What Steven Wright's Oscar-Winning Short Can Teach You About Planning Your First Films
By 1988, Steven Wright, known for his deadpan delivery of non sequiturs, paraprosdokians, as well as all manner of logical and linguistic disjunctions, had established a unique brand of stand-up comedy. What many don't know is that he is also an Academy Award winning filmmaker, honored for his 1988 short, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. A low-budget, half-hour, absurdist black comedy, it is must viewing for any fan of Wright, indie filmmaker, and this goes double for indie filmmakers looking to make their first shorts; it's a clever object lesson in filmmaking economy. Dennis Jennings is a great window into filmmaking, storytelling, and an intelligent approach to both.
The first thing we notice about this film is that it is, for a movie starring a Grammy award-winning comedian with an HBO special to his name, not flashy. At all. More than anything else, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings looks like a student film. Director Dean Parisot (husband of Quentin Tarantino's collaborator, the late editor Sally Menke, as well the director of quasi-cult favorite Galaxy Quest, among others) used what was obviously a straitened budget to his advantage, while the film carries so much of Wright's sensibility that it is, for all intents and purposes, a Steven Wright film.
At the time, Wright had risen to the top of comedy at a speed almost unknown, and his absurdist humor was the antidote to what many saw as the epidemic of Seinfeld clones who stood in front of all those brick walls in the 1980s, demanding to know what the deal was with various things. Here's Wright, in his first HBO special from 1985:
Interestingly, the opening of the special features many absurdist elements that would end up in the mise en scène of Dennis Jennings. A key thing to keep in mind as you watch the short is how much Wright's personality comes through every frame. Though your controlling idea, premise, weltanschauung, or whatever you care to call it, might not rest on the force of one actor's personality, I think it's a logical step to see that, just as in the short story, where there is no room for digression, and where each sentence must carry the reader forward towards an inevitable end, the successful narrative short film as we know it in American cinema is rather like a joke: there is a setup, and a punchline, and that's that. If you can get us from A to B without causing any ruminations about C, you've done most of your job. Congrats! Now, on to the film:
Though the half-hour short later ended up on a Wright compilation, it's unclear if this was the intention at the time. In order to qualify for Academy consideration, the film screened, as do all nominees, in a theatre, for three consecutive days, with at least two screenings a day. (Though it seems quaint, Rule #19 is a hard and fast dictate, probably designed to keep out the riff raff while simultaneously paying obeisance to the box office. Though these shorts aren't commercial, per se, Hollywood still goes through the motions of ripping the tickets.) But, kids, that's all you need to get your film considered for an Oscar! Not so hard, really. Filmmakers make miracles every day, and finding a theater is a pretty chintzy magic trick, well within the reach of any enterprising indie filmmaker, especially when compared to making the thing.
Jennings tells the simple story of Dennis, a shy waiter who is unable to connect with people around him, partly out of a fear that they are talking behind his back. To solve his issues, he goes to see a psychiatrist, played by the great British comic actor Rowan Atkinson, here doing his best Freudian accent. Unfortunately, the doctor seems to have little interest in Dennis, who is, like many of the characters in short fiction and film, a "little man."
The writer Frank O'Connor, in a series of lectures on the short story, discussed how the form differs from the novel. In the short, the focus is frequently on "the mock-heroic character, the absurd little copying clerk," the small man and cog in the system. Why this is so is beyond the purview of this post, but perhaps it is that only in the smallest moments are we are able to examine the deepest truths, truths too subtle for the novel (or the feature film). Maybe, as the length of a work grows, so, too, does the significance of the protagonist at its center, as a side effect of the structure; function, then, follows form, as it were.
To ask an audience to sit with a proxy self, as it were, for two hours, the demands of the form force a type of realism at odds with many short stories and short films, which in the main have an unmistakably different tone. As O'Connor says of the novel, and I would argue that this is equally true of feature-length films:
One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of himself—as the Wild Boy, the Rebel, the Dreamer, the Misunderstood Idealist—and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole.
In narrative film we tend to identify with the protagonist, for good or ill, and this identification is a part of what makes drama so effective. But Dennis Jennings, like the characters of Russian story writer Gogol, is a decidedly 'little' man, and strange, i.e., not the sort that anyone would be eager to find feelings of solidarity with. A waiter, Jennings lives alone in a surreal apartment, where one switch controls a panoply of appliances; the intricate Rube Goldberg-esque sets of Production Designer Armin Ganz, himself nominated for an Oscar for his work on Tucker: The Man and His Dream, set a decidedly absurdist mood and are a huge part of the film's success. Wright's laconic performance carries the film dramatically, which always matches him in perfect balance. That is, there exists a unity between character and world, another hallmark of any successful piece of narrative, filmmaking or not. Everything is of a piece.
