If you want to get a director grumpy, ask him or her about test screenings. Usually you'll hear an angry tirade about the way the process, which shows an unfinished film to an audience to get their feedback, waters down the director's creative vision and results in a lowest-common-denominator approach. (For the record, we attended several test screenings in college and always gave excellent suggestions.) But not all filmmakers detest the process: In fact, Judd Apatow has it down to a science.
SlashFilm tipped us off to a great interview in the A.V. Club with Paul Feig, a writer-producer-director who worked on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks" with Apatow. They remain friends and colleagues and are both producing next week's "Bridesmaids." During the interview, Feig was asked the typical "What do you think of test screenings?" question. His answer was anything but typical:
I'm the biggest proponent of test screenings now. ... Judd and I are pretty good at comedy. We've been doing it for a while, but I wouldn't and he wouldn't deign to say that we can tell you at all what's guaranteed to get a laugh. Anybody who tells you they know exactly what's funny and they can guarantee will get a laugh out of an audience is full of s---.
Not only does Apatow test-screen, he also records the laughs that happen during the screenings and syncs them up with the film later so that when they're editing they'll remember where the laughs happened and where perhaps things need to be fixed or tightened up. But Apatow doesn't stop there:
And then it's also fun to even try to top stuff. Even stuff that's working really well, you go, "Okay, we have a different version of that joke or different scene here. Let's just plug it in for the next screening and see if it does better." And Judd actually has this whole thing they do with side-by-side screenings at two theaters right next door to each other and do a "P" version, which is a polished version, which is the one we think is close to what we want to have be our final cut. And then another one called the "E" version, the extended version, which is the dumping ground for everything we think might work, or we wanted to try, or we're just curious if it's gonna work. And out of all of those screenings, you'll always get about five or 10 new things that you didn't think were ever gonna work that go through the roof and you plug 'em into the polished one.
Feig's argument for this extensive testing is sound: A filmmaker and editor can get so wrapped up in each and every little cut that they lose focus on their movie's overall impact. Put another way, is the darn thing actually funny? What would be interesting to know, however, is whether there have been times Apatow has cut anything that actually was funny just because it didn't get enough reaction. Also, it's unclear if Apatow changes his formula at all for when it's a movie he's made: We ask this because of all his films we like "Funny People" the most -- yes, we're the only people in America who feel that way -- but it's the one movie of his that's the least overtly funny. We wonder how he dealt with that in test screenings.
Regardless, this is a really cool, insightful look into how arguably the most successful current comedic talent working in Hollywood does his thing. We're curious if any other comic filmmakers doing anything similar. And, more importantly, is there any chance we could see any of those different test versions as a DVD extra down the road?