My wife would see me getting cornered again and again at parties and social functions by people who would virtually interview me on this topic. Finally, she said, ''Why don't you just write up an article for one of the trade journals explaining how it's done?''
A good idea, I realized, but when I tried to write up a first-person account of the process, I just wasn't comfortable babbling on about myself. Instead, I sat down with a journalist friend of mine, Norman Sweetzer, and he proceeded to do what people kept doing at these social functionshe interviewed me; asking every question he could think of about the process. He then transcribed and edited the interview.
The following somewhat lengthy document is the end result.
WRITERS, NO SCRIPT, NO REHEARSAL: IS THIS ANY WAY TO
DIRECT A SITCOM?
By Norman Sweetzer
Norman Sweetzer: How did you meet up with Larry David?
Robert Weide: In the early 80's, I was Director of Development for Rollins & Joffe, a production and management company best known for producing Woody Allen's movies. A script came across my desk called Prognosis Negative which was one of the funniest scripts I ever read. The writer came in for a few meetings. It was Larry David whom I was familiar with from the ABC late-night comedy series Fridays which also starred Michael Richards, a Rollins Joffe client. Well, they never produced the script, but through those meetings Larry and I became friendly. He was doing stand-up comedy at the time and on countless nights, I'd go to the clubs with him and watch him work. On many, many nights the audience would just stare at him like carp looking up from a pond. Sometimes they'd be outright hostile. I would be in the back of the room, hysterical, thinking, ''If the country ever caught up to this guy's sense of humor, there'll be chaos in the streets.'' Well, eventually that came to pass with Seinfeld. So I saw Larry go from an unacknowledged, unsuccessful emotional wreck to a very successful, very wealthy emotional wreck.
Although we stayed in touch, I didn't see a lot of him over the next seven years because of the consuming nature of writing and producing a show like that. And I went on to my own professional life as a documentary filmmaker and a screenwriter. It never occurred to me that we'd work together.
NS: How did that happen?
RW: When Larry left the series after the seventh season, his time freed up and we started to hang out again. Not like the old days because he was now married with kids and both of us were staying out of comedy clubs. But we'd have lunch now and then.
In the fall of '98 he called me to say he was going back to the clubs to do stand-up again and I thought he was putting me on. Why would he torture himself like that? But of course, it was a love-hate thing with stand-up. I think he wanted to face down some old demons, now that he had nothing invested in it.
During that same conversation he told me that he had already spoken to HBO and they were interested in doing a comedy special about his return to stand-upostensibly a documentary with some behind-the-scenes footage. And he told me he wanted me to direct it. It was the first time I said ''yes'' to a gig without asking about ''when'' or ''where'' or ''how much.'' I knew I wanted to do it.
At that time, the thinking was that most of the special would be stand-up, and a small percentage would be backstage verité. But there was also going to be a fabricated element to it, in that Larry's friend, (comic) Jeff Garlin would play Larry's manager, rather than having Larry's real manager (Gavin Polone) appear. Also, Larry wanted to have an actress play his wife. So although the stand-up performances would be real, the behind the scenes footage would be largely fabricated. Eventually things would shift to where most of the show was comprised of the off-stage story-line, and the stand-up sequences were only used like seasoning, sprinkled as needed throughout the show.
The idea was to do this unscripted so that actors could improvise dialogue and it would feel more genuine. And we'd also leave room for things that might spontaneously happen on camera, and weave that into our story-line. Larry wanted me to do it because of my documentary background, figuring I'd know how to apply the rules of documentary filmmaking to this odd hybrid. I was very excited by the idea of purposely blurring the line between the real and the fabricated, so that viewers would actually be trying to figure out what was real and what wasn't.
NS: I suppose there were also those who assumed the whole thing was ''real.''
RW: Yeah, that happened too. Although it wasn't purposely our intention to fool people, I figured if it happened, fine. My attitude was that unless you personally knew enough about Larry to say, ''Wait a minute, that's not Larry's real manager'' or ''that's not his wife Laurie,'' there should be no reason not to assume it's real.
The highest compliment was relayed to me by Cheryl Hines, the actress who plays Larry's wife, who was also called ''Cheryl'' in the special. She had friends in Florida who saw the show and were upset to find out that Cheryl had married a big TV producer and they were never invited to the wedding.
NS: So the idea was always that Larry would play himself, not a character ''like'' himself.
RW: Yes, Larry David would play Larry David, the co-creator and Executive Producer of Seinfeld who was now out of a job and deciding to go back to stand-up.
NS: The talking heads interviews in the film help in the verisimilitude department.
