Sunday, July 08, 2007

The scene that ruined VOLUNTEERS

Here's the scene that ruined the movie David and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. Tom Hanks stars as a preppy who ducks a gambling debt by joining the Peace Corps in Thailand. We established a character (Lucille) whose English was so bad we needed subtitles. In this scene, played pretty much as written, the director made one change. He had the characters break the fourth wall and read the subtitles.

We argued that it destroyed the reality of the film. There was now no jeopardy. It became a Hope-Crosby Road Picture where the fish could talk. The director argued that it got a big laugh. Why would we want to remove a big laugh? The answer is that it destroys the movie.



Oh, and her make-up was pretty ridiculous. But that we could live with.

The lesson here is never sacrifice the integrity of your piece for the sake of a joke, no matter how funny the joke is.

Billy Wilder used to say, "Why do they remake good movies? They should remake okay movies and make them better." John Krasinski as Lawrence Bourne anyone???

18 comments :

The Crutnacker said...

I have not seen the movie, but that looks more like something in an Airplane movie than a regular comedy. I can see how that would take you right out of the movie.

FUNNYMAN said...

Yeah, I might have to see the movie now.

Justin said...

I suppose it avoided the "What did she say?" - "She said..." situation, but maybe they could have kept it till the very end... the Niles/Frasier/Marta/Gunnar four-way language duel scene is the one to beat.

shaz said...

Its always a mistake i think to take the viewer out of the reality bubble with a movie...even when its for the sake of laughs .
It kind of always backfires and is the one thing that changes a funny movie into a spoof instead .
In spoofs we tend not to care about the characters as much because we know everything they say is for effect or laughs ...the best laughs come from actually believing someone is in that situation and relating to their predicament ...you kind of cant do that as easily when you know they are "in" on the joke .

Bill said...

I don't even think it's that good of a joke. The rest of the movie is quite good, though. I miss the days when Comedy Central would run it eight times a week.

Dan Coyle said...

Well, the moment IS funny IMO, but it would still be funny with the Watanbe character saying, "I can understand her, I'm oriental!" So the subtitles gag really isn't necessary.

Jason Elias said...

I think the only reason why it worked in this instance was that it was Tom Hanks. Anyone else, it would have been bad. But I agree, it wasn't needed...

Pianista said...

Oh yeah, big laugh. If you're on weed.

Freakin' directors. If they'd just shoot the damn script...

Michael Zand said...

Oh my God. That must have killed you. It certainly would've killed me. I remember that scene from when I first saw the movie and it pissed me off. I always wondered who's idea it was to fuck the movie for a cheap laugh.

It's shit like that makes sooo glad that I am out of this business. I always loved the creative part but really grew to hate the business.

David J. Loehr said...

I agree, for a Hope/Crosby film, it's a cute gag. I remember seeing the film originally--yes, I saw it in the 80's--and thinking that it threw the rest of the story off. I'm glad to know you had nothing to do with it.

A better version of the gag appears in "The Imposters," with Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt, where it actually works.

Mike Barer said...

I loved Candy singing the WSU fight song. How could I not being a WSU grad?

Miles Underground said...

I gotta say Ken, I really liked Volunteers, and I can't say the subtitle joke ever took me out of it. I mean, I kinda already knew that Tom Hanks and Gedde Watanabe were going to save Rita Wilson from the clutches of Tim Thomerson and the guy in the wig... I can't say that the suspense was exactly giving me an ulcer at that point in the film.

By the by, a good friend of mine some years my junior graduated college and joined the Peace Corps, and before he left I loaned him my copy of Volunteers. So, thanks for writing it.

ps. I thought Tom Hanks come-and-go accent was more distracting than the subtitles gag. (At least the Asian lady's accent was consistent.)

estiv said...

The best subtitle gag I've ever seen was in one of the "Mouse" movies with Peter Sellers, probably "The Mouse That Roared." Not long but rather complicated, impossible to easily explain, and extremely funny.

Geoduck said...

I read a comment somewhere from the Airplane/Naked Gun crew to the effect that what you see on the screen in one of their classic films is a fraction of the original jokes. Test the film on an audience, if a joke bombs, cut it, go back and test it again, repeat ad naseum.

And speaking of subtitles.. "Excuse me, I speak jive!"

Al said...

I once read a remark by a comedian -- it may have been Stan Laurel -- who said that gags need to be faithful to the level of reality at which your film operates. In other words, it was perfectly okay for a villain in a Laurel and Hardy short to twist their heads around 180 degrees. It was consistent with the world in which those films operated. That wouldn't have worked in a Frasier script, though, because the gag would have been a gross violation of the Frasier universe. For the same reason, that's why Homer Simpson doesn't do Tex Avery-style double takes, with his eyes bulging several inches out of his head and his jaw dropping to the ground, all while producing an "aa-oo-gah" sound effect. Homer may be as much a cartoon as Screwy Squirrel, but such a reaction would be inconsistent with the Simpsons' world. (Unless of course, justified by making it a dream or an out and out fantasy sequence, as in the Halloween episodes.) That's the problem with the subtitle gag in Volunteers. Whether or not the audience laughed is not the point. The point is that having the film's characters read the on-screen subtitles violated the reality of the world and the story Ken and David were working to establish, and ultimately, it damages the film. It's an important lesson for writers to keep in mind.

Michael Zand said...

Perfectly put, Al.

Anonymous said...

Volunteers isn't a bad movie. Hanks is hilarious as a rich, preppie type in the Peace Corps. And of course, the late, truly great John Candy is wonderful. Pretty funny flick.

Ivan G said...

I'm more in keeping with Miles' take on the gag--it really doesn't detract from a movie that I, too, think is awfully funny. In fact, you've pretty much telegraphed that it's a modern-day "Road" picture with the "car-crashing-through-the-map" bit as Hanks is making his airport dash at the beginning of the film.