July 20, 2016
In the game of Jenga, there’s no clear winner or loser. Well, maybe there is a clear loser — but if the point of the game is to keep the structure standing, then every player has lost at the point it crumbles. The participants merely grind through until the inevitable tragic conclusion. Whoever causes the structure to fall feels instant regret, while all of their opponents revel in momentary schadenfreude. Gradually that dissolves into a sea of emptiness enveloping the group and the awkward moment before rationalizing that it was just a game.
On a recent Monday evening, I jumped at the opportunity to attend an early screening of the new film “Don’t Think Twice,” which preceded a Q&A session with the film’s writer, director and lead actor, Mike Birbiglia. Needless to say, I was excited to witness a discussion of how it was made and lessons the creator learned throughout his career.
“Don’t Think Twice” is about a group of semi-professional improvisational comedians in NYC who are very talented, experienced and successful on a local level. Most importantly, all aspire to make comedy their main source of income. After they go to their day jobs, they spend evenings practicing and writing for weekend performances while coveting auditions for more high-profile gigs. There is a group mentality of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but also a sort-of selfishness to their actions that repeatedly tests the stability and comfort of the group. When one member of the group finds success, it creates a rift that infects their relationships. I’ll stop there so that the movie isn’t spoiled – but you can see where the plot goes and how the metaphor is constructed.
Jenga features twice in the movie as a sidebar setting – utilized more as color for the sets than a plot device — but there is certainly deeper meaning to be found here. It was a very minor detail that may even go unnoticed during a casual viewing, but under a microscope you could draw threads between characters and their story arcs. The first question from the audience highlighted this metaphor, and the inquirer wanted to know if this was intentional or coincidental. Candidly, Birbiglia admitted that it was not written into the script initially and that they filmed the group playing Jenga to simply convey that the characters were friends. It was in editing that they noticed how it could work as subtle symbolism, and he noted how a lot of the film is made in the editing room.
Later in the Q&A, a fellow viewer asked if dialogue was scripted or improvised, since the movie is about improvisational comedy. According to Birbiglia, the comedy scenes were heavily scripted and rarely did an actor deviate from a line significantly unless something funnier came naturally. He noted that most of the improvisation happens in scenes with no dialogue, and is then pieced together in the editing room. The end result comes out of the filmmaking process, rather than script writing or acting direction during shooting.
These are just a few examples of enlightening answers and anecdotes heard that evening. The experience of watching a film and then immediately discussing the process with the creator is an inspirational and educational opportunity — one I can’t recommend enough. It’s so important in our creative field to understand the way the mind of a creator works and to learn what we can from someone else’s experience and integrate it into our own creative processes. Whether it’s a novelist, comic-book writer, filmmaker, or visual artist, hearing a creator discuss their craft is invaluable to your own development and creative mind. Make it a priority at every opportunity and approach it with a critical and open mind.