RW: I suggested that because I took the attitude of, ''What would I include if this was a 'real' documentary?'' Well, I'd interview the people who knew Larry best. So I filmed interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Richard Lewis, Glenn Padnick of Castle Rock, Rick Newman who co-owned New York's ''Catch a Rising Star''... people whom I'd really go to if Larry were just another one of my documentary subjects.
NS: Were they in on the gag?
RW: To tell you the truth... I don't know. I never discussed the embellished element of the show with them. Like the body of the show, nothing was scripted. These were the real recollections of these people, talking about a real person they know.
NS: What were some of the unexpected incidents that found their way into the show?
RW: One example would be the scene with Caroline Rhea. Larry is having lunch at a deli with two of his comic friends who are trying to talk him out of returning to stand-up. Well, the gag was that Caroline Rhea was supposed to come up to the table, say ''Hi'' to Larry, then go sit at another table. The planned gag was that Larry would fret over whether or not he had to go to her table to say ''good-bye'' once he was ready to leave. It's the kind of ''nothing'' moment that was often mined so well in Seinfeld.
But when Caroline came by the table and said ''Hi,'' Larry accidentally introduced her to his friends as ''Carolyn'' instead of ''Caroline.'' That was unintentional. Caroline corrected him on the name and took her seat. Larry then mumbled to his friends, ''Don't you hate when people make a big fuss about mispronouncing their names?'' Well, we liked the moment so much that we brought Caroline back later in the show and did a scene where they have a big falling out over the name goof. And again, I've since spoken to Caroline who tells me that friends of hers who saw the show thought the subsequent argument was real. So it helped to stay open to moments that you could never plan.
NS: That example would indicate that you shot in sequence.
RW: Yes. It was something Larry felt very strongly about from the beginning. He wanted the entire special shot in sequence so we could exploit those moments and see how we might play them out later. It made for a logistical nightmare and upped the budget considerably but it was absolutely the right choice.
In fact, there's a sequence in the special where Larry leaves for New York from LAX. At LAX he has an unpleasant run-in with an acquaintance whom he was avoiding. In the next scene, we see Larry and Jeff (Garlin) at JFK in New York where a limo picks them up and takes them into town. Well, of course, our crew actually traveled to New York, so these were real-time sequences. In other words, we shot at LAX, then shot at JFK when we arrived there, then filmed in the limo on our way into the city. So except for the repeated takes and the variations we'd try within the scenes, for all intents and purposes I might as well have been making a real vérite documentary. We were shooting on the fly.
RW: Even before the special aired, Chris Albrecht, Carolyn Strauss and the powers-that-be at HBO liked it so much that they asked Larry, ''How would you like to do a series based on the same idea?'' I think they offered him 12 episodes, and in typical Larry David fashion, he talked them down to 10. I was in Hot Springs Arkansas screening my Lenny Bruce film at their documentary festival when Larry called me and said, ''You want to do more?'' Again, I said ''yes.''
NS: Were you slated to direct all ten episodes?
RW: No. From the beginning, Larry knew that he wanted to bring some friends in to do a few of them. I would do the first couple to help set the look of the show, based on how I shot the special. I wound up directing six of the ten episodes. But my Supervising Producer credit meant I'd always be on the set conferring with Larry, working on gags, contributing lines and I'd always be at the director's side. At first I wondered if I'd be too territorial when we had guest directors, but the fact was, I was delighted to let someone else take the helm a few times so I could focus on content without also worrying about where to put the cameras and how to stage the scene.
NS: Who have been the other directors on the first season?
RW: David Steinberg, who's terrific and comes from an improv and stand-up background; Andy Ackerman who was the primary director on Seinfeld for several seasons; Bryan Gordon, a wonderful feature and TV director and Larry Charles who never directed before but was the Supervising Producer on a few seasons of Seinfeld. They all had a great experience and one unlike any they'd had before.
NS: Do you always stick to documentary rules in staging the scenes?
RW: After the first couple of episodes, we started to allow ourselves a little more leeway. In the original special, it was supposed to be a literal documentary, so there were references to the film crew, a boom might enter a shot slightly, or you'd hear me asking Larry questions from off-camera. For the series, we've dropped the conceit that this is literally a documentary, but in the first couple of episodes I still applied those basic rules.
For instance, if Larry entered a room, the camera would follow from behind as it might if you were just documenting his actions. But we finally relaxed on that stuff and just put the camera in the room, in anticipation of his entrance if it made for better coverage. Also, on the series, there are scenes of Larry in bed with his wife, scenes in movie theaters... places where a real camera crew wouldn't intrude. So we figured it was pointless to pretend this was true vérite. In a later episode (directed by Bryan Gordon) there's even a little stylistic Hitchcock spoof.
