afterwards they’d complain “How am I supposed to respond to that?” Well, I’d say, “You’re supposed to respond to whatever he does.” Jeff lives for that.
So once you’ve got all of this material in post, how do you modulate the performances? When you have so many variations, what guides you when you’re trying to set the ‘level’ of the performances? Is it literally just “This take made me laugh more?”
Yes, it is. In the old days, when we did the first Dumb And Dumber, we were cutting on film. Literally, when I’d say “I want to see another take” they’d have to go and get a reel, cut it, show it to me and I’d say “Let me see the other take again.” It was very hard. Sometimes you didn’t even get to see everything and if you found a good take, you took it. Now, with the Avid, I can ask for a take and see everything.
Jim Carrey will go to the window and turn around five times, saying “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” in five different ways. I say “Line ‘em up” and the editor pushes a button then all of those takes are ready for me back-to-back, and one will clearly be the best.
I assume you have trusted individuals that you show your cut to for feedback. What are you looking for from those people? Do you just listen to how much they laugh, or do you have whole conversation?
It’s more than just the laughter, but the laughter first and foremost. Then, also, likeability. There are certain things that the characters might do and we’ll be told “I thought it was mean that he did that.” You can either defend that or defend it. Then about plot points, we ask “Did you see this coming?”
Really, most of that happens with the script, before we shoot. I’ll send it around all of my friends who are writers and ask all of these questions.
So when this script went around to your readers, what was the big thing they came back to you with? What was the big revelation for you?
We did so many drafts. Early on, there was a sense that Jim, the Lloyd character, was not nice to Harry. We softened that, though they do still mess with one another constantly. There was once a whole other subplot at the Ken conference when Lloyd went off and found all new friends, but that didn’t make any sense so we ended up cutting it. We worked on this so long.
And if you find a great twist at the end, you go back to rewrite that in. Some people write where they have little index cards…
Do you not do that?
We don’t. We do it for the first act. We want to know exactly where the first act is going, but then we open it up and let it go. I don’t want to be locked in to go from this to that because sometimes, when I write, I think “That’s good, that’s really funny” and you follow it. If somebody says “You can’t, you’re supposed to go to this plot point” I say “Fuck that, let it go where it wants to go.” And that’s how we find so many fun things. At the very end of this movie, for example, we didn’t plan for the kidney to be a fake-out. We were there working on that scene and somebody said “Gotcha!” and we were like “Wait a second, hold on!” so we looked back and rewrote the film to make that twist fit in.
In There’s Something About Mary, when Chris Elliot turns out to be Woogie, that came up when we were page 110, writing it, and somebody says “Whatever happened to Woogie? We referenced him in the beginning and he never came back, and that’s kind of weird” so then we think “What if Chris Elliott is Woogie? He’s been pushing this whole thing, he’s the one who told Ted to track Mary down, and fuck! That’s Woogie!”
It’s a real surprise for me to hear this. Dumb And Dumber To’s plot is actually very intricate.
It’s because we’re open to it. One of the great compliments I’ve gotten on this movie was from Larry David. He was at the premiere and said “I have to tell you, that plot is awesome.”
He’s the guy you want that particular compliment from.
He said “I can’t believe the twists and turns. And the fact that the baby belongs to Pee Stain, and the parents who were insulted in the beginning end up with a grand daughter is brilliant!” He asked “When did you figure that out?” and I said “Not until the end. We got to the end and said ‘Who the hell is the father?’ you know.”
This seems terribly risky to me.
But the other way means that whatever you figure out before you write the movie, you’re stuck to that. People do that, and they’ve got to live with that. Our feeling is that if it’s just a month or so to map out the story and then you write it for many more months, that’s restrictive. We’ll map out the first act but then we want to be able to go down any road. If someone has a good idea I don’t want to say “No,” I want to say “Let’s look at it.”
I went to grad school for creative writing. John Irving taught for one week, a masterclass, and it was really great. He said that he never begins a novel until he knows the last sentence, and I remember thinking that’s the exact opposite to me. I don’t want to know the last sentence. So, I ran into him when he won a Golden Globe for Cider House Rules and I went over, and he didn’t remember me, of course, but I said “I was a student of yours and you once said this thing, but… did I hear you wrong?” He said “I need to know exactly where I’m ending before I can set out and do my thing.”
