Monday, March 05, 2012

Interview with Alec Berg

As we gear up for the 2012 Festival & Conference, we're posting interviews with our incoming panelists here, on our blog. The questions come from our registrants, fellow panelists, facebook fans, etc., so if you have questions for any of our incoming (or past) speakers, just send them to our Conference Director Maya Perez at you just might see your interview on here!

Alec Berg at the 2011 Austin Film Festival

This week's interview is with Alec Berg. 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 recently wrote and produced "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.)

Aspiring television writer Christopher Levi is our interviewer.

Chris: Sacha Baron Cohen seems to love controversy, so when you wrote for The Dictator, was there a sense of nothing being off limits topic or joke wise? If so, did that free your writing process?

Alec: Obviously Sacha's sense of humor runs toward the edgy and the extreme. He likes political and satirical and he enjoys punishing hypocrisy. My partners and I have similar comedic tastes so when we hatched the idea for The Dictator we knew it was perfect for Sacha. It checked all of the boxes I just listed, and I think that's why he sparked to it and agreed to do it.

From the beginning the process was pretty natural. For the most part when something worked it was pretty obvious to all of us, and when it didn't it was equally obvious. It's a completely subjective process so obviously there are a lot of things you fight over along the way, but for the most part the things that made the cut were things that we all agreed worked.

And in terms of things being off-limits, we always assumed this was going to be an aggressive R-rated film. Sacha's audience expects that, and everyone at Paramount knew that's what we were going to deliver when they bought it from us. Because of that the limits were almost all self-imposed. Just because you can do anything doesn't mean you should. It can be in questionable taste but it's got to be funny enough to merit it. And you can be savage to people as long as they deserve savaging. Like on Borat and BrĂ¼no, we had a lot of conversations on Dictator about the targets of the humor: are the people we're bashing deserving of that treatment?

Continue reading after the jump...

Chris: Eurotrip had an alternate ending that was more of a "bummer" than the released version, yet way more the style a fan would expect from your Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm work. At what point in the film making process did you have to write the ending that made the final cut, and what was the rewrite process like? Was it just following the notes that were given to make it "happier"? Which ending do you prefer?

Alec: Obviously Seinfeld was shot in front of a live audience. If they're laughing, you hear it. If they're not, it's deafening. If they're way ahead of you, you know it. And if something's not working for them, you know it. Often with humiliating clarity.

But Eurotrip was (arguably) a feature film, shot over several months in tiny pieces, all completely out of order. When you shoot like that you never get a real sense of how the whole thing plays. Then months later when you've cut it all together to the best of your ability you start to show it to preview audiences to get a sense of how it's working and you finally start to get that audience feedback. The first real screening is a terrifying experience, because you find out whether the last two years of your life were a waste of time or not. And it's wildly helpful. You're very close to everything and have seen every frame of film hundreds of times. But they're seeing it for the very first time. The audience laugh in places you didn't even know were funny. And they don't laugh at a lot of things you thought were great. A lot. And sometimes what was the funniest version on paper just doesn't play on its feet.

The original Eurotrip ending was the one in the script we sold and was the one we initially shot. Intellectually a kid enduring this entire international journey only to be told at the end that he is an idiot and his expectations were foolish was the funniest ending, and possibly the most realistic. But when we screened the movie you could feel the audience was disappointed in that moment. It was obvious they had bought into Scottie's quest and they wanted the kid to get what he came for. They wanted him to win, so they weren't laughing when he got rejected.

So we pitched the studio a new ending, wrote it up and they were nice enough to let us shoot it. And the new ending worked a lot better so we went with it. If I had to say which was funnier in the abstract there's no question I'd say the original. And it sounds like maybe you agree. But overall our test audiences reacted much better to the newer ending. And sometimes you have to say "audience be damned, I need to go with my instincts here" but it was pretty clear that this was the better choice for the movie. We lost the laugh of his rejection, but suddenly the other jokes at the end were getting much better laughs, because the audience was comfortable again. Overall we actually gained laughs by cutting that joke.

Chris: This one's goofy, but you mentioned that Curb Your Enthusiasm is unscripted specifically because Larry David didn't want to receive specs, but there are tons of Curb specs still out there. Do you often read these? Would you recommend doing a Curb spec? Since the shows not scripted I would imagine the desire to read these from agents, producers, showrunners and the like to be pretty low, but what do you think?

Alec: In my experience the reality with spec scripts in TV, especially comedies, is that the one place they will probably never help you is with the show whose script you're writing. If I read a Curb or a Seinfeld spec I'm going to have a different reaction than an agent or a producer or even another writer because I worked at those shows. I can't help but critique them differently, "She would never say that," or "three seasons ago in episode four we did a joke like that." Or maybe it's fantastic, so now I feel threatened by your talent and need to dump on your script to make myself feel better about my own mediocre talent. In any event, if I'm going to respond to a spec it's probably not going to be a spec from something I've worked on.

Personally I've always been more interested to read people's spec pilots than specs of existing shows. My thinking is if I feel Frasier is a terrible show, no matter how well you write a Frasier spec I'm going to hate it. But apparently most people to read specs of existing shows so they're a necessary step.

The best shows to spec are ones that are popular enough that people know them but not so popular that everyone has already spec-ed it. I'd imagine there are a billion Modern Family specs out there now so maybe you don't want to be number one-billion-and-one? But I think Curb probably fits in that window. And since the point of a Curb spec really isn't to get a job at Curb, I don't think people will decline to read it if it's a good example of how brilliant and funny you are. So if you think Curb is a show you can write well, go for it. And this way I already have a gracious way of refusing to read it.

Have questions of your own for Alec? Write them down in your notebook and ask him yourself at the 2012 Austin Film Festival & Conference!

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