Misery Loves Comedy: Comedian Kevin Pollak Cuts His Docu
COW Library : Adobe Premiere Pro : Kylee Peña : Misery Loves Comedy: Comedian Kevin Pollak Cuts His Docu
Veteran comedian and actor Kevin Pollak is known for many things: a long career in stand-up comedy, dozens of performances in films like Casino, A Few Good Men, and The Usual Suspects, six years hosting his podcast Kevin Pollak's Chat Show, and a killer Christopher Walken impression (among many others). With his feature film directorial debut Misery Loves Comedy, Pollak adds a new skill to his long resume: editing a film with Adobe Premiere Pro CC.
The documentary starts with a thesis – "do you have to be miserable to be funny?" – and explores the dark side of comedy through archival footage, day in the life sequences, and interviews with over 50 comedians, actors and filmmakers including Jimmy Fallon, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Jon Favreau. There is a quantifiable link between creative people and mental illnesses like clinical depression, but why? Who chooses a life of making strangers laugh?
As Pollak told me, "America's number one fear above death is public speaking. That's not even getting a laugh, that's just speaking in public alone! If you add trying to get a laugh – the single most difficult emotion to evoke – now you're talking about a very special breed of cat."
From Misery Loves Comedy Tom Hanks by Josh Negrin.
Originally brought in to direct the film by producers Becky Newhall and Burton Ritchie as the perfect combination of long-time stand-up comedian and chat show host (and coordinator), Pollak shot 70 hours of interviews on the Canon C300 and RED Epic with 63 individuals over a four week period. Working with his friend and editor Rob Legato (yes, that Rob Legato, the two-time Oscar-winner visual effects supervisor on Hugo and Titanic), a ten minute teaser was crafted for last year's Sundance Film Festival. But when schedules became difficult, Pollak realized he couldn't demand too much of Legato's time for the remaining edit. The solution? After some technical lessons from Legato, Pollak spent ten months at the edit console, cutting the documentary himself in Premiere Pro CC. Misery Loves Comedy premieres at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
I talked to Pollak about wrapping his head around becoming the editor on his documentary, the process of finding the story and working with Legato, and the interesting cross-over between stand-up comedy and editing.
Creative COW: Why did you think this was a story that needed to be told? Is there a personal thread to it?
You are credited as an editor on the documentary, so what was the post-production process? And how did you get involved with Rob Legato?
Rob Legato is the jumping off point to answering those questions because he and I worked on a few projects before. When I mentioned this documentary I would be directing, he offered to edit and I said 'yes, two-time Academy Award winner!' I wanted to say to other people, 'well you know I have a two-time Academy Award winner working on my film'. He had not just been doing visual effects for Scorsese but also shooting second unit since The Aviator, he's a great storyteller. He edited something I directed before, a mockumentary style web series. We just work really well together. So I was very excited about him being my editor, ridiculously so.
And then when we started, he was finishing up The Wolf of Wall Street for Scorsese, finishing the film before Christmas, and we had less and less time together. I started to see a little bit of a trend. He was doing me this incredible favor, and I couldn't demand much of his time, not as much as I needed. Around that same time, the producers asked that we provide them with a ten minute sort of teaser trailer for Sundance last year, so they could use it as sort of a calling card for the company, raising funds for the next year's slate. So we were forced to [cut a trailer from] our 70 hours of interviews that I amassed where there was no narrative, no script or story to be told, just a series of interviews.
Rob was really behind helping me find some ten minute version, which was a fun roller-coaster montage of snippets. It still had no story, nor did it really need one since it was ten minutes long. It was built to be entertaining, but also insightful. And after that success – which played gangbusters at Sundance for the potential investor screening – I was left on my own.
I realized I wasn't going to get enough time from Rob. I had to finish the film. I couldn't pace the editing schedule on his availability. I had to take the reigns, which means he sat me down at his editing bay and showed me how to use Premiere Pro CC in three easy lessons. It really was kind of astonishing -- the basic maneuvers by the way, I'm not talking about an advanced course. I've sat next to him editing, and I've sat next to other editors when I did my own HBO special, where I was more in charge of the editing than the editor but I wasn't sitting at the console doing any of the editing. I was just making selections and choosing angles.
But I had to learn the nuts and bolts of which button to push does what. Rob was extremely patient and in no time at all, I had learned a half dozen to ten basic steps on gathering pieces, and putting them in a bin, and having access to them, and how to use two screens to move pieces around. It was complicated for the first few passes, then it became absurdly simple for a first timer. While I can't speak to the expertise of editing even after spending ten months doing it, I can speak to the ease and comfort that this program offers. Really specifically for a first time filmmaker. It was astonishing just using the basics, how well I could learn to create and pace from the myriad puzzle pieces that I was working with.
Since you had to take over, what became your process for finding the story as an editor?
That really was the challenge without question, because there was no script, no story, in even the ten minutes. Rob really was the driving force creatively in that ten minute trailer. On my own I thought well, I'll just open up the ten minutes and add a little bit at the beginning and a little bit in the middle and a little bit at the end and then just keep doing that until I have a 90 minute movie. And then I realized after a few months of doing that, there's still no story. There's still no narrative. I just made a longer montage. While it's entertaining, it's not a story or a film.
Then I had to decide and create just what the hell the story was. The next phase was creating chapters and putting those chapters in different orders to create different stories. Where do you begin with the story of an individual that basically stands naked in front of strangers and begs them to love them? It opened up way beyond the thesis of 'you have to be miserable to be funny' to really 'who the hell chooses a life of that pursuit?' That became the larger story. My love of putting puzzles together as a writer really was the driving force behind me becoming an editor of any ability, along with my basic lessons from Rob.