You seem to me like the guy they fire out of a cannon at the circus.
When you don’t know where you’re going to land. It’s not for everyone.
The hardest part about the way I do it is when you’re pitching to the studio. I don’t have it all worked out. I had just the first act worked out for Dumb And Dumber, the original, and I pitched it to the studio and I got up to the point when the bird’s head fell off, and I said “Then they go off and chase the girl down.” The studio guy said “But what happens?” and I said “I don’t know. I don’t write that way. I have to get in there and actually write it.”
So that first act has to be off the charts, it has to be rocking and rolling for the studio to say “Great! Let’s go!”
The first act is “Who are these characters? What’s funny about them? Why do we like them? Why are we going to follow them?” All the shit that matters is in that first act, and the truth is that by the time you get to the end of that act, you’ve either sold it or not. I know that they’re in or out by then, and I can only talk them out of it by going further.
I don’t think anybody has ever sold a script by the third act…
M. Night Shyamalan, surely?
You know what, I bet that even The Sixth Sense was sold on the first act. It already works without the twist. It’s already good. The twist made it a masterpiece, it really is, but if you didn’t have it, it’s still very, very good.
I was talking to Jim about his dramas and his comedies, and he said it was important to him that his comedies have big ideas too, not just the dramas. What would you say is living under the surface of Dumb And Dumber To? Were there themes you were interested in? Do you even write to theme?
I don’t think of it in terms of themes, but if I have to analyse it, the reason I think it works, and the first one worked, beyond the lots of little jokes, is that these two guys love eachother, need each other, have nobody else and that strikes people’s hearts. I think. The fact they have no girlfriends, no families, no jobs, and all they have is each other and they’re so weird, and so dumb, that if they didn’t have each other it would be awful. That they have each other allows them to live a full, happy life. They don’t have the stresses that everybody else does, they’re just two dumb guys going along. It’s about love, I think.
I think so too. So… why now? Why is this sequel here now, and not ten years ago?
It wasn’t planned this way. We weren’t waiting. After Mary came out the studio said “Why don’t you do a sequel? It was a huge hit” but that’s just a money grab. We said that if we were ever going to do a sequel it would be Dumb And Dumber. At that point, we did start thinking about it but Jim was busy.
Five years later they did Dumb And Dumberer which was a shame.
It’s gone into the shadows now, though, really.
Finally, about five years ago, Jim was in a hotel room, saw Dumb And Dumber was on TV, he watched the whole thing then called me and said “We’ve got to do another, it’s too good.” And I said “Okay, let’s go.”
Then it took five years.
Every movie is hard to make. Shockingly hard. It doesn’t matter what your last movie was, it’s still hard. This one was no different. New Line and Warner Bros. felt it was too long since the first and that nobody would remember it, or the many references we made to Billy in 4C or Freda. We had disagreements about that, they said “We don’t see it” so we took it to Universal, and thank God, they saw it.
It’s like Warner Bros. execs have never scanned the listings on cable. Dumb And Dumber never went away.
What’s next? What will you fight for now?
I’m not sure. There’s a couple of things I’m sniffing around. There’s one thing called Ricky Stanicky that I’m doing. These kids invent this character to take the blame when they get in trouble. “Who broke the window?” “Ricky Stanicky!” and now they’re adults, “Honey, I’ve got to go to Vegas, Ricky Stanicky is having a fundraiser.” Then this comes back to haunt them when the wives want to meet Ricky Stanicky.
And will we get to meet some poor schmuck who has to adopt that personality?
Yes. And it will probably be Jim Carrey.
I thought it might be. Now… before I go, I want to know whose head are we seeing when we go into the flashbacks in Dumb And Dumber To?
Oh, the rumour was that it was going to be Jennifer Lawrence. We were both filming in Atlanta and she’s a big Dumb And Dumber fan, but unfortunately we couldn’t get her.
There’s so much going back and forth about that in the press. So who is it?
A friend of ours. Carly Craig.
Is she in the credits?
I don’t know. I hope so.
I’ll mention her anyway. Give her some credit. Thank you, Peter Farrelly.
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