by Angela Guess
If you’re ever lucky enough to cross paths with Steve Faber, ask to buy him a drink. You won’t regret it.
Steve is the scribe behind Wedding Crashers and the recent hit, We’re the Millers. A fellow UCLA alumnus, Steve started his professional life as a lawyer, then realized it was “a tremendous mistake.” He gave himself one year in Los Angeles to try his hand at writing, and within that year he was able to begin a new career in television. He wrote for a variety of sitcoms–most notably Married with Children–before making the switch to features. Currently, Steve is in pre-production on a broad comedy called Sugar Daddy and is developing a romantic comedy about love & marriage called Backspace. Steve also has his own political column on The Huffington Post called Washingwood.
I met my share of vibrant, creative people at the recent Austin Film Festival & Conference, but the two encounters I had with Mr. Faber were by far the most fascinating.
I asked Steve for an interview in advance of the conference, and he was kind enough to oblige. Ultimately he and I met for a drink prior to our actual interview, and the phrase “This is off the record” escaped his lips a few dozen times. I sincerely wish I could share some of that conversation here, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for Steve to write his memoir.
Later in the conference, Steve and I met for a formal sit-down, and what follows is a transcript of that conversation. Read on for Steve’s insights on maximizing your creativity, female comedy writers, the key to a successful marriage, and why a sense of “sadness and poignancy” is essential to great comedy.
LA Screenwriter (LA): What is your writing routine?
Steve Faber (SF): I get up every morning at 7:00AM or before, and I make a pot of coffee and I have a cigarette, and I ponder — literally ponder for forty-five minutes to an hour. I just sit by myself. Well, I have four dogs. We all sit on the couch, and I just ponder about anything and everything. I will always have a piece of paper and a pen, or I have a little voice recorder, and if something comes to mind– whether it’s a line, a joke, a scene, a character, an idea for a future project–that’s when it comes.
It’s when I don’t have to do it, you know? When you’re deadlined to do something, there’s pressure, obviously. When you’ve just woken up and are having coffee and cigarettes, there’s no pressure. I keep this thing [his cell phone] off. This is essential to any writer: If you’re serious about writing, keep this thing off for the first few hours of your writing. Keep it off! Otherwise you’ll get bogged down in texts, tweets, calls, things like that… and it’s just too much extraneous shit.
So I ponder, and then I head to my computer, and I begin what I’m doing that day.
LA: So even when you’re in the middle of a script, you’ll still start the day with free thought?
SF: Every day.
LA: Are you thinking about the script you’re writing, or just anything?
SF: It’s almost like the wind blowing by your head. I let whatever passes through pass through.
LA: When you get an idea for a script, are you more interested in the characters first or the story first?
SF: I always emphasize this: It’s all about the story. I’ve come to the conclusion after over twenty years of this: There are no characters without the story. They don’t… they don’t… They just don’t. I mean, we’re all characters. You’re a character, I’m a character, all these people walking around are characters. But they’re not stories, and they can’t express themselves as stories unless they have a story.
For example, you’re getting married next June. You have your own particular set of criteria, your own neurosis, joys, dislikes, so on and so forth. That makes you a character. But it’s the story of the wedding that will let all of those things percolate up.
LA: So with this passion project you have coming up [Backspace], from the way you describe it, it sounds like you had an idea you wanted to get across about relationships and marriage more than anything. Did the story come out of the idea? How did that process work for you?
SF: That’s a really good question. We all write about the same things. We may disguise it but we all write about love. It’s what we do–write about love in its various forms. I write about love, bucking the system, and con jobs. Those are topics that interest me. And beating power. I love to write about beating the powerful. I like underdog stories.
In the case of the passion project, which is called Backspace, I have been thinking for years about why relationships fail. Why do they fail? I came to the conclusion that, first of all, if you’re married, by the time you go to the marriage counselor, it’s already over. It’s done. Forget it. There’s not another human being that can save the intimacy between two people. I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it works. I’ve never seen it work. Now, I’ve seen couples stay together after going to a marriage counselor, but are they happy? I don’t think so. And the reason is like it is with screenplays: all act three problems are act one problems. In relationships, all end of relationship problems are beginning of relationship problems.
