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How to Edit an Improv-Heavy Comedy, As Told by The Heat’s Paul Feig

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Editing a movie can take several months, and sometimes even several years (we're looking at you, Terrence Malick), but few movies present such a unique, daunting postproduction as improv-heavy comedies. If your actors have given you endless takes, each funny in different ways, how do you decide which ones to include and which to slice mercilessly? To find out, we went to Paul Feig, director of improv-heavy comedies Bridesmaids and The Heat (available on video on October 15). "First of all, you cut the movie just for story, so you include whatever jokes you think are in service of that, but otherwise you really trim it down to the tightest, most essential version of the scene," explained Feig. "Once you feel like the movie’s starting to track, then you can go in and start adding jokes." Here, as told by the filmmaker, are five of the maxims that Feig uses to figure out which jokes to include.

Every Joke Must Serve the Story
The simple rule I use is to just tell the story effectively, and everything in the editing room is in service of that. When you're selecting which take to use, the biggest thing is that no joke can overtake the story and no joke can subvert a scene. Case in point, there’s the moment in Bridesmaids when you meet Rose Byrne’s character Helen, where there’s all this passive-aggressive conversation: “Oh, did you just come from work?” All these things that were kind of setting Helen up to be kind of a clueless, slightly asshole-y rich person. Rose and Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph were hilarious, and when we cut down the scene, we knew we could have all these great jokes about how Helen’s an asshole, but then we realized it’s going to hurt our big showcase scene, which was the speech contest right after that between Rose and Kristen. Both the editor and I realized we had to jettison all this stuff and literally just make it, “Hi, how are you, good to see you,” because it’s amazing how fast the audience hates Helen. It happens as soon as she turns around and she’s beautiful and wearing that dress.

Test It With Real People
We start doing test screenings insanely early. Two to three weeks into my director’s cut, I’ll start doing test screenings. I’m a big believer in that, and we record the laughs so you can hear where people are laughing, which you need. Listen, the worst place in the world for a director to be is the editing room, because everything seems like it’s great in there — “Oh, this shot is so long and beautiful, where he walks all the way across the room!”  — and then the first time you go in front of an audience, all of those things that you thought were so great seem so terrible. “Oh my God! He’s still gotta walk all the way across the screen. Holy shit, are you kidding me?” That’s why you’ve really got to put your feet to the fire early on to be held accountable.

I think some filmmakers would be horrified that I rely so much on test audiences, but at the same time, I’m making movies for the general public. It’s a way of keeping you honest. There are always jokes you love that will come up in a test screening and get no reaction, and most of the time, you’re like, “Okay, that joke didn’t work, take it out.” With the jokes that you really love, you’re like, “Keep it in one more time, let's see,” but you’ve gotta be really careful. It’s what the editor from Bridesmaids called the “angry villagers” syndrome. People who go to see a comedy are spending their money and want to have fun, so here comes the first joke, and it’s like, “Eh, that wasn’t very funny. I guess that was supposed to be funny. Well, maybe that missed.” And here comes the next joke ... and then the next joke doesn’t work. So all the villagers who were sitting there excited to see your movie, they start to get angry as the jokes don’t work and then they want to burn down the village. That’s why I don’t include any joke unless it’s a double to a home run; anything under that, you have to be careful. So many directors will say, “Okay, it’s not a laugh joke, but the audience was smiling.” I like those kinds of jokes, too, but if the audience is eventually thinking, Hmmm, this wasn’t as funny as I was hoping it was going to be, they lose trust in the filmmaker.

Know When to Pull Back
You can just feel where an audience gets fatigued. It’s interesting, because both Judd Apatow and I come from stand-up comedy, and you learn from years of doing stand-up that you can’t just go balls-out at a crowd for an hour if you’re headlining. You want to pull them up, give them a break, pull them up, give them a break. Our comment cards would come in for The Heat, and the most hated scene in the movie was always the scene where Sandra Bullock performs the tracheotomy, but that didn’t match up to the giant laughter we were hearing on the soundtrack. The things that were actually putting people off is that blood was spurting out from the tracheotomy too many times, so eventually we found the right math for that. Same with the bridal shop vomiting scene in Bridesmaids. There was a whole sequence where Ellie Kemper’s character runs down the hall to what she thinks is the bathroom, and she throws open the door to the office of the woman who owns the place, then starts projectile vomiting across all this beautiful white stuff and even onto the woman’s wedding picture. Early on, we were like, “Too much.” We don’t want to bum out the audience.

Play Detective
Here’s the other thing with editing: It takes a lot of sleuthing. Let’s say I’ve got this hilarious scene and I know it fucking destroys, but I wonder, Why is this not killing with an audience? It’s because ten minutes ago, they got the exact same information. In The Heat, we had a scene we loved when Melissa and Sandra play “Two Truths and a Lie” during their stakeout, and Melissa’s character intuits how unpopular Sandra was growing up. Later on, we’ve got a similar scene where she’s in Sandra’s apartment looking through her old yearbook, and it wasn’t getting the laughs that it should have been getting because we’d now heard that same information about Sandra two times already. It was very sad for all of us to pull that stakeout scene out, but immediately it tightened everything up and then that scene down the road started getting big laughs.

Sometimes It's Better to Be Less Funny
On The Heat, I hired Michael McDonald to play the villain because I love Michael and I’ve always wanted to work with him, but at the same time, we had to cut a lot of his funniest jokes. What I don’t like are those action comedies where the bad guy is too silly. If there’s no danger, then you’re just going joke to joke; what makes you fully engaged in the movie is that feeling of, “Oh shit, they could get killed!” When it gets too silly, it’s another chance for the audience to lose interest, and when people get bored or start shifting around or their minds start wandering, that’s not good. That’s why you’ve got to be so hard on this stuff, but also let it breathe. It’s a weird math. You just keep working on it.