Have Wit, Will Travel: An interview with comedy writer & filmmaker Scout Wise

Biography

SCOUT WISE studied Dramatic Writing at New York University and received a BFA in film from the University of Colorado at Denver. Her short comedic film, A Stan Needs a Maid is winner of a truckload of awards at The UCD Cinefest Awards and will be screened at the Denver Silent Film Festival later in September. Scout is currently working for Uptown 6 Productions in Denver while donating her time to documentary filmmaking.

Her Film:  You studied at the University of Colorado at Denver (in addition to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) where you made a comedic film, the only one of a handful of women in the program to do so.  As a writer and someone who has a comedy focus, what are your thoughts about the place women occupy in the comedy world?

Scout Wise:  The place women occupy is Russia of the comedy world. Take what you will from that comparison, ladies, but we female comedy writers are a large, weird, threat, with Gorbachev at our helm. Maybe not the latter, but people are terrified of female comedy writers. They don’t know what to make of us because, now get ready for this sweeping generalization, women aren’t supposed to be funny. Hysterical, maternal, seductive maybe, but comical is for the Arbuckles, Chaplins, and Apatows of the world. Or put simply, it’s for dudes. It’s as if to have wit as a woman is to have a defect. And often times people will make excuses for a woman that’s funny– Joan Rivers is old and weird looking, Roseanne Barr has always been called fat with an annoying voice, and none of this has anything to do with either of their abilities to tell a joke. So if you’re a woman and you’re preparing to take a stab at the world’s foibles with a steak knife made out of comedy material, be prepared to have that steak knife come right back into your heart. I know it sounds graphic, but it’s true. Women writers are undermined at every turn. We’re dismissed as women-centric and only marketed to females while men are deemed “fun for the whole family.” And more than that, women are often treated as though they don’t know what’s funny. But hey, we’re Russia.

Scout Wise (photo courtesy of Fred Kolouch)

No matter how much people put us down, they’re still scared of us and we know it’s because we have just as much power and talent as anyone else. That said, the really great female writers find ways around these rigid mindsets. When women comedy writers can’t catch a break, they make their own. Women comedy writers become their own producers and directors, and they know if their material is strong enough, they’ll survive and maybe even revolutionize the industry– paving ways and whatnot. We conquer when we’re strong and if someone tries to conquer us, we burn down the motherland so no one will enjoy it. I apparently only know Russian history.

HF:  Your UCD film, A Stan Needs A Maid, has one line of dialogue.  What was your idea in making a comedy with such a dearth of language?  How did you approach the production?

SW: No one loves writing dialogue more than I do, but every time I went to write a line, it just felt like a horrible lie was being perpetrated. I for one love to lie, but this time it didn’t feel right. I’m not saying writing dialogue should be easy, but I really couldn’t find a way to fit it into the story. When it came down to it, the absence of dialogue gave the characters more room for physical comedy. That’s my good excuse.

My lame excuse is that I had a $200 budget. “Stan,” the main character, is a hoarder so we had a lot of props to buy for the set. When I was faced with hiring a good sound-recorder or blowing it all on cookie jars, I blew it all on cookie jars. Now I’ve got a great film, untarnished by bad sound and totally enhanced by great visual comedy, and a surplus of crap for many white elephants to come.

“Women comedy writers become their own producers and directors, and…they’ll survive and maybe even revolutionize the industry…”

HF:  Many beginning filmmakers and film school students make “calling card” films, usually shorts.  To master the short film structure can be very difficult (if you can ever really “master” it).  Did you encounter any problems in trying to “get it right” when making the film?  