Anyway, with relationships I came to the conclusion that all the little things that we sweep under the carpet because we want our relationships to succeed–and your friends will tell you, “Don’t bring it up, it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter”–it matters. It does matter. Because ten, fifteen, twenty years later when it’s falling apart… it matters because you can’t figure out why you’re getting divorced, you can’t figure out why you’re not getting along, and it’s because you didn’t deal with this shit when you should of, way back when.
LA: You say you’re interested in stories about defeating power. Does that come from you past as a lawyer?
SF: No. Not at all. It comes from having immigrant grandparents. Especially my mother’s father. In the late 1800s, Jews were resettled in a part of central Europe called the Pale, and he had to leave–the anti-Semitism was horrible. He was twelve years old when he left. When he was fourteen, he made it to the United States. Didn’t speak a word of English, got a job at a sweatshop on the lower east side of New York and joined the International Lady Garment Workers Union. When he passed away at age 99, he was one of the longest-standing members of that union.
I think the lessons I learned from him were that bigotry, racism, all of that stuff… you have to attack power. Because regardless of what power says, what power does is different. There are these systemic problems that we have in this country and around the world, and people talk a big game, you know? I’m very politically active. There are a lot of “limousine liberals” that go to fundraisers and charity events, but they don’t actually make calls or go door to door or write something. That’s why I started Washingwood on The Huffington Post, and I think I got that from my grandfather. All of his life, it was very important to him that people were treated fairly. That was a lesson I picked up from him very early on. So yeah, I have an innate anti-power bone in my body.
LA: In your panel with John Hamburg, John said that he thinks comedy is the hardest thing to do. Do you think that there’s something that great comedy writers have in common–aside from, of course, a great sense of humor?
SF: Yeah, I think it’s a tremendous sense of the sadness and poignancy in this world. If you can really recognize the sadness and poignancy of this existence, of our human condition, then you can write great comedy. Because the line is so thin. It is so very thin.
LA: From our previous conversations, it seems like you’re somewhat disillusioned with this industry. Is that fair to say?
SF: I’m not disillusioned with this industry. I’m disillusioned with any corporate industry. It’s not this industry in particular. The film business is run by gigantic corporations, where the film business is just part of their portfolio. So I’m disillusioned with the way corporate America sells us what they tell us they think we need. And we don’t need all this shit.
When I was going to college–again, very political–I used to organize people. You’d do mimeographs, you’d organize rallies, you’d get people together on a particular topic. (There’s a point to this, I promise.) I was in New York recently, and I went to Wall Street, and there are still a few lingering Occupy people, and I spent a lot of time talking to them, and I said, “What are you doing? What’s the goal here?” There was no goal. It was so vague, you know? This one wants this, that one wants that, blah blah blah…
Technology and corporate America are, in my opinion, designing to keep you by yourself, entertain yourself–solo. I mean, now they say more relationships are made through the internet than human-to-human contact. That’s sad. That’s really sad, because we create personas for ourselves then, and they’re always three or four degrees removed from who we really are. Industry in general, corporate America in general is designed to keep people by themselves, not talking to one another, not gathering in groups, and not saying, “This sucks.”
So, the film business? No. There are plenty of creative, wonderful people in the film business. The people who are behind those people who are behind those people? They’re bottom-line people. They’re looking at numbers. That’s it. That’s their job. And you can’t get around the fact that art and commerce simply don’t mix. There is going to be compromise.
LA: With that in mind, are there projects from your past that never saw the light of day thanks to such compromise?
SF: You know, there are projects I’ve written, things I’ve done that have a very direct point of view that won’t appeal to half the country. If you’re trying to write a red state, blue state, four quadrant project, whether it’s television, a miniseries, HBO, a film, whatever… forget it. You’re not going to be able to do it. If you can hit three quadrants, you’re incredibly lucky. Two is the goal.
Well, what if you want to do a one-quadrant project? It’s like a joke. We call them one-percenters or ten-percenters. You tell a joke that maybe one percent of your audience will get–usually a referential joke. It may be a great, home-run joke, but only one-percent of the audience is going to get it… I’ll put that in. And I’ll fight for it, because I want to make those one percent laugh. Same with an entire project.