So if you watch the series in sequence, you'll see the style evolve in subtle ways, but the feel is still very fly-on-the-wall. The cameras are always hand-held but we shoot as steady as possible. I hate that self-conscious effect of purposely moving the cameras more than you need to. It makes me dizzy to watch.
NS: Did you always shoot single camera?
RW: We actually shoot with two. With an unscripted show, it's a necessity. As you never know what may happen, you have to be able to catch the action as well as any important reaction as you may not get a second chance. So much of the comedy comes from Larry's reaction to his situation that I make certain no matter what else is happening, Larry's face is always covered.
NS: What format are you using?
RW: We shoot Digi-Beta but the edited master is run through a process to make it look like film. It's actually pretty effective.
NS: Why not just leave it looking like video?
RW: Larry and I both simply prefer the look of film for this kind of comedy. But the cost of shooting this much film would be prohibitive, even with 16mm. Our budget for the first season was really bare bones.
NS: Like the special, the idea was to shoot the series unscripted and in-sequence?
RW: Yes, and the third element that added to the logistical insanity was that Larry wanted everything shot on location. All location, all in-sequence and no script. A line producer's nightmare! For the one-hour special, we had a fairly luxurious schedule of four months, on-again and off-again. For the series, each half-hour had to be shot in five or six days. Now remember, I'm the guy who's taken thirteen years to make a single film. Now I'm knocking out a show in five days. I felt like I was thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool and told, ''Sink or swim.'' But despite whatever complaining I did, I must say it was good discipline for me. And good on-the-job training.
NS: Without a script, do you have any way of planning your shots in advance?
RW: By having a rough idea how the scene might play out, I can tell my DP and camera operators what I want to get, but you never know. Of course, the name of the game for TV and most films is ''consistency.'' On ''Action!'' Frank will deliver his line, pick up the cup, walk to the dresser and set it down, look at the photo and deliver his next line. He does the same thing take after take and you cover it a few different ways. With our show, the dialogue is different each time, the action will vary and body positions are all over the place. Occasionally I'll give a continuity note, but generally I want the actors to feel comfortable enough to try different things and not be hampered by typical continuity concerns like body positions. If you get enough coverage, you can cover for most of that stuff anyway. Although we've shot some scenes where Larry decided to sit during the first four takes, then stand during the next two. But rarely is it that drastic.
NS: I assume there's lots of rehearsal before you actually start shooting?
RW: You'd think so. No, actually the first time any dialogue comes out of anyone's mouth, the cameras are running. We do a rough camera blocking before we start shooting but I tell the actors just to ''blah-blah'' the dialogue until the cameras roll. My fear is that if they make up a wonderful piece of dialogue, then they'll be self-consciously trying to hit the same mark once we're filming and we'll lose the spontaneity. You'll see actorsespecially Larryactually laugh in this show. It's not acted laughing and it's not out of character. But when something funny is said that catches you by surprise, the involuntary reaction is to laugh and we capture that because the surprises are real. Larry even blushes in the show when he's caught by his wife in some lie.
NS: Are the first takes usually the best?
RW: It varies. Sometimes the first take really sings because everything is fresh and no one's trying to replicate what they did before. Sometimes it's take six before we even have a clue as to what the hell we're doing. By take eight, we'll have it down pretty well, then I'll go in for coverage. I think the record number of takes was in the thirties, but that was an especially complicated scene. That number includes pick-ups and reaction shots, too.
NS: Do you give actors notes between takes?
RW: Sure. That's a very important part of the process. Prior to the first take, I'll give actors information on a need-to-know basis. We'll discuss the general direction of the scene, I'll give them some beats or general dialogue that they'll need to propel the scene in the right direction as well as any relevant back-story, but otherwise I give them very little direction about performance, hoping that left to their own devices, something brilliant might happen. Then I give notes and continue to tweak and make adjustments as needed between each take.
NS: Do most of your actors have backgrounds in improv?
RW: Yes. Our acting pool is primarily built from actors with improv experience. We've used actors from various improv groups like the Groundlings, a lot of Second City people. In fact the part of Jeff's mother is played by Mina Kolb who is a veteran Second City player from the original company. Paul Dooley, a Second City vet played Cheryl's father in one episode. We've also had great success with stand-up comedians who tend to be good at thinking on their feet. Richard Lewis is a semi-regular, playing himselfa longtime friend of Larry's, which he is. Watching them together is really a treat because they are drawing from a personal dynamic that goes back forty years. We've also gotten wonderful performances out of actors who've never improvised professionally. Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen guest starred in an episode playing themselves. They both admitted to being a little nervous performing without a script. But they had such a good time and found it so liberating that by the end of the shoot they were joking that they never wanted to work with a script again.
