When the world lost Gene Wilder, it lost far more than Willy Wonka. It lost one of the last great comedic actors that could sing, act, and dance with Frankenstein’s monster. Looking back at his career, we’ll cover 5 lessons filmmakers can learn about comedy from Gene Wilder when directing actors.
1. Cast triple threats
Gene Wilder could sing, dance, act, and run a chocolate factory all at the same time.
Learning how to sing and dance is an acting technique that goes back for generations, but Gene Wilder was certainly a great example of how it can improve the quality of comedy.
Directing actors starts with casting
While it may seem hard to find actors like Gene Wilder, the case is often that you’re not looking for them. More often than not, a casting sheet doesn’t have a space for special talents, because the script hasn’t called for it.
Since comedy is so improvisational, it never hurts to cast an actor who can do it all, so if you find yourself on set, you can add in gene-bending moments that are sure to be classic.
2. Know the difference between lines and jokes
A character’s sudden switch of mind, heart, or state of being can absolutely prompt a comedic reaction from an audience. It takes a talented comedian to pull off such switches naturally, so that the moment does not feel false or staged.
Gene Wilder’s impeccable comedic timing gave him a natural ability to smoothly navigate such changes.
Wilder’s car scene as Eugene Grizzard in Bonnie & Clyde is a perfect example of his timing and ability to execute a comedic turn.
In this moment, Eugene Grizzard begins in one state of mind – “I’m gonna tear them apart!” After prompting from Velma Davis, reminding him that they may have guns, he takes a beat, and is in a very different place – “Listen, we better get the police and let them handle this.”
This unexpected comedic turn, perfectly timed by Wilder, shows the comedic effectiveness of surprising your audience.
This doesn’t mean you should should a pause after every…word. It just means when a joke is written as such, don’t be afraid to play it up.
Directing actors who aren't joke tellers
While Gene Wilder had a natural ability to turn a phrase, you may find that actors on your film need some oomph. Just before you go to mark up your script and turn into a shot list, go line by and line and mark up the jokes. Highlight the set ups and the punchlines right after. Knowing these beats before you get to set will lend your project playfulness and ensure the screenwriter’s dialogue is full realized.
3. Direct actors to share
Strong comedy often comes from a give and take between two actors. As their relationship takes unexpected turns, the moments rise and fall, allowing the audience to be consistently surprised by the jokes.
Gene Wilder had a particular talent for sharing the spotlight, with a feel for knowing when the punch line should be delivered, and who by. Take, for example, the moment from Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (which Wilder co-wrote, incidentally), where Dr. Frankenstein and the monster are performing a song and tap dance of Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Although Dr. Frankenstein is doing the majority of the work in this moment, the big laugh comes when Frankenstein gestures to the monster, giving him full focus, and the monster hilariously sings the line “puttin’ on the ritz,” in an unexpected high pitched tone.
Gene Wilder does all the heavy lifting of the joke’s setup, without any pay off for himself.
More often than not, directing actors in a comedy often means telling actors they don’t get to have the laugh. If you find yourself with an actor who’s unwilling to commit to the set up, consider walking the cast through what’s the joke at each scene, so everyone feels like they’re working together.
Directing actors in a casting call
They say that 90% of directing is casting. But how can you tell in casting call if an actor will have Gene Wilder’s ability to share the joke?
Select audition sides that also give the script reader a punchline. See how, or if, your actors do the set up work, or if they just wait til it’s their moment to shine. This directing technique works better at a call back where you can pit potential actors against each other to see if the chemistry sparks.
4. Find actors who take risks
Gene Wilder was never afraid to take the moments he was creating and the characters he was portraying to extreme levels. As an actor, he took risks, making huge choices in his physical movements and vocal expressions, as well as character traits.
A perfect example of this is Wilder’s entrance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He walks out, with a cane, clearly a cripple, moving slowly – until he reaches the gate. The cane sticks in the ground and he falls forward, face first, saving it at the last minute by somersaulting and springing up.
This hilarious and intentional action gets great applause from the onlookers. It is an unusual physical choice, no doubt, but beyond that, it says a great deal about his character.
This idea came directly from Gene Wilder.
What's the role of improvisation in comedy?
Brainstorming quick throw-away gags on set or alternate line changes often yield memorable moments. Completely changing a story beat, however, can mean a very, very angry producer.
Directing actors in comedies means finding the line between innovation and taking three steps back. More ideas is always better than none, but know when to reign actors in, so the shooting schedule isn’t delayed.
Watch: Gene Wilder's Comedic Quality
In this video essay by Todd VanDerWerff with Vox, Gene Wilder's comedic genius & generosity is explored.
5. Hire a great hair stylist
I mean, can you talk about Gene Wilder without mentioning his curly hair?
While far from an acting technique or comedy insight, there is some truth in here.
One of the best things Gene Wilder can teach us about comedy is to be delightfully goofy selves. Having an individual brand is a boon that can bestow a project with warm.
Your comedy brand doesn’t have to be hair-related, but having an iconic trait audiences can latch on, will make your actors and their characters pop off the screen like never before.
It is undeniable that the wrong casting choice can ruin a production. Young directors often make the mistakes of casting on look alone, or going with a name actor that doesn’t quite suit the role.
Since comedy relies so much on an actor’s delivery, reactions, and timing, comedic talent is the most important component when it comes to casting.
Directing actors who adopt only a few acting techniques of Gene Wilder will set your project off to a great start.
What’s your favorite Gene Wilder movie? Let us know in the comments!
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