Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bill Murray on How to Make Art

The August issue of GQ has an interview with Bill Murray, who is entertaining and fascinating, as usual. The following bit stood out for me, though. It’s about comedy timing, but really it’s about how artistic creation happens, or at least that’s how I read it (though it’s difficult to remember the moment precisely, as I was cheering so loud). It’s a wonderful way to describe artistic composition:

I have developed a kind of different style over the years. I hate trying to re-create a tone or pitch. Saying, “I want to make it sound like I made it sound the last time”? That’s insane, because the last time doesn’t exist. It’s only this time. And everything is going to be different this time. There’s only now. And I don’t think a director, as often as not, knows what is going to play funny anyway. As often as not, the right one is the one that they’re surprised by, so I don’t think that they have the right tone in their head. And I think that good actors always—or if you’re being good, anyway—you’re making it better than the script. That’s your fucking job. It’s like, Okay, the script says this? Well, watch this. Let’s just roar a little bit. Let’s see how high we can go.

But you asked how to get the comic pitch. Well, obviously a lot of it is rhythm. And as often as not, it’s the surprising rhythm. In life and in movies, you can usually guess what someone is going to say—you can actually hear it—before they say it. But if you undercut that just a little, it can make you fall off your chair. It’s small and simple like that. You’re always trying to get your distractions out of the way and be as calm as you can be [breathes in and out slowly], and emotion will just drive the machine. It will go through the machine without being interrupted, and it comes out in a rhythm that’s naturally funny. And that funny rhythm is either humorous or touching. It can be either one. But it’s always a surprise. I really don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth.


At 8/14/2010 7:28 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Apparently I have a resemblance to Bill Murray. When I was in Basic Training, my Drill Sergeants would pull me out of long lines (the old cliche of hurry up and wait) to make me do Bill Murray imitations. Luckily I was a fan and had a sizeable catalog of Bill Murray film moments to recall and play up.

Not that I am as good as Bill Murray, but I have done quite a bit of improvisational (and scripted) comedy. He's explained the process so well there.

At 8/14/2010 9:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed, I believe he has, but more importantly for me (as a non-practicing comedian), is how well I think he’s described how the artistic sensibility works with the given. Think of—I guess—the script as the world, the given. How is the artist going to process that? Hopefully something like how Murray describes: active engagement. It’s a version of “don’t give them what they want, give them what they need.”

Seriously though, Garfield was a bad movie.

At 8/14/2010 12:17 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

It's one of the reason casting is such an important part of a director's job. Which artist do you get? Who is going to bring (for lack of a better word) the *synergy* required to create something entirely new from the given material.

It's strange, but a script is a complete thing, yet it is just a starting point when it is being produced.

At 8/15/2010 8:21 AM, Blogger Radish King said...

Thanks for this. Let’s just roar a little bit. I think Bill Murray is a freaking genius. Imagine if he set his sites to poetry. I hope he does. This little quote is an entire education on the artistic process.

At 8/15/2010 9:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I've heard that he's interested in poetry, often popping up in places in NYC to read Whitman & Dickinson, etc., but I don't think he's a writer, he's an interpreter. Or maybe a revizer . . . ?

At 8/17/2010 5:31 AM, Blogger MASchiavo said...

Aaron Belz.


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