Writing and producing comedy has its own set of rules. With The Selling of Star Wars, I wanted to explore these rules and what differentiates TV and sketch comedy from other genres and mediums.
Writing and Pre-Production
Adaptations are peculiar beasts. Thematically, a screenwriter has to either nail the mood of the original author or create something satisfying. A fond memory of my teens, the original TSSW was a radio play performed by the comedy troupe The Gunderson Corporation and written by prolific sci-fi / urban horror author Nick Pollotta and writer and illustrator Phil Foglio (an early Magic: the Gathering artist). Nick was so kind that he provided me with a revised version of the original 1983 script.
The first challenge was to create a visual language for the story. In a radio play, you don’t have to worry about what’s visible and what isn’t: perception is based on only foley / sound effects. This particular play featured a twist: only the two producers negotiating with George Lucas had speaking roles; in the case of the young screenwriter, the script called for “inarticulate mumbling.” So how does one adapt an “inaudible” character? By making him invisible. I placed George off-camera, used a body double to orient the actors and instead of constant “inarticulate mumbling”, added grunts and other noises during editing. By adding shots to the storyboard where the producers looked directly into the camera, my goal was to “make it more personal,” to compensate for the fact that George – and therefore George’s reaction shots – were intentionally missing. If we can’t show that George is intimidated, at least have the audience feel uneasy by the direct eye contact.
Frugality is bad on a first date but is invaluable in film and TV production. I knew I wanted to shoot this as fast as possible because I was using pro-bono actors and a student crew who can’t be expected to be as tenacious as if it were a paid gig. I streamlined the shoot by using two cameras for each take. This doubled my footage. I did experience difficulties, like audio syncing problems caused by the DP muting one of the cameras, but I strongly believe that it sped up the production process – we finished the shoot in four hours – and helped me learn about framing and directing multi-camera comedy. I also learned about the value of good art direction. The art director / set dresser on the project, Brittany Hester, offered to use one of her own large canvasses to paint a logo for the fictional Quagmire production company and we also managed to liberate several awards and vintage props from our offices. While we weren’t aiming to recreate an accurate ’70s office setting, considering the scale of the project, what we had worked out fine.