Craig Mathieson discovers it takes a crew of comics to create a funny film.
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14 Jul 2010 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 12:33 PM

At first glance the writing credits for Dinner for Schmucks, the Hollywood remake of French filmmaker Francis Veber's very amusing 1998 comedy The Dinner Game, appear straightforward enough. It's based on Veber's original screenplay, with the adaptation credited to David Guion and Michael Handelman. A Jay Roach film (director of both the Austin Powers and Fockers franchises) starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis is quite the score for a pair of screenwriters whose only previous released work is the not altogether satisfying 2006 comedy The Ex, but while they're technically correct they don't really illustrate how the new version was created.

For that you need to read First Banana, writer Tad Friend's profile of Carell in the July 5 issue of The New Yorker. In the course of describing Carell's approach to improvisation on set, Friend details how a fair proportion of Hollywood comedies are put together. Guion and Handelman, who are also skilled at improve, brokered the outline of the story – affable yuppie Tim (Rudd) is saddled with and eventually depends upon outsized idiot Barry (Carell) – and the first drafts. Then a further three sets of writers worked on revisions.

So far, so Hollywood. But then, in a six hour roundtable, a collegial group of writers, directors and comic actors – whose floating membership includes Roach, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Judd Apatow and Jonah Hill – took the screenplay to bits and put it back together again, offering up new lines, scenes and whatever else passed the test of making everyone else laugh. Then, once on set, Roach allocated extended time to alternate takes and improvisations suggested by the cast. Approximately 30% of Dinner for Schmucks came from “alts”, or alternate takes, that were plugged into the existing framework.

This is how most comedies creatively populated by those under the age of 40 are put together. What's noticeable is that it's a male sanctum (think of how Apatow's Knocked Up was really two films: Seth Rogen with Katherine Heigl, Rogen with his boys), it results in a lot of footage being shot, adding to the budget, and as exciting as it sounds not all the films that emerge from the process are that impressive – see Will Ferrell's Step Brothers for further evidence. But in the age of social media, of updates and mass e-mails, this method is likely to catch on. And if nothing else, could the next big budget action film please get the roundtable treatment?