LA: When you’re writing, are you trying to get a certain number of jokes per page, or is it entirely story-based–just whatever comedy comes out of the story, however much or little it is?
SF: Yeah, you would be amazed. When I write outlines for anything I do, the outlines aren’t really funny at all… at first. The story is inherently funny, the concept is inherently funny. As you tell the story and break it down and slowly beat it out… by the end of outlining, it’s funny. Because you’ve broken it down beat by beat by beat. So, the humor absolutely comes from the situations and the story, as the characters do.
LA: And you’ve said that when you’re outlining, it’s one sentence, and then that breaks down into three sentences, and then that breaks into three paragraphs, until you have it broken into a complete outline. So that obviously sounds like three act structure. Do you always stick to that type of structure, or do you ever vary?
SF: Well, no. In film it’s always a three act structure. Always. For plays it’s different. I write plays, so I’ll write one act plays or two act plays. Hour long TV: totally different structure. Half hour: it depends if it’s on film or video. But in film, always three acts, yeah. Because life’s in three acts.
LA: You might not be the best person to answer this, but I’m curious: Do you think it’s harder for women to succeed as comedy writers?
SF: Why do you think I’m not the right person to ask this?
LA: [I laugh.]
SF: It’s hard for women to succeed in Hollywood, period. Period. I am the right person to ask this. I was in comedy sit-com rooms for seven or eight years, whatever it was, where there was actually a forced studio mandate to hire at least one woman. There is a feeling in Hollywood that women are not funny. That’s ridiculous. Some of the funniest people I’ve met are women. Some of the greatest writers I’ve met are women. Some of my favorite authors–Carson McCullers, Sarah Vowel–are women. So, yes, of course. It’s absolutely much more difficult for a woman.
LA: Why do you think that is?
SF: Two reasons. Well, if we’re talking about TV, there are two reasons. First, there is a general pre-conception that women are not funny, or as funny as men. Secondly, when you’re in a comedy room, guys tend to self-censor, and there is always the fear of workplace harassment, so if it’s late at night and you’re telling a story you know might be a little vulgar, you might start to self-censor, and then the guy starts to resent the fact that there’s a woman in the room, and all of that crap. In film, women–I’ve noticed in the scripts I read–tend to write with partners. And they tend to write very female-driven screenplays. And I always say, well you don’t have to. A woman told me she writes a lot of male characters and wonders if it’s authentic, so I asked, “Does it feel authentic?” If you listen to people, if you listen to men, it’ll be authentic. So I think the reason is a built-in prejudice.
LA: So if a company gets a comedy script from an unknown writer, does it make a difference if the name on the cover is a male name or a female name? In other words, for someone like me, would it be worthwhile to use a male penname to avoid unfair gender bias?
SF: No. Because you’d hate yourself.
LA: [I laugh.] Ok.
SF: You really would hate yourself. No, if you have a great concept… Everybody has their own level of how much effort and work they have to put in to networking. Some people come to Los Angeles and don’t know anybody, so their effort and level of work is going to be a lot more difficult than somebody who comes whose uncle owns a studio. It is just going to involve more work. You have to make sure your game is really good. Hollywood doesn’t know what it wants. You have to tell them what they want.
LA: That’s good advice. Ok, final question: What advice would you give to someone trying to break in, or to yourself when you were starting out? What do you wish you knew?
SF: Which one? I’ll answer both. The advice I’d give is… There’s technical advice, which is, if you’re writing a screenplay that you want to sell, make goddamn sure your story is flawless. Outline the hell out of everything you do. And then, once you have that great story, go for it. But, if at some point in the process, something’s not working and you can’t fix it and you should have known that early on, abandon ship. Move on to something else.
Practical advice? You know, when I came to LA, I knew nobody. The advice I give to people now is find out the names of every assistant at every production company and every agency and take that person out for a drink. Find where they hang out. Meet them, talk to them. Their bosses aren’t going to read your shit, but if you become friends with the assistant, that assistant is going to get your material to the right person. It’s a sick aspect of our business, but the networking thing is really important until you’re established and you become, then, a word I hate, a word I despise: Then you become a brand.