From Misery Loves Comedy. Jimmy Fallon.
That concept of standing naked in front of someone and begging them to love you feels like something a filmmaker also experiences. Having been a stand-up comedian for so long, did you find some cross-over in the vulnerability of comedy and editing?
No question, yeah. The first thing I learned in writing, either in stand-up or in scripts, is it's all in the editing. It's always in the editing. When I talk to others about writing, the first draft is meaningless because it's in the rewriting – which is what editing is. This other script of mine that I'm directing in May I was developing before Misery came along, I decided to appear in the film as one of the five leads. So I met with a few performer/directors to talk about that process of directing while being in a scene, and what that really meant. And what I found was a recurring theme, that editing was the final relay. And what it really meant was it's just another rewrite. I've been editing all along.
As I went through with the writer on every draft of the script, I was more interested in editing than I was in 'punching up' because it just made things more clear, more defined, and better. That's the editing I've been learning all along. It's just a matter of Rob showing me the tools and how they worked so I could then implement everything I've learned as a writer about editing. In stand-up, you can't just get to the funny part. You really have to create. You're a storyteller, you're not really a joke teller. It's about getting to the visual – create the visual in their mind, then bring the funny all the way through when needed. Pace for stand-up is everything, and that's all about editing.
From Misery Loves Comedy. Amy Schumer. Photo by Josh Negrin.
What was the process of shooting the interviews? Were you involved with every part of that?
I conducted the interviews as an off-camera voice. We had one week in NY, three weeks in LA – four weeks consecutively, a very tight schedule. It was the impossible task of scheduling on camera talent that fell on me, and me alone. I was able to contact a great many people, having booked my chat show going on six years. But for the chat show I say 'here's the next seven Sundays, we do it live at this time from this location, can you make any of these?'
When we started shooting we had 25 on-camera talent booked and scheduled and slotted into a day's work. But as we were shooting, people kept saying yes and the chess board kept moving. By the end of it, we had 63 we shot on camera in four weeks, which was ridiculous. And when we brought the teaser to Sundance last year, one of my producers said 'let's get a RED camera and a crew because you're going to run into funny people you know, Kevin.' And sure enough, we were able to get some biggies at Sundance, and they're in the film now. Like Sam Rockwell and William H. Macy, pretty ridiculous.
Since Misery is your directorial debut, what has been the biggest lesson you've learned?
Start with Rob Legato. Get yourself a two-time Academy Award winner! No, I don't know that there's a single important thing. It's fairly clear --and not just appropriate or germane to this conversation – but the most important thing I learned was how to edit film. That was the one tool I didn't have going in that became the most important tool to have on the film. I have 70 hours of interviews, and we're in talks to use those many hours as a series in various forms. That will be a whole new realm of editing. In terms of feature film story, the most important thing I learned was the editing process.
You mentioned you've spent time in the edit bay making selections and watching an editor. Was actually being at the console making decisions and pushing buttons a much different experience for you?
Oh my god, yeah! There's no sense of accomplishment from picking something and then watching it after the editor put it together. There's only a sense of being right or wrong. There's no sense of 'I did that'. Even from childhood, that sense of 'I did that' is extremely powerful, and that's what editing is. It's creating moments that didn't exist prior to the edit – whether it's pace, transitions, or a punched up moment in a conversation using camera angles. The transitions were also a point of joy, finding a little beat to cram into an existing moment, and create a whole new experience. Yeah, that doesn't exist until you create it yourself as an editor. Holy crap, I just created that.
From Misery Loves Comedy. Christopher Guest. Photo by Josh Negrin.
Now that you've been in the trenches pulling together this story, spending so much time with the content, what do you hope audiences will take away from the film when they see it?
If you're fascinated or have any interest in what makes an artist want to be an artist, what a funny person has to go through when they devote their lives to making strangers laugh, what is the mindset of that person? A few years ago I became very suspicious of presidential candidates because it suddenly dawned on me: who the hell wakes up one morning and says 'hey honey, I was thinking about it, and you know that whole thing about who should be the next most powerful person in the free world? I was thinking I might be good at that!' You know what I mean? I don't know that I can trust the egomaniacal supposedly public service candidate who chooses themselves. In the case of Barack Obama – who was approached I believe by Oprah, who pulled off something the mafia never could which was to have a president elected – in his case, he had to say 'yeah you know what? That is a good idea! I should be the most powerful man alive, yeah!'
I became extraordinarily disillusioned by that notion: who chooses the life of standing in front of people and making them laugh? I don't know if you know this, but America's number one fear above death is public speaking. That's not even getting a laugh, that's just speaking in public alone! If you add trying to get a laugh, the single most difficult emotion to evoke, now you're talking about a very special breed of cat that you should be suspicious of immediately. It is a combination of a masochist and narcissist. The vulnerability a filmmaker, writer, or even an actor has, my goodness.
I remember the first conversation I had with a dramatic actor I greatly admired, the way they looked at me and said' you started in stand-up comedy, right? How do you do that?' Not to name drop, but this was a very prominent, revered dramatic actor who could not conceive of a time they would ever do that. There's a chapter in [Misery Loves Comedy] called "Bomb's Away" which deals directly with what it means to stand on stage and have things not go well. William H. Macy is talking about it and at the end there's a pause, the only long empty pause in the film – again, editing, pacing, all about creating that and allowing that pause to breathe – before William H Macy, with a very dry expression says, "I wouldn't do stand-up comedy with a gun to my head." That's really the takeaway. Who are these people?