And this didn't cost more than the use of excellent New York city locations, particularly Dennis' apartment, with its bizarre elevator that does more to set the mood than any other device could. It shows that even the lowest-budget film can get the biggest effect from 'practical' visuals, combined with the language of cinema. In many ways, a well-made short is easier to talk about, with respect to filmmaking, than a well-made feature, and not just because one is only 1/4 as long as the other. It is almost a 'purer' type of filmmaking, just as a short story is like a novel, thrown into sharp relief, that is, reduced to its essentials.
When Dennis finds his doctor making fun of him, as well as having an affair with his girlfriend, he snaps, and ends up in jail for shooting him. These scenes are handled in simple, quick shots (but it does look like they filmed in Central Park), with sound effects and cutting taking the place of expensive blanks.
Of course, though the film is based around Steven Wright's persona, and wouldn't work without him, Rowan Atkinson as the psychiatrist and Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne fame both help to establish the uncanny, off-kilter atmosphere and are key elements of the film. Casting. All the things within a low-budget filmmaker's control, and the things that can make or break a short. Also, I just read that there is a very young David Hyde Pierce lurking in the background, though I have yet to see him. Let me know if you do -- the first right answer gets a personalized email from me w/link to the short film embedded above.
Here are a few of my takeaways from the film:
Play to Your Strengths
The story of Dennis Jennings is not earth-shatteringly original, but then neither are most stories. What it does do is effectively capitalize on the strengths of its main player, constructing a world around him that is an outer reflection of his interior life; in this way, a man so laconic that he scarcely seems to be aware of his surroundings at times is shown to have a rich inner life, represented in the form of the film's mise en scène, an absurd, menacing world that is just a little to the left of where we live.
And there are no special effects, in the modern sense, e.g., a scene where Dennis sits watching TV and sees a farmer onscreen, sitting on his couch, in his living room, watching Dennis; this couldn't have cost the production more than a few bucks, but is a great sight gag and also plays up motifs of alienation as well as just being funny, the one thing Steven is never allowed to be (on purpose). When he reacts to the farmer with barely a shrug, we know much more about where we are and who he is, insofar as we know we have no idea where we are.
This is an elegant little device that is both funny and effective, using cinema to achieve its aims. This is something all filmmakers should consider when thinking of their first shorts, or their twentieth feature. But good habits turn into lifelong ones, and the filmmaker who thinks of any problem cinematically will be ahead of their colleague who views difficulty as a fiduciary problem.
Use What You Have
Do you have a great apartment? A cool store in town or bar that will let you shoot after hours? You'd be amazed how often happy accidents can occur when you take the first step towards making something, whether it's a movie, story, or sampler that says, "God Bless This Mess." Some novice filmmakers have always convinced themselves that the way to the top is through so-called 'production values,' shorthand usually for sequences that add nothing to the film but which cover up for any narrative deficiency (they hope) and, you know, look "cool."
I will say confidently, here, that the "cool" is the enemy of the "great." No matter what you are doing (movie, story, sampler) you are the servant of your idea. No one remembers explosions in movies unless they are on a level that changes movie technology forever, or your movie is about Alfred Nobel, or something; what they do remember is a story that fits together as one coherent whole. That isn't to say you shouldn't get your f-stop right, or keep the thing in sync (unless subverting these is part of your idea!), but a quick look around will show that you have more than you know.
Keep It Simple
The Appointments of Dennis Jennings relies on three central locations, including the ingenious set design in Dennis' apartment, and the worldview of a character unlike any other, in order to work its magic. Without claiming authority, I think that a sound piece of advice is to always remember that you are the servant of the story you are telling. It's not your story, but it's been entrusted to you, and you have an obligation to do right by it. Writers are often told, kill your darlings, meaning, it doesn't matter how pretty your writing is if it doesn't help the work. I think it's a safe policy to try to do the same in film, after a fashion. Look for what is best, that is, most essential, in your idea, and follow that like a Bloodhound. Everything else is a distraction, and distractions are a filmmaker's implacable foe. There are a thousand decisions to make as a director, and you have to pick the right ones, not only as far as answers go, but as far as deciding which questions are the truly important ones.
As anyone who's ever made even the simplest short in their backyard knows, movie making is an overwhelming barrage of details. But by focusing on your idea, above everything else, you as a filmmaker stand the best chance of getting your work to the screen in a form that is both comprehensible and enjoyable to everyone in the audience. Movie making is hard, you guys. It's not the hardest thing in the world, but as far as artistic endeavours goes, it's damn near impossible. But when it works, well, it works. And sometimes, it really works.
As a special treat, here is another of Steven's short films, this one a low-budget period piece set after the Civil War. Wright's character, who may or may not be dead, wanders the landscape, asking himself existential questions. It's a success, and is so for many of the reasons listed above. While not as plot driven, it is true to itself, and one wishes (well, I wish) that Wright makes more films.
And, lest we forget, even if he does nothing else for the rest of his life, Steven Wright will always hold a place in our hearts, as the guy on the couch from Half Baked.