NS: What's the casting process like?
RW: By the time we're ready to cast, the episode outlines are already written, so we know what the scenes are. The auditions work like normal auditions except there's no sides, no script. I usually type out little ''premise'' slips which are handed out to the actors in the waiting area. They generally have a few minutes to consider the scene, then we bring them in to improvise with Larry, based on the premise. The only note I tend to give them before the audition is ''Don't push for jokes. Keep it as real as possible.'' The comedy always comes out of the situation. Jokes almost always feel like they belong in a scripted sitcom which is something we want to avoid.
NS: How much detail is in a typical episode outline and how are they prepared?
RW: A typical outline might be five pages with pretty liberal margins. Larry had a draft of the first six outlines before we even shot the first episode. Then while we were shooting, he eventually cobbled together the final four.
Larry keeps a little notebook with him at all times and jots down any idea that he thinks could be a funny premise, mostly inspired by things that actually happen to him. Some are tiny little moments, others are solid ''A'' story premises. The outlines usually weave together a combination of ideas that will somehow gel together. Larry and I will then try to do an approximate timing and if it comes up short, we'll brainstorm little ancillary stories that we can weave in. Or we'll tie up all the stories in ways that will really blow up in Larry's face at the show's end.
That's really the closest thing we have to a premise for this series: Larry starts each day just trying to get through it with some dignity intact and we watch how the universe just conspires against him, although he usually has his own hand in it . In an early article about the show, a New York Times writer summed it up as, ''no good or bad deed goes unpunished.'' That's pretty accurate.
NS: I can't imagine what the editing process is like.
RW: It's pretty overwhelming. We wind up with tons of footage. Even though there's no script, I do have a script supervisor. Her primary job is to watch my reaction to see what I like as we're shooting. Sometimes it's just noting where I'm smiling, or I'll point to the monitor and nod vigorously, or shake my head when I know something isn't working. Then I become more verbal between takes. ''I like what Larry did with the toothbrush in take three, but Cheryl's reaction to seeing the bracelet was great in take five.'' These notes then get passed on to the editor who's already putting together an assembly while we're filming. Two editors worked full time, alternating shows.
We'd shoot two episodes back to back over two weeks. Then we'd have a hiatus week during which we'd cast the next two shows and edit the previous two. Ideally, the editors would have a first assembly already put together based on our set notes. Larry and I continue to work with them and continue polishing during the hiatus week. Of course, there was quite a backlog once we wrapped filming on the first season. Editing continued for the next three months.
On a standard show, you might select your takes on the basis of a combination of things: performance, action, the best looking shot. But here, you also have a myriad of choices as to how the entire scene will play out. Do we use the take where Larry yells at the guy and storms off, or the one where he offers him a stick of gum to avoid the confrontation? Half the show is ''written'' on the set, the other half is ''written'' in the editing room. But my god... the amount of footage.
NS: What's your favorite thing about doing this show?
RW: Well, this whole experience was an unexpected turn for me. I really never pursued a career in series television because I never wanted to work that hard. But more overwhelming than the long hours is the joy of creating something that I think is really original. I don't think ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' will look like anything else on television. And I think it's genuinely funny. So I'm proud to have a hand in it.
I really grew up on classic film comedy; The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton. With a silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, so much was conceived and developed on the spot. For instance, if Keaton is being chased by 200 cops, he might say, ''Hey what if I climbed that ladder over there and when I got to the top, it swung over to the other side of the fence and I made my getaway?'' With some limits of course, this series allows us that kind of creative spontaneity on the fly. Please understand, I'm not comparing our show to Chaplin or Keaton, but neither do we have a gaggle of writers all pitching ideas around a table. It's a very streamlined process. It's not done by committee.
So it does hearken back to old comedies a bit in that it's driven by a singular vision. It's a comic vision that I share and help to enhance, but I'm there to serve Larry and help him get it on the screen. People assume he's a control freak, but I find that if he trusts you, if you've proved yourself to him, he's extremely collaborative.
NS: What's the downside?
RW: Very simply, there are times at the end of the day where you question whether you ever really nailed it. There have been times when we'll shoot all day, then on the way home Larry will call me from his car, or I'll call him and one of us will say, ''I just realized what that scene should have been.'' But the truth is, by the time you shoot enough takes and get your coverage, there's always something you can make work in the editing room.