Squirm uncontrollably and cringe till your face hurts watching Crooked Cynics’ (aka Tom Middleton and Jack Scott) hilarious short, Where Have All the Good Guys Gone?. In the following interview I dig deep into the directing duo’s filmmaking methodology to find out where their flair for comedy originated, how they keep it fresh and execute it so flawlessly.
– Heads up, things get a little NSFW language-wise.
What inspired you to produce Where Have All the Good Guys Gone?
We’ve been working closely with the comedy duo Ben Simpson and Adam Rojko Vega (SimpsonVega) for a while, developing a number of scripts and ideas, and this pig of a sketch quickly became one of our favourites. The original inspiration for the script actually came from a true event where our friend was playing the game and exposed his extensive knowledge of pornography. So, although he scored no points, we died laughing so he was actually a winner in our eyes. His list was pretty tame in comparison to the list in the film but effectively planted the seed to write it up, so between the four of us we developed the script.
Although we had a script for the shoot, it was primarily for structure because a lot of the dialogue was improvised on the day. It’s where the actors are most comfortable, having all regularly worked in this capacity, so for us that’s great as it means nothing ever gets too boring and the atmosphere is always fresh with everyone on their toes. We interject now and then throwing lines we think are funny so the whole process is very fluid, though it often means we lose a fair few takes through corpsing – totally worth it!
We have made four shorts with SimpsonVega this year some tackling controversial issues and others with serious undertones whereas with Where Have All the Good Guys Gone? we knew we just wanted this to be downright stupid which actually turned out to be really liberating.
For us having a sense of humour is such an important part of being a normal person.
When did you realise you had a knack for comedy and how have you nurtured and cultivated that talent?
We’ve both always been totally obsessed with comedy and we’ve watched an unhealthy amount of it. For us having a sense of humour is such an important part of being a normal person, and we actually get a bit edgy around people without one. We’re very serious about this…
I guess much like anything getting a reaction from people helps and laughing is quite a visceral, obvious and honest reaction so as two needy, self-obsessed directors that was the attention we craved so we decided to stick with comedy…
In the last year or so we have been developing scripts and not been afraid to just get out and make things which often can be half the battle. Getting to the edit, seeing what doesn’t work and learning from those errors is often more important than getting it right. So far, we’ve been fortunate to work with some really talented actors who just make it really hard for that to happen.
We both headed up to Edinburgh this year, and were just blown away by the comedy people are making, it’s amazing to see. We’ve still so much to learn and will forever be students of this craft. God aren’t we really serious…getting edgy again.
Can you talk us through the intricacies of writing comedy? What makes a comedy script work? Are there any inherent touch-points to consider?
The unexpected is always funny. We both cut our teeth in music videos, which demanded we keep visuals moving and the audience guessing. So we’re always looking to inject an unexpected moment or twist. We’ve always loved absurdity, which is just so fucking difficult to get right and to convince people that it’s funny and that it works. You need a lot of freedom in that respect. The TV series, Big Train, was simply a master of this craft, I can’t imagine a lot of those sketches were funny on script, but they were so perfectly executed. They set that bar so high and made it look so effortless. We love those gags that are almost impossible to explain why they’re funny but are just driven through characters; those gags that just connect emotionally. But we also love a dick joke, so the aim is to get a nice balance of both.
The unexpected is always funny.
Self-awareness is also pretty key to the way we try to think of ideas and observe the characteristics of different real-life characters. We’ve definitely met Adam and Leonie’s characters before, and in this film, they are so far up their own arses that they’re just totally unaware of their words. When you lose this self-awareness, sooner or later you’re going to sound like a dick, which makes for good comedy.
Many of the shots are close-ups giving the film a claustrophobic vibe, can you talk us through the conversations you had with your DoP and the reasons you shot in this way.
We wanted it to feel like Greg (Ben Simpson) was being bullied, like he had no allies and he had nowhere to turn. So as the meal went on the audience are rooting for him. So at the point when he takes the phone you just really want him to do well, which we felt would make his fall from grace even funnier, so it was important that we made this moment visually intense.
Conor Chalk, the DoP, did brilliantly with the limited resources we had and managed to nail the tone we were after. It is obviously important when the comedy is coming from their reactions to see everything that the actors are doing, but it also enables you to step a little further into the madness of these assholes.
What are some big mistakes you have learnt from throughout your career?
I think one mistake we did early on was to rely too much on other people. There’s a ton of competition and some insanely talented people, that you’re just missing out on a lot of opportunities by not trying to make things happen yourself. We’ve been lucky enough to have some of our ideas commissioned, but as a result that has stopped us from making our own short films earlier. Also, having no money forces you to get a little more creative and just because there is next to zero budget, it doesn’t make it any less fun. You actually have way more freedom to say what you want to say. It took us a while to realise that…that and the fact we talk about our mistakes too much…ahhh crap!
You have a working relationship with Collaboration Factory based in Los Angeles, how did you build ties with them and how does working with an American production company differ to a UK one?
A couple of years ago we won a music video for Jamie Scott on Capitol Records. We had no production company at the time so the label put us in contact with Collaboration Factory and we hit it off straight away. They’ve always been so supportive with helping to develop our ideas, but also giving us a sense of perspective when we go a little crazy.
I guess the main difference we noticed was just scale and resources. The experience was amazing and completely surreal because we had always been used to small crews where everyone is doing a bit of everything and then suddenly we had a massive (for us) crew where everyone had a very specific role. So it was nice to get a taste of a larger scale over there, though it’s also wicked when there’s just a few of you on a set and you have the time and freedom to mess around trying to make each other laugh.
Crooked Cynics has a submission service for scriptwriters, what do you look for? What do you envision for the future of Crooked Cynics?
We love working with comics who bring their own style to the page and who enjoy working collaboratively. It’s important that ideas are pretty self-contained and simple. But for the most part, if a script makes us laugh (it’s not hard!), then we’ll try to make it happen…
We’re currently working on some longer form pieces as well as getting back in the writing room with Adam and Ben for some more SimpsonVega films!