The Dialogue Series: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

3.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: March 17, 2008
An insider's guide to spitting out scripts

Anyone who loves movies will enjoy the opportunity of hearing screenwriters speak about their craft. With twenty-seven titles to choose from, the combined wealth of experience should prove helpful to writers of all genres or of interest to those who understand that without the words on the page, those who create, act or produce film would have little to imbue with visual metaphor, bring to life or calculate ROI.

No better place to start than with the longstanding comedy team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. With a collaborative output that spans Night Shift to Fever Pitch, their wide-ranging interview fires on almost every cylinder.

This prolific team (nearly twenty features and many “ghosted” contributions to projects in need of purposely uncredited “surgical” interventions) comes across with the comfort of an old pair of slippers. Their work results from the anything-goes free flow of talking through the scenes, dialogue and transitions then scribbling down the best of those “spitting out” lines in longhand—transcribed before the next session onto clean, crisp pages by their Girl Friday, Rose.

Ganz—most certainly the straight man—dominates the proceedings but with the patience of Job, Mandel lets his co-writer ramble on before slipping in a zinger and getting the laugh: “He bought me nothing” says it all about the one-way gift exchange that marked their 25th anniversary in the biz. No worries, that’s the key to their zany success.

Host Mike De Luca does his best keeping his colour-coded question/cue cards in order, but a tad more research might have lifted the predominately Q&A into the realm of a three-way conversation, perhaps if his subjects had written the script …

Much wisdom is offered, notably guru Garry Marshall’s advice to “Never leave a meeting confused” when those paid to pen the words are being given “direction” by studio execs who may or may not have read the most recent draft. “Never write on spec” is also sage advice for those who have the courage of their convictions and skills, choosing not to write for free. For once the deal is finally “done” the financial/artistic game is afoot with a drama of its own: new work must be created in a predetermined amount of time. With substantial dollars involved and an eager end user counting the days to delivery, the writing can only improve compared to the easily adjustable deadline to complete an, as yet, unwanted product.

Finally, the ability to ruthlessly cut material that doesn’t work is a lesson that could have saved countless lame scenes from ever belly-flopping their way into the screenwriters’ hall of shame.

Fascinating as the anecdotes and practical tidbits are, the production soon cries out for more show, less tell. Just then, before you can say “A League of Their Own,” the showstopper moment arrives: Tom Hanks delivers his infamous line “There’s no crying in baseball”—temporarily alleviating the visual monotony. In just one clip, the magic of first-rate lines delivered by an exceptionally talented actor demonstrates conclusively how much both creator/recreator need one another to engage and delight the audience. (The recently settled writers’ strike being another example of the value of those engaged in putting words into other people’s mouths.)

Here’s hoping future installments of this captivating series will find the ways and means to balance cause and effect with the final result. As Ganz points out, “[Our] joke has a different DNA in an actor’s voice.” JWR

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