Interview: David Wain, Director “The Ten”

Filed Under Interview, Movies, Sketch Comedy

Today The Ten, an underrated comedy from last summer, comes to DVD. Ten stories highlight each of the Bible’s Ten Commandments in a very loose way, with characters interconnecting between sketches. Each bit is extremely silly (an example: a man becomes a celebrity after falling from a plane and ending up embedded in the ground, unable to move). But they’re all played seriously. Helping to ground the absurd are serious actors and actresses like Oliver Platt, Gretchen Mol, Liev Schreiber and WInona Ryder, who has a torrid affair with a ventriloquist dummy. Also part of the fun are some great alt comedy folk including Ron Corddry, A.D. Miles, Jason Sudekis and nearly every member of “The State.” I got a chance to do a short email interview with “Ten” Director David Wain, who along with being a member of “The State” and “Stella” previously directed “Wet Hot American Summer.” We talked about interconnected sketches, absurdity and the classic comedy “Airplane.”

Sketch comedy movies are often described as hit or miss. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? It seems like an obvious thing to say about any movie – there will be parts you like more than other parts.

It makes sense that one would feel this way about sketch comedy because each part has a different premise, different set of characters, different style—not everyone is going to like every sketch.  Also there’s an inevitable “dip” in a sketch-based film, when you’re not following a three-act story, where no matter how funny the jokes are, it can start to get tedious.  In The Ten we tried to combat this phenomenon by keeping the whole movie relatively short, and by imbuing each piece with more than just jokes.

It’s interesting that a film using the Ten Commandments only has one segment (Gretchen Mol with Jesus Chriso) that plays with religion. Did you consciously want to stay away from religion?

It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as just where our taste lies.  I’ve never been too interested comedy that’s overtly political or religious.  In The Ten we were more interested in the underlying moral/ethical themes of the Ten Commandments as basis for a variety of comic stories.

When you’re doing a film that’s not necessarily for a mainstream audience, do you still have audience expectations that you have to deal with?

Of course.  Even small independent movies take millions of dollars to make, and must connect so some sort of audience.  That said, I’ve been extremely lucky that my first two movies (Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten) were made with almost zero influence from financiers, and we were largely allowed to freely explore our instincts and tastes (with certain casting requirements).  As with most everything I’ve done, I just trusted that what we find funny, others will.  How many others, I can never predict. Most things I’ve done has been met with obsessive worship from some, and abject hostility from others.

It seems with a sketch comedy film that once you move on to a new sketch that it’s hard to keep momentum. You’re setting up the next bits and what not. Do you think the ways that the characters in “The Ten” interconnect help to keep the momentum going?

Definitely.  More than I anticipated, actually.  We thought the way the characters overlapped was just icing on the cake of The Ten, but it turns out to have been a crucial element of the film that I’d have done much more of, in hindsight.

There’s a real love of the absurd in a lot of your comedy. How grounded does a scene or a sketch have to be before you can go off on a non-sequitur?

There’s certainly no formula.  That kind of thing is entirely a matter of instinct and taste. 

Are there times you have to throw away a gag because you have to serve the scene?
All the time.  There’s a ton of deleted material on The Ten DVD that is exactly that.  Of course The Ten had a much higher threshold for tangents and absurdity because we didn’t have an overall story to serve, to keep moving forward.  The jokes were the first priority.  In Wet Hot and Stella we more often had to throw out jokes that took away from the story drive, but those too were sketch-like narratives.  The movie I’m working on now (currently untitled comedy for Universal) is a much more “straight-forward” narrative, and it’s an interesting and satisfying discipline to try to keep every scene and every joke as on-topic, on-character, and on-story as possible, while still making you laugh.

Is there a point where absurdity can change the tone so much that a film becomes like “Airplane”?
Well in infer from the way you word the question that you don’t like “Airplane.”  I think “Airplane” is a classic comedy and far more sophisticated than it appears on the surface.  This is why its myriad imitators (and sequels) haven’t worked, but the original “Airplane” lives on.  It’s much more than just string of puns and sight gags.  On the other hand, I have to admit I have always been wary of having too many “airplane jokes” in what I do, but that’s because I want to be true to my own specific voice and no one else’s.  The Ten and Airplane share the idea that anything goes, in service of comedy.  Narrative structure, logic, continuity, emotional reality, character depth—they all take a back seat.  I can understand why this puts off some people.  And truthfully, it puts me off too, when done recklessly.  Nor would I want to have a movie diet of only absurdist comedies.  But when done well, whether it’s Monty Python, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Cohen Brothers, Peter Sellers, whoever… they can be sublime.  The audiences and critics who have embraced The Ten have seen it as a whole movie, that even though it doesn’t the conventional earmarks of most feature films, there’s a cohesiveness to the point of view.

Editor’s Note: Just to be clear, I love “Airplane.” The reason I asked David about this is simply, “Airplane” is one thing and generally I think the aesthetic aspired to by Wain is another. It seemed like a pretty fine line to tread.

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