Jonathan Kesselman wrote and directed The Hebrew Hammer, a comedy about an Orthodox Jewish Blaxploitation hero (Adam Goldberg) who saves Hanukkah from the evil offspring of Santa Claus (Andy Dick). The film has become a cult favorite, and you should add it to your holiday viewing list this year. In addition to being a successful screenwriter, Jonathan teaches Writing Comedy for Film and Television at Yale University. He has some great tips for aspiring comedy writers.
Cinematical: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Jonathan Kesselman: I always loved writing. When I was in the 5th grade, I was pulled out of my class and put onto the 12th grade yearbook staff writing copy. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. In college, I majored in Psychology -- neuroscience was my field. I realized that I didn't like slicing rat brains. I remember really searching for what it was that I wanted to do with my life. And I had always been obsessed with movies. I remember having this existential crisis pre-graduation, and then seeing a documentary on Your Show of Shows, and it hit me that I was put on this earth to make fun of people.
Cinematical: So you threw the rat in the air triumphantly...
JK: I ate the rat -- tasty! Yeah, I graduated, and decided I wanted to go to film school. I eventually went to graduate school at USC for film production.
Cinematical: How valuable did you find film school?
JK: Oh boy. In hindsight, I found it very valuable.The thing with USC is that you're making a lot of shorts. The only way to learn any craft is to constantly work. As a writer, the more you write, the better you get. It's the same with filmmaking. So, while there were politics I disliked -- and I'm $100,000 in debt -- when I made my first film, I knew how to make a film. Initially I thought I just wanted to be a comedy writer, but when I started directing, I realized that was my calling. I loved writing something, and making it a reality. Directing felt like an extension. You write in all the details in terms of production design, cinematography, editing, casting, costumes, etc. And I was good at it. I was nicknamed the David Lean of 507 (the first semester production class) because I would always challenge myself and mount bigger and bigger productions for each subsequent film. I wanted more people, more complex camera work, more props. At that point, and until recently, I only wanted to do comedy.
Cinematical: I know I was doing short comedies in college and everyone kind of scoffed because they were making black and white films with slow-motion falling leaves, dead birds, naked artsy girls, that sort of thing...
JK: My film school partner and I used to call those films, "Daddy touched me movies." A lot of the indies you see now are extensions of those. My second semester film put me on the map. It was a $1,000 dollar non-dialogue short. A two man crew. It was called, "The Hebrew Hammer." The archivists at USC chose it as one of their favorite films from the 1950's to the present, and it became this little phenomenon at school that wouldn't die. I entered it into a few festivals, and I semi-finalled at the Austin Film Fest. I decided to write it as a feature. A woman I had met at Austin a year prior was a fan of the short, and I emailed the feature script to her. Without me knowing, she got it into a producer named Ed Pressman's hands. He called me into his office and said, "Can you make this for a million dollars?" Now, remember, at this point, my biggest budget was $1,500. And I very confidently said "Sure!" And I was in production probably 6 months later. My dream was to get a movie greenlit before I graduated, and it came true.
Cinematical: So did you have to say to these people "I want to make the movie I want to make?" And isn't that nerve-wracking as a newcomer?
JK: Everyone has an opinion, or a vision of what your film should be. And it's always the people who aren't funny. It's your job to be very specific and clear as to what you want to do. And bring on good people who make it better. Keep the good ideas in, and prevent the bad ones from f***ing up the movie. And everyone thinks they're a writer. Gary Ross had a great quote, something along the lines of, "Anyone who can read or write thinks they're a screenwriter." People tend to leave composers alone, editors, alone, DP's alone, but they don't understand their craft. Screenwriting is as much a craft as any other. However, because it involves reading and writing, people assume it's easy. Anyone can do this. I've been honing my craft and will do so until I die.
Cinematical: And what are you working on now?
JK: This year I just finished my first drama/adaptation, and that was an incredible experience. The film is called Abe Gilman's Ending, based on the book written by Glenn Frank. I'm excited about the cast I have on board. Martin Landau is playing the lead, and Elliot Gould is starring opposite. I'll be directing that as well. I have a movie I co-wrote with a brilliant comedy writer/animator named Todd Rosenberg. It's called Odd Todd, and it's one of the most original, creative, and visual comedies I've been a part of. It's a live action feature version of his cartoon (www.oddtodd.com). Also, just turned in a first draft of my first CGI film for Fox. It's the first time in my life I had to sign an NDA. I'm actually not allowed to discuss the plot! It isn't your typical CGI comedy. It's unlike anything done before.
Cinematical: And what's the status of The Hebrew Hammer 2?
JK: That's my baby, and I'm going nuts. The script is, in my totally biased, non-humble opinion, 5 times funnier than the first one. Huge producers in town have tried to get it made. I need $3.5 to $5 million. If there are any rich Jews out there, please go to my website and contact me! I'll tell you a few things casting-wise. Lewis Black is going to play Hitler. Martin Landau wants to play either Abraham or Moses. I think Carol Kane is going to play Jesus' mother. I'm still nagging Richard Lewis to play Jesus. It's the funniest film I've written. I LOVE History Of The World, and I wanted to outdo Mel Brooks on this one.
Cinematical: That's a tall order! Take our readers through your writing process...
JK: Typically, with whatever I'm writing, I start first with the protagonist's wants vs. needs. Wants being that external objective he wants, that is typically the stuff second acts are made of. Needs being the psychological lesson he or she will learn, introduced in Act One, and resolved in Act Three. Then I figure out my structural landmarks:
1) What is the Inciting Incident of Act One?
2) What is the Act One/Two Break
3) What is the Midpoint/False Culmination of the Second Act?
4) What is the "Main Tension", or overriding question of Act Two?
5) What is the culmination to that question - the act Two/Three break?
6) What is my third Act twist?
7) What is the climax/resolution of Act Three?
8) What is the coda?
Then I begin to figure out what's funny. Every comedy should have an inherit concept where the comedy will be derived from. Structure is important in comedies. Here's what I've found in most comedies I read or see in Hollywood. Either the writer is adept at the funny (gags, bits, sketches) OR he understands structure. There are very few writers I read who are good at both. The funny is actually very easy for me. I can always find a way to make something funny. But no matter how funny a bit is, if it doesn't drive your story forward, it won't usually get a laugh. Screenwriting, to me, is like a pop song. If you don't have verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge, an audience will check out.
Cinematical: What are your favorite comedy screenplays?
JK: Well, from a structural standpoint, my class at Yale just watched Groundhog Day. Not necessarily the funniest movie, but damn is it well constructed. I love History Of The World. It's the only other movie poster i have hanging on my wall. I also loved Election. The Naked Gun! I did a scene from that film in my high school drama class, the scene with Leslie Nielsen and Ricardo with the pen and the fish tank. Also, Fear Of A Black Hat was something we watched over and over again
Cinematical: Any closing pieces of advice for aspiring comedy writers?
JK: If you're writing comedy, follow the funny, and don't forget to WRITE IN THE REACTION SHOT. The joke isn't typically what's funny, it's your straight man/woman's reaction to it. Don't assume a reader sees it. And ALWAYS END A SCENE ON A JOKE. No matter how expositional a scene is, if it ends on a laugh, it magically becomes a funny scene.
For more on Mr. Kesselman, check out his website: theworldwidemediaconspiracy.com.