SW: So so many problems. What is both great and really irritating about comedies is that a gag you wrote may not work on set, and a gag you did on set may not work on screen. I originally wrote a scene with a Furby for the film. I hope I’m the only idiot who ever attempts to get a Furby to act. They just beg you to feed them… kind of like human actors, but human actors can feel pain. So obviously that didn’t work out. Other scenes met their end the same way.

image courtesy of Kelley Kavanaugh

The other issue you always face with a comedy is timing, especially in a short. One beat too many or too short and a comedy becomes painfully awkward. And no matter how hard you may crack the whip on set, your actors can only change wigs so fast in one take. Ask Tootsie. If the gag is great but the timing sucks, you’ll have to kill the gag to save the comedy. My first cut of my short was thirty minutes and twenty of those minutes were me desperately clinging to material with bad timing.

But every problem lends itself to a learning experience. For example, Furby taught us that a fed actor is a good actor. We spent a good amount of money on healthy homemade food and that can make a huge difference when you’re asking a cast and crew to do a fifteen hour day. I’ve worked on sets where you get some white bread with mustard on it. That kind of situation makes you want to launch yourself full force at the director. High quality lasagna means your actors are always on your side.

HF:  What and who inspires you as a comedy writer?  What is it, to you, that makes comedy good?  

SW: I’ll admit I like a lot of dumb things, but I think a truly great comedy is smart. You may think a comedy writer’s job is to make you laugh, but a REALLY good comedy makes you hate. Was it Shakespeare who said it’s a writer’s duty to hold a mirror up to nature? Well I think it’s a comedy writer’s duty to attack nature… with clever prose, of course. A smart writer will get you to laugh at things you never thought you could laugh at. They’ll make you question why you’re laughing. Suddenly you’re questioning your whole existence.

For me, the most inspiring comedy writers are the ones that make me hate things about myself, about the world, and about the way things are. But they also give me a tool to deal with it– a sense of humor. My favorite writers are all very different, but share that in common — Woody Allen, Tina Fey, Charlie Chaplin, Roseanne Barr, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Coen brothers, Lily Tomlin, Dave Chappelle… the list goes on and on.

“…as a filmmaker I have incredible power to change things. Sometimes when you’re an artist you feel like you picked a career that is totally useless to improve the quality of life on this planet, but that’s just simply not true.”

HF:  You’ve also worked on projects for artists and musicians.  Can you describe what that type of work entails and how those relationships differ from film-focused ones?

SW: So far my work with musicians and artists has been immensely positive. It’s like working with a commercial client, only the client is awesome. They come to the table knowing exactly what they want. It’s much easier to work for someone who has an artistic vision as opposed to a client who only has an idea of what they DON’T want. I worked with two local Denver bands, Hideous Men and Night of Joy, on a press package video. Right away they had a vision and a will to collaborate. They wanted to put in just as much creative work as they expected me to put in. And when you work for artists you usually get to do something pretty outrageous. You gotta love clients who get you kicked out of the mall.

HF:  What is your role on the production of the upcoming feature 16-Love?  What is the film about?

SW: Well it’s every little girl’s dream to work on a teen romantic comedy. So eat your heart out, this little girl gets to work on marketing materials for this one! 16-Love is a hot little number about tennis star, “Ally Mash,” and her fall from athletic grace when she injures her ankle. When she teams up with buff but clumsy tennis player, “Farrell Gambles,” she starts to get her groove back (and maybe more! wink). I really got into film from watching great teen romantic comedies like Clueless and Heathers while growing up. 16-Love is in the vein of such greatness so I’m really thrilled to be a part of it.

A STAN NEEDS A MAID Director of Photography, Rob Shearer, and Scout Wise (photo courtesy of Scout Wise)

HF:  Documentary work is also in your repertoire, and you’re working on a doc now with a topic that’s very intriguing.  Can you describe the film and its topic?  What has attracted you to the project?

SW: In large part I think I’m torn between comedy and documentary. You know how most comedians are terribly depressed? How we laugh to keep from crying? Yeah well I cry all the time. The only thing that makes me feel better is knowing that as a filmmaker I have incredible power to change things. Sometimes when you’re an artist you feel like you picked a career that is totally useless to improve the quality of life on this planet, but that’s just simply not true.

