Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interview with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld" Writer Alec Berg

It's shaping up to be a great year for TV and screenwriter Alec Berg, with Larry David, Sacha Cohen and Anna Faris all on his production playlist, and we can't wait to hear all about it this October at the Conference. In the meantime, check out the below brief interview we just did with him. But first, some more info on Alec:

Alec Berg’s television credits include "Seinfeld" where he was a writer and executive producer, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" where he currently serves as a writer, executive producer and director.

His feature film work includes writing the screenplays for The Cat in the Hat (which was made into a terrible film) and Eurotrip (which he produced and co-directed and is excellent.) He is currently writing and producing The Dictator for Sacha Baron Cohen. He has also done extensive rewriting, having worked on films for Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Will Smith, Ivan Reitman and Robert Zemeckis.

Alec has been nominated for numerous Emmy awards, a WGA Award, a DGA award and a Razzie (yes, for The Cat in the Hat, it’s that bad.)

Austin Film Festival: Tell us about your new feature THE DICTATOR. How did this project come about?

​Alec Berg: It comes out next May. Sacha Baron Cohen is great in it. The longish, slightly boring story of my involvement: years ago my partners (David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer) and I worked with Larry Charles on Seinfeld. Larry went off to direct Borat, and when they were editing he asked us to come in for a day or two to help them come up with a new ending. In the process we got to know Sacha, who hired us to do a lot of work on Bruno. At that point we had Sacha's ear so we came up with a few ideas and pitched him (among other things)the basic character and story of what became The Dictator. And he said no. To everything we pitched him. Then a few days later he called and said that in spite of his better instincts this Dictator idea had been growing on him, and we started to kick it back and forth and kept getting together and it grew and eventually after several months of working it up we set up a bunch of pitch meetings, took it around and eventually sold it to Paramount, who put it into production.

​I don't want to give away too much other than we shot it over the summer in New York and a bit in Spain, it comes out this May and I think it's really really funny and at one point during production I got urinated on by a cow.

AFF: Can you give us some of your background? How you got involved with
the film industry?

​AB: I was a comedy nerd growing up. I listened to stand-up records the way other kids listened to music. When I was ten I could do hours of Bill Cosby and Steve Martin bits word perfect. I went to high-school in Pasadena, so I was show-business adjacent, just close enough to see it as a possible future. Actually a bunch of people I grew up with ended up working in show business, Ted Griffin, Mike White and Sean Bailey among them. In college I did a lot of film-making and wrote forthe college humor magazine, which got me more interested in the writing side of things. I decided I wanted to give writing a shot before I caved in and got a real job, so after I graduated college I spent about six months living with my parents (who had moved to Massachusetts at this point) writing like a fiend, generating a bunch of samples. Eventually it became clear that (as is the case today) you really have to move to L.A. to get started. So I scraped together enough money to last for a few months and headed out to L.A.. I spent those few months relentlessly calling and harassing anyone and everyone I could, asking them to read my stuff or give me thoughts on how to break in. Finally one small thing led to another until after three years of patchwork jobs, none lasting longer than thirteen weeks, I finally got a break and got hired at the brand new Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Then I got Seinfeld, and that became a bit of a calling card.

AFF: Even though Hollywood operates in trends i.e., indie, high concepts, etc. Do you see a common thread in the stories you tell?

Are you asking if my stories fit into a specific genre? I hope the common thread, should there be one, is that they are funny. But just as importantly that they are well written. Most of what I learned about screenwriting I learned from Larry David. He taught me the value of structure. We would spend weeks and weeks, sometimes months, outlining a single "Seinfeld" episode to the point where you could take that outline and write a draft from it in a couple of days (we still write the same way on "Curb"). And it's how I continue to work. Structure, structure, structure. Every single thing in a script must advance the plot or define a character more deeply (ideally both, in a hilarious way) or it will die in the edit. If something doesn't HAVE to be in your script then it shouldn't be. Of course, comedy trumps. If it makes you piss yourself laughing then you figure out a way to keep it.

AFF: From a writer's perspective, which is easier to break into and establish yourself as a writer, TV or film?​

​AB: I think it depends a lot on your personality as a writer. I always liked writing with other people. TV is more conducive to that, especially comedy. Most TV comedies are written in groups. It's a very collaborative process. But impose that process on a lot of solitary feature writers and they blanch at the idea of having other people question their ideas and paw through their work in progress.On the flipside of that coin, a lot of TV writers would hang themselves if they were locked in a room alone and forced to write for any length of time.

​The key difference breaking in is that TV is about selling yourself and your value as an ongoing contributor to a show, while features are more about selling this specific thing you've written. I'd buy a great script from an asshole, but I wouldn't want to sit in a room with them for fourteen hours a day. And honestly, in terms of which one's easier to break into, I don't have the foggiest idea. I'm fairly certain if I were starting today I'd fail.

AFF: While "Seinfeld" and "Curb" are their own shows in many ways, they ultimately represent a nearly unbroken, two-decade-long streak of observational humor and socially dysfunctional characters that have remained consistently hilarious. Is a "show about nothing" the best bet for longevity?

AB: I think the best bet for longevity is to somehow trick Larry David into hiring you, con him into thinking you're a valuable member of his team, then work really really hard to keep him happy. I don't use the term genius lightly, but I am a genius and I think Larry David is one of the great comedic minds of our time.

AFF: Will this be your first time to Austin? What are you most looking forward to - are there fellow panelists you already know? Anyone you're looking forward to meeting?

AB: I've been to Austin several times but never for the festival. I'm friendly with a number of the panelists, and mortal enemies with one as well (he knows exactly who he is.) It sounds like a lot of fun. And I'm most excited about meeting Barry Manilow. I was told he'd be coming. Was that wrong?

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