The director of the film, Jessica Lance, is a former professor of mine at UCD. When she told me the story they were pursuing I saw an incredible opportunity to expose audiences to an unknown problem and I took it. In the throes of helping with the documentary I’ve learned a lot about how powerful a true story is.

The documentary is called The Golden Hour and it focuses on Piyush Tewari, the Indian visionary behind The SaveLIFE Foundation. Piyush founded SaveLIFE in response to the roadside fatality epidemic in India. India has immense road engineering problems with incredible traffic. These make up the ingredients for a country with the highest roadside death rate in the world. India doesn’t have a public EMS system or trained paramedics like we do in the US. Instead, people will often times get hit and lay bleeding in the road for over an hour while bystanders gather offering no help. So when Piyush’s cousin lost his life due to this lack of care, he started The SaveLIFE Foundation. He began by training Delhi police officers in basic trauma life support, and is now expanding to the citizens of Delhi.

The documentary follows him as he prepares to train over 8,000 people to be emergency responders. It’s the first event of its kind and could very well change the way emergency systems are operated in India. The program has already seen a lot of success in the way Delhi Police treat roadside accident victims.

“…you never know who might love your content.  With transmedia you make yourself limitless as a filmmaker.”

HF:  The film is directed, written and produced by three women, and the production company is all-female.  Is it important to you to work with women in the film industry? 

SW: Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s no secret, I’m a feminist. And it’s no secret, women are discounted because of their sex, especially in the film industry. I’ve been there, and if you’re a woman and you haven’t, I’d be surprised. The film industry is competitive and that means people will do unconscionable things to better their careers. This includes women putting other women down just as much as men do. How is any talented, skilled, and hard-working female filmmaker supposed to get the opportunity she deserves if both men and women are working against her? So hell yeah I think it’s important. I think it’s important to work with anyone as long as they’re good at what they do, but for women, even if you’re incredibly skilled, the opportunity is not there. If we want equal opportunities, we’re going to have to make them for each other. They’re obviously not being handed out by anybody else.

HF:  A lot of attention is paid to women breaking through (or not), within the film industry and commanding large budgets (or not) or basking in big box office (or not).  What are your thoughts on how women filmmakers find audiences and create sustainable models for their film work?  

SW: I think the most affective thing female filmmakers can do to be successful is compete on a level that is higher than what’s demanded of them. Like I said, female filmmakers are expected to make something that’s marketable to other women. Kathryn Bigelow didn’t do that. She exploded a bunch of stuff in the desert. That’s thrilling no matter who you are. Now she has the notoriety to make more films and get the money to do it. I’m not saying making films for women is bad, it’s half the market after all. I just think that successful women in the industry don’t let their reputation control their film. I think the more you can command your content and surprise audiences, the more they will trust your vision and independence in the future.

A STAN NEEDS A MAID actor Nathan Lund sleeping on set (photo courtesy of Scout Wise)

HF:  Do you engage in transmedia or interactive storytelling to complement your film work?

SW: I do. Especially when it comes to documentaries. Typically documentaries tell a story that demands some kind of change in the world. Without transmedia, audiences are helpless to change anything. Reaching out to audiences is one thing, you have to give them a way to reach back. For example, with The Golden Hour we have ways you can get involved with SaveLIFE as it grows and expands across India and across the world. We use all of the social media platforms to post smaller clips and give glimpses of Piyush’s story to get people involved who may never even see the whole film.

I think in general it’s really hard to get a film on the big screen so transmedia is a great way to expose people to your story without hemorrhaging money. Besides you never know who might love your content. They could live halfway across the world and internet is the only access they have to you and your work. With transmedia you make yourself limitless as a filmmaker. Anyone with internet access becomes your audience.

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To find out more about Scout Wise’s work, check out these links:

The Golden Hour  (official website)

16-Love  (official website)

A Stan Needs a Maid  (watch online)

Other work by Scout Wise (documentary & narrative)

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